Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Paul, ‘Apocalyptic’ and ‘Salvation-History’ approaches, and Barth

To oversimplify to the extreme: the modern apocalyptic approach to Paul, broadly speaking, denies a continuity between Paul's thought and the old creation and covenant. A salvation-history approach seeks to understand Paul's thinking as part of the trajectory, even if it is doing something new and radical, of the old covenant and creation. In the apocalyptic approach, God breaks into history independent of God's age-old promises tied to Israel's, and the world's, history – matters important to the salvation-history approach.

A few suggestions for your consideration:

These two approaches to Paul are, fundamentally, not about the nature of revelation such that one can be used to affirm a Barthian approach and the other not, but a largely exegetical judgment about the significance of the covenant as it relates to Paul's theology. The similarities between the 'apocalyptic' and Barth may well be superficial and less significant than at first appearance.


  1. First, the hard distinction between 'apocalyptic' and 'salvation-history' approaches to Paul is often over pressed. Dunn once insightfully wrote that it was the "apocalyptic climax of the salvation-history which constituted the heart of his gospel". The two belong together for the apocalyptic reveals the ways in which God fulfils his covenant promises (Daniel). Were the new creation so utterly discontinuous, one would struggle to explain much of Paul's reasoning (famously in Rom 9-11, for example). And to state the obvious, Christ's significance was not written, by Paul, in binary code but in the language and milieu of Jewish Christianity as it sought to understand how Christ was the telos of the law. Yes Christ was new, surprising, discontinuous in so many ways with the old covenant, but Christ was not without context, not entirely 'out of the blue' and entirely impossible to understand as just 'out of the blue'. For an extended critique of dividing 'apocalyptic' from 'salvation-history', cf. Wright's Paul: Fresh Perspectives, chapter 3. What is more, criticisms of the salvation-history approach tend to unhelpful caricatures (cf. Doug Campbell in his otherwise excellent work, The Quest for Paul's Gospel, 37-38). Watson has a helpful section in Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith on the dialogue and conversation between Christ and scriptures in the understanding of the early church. Christ was not ever an entity separate from the scriptures given to the covenant people. It may be objected that some of these arguments caricature the 'apocalyptic' approach. But the point here is that 'apocalyptic' and 'salvation-history' approaches are a difference of emphasis, not kind – and were one to maintain the latter, one enters the land of the caricature I critiqued.
  2. Barth, at the start of his 'Lehre von der Versöhnung' (CD IV), begins with 'The Covenant as the Presupposition (Voraussetzung) of Reconciliation' (IV §57.2). Wright, in his location of Paul's theology on the horizon of covenantal salvation history themes, continually speaks of 'rethought', 'reworked' and 'reimagined' in light of Christ. Both seek to locate Christ in a suitable context, yet re-read that context in the light of Christ.
  3. Barth speaks of the history of Christ as the history of humanity. All is focused upon Christ and his story (hence Barth's revamp of traditional understandings of election). Wright maintains that Christ's life, death and resurrection expresses the history of Israel (election, exile and return) which itself was a retelling of Adam's, and the world's, story. See, for example, how Gregory MacDonald, in terms of the Apostle Paul, uses Wright's insights to argue that Christ's story is world history in a nutshell (The Evangelical Universalist)
  4. It is the 'blessing of Abraham' (that sounds worryingly like salvation history!) that comes to the Gentiles in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:14), and this because Christ became a 'curse' (covenantal Deuteronomic language) for us (3:13). In my view, Dunn's commentary on Galatians is the best Galatians commentary, and sheds more light on the text at such points than Louis Martyn's 'apocalyptically' slanted commentary.
  5. I therefore suggest that Barthians would do well to avoid seeing a natural ally in the 'apocalyptic' approach to Paul. There may well be room for more fruitful dialogue with those in the salvation-history school – caricatures aside, given Barth's procedure in CD IV, the way in which everything is reimagined, rethought etc. in light of Christ, and the significance of the history of Christ in Wright's thought.


At 12/04/2007 1:39 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...

Didn't LaHaye and Jenkins get their ideas for the Left Behind series from Barth?



At 12/04/2007 5:47 AM, Anonymous Ben Myers said...

Hi Chris: a very interesting post! Naturally I disagree with you on these points, and especially on the suggestion that Barth's view of "covenant" is close to Wright's. Part of the aim of my SBL paper was to show that Barth uses words like "covenant" and "Heilsgeschichte" in a way that is antithetical to Wright and Dunn. The similarities in vocabulary can easily be mistaken for theological affinity; ultimately, though, we can do a Wrightian reading of Barth only at the expense of Barth's doctrine of election (i.e. at the expense of his whole theology!).

Anyway, thanks again for such a thoughtful post (and I enjoyed chatting with you about this in San Diego as well). I'll try to post a few thoughts in response within the next day or two...

At 12/04/2007 2:39 PM, Anonymous John C. Poirier said...


It is important to keep in mind that apocalyptic works are so-called because they "un-veil" God's plans to a privileged seer, and *not* because of the inbreaking-ness of God's actions that they depict. This is an important distinction to keep in mind, as it is confused somewhat by the fact that the word "apocalyptic", as we tend to apply it to a given theology, refers to the quality of inbreaking-ness, a quality that typifies the true apocalypses but which does not account for that genre's use of the word "apocalypsis". The confusion unfortunately contributes to an already huge misunderstanding of the role of revelation in theology, in that the activity of God's inbreaking (the Christ event, etc.) is then wrongly summed up as being (an act of) "revelation", as though the term "revelation" fittingly describes things that, in themselves, are not epistemic. Anyone who wanders far enough down this mistaken path, of course, will end up embracing Barthian theology, which takes "revelation" as its organizing principle, and speaks of the inbreakingness of God's salvific power as a breaking down of humanity's inability to know anything about God.

As a remedy to Barth's muddlement, I suggest drinking deep from the wells of James Barr, Gustaf Wingren, and Richard Muller.

At 12/04/2007 10:26 PM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...

While we're talking Paul, why don't you apocalyptein (unveil) your opinion of Carson's Vanlandingham review, seeing as how you never delivered the goods on a full-length review as promised (your failed covenant history is painful I know; at least you still blog on a regular basis).

At 12/04/2007 11:09 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Ben,

To clarify, that 'Barth's view of "covenant" is close to Wright's' was not quite the point of my argument. I want to suggest that there is room for dialogue here - despite the apparently more attractive similarities in the 'apocalyptic' approach.

I look forward to your response!

Hi John,
Yes, I was aware of the different meanings of 'apocalyptic' - I used it here as it has come to be used in Pauline discussions. Those who use it, as far as I know, also appreciate its etymology too.

Thanks for the names, Gustaf Wingren and Richard Muller. I'll have to try to look them up.

Hi JB,
T'was really great meeting you in SD.

But " seeing as how you never delivered the goods on a full-length review as promised"

WHAT?!?! Yes I did!!

How are your ideas coming on - on teh tribulation?

At 12/05/2007 1:24 PM, Anonymous John C. Poirier said...


Thanks for this, but the point of my comment is that Barth awards revelation a role in theology that the Bible does not award. I just thought that the distinction between different meanings of *apokalypsis* shed an interesting light on this.

At 12/05/2007 3:53 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...

{{Dunn once insightfully wrote that it was the "apocalyptic climax of the salvation-history which constituted the heart of his gospel".}}

This quote alone was worth the price of the article. (Um, worth the price of reading the article. Something like that. {g})

Good comments, too!


At 12/05/2007 6:09 PM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...

Okay, apologies, CT...for some reason I had it in my mind that you would, post-interview, do a brutal break-down of a review.

I'm tribulating right now, having falsely accused you (Rev 2:2b, 2 Peter 2:1a). In order to improve my job prospects, I expect simultaneously to publish my paper and a retraction in favor of pre-trib, pre-mil rapture.

Great being with you in San Diego. Hope to see you in Boston...

At 12/06/2007 8:41 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Likewise, JB.

Though the chances I get to Boston are pretty low.

At 11/01/2009 12:13 PM, Anonymous Praveen John said...

HEY.....IREAD IT!!!...........IT IS WONDERFUL TO READ!!!............GOD BLESS!!!


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