Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, October 30, 2009

A modest proposal: Apocalyptic theology

In 1997, when I was in residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, David Tracy proposed to me, quite seriously, that the term “Union School of apocalyptic” be used to identify an increasingly visible and vocal group of theologians and biblical scholars who taught, were trained in, or were strongly influenced by apocalyptic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 70s and 80s. (The “school” is in diaspora now; Union today reflects little of this influence.)

I have been reflecting about Tracy’s suggestion for twelve years. About a year ago I started floating the idea to some of those on this list. I’ve learned that there have already been some moves along this line, identifying the movement and the prominent figures, if not a “school.” I have not received any cease-and-desist notices, so here is my offering.

[I include myself, even though I am not an academic like the others, because my preaching and teaching was formed at Union and continues to be thoroughly shaped by this way of reading the New Testament.]

The “Union School” of apocalyptic theology:

Great-grandfathers (sort of)
J. C. Blumhardt and Christoph Blumhardt

Karl Barth
Ernst Käsemann (Tübigen)

Fathers and children directly connected to Union, as either faculty or students
J. Louis Martyn
Paul Louis Lehmann
Raymond E. Brown (Brown began teaching New Testament apocalyptic at Union in the 70s and it strongly influenced his last work, The Death of the Messiah)
Christopher Morse
James F. Kay
Martinus C. de Boer
Beverly Gaventa
Joel Marcus
Nancy Duff
Alexandra R. Brown
Fleming Rutledge

Non-Union affiliates
Paul Minear (Yale)
J. Christiaan Beker (Princeton)
John Howard Yoder (Notre Dame)
James Y. Holloway (Yale)
Paul W. Meyer (Princeton)
Brevard Childs (Yale)
Charles Cousar (Emory)
Gerhard Sauter (Bonn)
Jürgen Moltmann (Tübigen)

Douglas Harink (Kings, Edmonton, Alberta)
John Barclay (Durham)
Philip Ziegler (Aberdeen)
Joseph Mangina (Wycliffe, Toronto)
Francis Watson (Durham)
Simon Gathercole (Cambridge)
Douglas Campbell (Duke)

Will Campbell
William Stringfellow
Bill Wylie-Kellerman
Vernard Eller
Jacques Ellul
William H. Willimon
Kenneth Leech

What is apocalyptic theology?

Here is a short summary by Douglas Harink, followed by a much longer description by me.

"Most simply stated, 'apocalypse' is shorthand for Jesus Christ. In the New Testament… all apocalyptic reflection and hope comes to this, that God has acted critically, decisively, and finally for Israel, all the peoples of the earth, and the entire cosmos, in the life, death, resurrection, and coming again of Jesus, in such a way that God’s purpose for Israel, all humanity, and all creation is critically, decisively, and finally disclosed and effected in the history of Jesus Christ."[1]

Some central affirmations of apocalyptic theology (F. Rutledge)

--Divine agency is central— “God is up to something in the world” (Paul Lehmann).
--Sin and Death are Powers who have invaded the world and established their dominion.
--The human condition is genuinely tragic because humanly speaking, there is no escape from bondage to the Powers.
--The earthly human world is subject to incursion from the divine world—“cosmic breaking and entering” (Martyn)—in Jesus Christ, the end of the ages has come upon us (I Corinthians 10:11).
--The divine apocalypse is less a disclosure than it is an invasion (“O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”—Isaiah).
--Justification (dikaiosune) is understood less as individual salvation, more as rectification constituting a new world (it should go without saying that the individual's "blessed assurance" is guaranteed also).
--There are three parties in the apocalyptic drama, not two: God, enslaved humanity, and the Powers of Sin and Death. The incarnate Son did not arrive in neutral territory. His entrance called out the demonic forces.
--Jesus Christ waged apocalyptic warfare against these demonic forces (see R. E. Brown on Gethsemane).
--The apocalypse of Jesus Christ means the end of conventional warfare, because the line between good and evil runs through each person (as attested by Vaclav Havel, A. Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi and many others).
--Apocalyptic metaphor is God’s poetry (Martyn), telling us the truth about our condition and our hope.
--The New Creation dawns even now, in the Church’s participation in the Cross and Resurrection.
--Cruciform Christian witness is anchored by secure confidence in God’s triumph at the ultimate End, the Last Day when God puts an end to Sin, Death, and the devil, establishing the Kingdom of God in its eternal, victorious completeness.


In the light of the impending eschaton all present arrangements are provisional. The Christian lives according to the lights of the Age to Come. The new state of affairs set in motion by the crucifixion and resurrection evokes a response from us. Our response will be based on the new reality, a witness undermining everything that used to make sense in the old kosmos. “Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17); “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober” (I Thessalonians 5:8); “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

When the cross is understood as apocalyptic sign, the Christian community understands that its location is at the frontier of what God is doing in the world, and that the household of God is first to stand before the judgment seat (I Peter 4:17) on behalf of the world. The sign of victory on this frontier is not victory as this world understands victory. The sign of the cross is the “powerful weakness” of Christ; “the new creation is the community of those who…are conformed to the crucified one for the sake of others.”

What does it mean to define the Cross as apocalyptic sign?
Here is a summary:
--The cross signifies the turn of the ages.
--The Old Age of Sin and Death received its predestined, mortal blow when the incarnate Son “was delivered up for our offences and was raised for our rectification.”[2]
--The Age to Come has been inaugurated.[3]
--The distinctive, indeed unique mark of the Age to Come is self-giving love, which plants itself in “this present evil age” as the power of powerlessness.[4]

[1] Harink, Paul Among the Postliberals, 68.
[2] This is my translation of Romans 4:25. Paradidomai (to deliver up, to hand over) has a distinct theological meaning throughout the New Testament. It strongly conveys intentionality and divine direction—see for example Mark 14:41. As for “rectification” (dikaiosune) instead of “justification,” this has been proposed by Martyn among others, and is beginning to gain currency.
[3] “The Kingdom of God has come upon you,” common to the Synoptic Gospels, is another way of saying the same thing. In John’s Gospel, the atmosphere of the turning of the ages is pervasive (“Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out”). This is none the less true on account of that gospel’s so-called “realized eschatology.”
[4] Vaclav Havel used this phrase, “the power of powerlessness,” to describe the continuing hold that Aung San Suu Kyi has on the Burmese people even though she has been under house arrest for 17 years. Think also of the “power of powerlessness” in the case of Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years and emerged as the father of his country.