The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect

The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect, by Jamie Davies. Eugene, OR: Cascade Library of Pauline Studies, 2022. 177 pages, $25.00, cloth.

When asked in class, “Dr. Cara what is the ‘Apocalyptic Paul’ (AP)?” My answer was something to the effect of: AP scholars want to emphasize the other-worldly salvific actions of God breaking into this world—“apocalyptic” actions. The AP began with Ernst Käsemann in mid-twentieth century who emphasized that Paul expected an imminent return of Christ along with Christ’s defeat of evil powers and a down playing of individual salvific concerns. It then was modified to emphasize Christ’s death/resurrection as the “apocalyptic” event with Louis Martyn being the key figure, especially due to his 1997 Galatians commentary. The current standard bearer for AP would be Douglas Campbell. I associate the AP primarily with the (over) emphasis upon the death/resurrection event to battle and defeat evil powers to the extent that (1) it significantly downplays or outright rejects God’s activity in prior redemptive history and (2) it significantly downplays or outright rejects forensic categories and individual implications such as justification. The AP has always been a minority view in the scholarly Pauline guild due to the majority’s disagreement with # 1. For Reformed scholars, both # 1 and # 2 are significant problems.

If a student persisted and wanted something to read—hard to believe my explanation was not good enough!—I would send them to two places. First, read N. T. Wright’s eighty-page section on AP in his Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Fortress, 2015). Wright goes through the major figures and primarily critiques them, especially concerning # 1 above. Second, read Martyn’s excursus “Apocalyptic Theology in Galatians” in his Galatians commentary (AB 33A, Doubleday, 1997). This excursus gives the main outlines of Martyn’s influential views.

Now that I have read Jamie Davies’ book The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect, would my answer change? Well, see below. The first half of his book (“Retrospect”) is designed to answer the above question. The second half (“Prospect”) is designed to moderately critique the AP, give some methodological corrections, and modestly suggest some of his proposals. Davies currently teaches at Trinity College Bristol, which is broadly evangelical in the Anglican tradition.

First the “Retrospect” portion: In sum, Davies well explains the hard-to-explain AP. He covers all of the major players starting with Käsemann through Campbell. Usefully, Davies also includes a brief pre-Käsemann discussion of Weiss, Schweitzer, and Bultmann to explain Käsemann’s emergence. In addition, and very informative for me, he includes several contemporary scholars that are influenced by AP but also want to modify it, Alexandra Brown, Susan Eastman, and Lisa Bowens.

Davies argues that most AP scholars, with Campbell as a notable exception, see Paul as influenced by the theology/theologies that comes from Second-Temple-Judaism’s Apocalyptic literature (e.g., 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra). Paul may not have read these works per se, but he was aware of their general theology. He then combined this with his understanding of the Christ event to come up with his theology. Note, the question as to why “apocalyptic” is in the name “Apocalyptic Paul” is much debated (and ultimately not that important). Is it based on the connection to Apocalyptic literature or the use of apocalyptic in the sense of cataclysmic event unrelated to Apocalyptic literature?

In Davies’ summary of the AP scholars and in the remainder of the book he emphasizes three themes, eschatology, soteriology, and epistemology. For the more hardline AP scholars, concerning eschatology, they emphasize the radical “invasion” of the Christ event into the evil world as opposed to a redemptive-historical escalation of God’s activity culminating with the Christ event(s). For soteriology, the emphasis is on defeating the evil powers as opposed to individual concerns of justification, sanctification, and glorification. For epistemology, the emphasis is on only hearing God speak (in a Barthian sense) and downplaying traditional general and special revelation. The modified AP scholars, including Davies, want to soften these dichotomies.

Davies also notes the significant influence of Barth on the AP, or at least the “early” Barth of the Romans commentary. He also includes a section, less useful to me, on some systematic theologians who have incorporated aspects of the AP. The most prominent of these is Douglas Harink.

Secondly the “Prospect” portion: Here I will be brief. Davies wants to soften some of the dichotomies listed above but still keep important insights from AP. He strongly suggests that a methodological change is necessary. What is needed is a three-pronged interdisciplinary approach that combines insights from (1) Second-Temple-Judaism and canonical apocalyptic literature, (2) systematic theology with an emphasis on the “later” Barth of the Church Dogmatics, and (3) insights from past and current AP scholars. He then uses this methodology to critique aspects of the three dichotomies and to give proposed modifications.

How would I change my answer above now having read Davies? Probably not much.  Maybe I would note the Barth connection, and I certainly would add that one should read the fifty-six page summary by Davies. This will provide somewhat of a balance to Wright’s more trenchant critique, and Davies’ section is extremely well-written for the uninitiated into the confusing AP labyrinth.

Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte