The Apocalyptic Paul (Short Review)

Recently Baylor University Press released The Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropology in Romans 5-8, a collection of essays based on a Princeton conference called “Creation, Conflict, and Cosmos” (May, 2012). While the book is a concise 8 chapters, the contributors are a veritable “who’s who” of Pauline studies: Martinus C. de Boer, Stephen Westerholm, John M.G. Barclay, Beverly Gaventa (also editor), Susan Eastman, Philip Ziegler, Neil Elliott, and J. Louis Martyn (and also theologian Benjamin Myers).

What is meant by “apocalyptic” and how does this represent the book? I have sometimes heard that you can break Romans up according to three common approaches to Pauline theology: Rom 1-4 seems to promote a “justification by faith” perspective, Romans 9-11 a salvation-historical one. And Rom 5-8 represent more “apocalyptic” themes (so I have heard). But scholars have contested the meaning and application of the term “apocalyptic” – what does it mean here and how is it useful?

While Gaventa does not define “apocalyptic” in the introductory materials, she does make mention of this at the close of her own essay:

Over the last several years, as I have endeavored to contribute to an apocalyptic interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans, I have emphasized the cosmic horizon of the letter. By that phrase I mean that Paul’s understanding of the gospel is not addressed solely to the individual or solely to Israel or solely to Gentiles. Instead, the gospel has to do with a conflict between God and antigod powers; these powers go by various names, in Romans they are most prominently named Sin and Death. (p. 91).

Gaventa picks up on a few major themes common to many of the book essays: the interplay between communal and individual in Romans, the power of the gospel to transform the person, and the nature of sin as both an enslaving power and an a mark of personal and intentional law-infringement.

I think the last item (hamartiology) is, perhaps, the most useful contribution of the book. There are too few books outlining Paul’s theology of sin. Lou Martyn has an interesting “afterword” in the book where he reflects on key themes of the conference, one being “The Dark and Sinister Form of Dual Agency: Sin as Enslaving Power and Sin as a Human Act.” He explains, “we see that Paul emphasizes his apocalyptic view of Sin as an enslaving power without altogether eclipsing his view of sin a human act” (163). I think Martyn is right. However, he prioritizes the first view for Paul over the second. I am not sure that is the case. I think it must be seen as a dialectic tension that keeps both views parallel, not sequential, or else one might mainly see the human as victim rather than rebel.

I think this dialectical approach to sin is well represented in Westerholm’s excellent essay. Here is his take.

People sin because they are sinners, under the power of sin, enslaved by sin–though one must add that it is a slavery that they themselves embrace again and again each time they commit concrete wrongful acts (32).

Humanity-in-Adam has both embraced sin and become sin’s slaves (35)

For my part, I am “on board” with an apocalyptic reading of Paul (much like Gaventa), but not to the dismissal or rejection of salvation history (see Jimmy Dunn’s outstanding essay, “How New Was Paul’s Gospel” and Wright’s  “Gospel and Theology in Galatians”). I am looking forward to NT Wright’s forthcoming Paul and His Recent Interpreters where I think we will get a strong critique of the “Paul and Apocalyptic” (esp Martyn and de Boer).

See below the chapter titles for The Apocalyptic Paul from Baylor Press. I highly recommend essays by Westerholm, Barclay, and Gaventa.

Preface (Beverly Roberts Gaventa)

1. Paul’s Mythologizing Program in Romans 5–8 (Martinus C. de Boer)

2. Righteousness, Cosmic and Microcosmic (Stephen Westerholm)

3. A Tale of Two Gardens: Augustine’s Narrative Interpretation of Romans 5 (Benjamin Myers)

4. Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus (John M. G. Barclay)

5. The Shape of the “I”: The Psalter, the Gospel, and the Speaker in Romans 7 (Beverly Roberts Gaventa)

6. Double Participation and the Responsible Self in Romans 5–8 (Susan Eastman)

7. The Love of God Is a Sovereign Thing: The Witness of Romans 8:31-39 and the Royal Office of Jesus Christ (Philip G. Ziegler)

8. Creation, Cosmos, and Conflict in Romans 8–9 (Neil Elliott)

Afterword: The Human Moral Drama (J. Louis Martyn)

4 Views on Historical Adam – View 4 (Barrick – Adam+Young Earth)

The last view in the book Four Views on the Historical Adam is that of William Barrick (The Master’s Seminary), and he represents the “Historical Adam: Young-Earth Creation.” (see here for earlier posts). Here is Barrick’s view in his own words:

In my view Adam is the originating head of the entire human race. Adam’s historicity is foundational to a number of biblical doctrines and is related to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This traditional view of Adam rejects accommodation to evolutionary science, upholding instead that the Holy Spirit superintended the author of Genesis so that he wrote an objective description of God’s creative activities in six consecutive literal days.

The biblical account represents Adam as a single individual rather than an archetype or the product of biological evolution, and a number of New Testament texts rely on Adam’s historicity. More importantly, without a historical first Adam there is no need for Jesus, the second Adam, to undo the uniqueness of the Genesis record and give it priority over ancient Near Eastern materials and modern science in all discussions of primeval history and the historicity of Adam and Eve.

Barrick’s essay does a fair job at fleshing out (!) this view with further thoughts and considerations. Let me start with what I appreciated about this perspective – it tries to take Scripture seriously, and is cautious about setting any standard up against the truth of Scripture. Yes, and I think all the other views in the book have the same attitude towards the supremacy of Scripture.

However, I found in Barrick’s view some logical leaps and false dichotomies. Here I want to voice several questions in view of Barrick’s approach.

(1) What do we do about the scientific evidence? Barrick focuses on Scripture and says, if Adam is treated as a historical figure in Scripture, so he must be, despite whatever “science” has to say (not a direct quote). However, Barrick doesn’t really engage with the scientific challenges we face – is not some of the evidence for an old earth and evolution and genetics issues compelling and worthy of rethinking? This is where Barrick seems to have set up an either-or framework. Either evolutionary science is right, or Genesis is right. But all three of the other (evangelical) views feel that it we must be careful not to make science the enemy of Scripture/faith.

(2) Where do we put “reason” in the revelation equation? Related to above, Barrick does not see scientific study as having a significant role in helping us understand Scripture. However, we know from history that the Church was wrong about the earth being the center of the universe, and now we say, “Oops, well we now need to read those parts differently.” Reason did not contradict Scripture, but it helped us better read Scripture (if we believe God knew what he was doing, which we do).

(3) Was the Genesis author really omniscient and objective? (Barrick uses the word “omniscient” on pp. 200). Given this is narrative, and narrative chocked full of poetry and symbolism, is this true? Is this necessary for a doctrine of inspiration? I would much prefer the view that God used the ancient perspectives native to their cultures to teach them life-truth. For example, when I was teaching my kids why they brush their teeth, I said that food had “sugar monsters” in them. So, the toothpaste kills them, and the brush brushes them off (and if they are not dead they drown in the lava pit in your stomach). This is actually not true. But giving them the technical “truth” would be nonsensical to them. What I did was translate the importance of what they need to know into an idiom and framework sensible to them. In that sense, is objectivity and literal-correspondence helpful? Barrick has no place for a healthy idea of “accommodation” of truth in Scripture.

(4) How do we string the theological beads? Barrick is insistent that you must have a historical Adam to make sense of a historical Jesus. Actually, this is a fair point and probably his best point (also articulated strongly by Collins, and discussed by Walton). But I would raise the question, who decides what is logical in this regard? If we have folks like Lamoureux out there who say “the gospel of JC still makes sense, sin still exists, and Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” then who gets to decide the theological points don’t match up without a historical Adam? (I think Greg Boyd’s pastoral essay is very helpful on this very point).

A second point on this matter is – at what point are there enough evangelical detractors from a traditional view that we stop condemning them as heretics? Barrick writes, “Denial of the historicity of Adam, like denial of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, destroys the foundations of the Christian faith” (223). So much, I think, Luther said of Copernicus’ theories. I wonder what that one random  “flat earth” person today is thinking – those liberal, weak-in-faith “sphere-earthists! They are literally eroding the foundations of Christian faith!” (this is a joke, please don’t send hate mail). I am not saying the balance of the scales of popular evangelical thought are tipping towards no Adam (they are not). But on the question of “old earth/new earth,” I think so. I think (as with the issue of women in ministry), we must say – when enough wise, respected, well-educated, godly evangelical men and women disagree on this issue, we must not make this a debate over which we will break fellowship (i.e., finger off the heresy-gun trigger).

Again, this is not happening with a “no Adam” view, but I think it is worth asking the question, is it ever appropriate to say enough wise people seem to put stock in such-and-such an idea – maybe I have to think about this some more? Maybe I need to respect that I could be wrong or the truth about this is not as clear enough to establish a firm and indelible doctrinal point? This is not “truth by a vote,” but it is a way of respecting a community of faith where we acknowledge that no one has cornered the market on doctrinal truth.

(5) Is appealing to genre a “red herring”? In the interpretation of Genesis (and even with the Gospels and Acts), I have always told students to reflect carefully on genre. Barrick refers to appeals to genre as a “red herring.” He says that the text points to a real historical Adam, no matter what genre we place Genesis into. I just don’t see how this can be true. I think genre is critically important. I think Genesis 1-11 is uniquely primeval and highly symbolic in a way not true of Gen 12+. I think that means something in how we read the text, though it does not rule out a historical Adam (though I think a historical Adam is better argued for in view of the sweep of Scripture, more than simply Gen 1-2).

(6) Shouldn’t we listen to those most well-trained in the sciences (as well as theology)? How many stories have we heard where a person is against a position, and then when they get into the messy details he or she sees the reason for complex and plural views? This is the case with Lamoureux, and I suspect with many others (like Joel Green and the study of the soul and the brain).

This works for other areas as well. I consider myself something of an armchair expert on the subject of pseudonymity and the NT. I am quite serious about arguing against facile views that label Ephesians and Colossians “pseudonymous.” But when it comes to the Pastorals and 2 Peter, I recognize it gets really messy (esp from a canonical perspective). I didn’t see or understand that mess until I really dug into the details, and I had a willingness to hear each view from the perspective of their best arguments. (BTW – I am still quite open to Pastorals and 2 Peter being linked closely to their traditional authors, but I encourage my students to be cautious and tentative as we continue to learn).


At the end of the day, I think we are presently stuck with the tension of accepting the overwhelming evidence from evolutionary science and genetics that the human race is very old, but that (with Walton and Collins) Scripture points to a particular “occasion” where humanity disobeyed God rebelliously and directly in light of divine relationship and responsibility. We still do not have a good solution as to how we put these two things together, but we must continue to try.

Next (and lastly) I will have a post on the two pastoral reflections by Greg Boyd and Philip Ryken.