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)

5 thoughts on “The Apocalyptic Paul (Short Review)

  1. Thanks for this post which – typically – is engaging, generous and helpful. Permit me to add a comment: you criticize Martyn, who in your view, sees Paul’s apocalyptic as placing a greater emphasis on the battle of cosmic powers and a lesser emphasis on sin, as a human act.

    Your conclusion is that Paul’s construction must be balanced “else one might mainly see the human as victim rather than rebel.”

    Isn’t it possible that Paul might have constructed a cosmic vision which is disharmonious with your or any number of later perspectives?

    1. Hi Richard – I am not sure what you are asking. I am not trying to draw from a later perspective, Paul’s own, as Martyn, and Westerholm, and pretty much everyone else is trying to do. Could I be wrong? Yes, but so could Martyn.

      Part of my hesitation with jumping in with Martyn is the Pauline textual evidence itself, even in Romans. Martyn knows that a “Sin as Cosmic Power” is not the only way sin language is used by Paul. The question is about priority (for him – not for me). He sees the priority working only one way. I think that must be argued for. Again, Westerholm’s essay is a nice counter-balance to what Martyn has to say, but Westerholm can’t be accused, I think, of the concerns you have about me.

  2. Thanks very much for your thoughtful response. I had read your earlier comment as a requirement to be imposed on his letters, that Paul should be interpreted as having some sort of balanced view from the perspective of later-developed doctrine. I tend to resist the notion that sources (Paul’s letters, say, or the Gospel of John, etc.) upon which doctrinal statements have been built, must be harmonized into some sort of artificial “balance” else the sources are misread. Your clarification indicates that you find the balance in Paul, which is of course, defensible if, “argued for” – a requirement that I no one ought to impose on a blog post. This is what the endless stream of interpretative books are for, I suppose. Again, thanks for responding.

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