Apocalyptic

The Throned One of the Lounge used to encourage grad students mired in the throes of cramming for comps by telling us, “Just wait till it’s over; you’ll be able to look back and think ‘I was so smart then…'”. He’s right of course, and prompted by postings from both the Lutheran Zephyr and the Questioning Christian I went back to my archives to find a some ramblings written when I was trying to get a coherent picture in my head of the history of research on the Apocaylptic Paul. So, essentially unedited–which means it looses cohesiveness towards the end ultimately breaking off without warning skipping the period from the 1960’s to the present day–here’s some stuff from back when I was really smart…

Thoughts on Apocalyptic and the Apocalyptic Paul

The Philosophical Underpinnings
In order to seriously discuss apocalyptic and its place in NT scholarship, it is imperative to begin by discussing its fundamental antithesis to the modern academic worldview. Apocalyptic has been the red-haired stepchild of biblical scholarship since the first tentative movements towards wissenschaft and it has only been in the last half- century that it has received anything other than disdain from the academic world. This is because the fundamental presuppositions of apocalyptic have been rejected by the modern world; to be more precise, modernity arose from the rejection of the philosophical bases of apocalyptic.

The Enlightenment was, in part, a humanistic reaction against a theocentric worldview. At the heart of this worldview was apocalyptic thinking. Modern liberalism—construed in the widest possible sense—is the foundation for not only liberal Protestant theology but also the modern (liberal arts) university system. In short, apocalyptic and apocalypticism are diametrically opposed to modern liberal thought in these four aspects: 1.) humanism, 2.) a rationalistic emphasis on ideas, 3.) conversation as essential in the search for truth, and 4.) anthropology.

1. In regard to humanism, apocalyptic opposes it on two fronts. First, apocalyptic considers the locus of cosmic activity to be the divine realm. The world of human experience is a subsidiary plane of existence that reflects the effects of what occurs in the divine realm. Humanity is thus relegated to the fringes of reality and there is no question of each person being the master of one’s own destiny. Second, apocalyptic denies the “universal brotherhood of man.” Instead there are two camps: Us and Them—and They’re toast.

2. Since the Enlightenment and its religious expression—the Reformation—religious discourse has been about doctrines—ideas. Protestant orthodoxy specialized in isolating dogmas and creating systems through connecting these various dogmas to one another. While liberal theology reacted against orthodox dogmatism, it retained the emphasis on ideas. The rationalistic bent of modern theology requires a coherent set of ideas that relate to one another in a plausible and consistent fashion. Apocalyptic refuses to speak in terms of ideas; instead, it tells stories. Moreover, these stories are often ‘lurid’ (to borrow a favorite expression from Aulén) and unpalatable to rational discourse. Apocalyptic could not become accessible to liberal theology without heavy reconditioning and domestication under the label of ‘demythologizing’ which satisfactorily turned it into ideas—though even then the liberals preferred to leave it to the dialectical theologians.

3. Liberalism is committed to conversation. It believes that human knowledge grows through open-minded dialogue that is committed to objectively weighing the arguments of two or more sides and accepting the most reasonable. Since truth cannot be directly apprehended, the more subjective opinions at work can lead to the clearest view of the objective truth. But apocalyptic is not interested in conversation in order to establish the truth; it has the truth. God has given Us the truth. Of course, They know the truth but persist in rebelling against it. Not fruitful conditions for dialogue.

4. Finally, apocalyptic strictly rejects liberal notions of anthropology. Liberal anthropology acknowledges that humans act inappropriately—even badly—but insists that the root of this is ignorance. If people knew what they were supposed to do, they would act well; with education comes enlightenment and social harmony. Apocalyptic, on the other hand, insists on the reality of radical evil. Not only is evil real but it is willful as well. Those who are evil know the good and consciously refuse it.

Thus, philosophically, apocalyptic is inherently antithetical not only to liberal theology but also to modern academic debate. This complicates the academic study of apocalyptic since many have a difficult time approaching it from a sympathetic perspective. Even those attracted to it often embrace it only when it is properly hedged about with caveats and interpretations that blunt its keener edges. Clearly, these caveats and interpretations tend to distort it to one degree or another. As a result, the study of apocalyptic documents and the study of the scholarship of apocalyptic texts must remain constantly vigilant for ideological biases and spin, whether conscious or not, from both the friends and foes of apocalyptic.

A Brief History of Scholarship
Apocalyptic and the apocalyptic portions of the canon were effectively ignored until the middle of the 19th century. With Hilgenfeld and Lücke, German scholarship first took notice of the apocalyptic literature of the late Second Temple period. The work of these scholars was also largely ignored until the first generation of the History-of-Religions school, Gunkel and Wellhausen, rediscovered it. While Gunkel was originally enthusiastic about the place of apocalyptic in Judeo-Christian religion, his interest was diverted by other projects and he never returned to the topic. Wellhausen, on the other hand, wrote a scathing critique of apocalyptic, seeing it as the ultimate degeneration of Israelite prophecy. Here, Wellhausen would sound a note that would become the topic of debate for almost a century.

That is, in German (Lutheran) circles, prophecy was seen as the height of Israelite religion. From the heights of prophecy before and during the Exile, Israel degenerated into a legalistic religion in the post-Exilic period. John the Baptist and Jesus were the true heirs of the sixth century prophets—but what happened to it between the sixth century and the first? Most scholars who looked at apocalyptic had no choice but to see a resemblance between it and the prophetic materials of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah but were uncertain how to connect them if at all. Wellhausen’s answer was to describe apocalyptic as prophecy tainted by legalism and foreign influences.

The History-of-Religions School proper, especially Bousset, also highlighted the foreign influence on apocalyptic. Zoroastrianism or Babylonian religion were most often invoked as the true mother of apocalyptic and once a non-Hebrew source had been established, it could be safely ignored.

The first major influence of apocalyptic on NT scholarship came with Johannes Weiss’s Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes and the establishment of the school of Thoroughgoing Eschatology. Writing in reaction to Ritschl—his father-in-law—Weiss used Jewish apocalyptic to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God was not about building an ideal ethical society on earth. Instead, he showed Jesus to be not the ideal moral teacher but an eschatological prophet who expected the immanent end of the world. Most assessments of Weiss’s work stop there and remark on the reverberations of this theological bombshell. It is critical to note, however, the final conclusion that Weiss draws; he ends by upholding Ritschl’s system as the other is simply untenable for modern men [sic].

Albert Schweitzer followed in the footsteps of Weiss and applied his mentors observations to the study of both Jesus and Paul. In his devastating Quest for the Historical Jesus: From Reimarus to Wrede, Schweitzer ended the formal academic Lives-of-Jesus movement by emphasizing that a historical Jesus must be an apocalyptic eschatological Jesus. He pilloried relentlessly the authors of the liberal Lives who conveniently found their own theological systems embedded within the proclamation of the historical Jesus. Schweitzer’s logic is that an apocalyptic Jesus must be the historical Jesus, because such a Jesus is irrelevant for theological purposes. That is, apocalyptic cannot be used for modern theology and such a finding guarantees that the scholar has been motivated by objective historical interest rather than nefarious theologizing. (It should be noted that Schweitzer too was a closet Ritschlian, taking away the historical dimension with one hand to return the ethical dimension with the other.) Ever since Schweitzer, then, apocalyptic has been regarded as the historian’s stamp of authenticity.

English NT scholarship has always been regarded by German scholars as too conservative and not rigorously historical and yet England was the place where the study of apocalyptic moved forward. R. H. Charles collected and translated all of the available apocalyptic texts and wrote the first truly good modern commentary on Revelation. (His translations are the basis of the apocalyptic texts now in the public domain—on the Internet—and can largely be trusted although Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols) should be used for scholarly citation {except for 1 Enoch}.) He saw apocalyptic as part of the Pharisaic movement and as the legitimate heir of OT prophecy.

The 1940s saw three significant events that would effect apocalyptic studies: two were theological programs, the third, a discovery. The first program was virtually ignored while the other would set the agenda for NT scholarship for decades to come. The first was H. H. Rowley’s work, The Relevance of Apocalyptic. It is significant as the first product of modern scholarship that appreciated the specifically theological value of apocalyptic; it was not, however, well received.

The second was Bultmann’s program of de-mythologization which appeared in 1941. This system is essentially a means of allegorical exegesis that reads existentialism into mythological texts. Thus, mythic language speaks about the problem of human existence and non-existence. Jesus preaches the call to decision and the need for authentic existence, not the immanent eschaton accompanied by angelic warriors. With this project, Bultmann made anthropology the defining interpretive category and gave modern theology tools for once more appropriating—or subverting—the biblical texts. That is, the notion of demythologization gave free reign to the rationalist dismantling of narrative, especially apocalyptic narrative. Instead of dealing with it on its own terms, a scholar could reduce it to a single over-arching principle amenable to one’s own theology. This laid the seeds for the rediscovery of the apocalyptic Paul.

The third significant event was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946. This finding would revolutionize scholarly reconstructions of Second Temple Judaism and opened up a whole new corpus of primary apocalyptic texts for investigation. Due to the difficulty of the project at hand and greatly exacerbated by scholarly rivalries, jealousies and egos, however, the texts did not appear as a corpus until 1990; thus, effect of the discovery was blunted until the final decade of the 20th century.

In spite of these three events, the turning point in the scholarly study of apocalyptic came from one of Bultmann’s students in 1960. Ernst Käsemann forced a re-evaluation of apocalyptic within German scholarship with a shocking argument. He suggested in his 1960 essay, “The Beginnings of Christian Theology,” that apocalyptic was not simply a side item to be ignored but instead the “mother of all Christian theology.” He perceived a “confessional controversy” between Jewish Christianity—represented by Matthew—and Pauline Christianity concerning the Gentile mission. Both Matthew and Paul root their approach to the Law in apocalyptic categories and thus in different understandings of apocalyptic.

Theology
Rowley. Within this work he offered a theologically interesting assessment of apocalyptic and argued for its enduring value. Seeing the apocalyptists as legitimate heirs of the prophets he sketched the difference between the two in terms of their view of the future: “The pattern of the prophecies of the prophets and the apocalyptists differed, however. Speaking generally, the prophets foretold the future that should arise out of the present, while the apocalyptists foretold the future that should break into the present.” The Barthian overtones and potential implicit within this definition are fascinating. In his final chapter he identified five enduring principles worked into the apocalyptic writings that need to be preserved: 1) “God is in control of history” and thus “faith in the divine initiative in history for the attainment of its final goal,” 2) systemic, impersonal evil is a persistent reality which individual acts of evil aid and abet, 3) the ideal world—the kingdom—can only be established through God’s action yet humans must act in accord with the divine will, 4) expectation of eternal life, and 5) the Last Judgment—“life is charged with responsibility.”

In Bultmann’s view, the eschaton is fundamentally an individual event. It holds meaning in so far as it goads an individual to reflection and decision in the present. Käsemann re-oriented the issue back towards Schweitzer’s perspective. Reacting against his teacher, he presented the eschaton as God’s future conquest of cosmic powers; reflection shifted from the anthropological to the cosmological. While Bultmann believed that Paul himself was focusing on anthropology, Käsemann disagreed and saw Paul’s language about humanity embedded within a cosmic perspective. Thus, when Paul speaks of individuals, he is speaking of a particular part of an entire cosmic system, not an autonomous entity.

Future expectation is an important part of Käsemann’s understanding of Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology, yet Käsemann also gives apocalyptic present import. He writes in his Romans commentary of God’s invasion of the world in Christ: “this is the sphere which the new aeon invades. In the time ushered in with Christ the two aeons are no longer separated chronologically and spatially as in Jewish apocalyptic. The earth has become their battleground.” The image that he creates is of two different aeons simultaneously present and struggling in the world. The new age is already present where God’s reign is victorious yet the ultimate consummation has not arrived since final victory over the powers of the cosmos has not yet been completed.

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4 Responses to Apocalyptic

  1. Gawain says:

    my own sense is that the apocalyptic does tell us something about our humanity. And Its hard for me not to fall into such a view, given our current warming crisis.

    Whenever I read the apocalyptic scriptures, I get into “comic-book mode.” Its like reading the x-men. It tells us something about the desire for victory.

  2. The Anglican Scotist says:

    The discussion of Enlightenment philosophy could bve more specific–as you know, “modern liberalism in the widest” is quite heterogeneous, and containing contradictory elements: e.g. consider Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant on the nature of human knowledge. What you have to say might be clearer if–instead of trying to generalize over this mess of contradictories–you named names and discussed what they had to say: e.g. what in Kant’s understanding of Christianity resists the pre-moden apocalyptic?

  3. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Very true, Scotist. It’d also become a lengthy article if not a full-on monograph. It would also require a serious review of Enlightenment philosophers as their various specifics has never been a strong suit of mine…

    Gawain–yeah. There’s a reason why it’s so pervasive in a variety of cultures. It really does have something to say. But it often does it in an uncomfortable way. The comic book *is* the most accessible form of the genre in the modern milieu but I doubt if most people realize that.

  4. Pingback: Christian Humanism « haligweorc

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