A Raw Introduction to Apocalyptic Theology: A Theology for the churches Not Just the Pneumatic

I have referred to Apocalyptic Theology before here at the blog; this post is going to get into what that is with more detail. I will refer to Philip Ziegler’s recently published book, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology, and then to illustrate what that looks like in real life theological form I will refer us to Karl Barth’s thinking in his Church Dogmatics I/1. I think this is an important exercise because outside of only a certain niche within academic Christian theology, apocalyptic theology is an unknown. My hope is that with this post (and others following in days to come) exposure will be elevated and people in the church and other sectors of Christian academia will come to have an appreciation for what I take to be a central theological pillar in regard to understanding just what God’s economy (ad extra) entails.

In his introduction Ziegler refers us to the work of some New Testament scholars. Did you catch that?: New Testament scholars. While apocalyptic theology, formally, is a work of constructive Christian Dogmatics it takes its cue premises from the work of biblical studies; in particular the shape of apocalyptic theology flows from the Pauline corpus and theological thought world (that’s the premise and argument). Thus, to help introduce us to apocalyptic theology we will follow Ziegler’s introduction as he offers a quote from Beverly Gaventa (et al.):

As Gaventa concisely puts it, “Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death). This means that the Gospel is first, last, and always about God’s powerful and gracious initiative.” Inasmuch as it is an expression of specifically Christian faith, “apocalyptic theology always and everywhere denotes a theology of liberation in an earth that is dying and plagued by evil powers.

In the words of Donald MacKinnon, its subject matters in nothing less than “God’s own protest against the world He has made, by which at the same time that world is renewed and reborn.”[1]

Following, Ziegler expands further this way:

For my own part, I am certainly drawn to the task of envisaging an apocalyptic theology for “ardently Protestant” reasons. For it seems to me that, understood as it is here, apocalyptic is a discursive idiom uniquely suited to articulate the radicality, sovereignty, and militancy of adventitious divine grace; just so it is of real import to the dogmatic work of testing the continued viability of Protestant Christian faith. . . . The apocalyptic idiom starkly illumines at one and the same time both the drastic and virulent reality of human captivity and complicity in sin, and the extraordinary power of saving divine grace that outbids it, reminding us that things are at once much worse yet also paradoxically far, far better than we could possibly imagine them to be.[2]

As we can see apocalyptic theology, in contrast to much of classical theistic theology, presses into the idea that ‘nature’ is need of “death, burial, and resurrection.” In other words, when we think alongside the past, the anecdote that is pervasive is what we find funding Thomas’ (Aquinas) theology: i.e. ‘grace perfects nature.’ Implicit to this classic notion of grace perfecting nature is the idea that there is something inherently salvageable to the original (lapsed) creation; as such it simply needs a reinjection of God’s grace (a superadditum) to elevate it to where it once was in the pristine world of Genesis 1—2. Apocalyptic theology says Nein! Apocalyptic theology maintains, along with the New Testament, that the fallen world was so fallen (which we know through God’s Self-Revelation in the Incarnation and Cross of Christ) that it didn’t need to be “perfected,” but instead utterly re-created from the ground up. The premise is an eschatological one. In other words, contra the classicist, the apocalypticist maintains that in the thematic of creation (which is what we are concerned with in this discussion i.e. a doctrine of creation) the source of continuity between God’s original work in creation and then in the recreation of the resurrection is not an abstract ‘nature’, but instead the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, the goal of creation has always already been sourced in and from its purpose (telos) in Jesus Christ. In this frame the creation’s orientation was always intended to be elevated beyond its original status (see the Scotist thesis) by coming into the fullness and plenitude of God’s life as that can only be realized in participatio Christi (‘participation in Christ’). It is in this ‘freedom’ that creation/nature is given lassitude to ‘groan and wane’ for its release from its futility unto ‘the revealing of the sons of God’ (cf. Rom 8.18ff).

What is important to grasp in this complex is that there is nothing redeemable in the ‘old world.’ That what is required is a Divine invasion, such that the old order is put out of its misery and the new order of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ (cf. II Cor 5.17; Gal 5—6) comes in a radical super-ordering way wherein sin is shown to be what it is by its utterly radical death knell given power by God’s Yes and Amen in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. What is required in this new order is a ‘forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what is ahead; pressing on to the upward call in Jesus Christ.’ What is required is a life that can say ‘for me to live is Christ and to die is gain,’ because to gain is to step fully into the realization and beatific vision that can only now be apprehended by those who ‘walk by faith rather than sight.’

As I noted previously, I said we would refer to Barth to help provide an example of how apocalyptic theology looks in its Dogmatic form. Here we have Barth discussing the relation between the Father-Son in the triune life. You will notice an interesting corollary that he draws between the persons in relation (in se), and how that gets cashed out in the economy of God’s life in the history of salvation (historia salutis) vis-à-vis a doctrine of creation/recreation.[3] What you should be keying in on as you read the quote is how Barth refers to the importance of recreation relative to the old order, and how new creation is not contingent upon an elevation of the old creation; but instead upon the life of Godself as that is given contingency for us in His assumption of flesh (asumptio carnis) in the eternal Son.

The inconceivable element in revelation as such, in revelation as reconciliation which can be a reality only as it comes from God, is the fact of the Son of God who is the Lord in our midst, and therefore amid our enmity towards God. Because the love of God manifested in this fact cannot be identical with the love of God for the world which He willed to create and did create, for sin and death lie between this world and our world; because the love of God manifested in this fact is rather His love for the lost world of man who has become guilty before Him (Jn. 3.16), for the world whose continuity with the original one is completely hidden from us, therefore we cannot confuse God’s lordship in the one case with God’s lordship  in the other, or directly identify them, but in relation to the one (creation) we must speak of a first mode of God’s being and in relation to the second (reconciliation) we must speak of a second mode of His being. For as we have to say that reconciliation or revelation is no creation or a continuation of creation but rather an inconceivably new work above and beyond creation, so we have also to say that the Son is not the Father but that here, in this work, the one God, though not without the Father, is the Son or Word of the Father.[4]

As is typical there is much nuance and intricacy informing Barth’s thought (that we would have to unpack later), but for our purposes I simply want to underscore how apocalyptic theology is at play in the theology of someone as significant as Karl Barth (indeed we might contend that Barth was one of its first proponents).

The point I have wanted to iterate most in my post is what I have emboldened above in the quote from Barth. In apocalyptic theology there is an emphasis on God. As such, what the apocalyptic theologian is looking for is not a world-affirming God, wherein an abstract (from God’s purposes in Christ) conception of creation/nature is given an independent gravitas; no, instead the apocalyptic theologian is lit up by the pursuit of a God affirming God. What I mean is that the apocalyptic theologian is more interested in focusing on God, and then allowing that focus in Christ to shape how we think about his relation to the cosmos as the Soter that this broken world is in such desperate need of. By focusing on God, and his choice to be for us in Christ (which = GRACE), which is the basis of creation/recreation, the apocalyptic theologian can be said to be a theologian in pursuit of a ‘this-worldliness’ that only has form as that is given by the alien otherness of God’s (inner) world as that comes to us in the grace of his Kingdom to Come in the Face of Jesus Christ. So the apocalyptic theologian is world-affirming, but only insofar as that world is apprehended by faith not sight; only as that world is understood in correspondence to its givenness in and from the logic of grace unveiled most fully in the resurrection/ascension of the risen Jesus.

I need to distill further (as this post is me thinking things out and out-loud). But this will have to suffice for now.


[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), loc 162, 171 kindle.

[2] Ibid., loc 214, 224.

[3] Barth is also pressing a Creator/creature distinction.

[4] CD, I/1 §11, 117 [emphasis mine].