Elevation and Apocalyptic Theologies in Con-versation: Reflecting on the Practicality of Grace in the Christian’s Pursuit to Know God

I wanted to, in a bloggy fashion, briefly introduce and touch upon what my friend Myk Habets has called elevation theology. I have written on this before at the blog, but more pointedly, in those instances, I emphasized the related doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ over and for all creation. Since I am finally just now reading Edwin Chr. van Driel’s book Incarnation Anyway, I thought it timely to write something up on this theological locus. I will be referring to an essay Myk wrote years ago, and then to Philip Ziegler’s amazing book Militant Grace (2018). What I want to do is bring together a simple point of contact between elevation theology, and the apocalyptic theology that Ziegler alerts people to through his writings. I sort of had one of those aha moments while at work the other night; as I was reflecting on the implications of elevation theology, ‘incarnation anyway,’ and the logic of grace attendant to so called apocalyptic theology. What I put down in this post might not be that meaningful to you, but to me it represents a light-bulb.

Habets introduces his essay On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ, this way:

According to Christian tradition Jesus Christ is pre-eminent over all creation as the Alpha and the Omega, the ‘beginning and the end’ (Rev 1.8, 21.6; 22.13). This belief, when theologically considered, is known as the primacy of Christ. The specific issue this doctrine addresses is the question: Was sin the efficient or the primary cause of the incarnation? This essay seeks to model the practice of modal logic in relation to the primacy of Christ, not to satisfy the cravings of speculative theologians but to reverently penetrate the evangelical mystery of the incarnation, specifically, the two alternatives: either ‘God became man independently of sin,’ or its contradiction, ‘God became man because of sin’. Examining historical responses to the primacy of Christ will lead to a consideration of how some recent theologians have taken up these themes and sought to develop them. This in turn provides resources that contribute towards an understanding of the incarnation assuming that the efficient cause was human sin. Finally, an argument will be presented defending the primacy of Christ and a justification for the hypothesis that there would have been an incarnation of the Son irrespective of the fall.[1]

The thought that hit me had to do with the idea that creation, if the ‘primacy of Christ’ doctrine is true, has an inherently extraneous source to its ‘being.’ If so, creation itself, as a contingent reality (creatio ex nihilo) only has a taxis or order to it as that is supplied to it by the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. As corollary, Apocalyptic theology maintains a disruptive notion in regard to creation vis-à-vis the recreation that takes place in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Ziegler cites Gaventa in this regard:

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.”[2]

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.[3]

Now, I’m leaving many moving parts out of this (because of space constraints), but when you allow elevation theology and apocalyptic theology to implicate each other, what stands out, at least to me, is how if creation itself is fully determined to be what it is, always already in God’s eternal and pre-destined life to be for us, for creation rather than against it, then attempting to find logics and ratio inherent within the created order—like natural law and natural theology do—in an attempt to discover a theological epistemology prior encountering God in Christ leads to a dead end.

What I’m tortuously attempting to draw out is the idea that: If creation never had an absolute or ‘pure’ ground in herself, but instead only finds that ground in the grace of God in creation/recreation as that is conditioned by Christ, then a genuine basis for a theological ontology/epistemology is only given in and through God’s Self-revelation and exegesis in Jesus Christ. Do you see what I’m attempting to highlight? If God’s proton is inextricably bound up in the eschaton of his life revealed in Christ, if his first Word of creation is grounded in his choice to be for the world in the grace of Christ, just as his last Word is indeed His first in the resurrection of Christ, then the only ground for knowledge of God can be found in that grace; in that relation that Jesus is for us as the eternal Logos made flesh. In other words, there is no general or profane logic embedded in the created order awaiting discovery as the bases for doing theological work; there is only theo-logic as that is grounded in the Christo-logic as that serves as the basis for the reality of the world—the world first and last, created and recreated.

What I am simply attempting to say is: if the incarnation was always the plan of God for the world, with or without sin entering the picture, then this at least suggests that there has always been a higher plane, an unattainable plane for achieving a genuine knowledge of God; outwith Christ. Apocalyptic theology helps to reinforce this sort of ‘primacy of Christ’ doctrine insofar as it emphasizes the disruptive nature of the incarnation and resurrection as that has to do with this present world order (in its in-between and anticipatory status). More practically I think it offers the Christian with a theology that fits better with the experience of the Christian life, as that is understood in the light of the cross of Christ itself. In other words, there is a ‘logic’ available to the Christian that reposes in the fact that they, by the Spirit, have become able to call ‘Jesus, Lord.’ It is in this practicality of the Christian life that the normal Christian can live a life steeped in the revelatory reality of Holy Scripture and its reality as that is given in Jesus Christ.

The proposal, if you hadn’t noticed, is a uniquely Protestant one that majors on a theology of the Word as the basis for thinking and living the Christian life. It doesn’t elide the tradition or history of the church’s mind, but it recognizes that the warp and woof of the Christian life is one that is ultimately grounded in a theological reality (ontology) that is always already contingent upon creation’s reality as that is given newness and freshness in the recreation realized in the resurrection and ascension of Christ. It keeps the Christian looking up, and allows God’s grace to supply the sort of optics that it only it/He can as the Christian seeks to know God in ever increasing ways. Theologies, of the absolutely ‘classical’ sort, sneer at this sort of grace only conception of creation, and its impact on a theological ontology/epistemology. But I think such sneer should be repented of precisely at the point that Christians aren’t ultimately or slavishly beholden to the ‘tradition’ of the church, per se, but instead we are captivated by the life of God for us as we come into union with that reality in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

I fear I have failed to really capture the gist I wanted to go after and articulate in this post, but hopefully something coherent made it through. There is a profound idea going on here between what we are given by so called elevation and apocalyptic theologies, and I think further thought needs to be given to this.


[1] Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ,” Journal compilation C _ The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd, (2008): 343-44.

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

[3] Ibid., loc 214, 224.