The subtitle of Samuel V. Adams book The Reality of God and Historical Method is “apocalyptic theology in conversation with N. T. Wright”.
As in any conversation there are two sides. The side that Adams himself represents is apocalyptic theology. What he means by apocalyptic theology becomes clearer with a phrase from one of his chapter titles: “beginning with the new beginning.” It is about where to start when talking about God.
In his understanding, you have to start with Jesus. Jesus is not an answer to a question posed by creation or the human condition. If he was, you would have to start with the question. You would have to start with a theory of creation or human nature. But apocalyptic theology takes the position advocated by Karl Barth that Jesus comes before creation or human nature. Jesus, in fact, defines these things.
This relates to historical method because Jesus comes at a mid-point in human history. The Hebrew Bible had talked about humanity in Adam and Noah. And it had talked about a chosen humanity in Israel. All of this came before Jesus. And yet, for apocalyptic theology, Jesus comes first. In the words of the prologue to John’s gospel, as the Word he was in the beginning with God.
So when the incarnation occurred it was “irruptive”, a new beginning. This creates a tension with the historical narrative of the Bible, which seems to place Jesus on a historical trajectory. Adams says that this is the tension that Karl Barth worked out (pgs. 129-130). According to Barth, Jesus and his atonement takes precedence over all other history.
Adams seems to say that when Christians are reconciled to God and born anew, this creates a new reality that is a gift of God. This comes as a rupture in existence that breaks the continuity of historical experience.
Because the word “apocalyptic” has to do with revelation and people like Barth saw God’s revelation in Jesus as a brand new revelation breaking into the world, Adams calls this theology apocalyptic.
But when the conversation turns to N. T. Wright, we see a different use of apocalyptic. Most people will think of apocalyptic as having to do with the kinds of things that apocalyptic literature like the books of Daniel and Revelation deal with. Wright proposes ways to interpret this apocalyptic tendency in the Bible. But Adams points out that the way apocalyptic theology uses the word is not tied to apocalyptic literature at all.
Adams says there is some similarity between Wright and Barth. It comes out in Wright’s interpretation of Paul. Adams says that both interpret Jesus as “the embodiment in one man of the identity of the entire people of Israel” (p. 170).
So Adams wants to understand how the history that went before the time of Jesus can become a source for understanding Jesus. For him, it has to do so without giving us any theological knowledge that is independent of Jesus. For Wright, though, Paul draws on apocalyptic literature to form his understanding of Jesus.
So when Wright calls Paul an apocalyptic thinker he is not referring to an apocalyptic epistemology, but to an apocalyptic worldview that affirms his understanding of history and covenant. An apocalyptic worldview thus grounded in critical realist historiography, subsumes apocalyptic literature within the context of the long history of the covenant (p 233).
Adams wants to use apocalyptic to mean an epistemology, a way of knowing. Wright wants to use apocalyptic to refer to a concrete kind of literature that he can mine to figure out how Paul understood the covenant. It comes down to Adams talking about Paul’s epistemology. So I will explore that idea in another post.