J. Louis Martyn on God’s Invasion

“The Father of Jesus Christ is emphatically not a god who, after offering two ways, withdraws off stage in order to assure an autonomous decision on the part of the human agent. Precisely the opposite. This God comes invasively and causatively, inciting faith where there was none. We may take the apostle quite literally when we hear him speak of the genesis of the newly moral community, identifying it from its inception forward as God’s new creation, for as God’s new creation this community owes both its birth and its sustained life to God’s powerful act in the gospel and to nothing else.”

– J. Louis Martyn, “The Gospel Invades Philosophy” in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision, p.33.

The End of Time?

I have just returned from SBL’s Annual Convention and as always it was a great time. Caught up with old friends, met new friends, and even put a few faces to cyber-friends.

Even though the main reason I make the annual trek is the people, there is another part of the conference…the papers. And as always, I heard really good papers, good papers, and others.

One paper I was really looking forward to this year was Ann Jervis’ “Christ and Time” and it did not disappoint. Last year at a conference at Princeton, Dr. Jervis gave what she called a preliminary look at “Paul’s Understanding of Time” and since it was a smaller conference I had the privilege of discussing the ideas with her at length (a great reason to attend at least one smaller conference each year). When I saw she was going to be giving a paper on the topic at SBL, I knew it would probably be a highlight of the conference.

In her paper, Dr. Jervis offered a critique of the Pauline Apocalyptic School’s view of time (see Paul’s Apocalyptic Imagination). She focused on three points of difference:

  1. The End of Time: According to Jervis, contrary to what many in the apocalyptic school assert, time will not end (or in some cases has not ended). What Paul does say will end is death, and in the defeat of death time will be drawn together so it may be seen more clearly. In other words, there is no last day in Paul just a last day for death to disrupt time.
  2. Time and Eternity: Jervis also concludes that eternity is not a distinct Pauline category. In her view, time and eternity are not different ages; there is not a moment when time stops and eternity begins. She is not claiming that life will not reach into eternity but that eternal is a qualification of life. Eternal life, according to Jervis, is the nun kairos lived without death and therefore without sin.
  3. Christ Changes Time: Finally, Jervis based her claims in the fact that Christ connects time with life not death. For those in Christ, time is now invaded (a play on common apocalyptic motif) by life. Death gives way to life and so there is no end of time, life is lived eternally “in Christ time.”

Dr. Jervis ended by illustrating that time is often seen as the story of conflict in humanity’s relationships with each other, creation and God. She stated that if this is your definition then time will certainly end. But in her view time is not a story about conflict, that is the result of sin and death’s disruption of time, but a story about relationships. Thus, when in Christ humanity’s relationships with each other, creation, and God are restored so is time; time is eternal.

I find the discussion of time in Paul fascinating, especially since so many rely on the now-not yet paradigm when interpreting Paul without ever defining what now and not yet mean. In this manner, I appreciate Dr. Jervis’ efforts to define time by Christ and in particular to struggle with this very complex topic.

(One further note, one questioner asked how, in her view, does God relate to time? This was a very good question and one I look forward to hearing her answer as she continues to ponder on “Christ Time”)

It’s the End of the World….As We Know It

In his book, The New Testament and the People of God, N.T Wright describes the apocalyptic imagination of second-temple Judaism as being inseparably linked to hope.  When Israel speaks about their expectations for the future, it is almost always through this genre.  This sounds strange to many of us since the word apocalyptic makes us think of either zombies or a meteor headed for earth.  Apocalyptic today means the end of the world.  This idea, combined with our Deistic worldview, leads us to commonly misinterpret ancient, apocalyptic texts.

According to Wright, one of Israel’s central beliefs was that God was intimately involved in history.  Their God was especially concerned with the plight of his people.  The hope of Israel was that one day their God would intervene on their behalf, restore creation, and write the Law on their hearts.  They hoped for the day when there God would become king.  That day would not be the end of the world (in the sense of the space-time universe), but it would be the end of the present world order, in which evil and injustice currently reign.

How do you communicate such a complex and multi-layered concept?  You do it through cosmic imagery.  We do this all the time when we describe important events in our history.  Wright uses the example of the Berlin wall.  We say that the day when the the Berlin wall fell was an earth shattering event.  If someone reading this sentence a hundred years from now assumed there was an earthquake that caused the Berlin wall to fall, then this would be a serious misreading of the text.  

Finally, Wright describes the apocalyptic genre as presenting a series of dualities.  Apocalyptic writings assume a clear distinction between creator and creation, the present age and the age to come.  Wright distinguishes these dualities from a cosmological or anthropological dualism, in which the physical universe or our bodies are viewed as evil and separate from our spiritual make-up.  That type of dualism is not found in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures and is more characteristic of Gnosticism.  The hope of Israel, which the early Christians adopted, was not envisioned as a spiritual, atemporal existence.  If God is known as creator, then his creation/material is viewed as good.  If his good creation is corrupted, then the solution is not to destroy it but to restore it.  This is where we commonly misunderstand key texts in Revelation that talk about fire and burning creation.  The fire of God’s judgment is part of the purification and restoration process.  It is not proof that God is scrapping his creation, but that he is cutting out the disease that is crippling it.  

It is through this lens that books like Revelation and Daniel must be read.  When this happens, the hermeneutic of the Left Behind series and the concept of a rapture are simply not convincing. (More to come on both of these topics in a later post).

The church today needs to reclaim the word apocalyptic as a synonym for hope.  The mainstream view of Revelation, Daniel, and others apocalyptic sections in the Bible have too long been held captive by a fear mongering minority.

The ‘Lacking’ Apocalyptic Imagination

Every time I encounter the word ‘apocalyptic’ in a text, I get scared. But maybe not for the reasons you would expect.

Apocalyptic produces fear because for some scenes from Apocalypse Now, or even worse scenes from one of those tribulation movies so popular at youth group lock-ins in the 80’s, flash before our eyes leaving us trembling at the thought of it all becoming reality. Others imagine scenes from Daniel and Revelation filled with goats and growing horns, stars being thrown down, flying horseman, dragons, seven headed beasts, and seals being broken. In the end, we are left much like Daniel, “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days…I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.” (Dan 8:27)

Yet, as scary as these images are what frightens me the most is that for many Christians apocalyptic means chaos, wars, judgment and nothing else. In other words, we lack an apocalyptic imagination.

Apocalyptic is a rich term drawing meaning from many different wells and therein lies one of the primary problems; most of the wells are left untapped. Many Christians, including many Christian scholars, have never read (much less studied) the various sources available that can inform our apocalyptic imagination. Multiple sources dating from late BC to early AD offer examples of the apocalyptic worldview prominent during these times. For example, 1 Enoch, Fourth Ezra, Second Baruch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the book of Jubilees, the Sibylline Oracles, and even parts of The Dead Sea Scrolls.* Some of these books do contain scary scenes and other-wordly visions, much like those in Daniel and Revelation, but they also engage in what can be considered a history-making exercise, that is they examine how we got here (past), what is happening (present), and where it is all going (future).

Apocalyptic is not just about the future, apocalyptic is a re-imagining of the world we live in.

Once this is realized and the ideas are given room to blossom, we come to understand that Christianity is most assuredly an apocalyptic religion and not just because we believe Jesus will come again. Jesus announced the kingdom of God is a present reality. Paul declared the present evil age has been defeated. The writer of Hebrews described the good things that have already come. Peter proclaimed God has already acted to cause us to be born again. The past, present, as well as the future have been changed by God’s apocalyptic in-breaking through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. The axis around which all history turns is the first coming of Jesus Christ not the second. It defeated the old. It inaugurated the new. It altered the present. The world has been changed and nothing can be the same again.

And while I hold out hope that this apocalyptic imagination will take hold, the reason I get scared when I read the word ‘apocalyptic’ is because if all we can imagine is a story ending in chaos, war and judgment then the available options for how we choose to live in the present are indeed something to be afraid of.

*For more information on apocalyptic literature:

  • John C. Collins – The Apocalyptic Imagination (from which title of post was stolen!)
  • Frederick J. Murphy – Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World
  • Christopher Rowland – The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity

Holy Apocalyptic, Batman!

I am working on a paper that examines Paul’s apocalyptic imagination through conceptual metaphor. ‘Apocalyptic’ is term fraught with difficulties and the array of explanations offered by scholars range from sublime to ridiculous. I hope to have a post from my paper sometime this week, but the quote below from Douglas Campbell (who can go from sublime to ridiculous sometimes in the same paragraph – you know I love you Campbell!) captures both the importance and difficulty of the term for Pauline theology:

Nothing can be the same again. Both Paul and his fellow Christians are living in a new reality that, in a sense, only they can understand. In the light of this new reality they understand that Christ has rescued them from a tortured previous reality within which they were oppressed by evil powers. Christ and his followers are presently at war with that evil dominion, and to a degree the war extends through the middle of each Christian community and each Christian person in the form of an ongoing conflict between flesh and spirit. Nevertheless, Christ has effected the decisive act of deliverance and victory.  Christians are saved and dramatically! They have been set free and must now resist the temptation to lapse back into the old, evil, but strangely comfortable reality from which they have been delivered.

Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 190.