Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Apocalypse now...

I said I'd blog on whether apocalyptic is a better word than eschatology for talking about how Christians think about the future.

Since posting last on this issue, I came across this quote from John Goldingay: 'I tell students that whenever they use the word eschatology they should was their mouths out with soap, because it sounds like a technical term with a defined meaning, but actually means different things to different people.' Astute as ever.

And he could substitute the word apocalyptic where he uses eschatology. For while there is broad agreement on what constitutes apocalyptic writing, there are a range of views on what apocalyptic thinking is and more particularly how it impacts on early Christian thinking about what God has achieved through Jesus and how that affects the future of creation.

So, most agree that apocalyptic writing is concerned with the future of God's people, that it generally features an angel revealing to a prophet/author what is about to happen and what the signs of it will be. For that reason, apocalyptic writing is often lurid and complex - just ask most Christians to explain the message of Revelation (from where the word apocalypse as a type of literature comes) in a couple of sentences!

The reason why the adjective could be a useful substitute for eschatology is that the literature gave rise to a a series of key ideas in the emerging Christian faith. The great New Testament scholar, J Louis Martyn, argues that Paul's theology is apocalyptic through and through. His argument is pretty convincing (at least as far as I'm concerned).

It is from apocalyptic that the early Christians got their understanding of justification, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the certainty of resurrection, the defeat of the forces of evil and the re-patterning of the created order once that defeat had happened.

However, the biggest contribution that apocalyptic thinking makes on a Christian understanding of the world has to do with the relationship between the present age and the age to come. In most apocalyptic writing there is a contrast between the age in which we live - which is evil and, in particular, one where God's people are persecuted - and the age to come - where justice and peace, prosperity and wholeness are the order of the day. Separating these two ages is a single moment when God intervenes to end the old age and bring in the new one.

Jesus came teaching that the new age was dawning in his ministry and yet the old age was still running. Early Christian teachers argued that Jesus decisively defeated the powers of the old age on the cross and ushered in the new age - of justification, peace with God, new creation, the presence of the Holy Spirit, etc - and that new age runs alongside the old one.

What this does is to make what Christians hope for accessible to some extent in the present. Our hope of a new world inspires our action to make this world better, for example. Apocalyptic is hugely important for our understanding of Christian hope and Christian lifestyle in our present fallen world as we follow Jesus in anticipation of the new age that is dawning through his life, death and resurrection.

But, it takes a bit of explaining and I'm fairly sure that talking about hope and how that affects our lives here are now does the job just as well. So, no doubt occasionally we'll make fleeting reference to these technical terms but generally we'll be talking about hope - what we hope for and how that hope affects how we live in today's world.


Bob said...

I remember a preacher telling a story about an encounter with a street sweeper, who was sat at the side of the road reading a Bible. 'What are you reading?' he asked. 'Revelation.' Intrigued by this, the preacher asks 'Do you understand it? What's it about?' And the street sweeper pauses for a moment, and says 'Jesus wins.'

Which seems as good a short summary as any I've heard!

Simon Woodman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon Woodman said...

I think 'hope' is a helpful way of thinking about this whole subject - not just in terms of hope for the future (I'm not sure that John spends a whole lot of time on future stuff in Revelation) but hope even when the present seems hopeless, hope that evil is not all-powerful, and hope that judgment will come on those systems and forces which enslave humanity and oppose the inbreaking kingdom of Christ.
On the subject of 'apocalyptic' - the SBL genres project under JJ Collins tried a few years ago to come up with a definitive definition of 'apocalyptic' - suggesting: "‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world."
Which I think just indicates how complex it all is. Coupled with this is the fact that in contemporary culture 'apocalyptic' has a very different meaning from that which John gave it, for example, a 'post-apocalyptic' film is one which depicts a future world after some catastrophic disaster. Whereas John uses it to indicate the revealing of God in the present through his imagery.