Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, April 07, 2013

How apocalyptic theology changed me

A few thoughts in response to a question from a divinity school student

by Fleming Rutledge

This is an interesting topic for me because it requires me to describe the way that an introduction to the apocalyptic interpretation of the New Testament required a thorough overhaul of my previous point of view—although it must be said that I had a semiconscious leaning toward it all along, having been a lover of God and the Bible all my life.

First I will list (again) three distinguishing factors in apocalyptic which I believe are sine qua non. (Others might make a different list. I have posted longer lists on my website, which can be found with a search for “apocalyptic.” In my forthcoming book on the crucifixion there will be a much longer discussion.) I will then move into a direct response to your questions.

The three are:

1.      The divine agency
2.      The active presence of an Enemy, or Powers, hostile to God
3.      The incarnation, life, cross, and resurrection of Christ understood as a novum, discontinuous with what has gone before

First: The divine agency is proclaimed in the construction of sentences. God should be the subject of the verbs in sermons, and in interpretation. It is remarkable how many people can talk about God at length without giving God a verb. He is endlessly described as the object of the human “journey” or “search.” When we read Scripture with “apocalyptic” eyes, however, we become aware that God is not an object of a search but an acting Subject (note the poem “The Hound of Heaven” in which God hunts down the fleeing human being). God is the active agent on every page (except maybe Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which require a special reading from a canonical perspective).[1] Even when God does not appear to be acting (as in Job, for instance) he is the power behind the scenes.[2] This changes everything for theology, Biblical interpretation, and preaching.

Unfortunately this has not filtered down into the churches. I rarely hear a sermon in which God is the acting subject. The preacher may not be aware that human nature, the “human spirit,” human spirituality and ethics are the subject of his/her sermons, but that is the case more often than not.

This matter of subject and verb is thoroughly (maybe too thoroughly!) discussed in my essay in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn. (The Eastman essay in that volume is superb.)

Second: The New Testament (in virtually its entirety) presupposes the malevolent presence of an implacable Enemy set against God. The Enemy is variously identified and/or personified as Satan, the devil, Beelzebul or Beelzebub (the Synoptic Gospels), Sin and Death (Paul), “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30), “the father of lies” (John 8:44), “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and Hades (Revelation 20:16). In the plural, they are Legion (Mark 5:9),“the elemental spirits of the universe” (Colossians 2:8) and “the world rulers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). The point is that, whatever the Enemy is called, there is a Power that rules over the domain of death and hell.

Louis Martyn has insisted that there are three actors on the New Testament stage, not two. Somewhere in The Brothers Karamazov (I think) there is a sentence like this (must look it up) “God and the devil are engaged in a contest to the death and the battlefield is the heart of man.” That’s not quite right but it gives the general idea. Paul speaks of the Powers of Sin and Death, and most apocalyptically-minded scholars have taken to capitalizing them, as you no doubt know. This has certainly changed my perspective.

It is common today to hear people say that someone “made bad choices.” Paul would never in a million years talk that way. We make “bad choices” because our wills are in bondage to Sin and the Law (Romans 7), and we must be released by a power outside ourselves, for we of ourselves cannot do so. If this is not understood, it’s an easy road to moralism, individualism, and the American gospel of “the freedom of the will,” a “doctrine” that has no biblical foundation.

Third: this is the hardest to explain. It’s important to emphasize that the Old Testament (Ezekiel in places, Jeremiah 31, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Daniel, and above all Deutero-Isaiah) prefigures the novum. The last thing we want to do is to undervalue the canonical Old Testament or give aid and support to anti-Semitism in any form.[3] But we don’t want to make the Christ-event continuous with Second Temple Judaism, either. As I quote in my aforementioned essay, Simon Gathercole writes that “many of Paul’s contemporaries seem to have believed that obedience was possible without a radical inbreaking of God.”[4] There are numerous writings from the intertestamental period indicating that Second-Temple Judaism expected people to be able to keep the Law. Such  was a real possibility.

But “possibility” was a word that Martyn taught us not to use. The opposite of possibility is power—for the logos gar ho tou staurou is the dunamis theou (the word of the cross is the power of God—I Corinthians 1:18). Douglas Harink has emphasized that God’s choice of Abraham signifies the absence of “human potential” in any retelling of the gospel story. The notable thing about Abraham with regard to God’s promise of descendants was that he had no human potential. This cuts across all claims for “religious” or “spiritual” achievement or advancement. The gifts of the Spirit are entirely from God; “all our works are [not only] begun, [but also] continued and ended in Thee” (Book of Common Prayer). In other words, God not only blesses and gives growth to what we do, he initiates it. He not only initiates it, he gives it momentum. He not only gives it momentum, he “brings it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). There is no stage in the work, whatever it is, whether it is a simple prayer or a storming of the barricades, in which God is not entirely empowering it with both his prevenient and his teleological purposes.

I have wandered off my third point. What I am getting at is the universal human tendency to want to introduce some element of human merit into the equation, instead of succumbing to the gospel of the justification of the ungodly. That is the radically new element, which does not follow “naturally” from anything that goes before. If one has not been “invaded” so that all defenses are broken down, then one is likely to read the Old Testament in a way that tilts toward salvation history and a subtle deradicalizing of the divine agency. Reading the Old Testament through the lens of the justification of the ungodly leads to quite another way of understanding it. I do not believe it is possible to read the Old Testament through the lens of radical, unconditional grace unless one has had one’s fortifications stormed by the gospel. Hence I resist the language of continuity in the way it is usually understood.


Looking back over this, I think I am being overly dramatic when I speak of a thorough overhaul of my point of view. As I look back over some of my earliest work, I see that I always had a clear sense of the reality, power, aseity, and agency of God. The change in my perspective has resulted in a far more consistent and intentional commitment to that view of God as the controlling factor. Before, I might have unintentionally given human activity a primary place—suggesting, for instance, that a biblical character like Abraham, Mary, or Nathaniel (John 1:48) must have been especially open to God, or prepared for God’s intervention. I was not as much on the alert as I am now to sermons suggesting that Mary’s readiness to say “Yes” was the important factor in the annunciation story (the theme of almost all the Christmas sermons I have ever heard)—when in fact she is never asked to say yes! She is simply told—“you will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (Luke 1:31). Mary is not being asked; she is being told. In the same way Abraham and Sarah were told (“By this time next year Sarah will have a son”—Genesis 18:9-15). It’s instructive that in the Genesis story it is quite obvious that Sarah’s acquiescence—let alone her preparedness or godliness—has nothing to do with it.

My default setting, like everyone else’s, was tuned to the notion that there must be some human contribution in order for God to act. The idea that God simply commandeered people was too radical. From the new apocalyptic perspective, I have greatly enjoyed hearing someone point out that when the Lord said “Lazarus, come forth,” Lazarus had no choice in the matter! Mary’s wonderful answer to the angel in Luke 1:38 is indeed a model for all believers; but it is a response, not a precondition. Learning to work from this perspective has truly been lifegiving, not only for me but, I trust, for some who have listened and responded to my preaching.


You asked me about the thinkers that have influenced me. All you have to do is look at the list on my apocalyptic “family tree” at  ! It’s a curious fact, however, that the first time I ever heard the apocalyptic dimension of the gospels taken seriously was in the class I took in my first year from Raymond E. Brown of blessed memory. I hadn’t even been in a class with Martyn yet. Ray Brown took the apocalyptic dimension very seriously, even though he was not a theologian and not very interested in Paul. Chris Beker was also very important to me—I recommend his little books Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel and Suffering and Hope.

(I would also add, with emphasis, the name of Lesslie Newbigen whom I discovered only recently. A true post-modern, he brings the best of Barth into the situation in which he worked for decades in India. Eerdmans has a very useful volume of excerpts from his works.)

Beyond that, almost all of my reading now is in literature. I’m afraid I don’t read much theology any more. Flannery O’Connor is of course the one who everyone rightly names front and center. I personally find encouragement—paradoxically—in dystopian works where we see things as bad as they can possibly be, and there is neither human hope nor anything redemptive: e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,[5] and some of the Greek tragedies. I suppose this sort of thing pushes me beyond human hope to the “hope beyond hope.” (As it pushed Eliot and, possibly, McCarthy.)

Like a lot of other Christian literature lovers I adore Graham Greene, with his dark sensibility and suggestions of redemption in the midst of the worst conditions.

Shakespeare is absolutely essential and King Lear heads the list. I believe King Lear is about creation ex nihilo. “Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear says in the first scene, and the theme is followed all the way through the play until the last scene when Kent says, “Is this the promised end?” and Edgar says, “or image of that horror?” No one agrees about the final meaning but I think it’s about Romans 4:17b.

Dante is also essential. In 1986, when we thought our younger daughter was going to die (she survived), Paul Lehmann sent me a beautiful copy of the Paradiso with the inscription “this surpassing account of our greatest hope.”

That’s all for now! Thank you so much for asking!

Rye Brook, New York
April 7,  2013


Here’s something I wrote, for what it’s worth:

“Apocalyptic,” which in Greek means “revelation” or “disclosure,” can be defined on the simplest level as the thought-world that emerged after the Exile, in which the human situation has finally been seen as so tragic and insoluble that the only hope for deliverance is from outside this orb altogether. Taking that a step further, it will be obvious that the only way we can receive this hope is if the message itself comes from beyond our sphere: hence, “apocalypse” or “revelation.” It is an electrifying bulletin from somewhere else, over against and independent of anything, religious or otherwise, that we could ever have projected.

[1] I am very much a canonical reader of Scripture, in the sense that I believe every book of the Bible to be part of the Word written and therefore worthy of faithful reading. Even the most problematic passages should be read as being in some sense God’s Word written, and therefore interpreted in the light of the Scripture as a whole. Yet every reader has a “canon,” whether s/he knows it or not. It is better to know what one’s canon is than to pose as though one does not have one. Deutero-Isaiah and Paul will be the center of the canon for apocalyptic theologians, with the book of Daniel, the other apocalyptic sections of the Old Testament, the book of Revelation, and all four gospels—especially Matthew, Mark, and John—not far behind.
Many if not most people, left to their own devices, will use Luke-Acts as a template for reading Paul, which will lead away from an apocalyptic interpretation. Or they will read everything through the social-justice passages from the prophets, with Luke 4:16-19 thrown in. This “canon” was very common in the 60s-80s and remains so even today in some circles. Such an approach tends to skew toward human agency, resulting in works-righteousness—which does not take into account the whole prophetic picture of God. Amos has his own version of the divine agency which shapes the call to social justice.
[2] I offer as an illustration The Lord of the Rings (book, not movie) which posits God as the active agent throughout, even though the name of God never occurs and there is almost no “religion” in the story. This was a deliberate strategy on Tolkien’s part, as he makes plain in his letters. He uses the passive voice of verbs to denote the divine agency; God is the unnamed mover of the action. See my book The Battle for Middle-earth.
[3] In the March 21, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, Garry Wills (whom I must say I find irritating a lot of the time) points out a very striking fact—a Protestant and a Jewish convert to Catholicism worked on Romans 9-11 and made the difference in the ground-breaking encyclical about the Jews, Nostra Aetate. I suppose a lot of people knew this already, but I did not.
[4] Simon Gathercole, “What Did Paul Really Mean?” Christianity Today, August 2007.
[5] I am aware of Echebe’s critique of HD as racist but that does not in the least diminish its power.