The fourth installment in our symposium comes from Declan Kelly, a PhD student in theology at the University of Aberdeen.
Does Protestant theology have a future? This is not a question explicitly asked in Philip Ziegler’s Militant Grace, but it is one which is decisively answered. Ziegler confesses to being “drawn to the task of envisaging an apocalyptic theology for ‘ardently Protestant’ reasons,” and finds apocalyptic to be “of real import to the dogmatic work of testing the continued viability of Protestant Christian faith.” The bold claim of the book is that if Protestant theology is to resist the weakening of Christian witness to the gospel it would do well to keep “its sails close-hauled into the strong winds of apocalyptic Paulinism.”
In my contribution to this symposium I wish to explore three aspects of Militant Grace which speak to its Protestant sensibilities: its proximity to Scripture, its concentration on the proclamation of the gospel, and its primary interest in soteriology.
Ziegler’s apocalyptic theology is a Protestant theology because of its proximity to Scripture. There is much theology written today that would be possible if the Bible did not exist. Militant Grace is not one such book. Not only has Ziegler constructed a pathway between a contemporary movement in biblical studies—Pauline apocalyptic—and systematic theology, but he has also engaged in robust exegetical work (see especially chapter 3) and has creatively inhabited the “apocalyptic idiom” of Scripture in his discourse. The apocalyptic theology on display in Militant Grace is a biblical theology of sorts, and precisely as such is it a Protestant theology. What Militant Grace offers at every turn is, to borrow a phrase which begins each of Ziegler’s six theses in chapter 2, “A Christian theology funded by a fresh hearing of New Testament apocalyptic.”
Two comments can be made regarding this biblical thrust. First, it might be slightly misleading to call this a biblical theology. The Bible, after all, consists in more than “New Testament apocalyptic.” This raises a question: why New Testament apocalyptic? Why not biblical (Old and New Testament) apocalyptic? Or, why not biblical wisdom, or biblical prophecy, or biblical history? Or why not a combination of all the biblical genres? There are reasons for choosing (Pauline) apocalyptic as the motor which drives theology that lie beneath the surface of the text. That theology is deeply connected to Scripture is evident in Militant Grace. But the character of this relationship is more complex than the term “biblical theology” might suggest.
For Ziegler, I venture to claim, Scripture itself is what it is to the theologian only in its proximity to the gospel. Put otherwise, gospel, more so than Scripture, is key. Militant Grace does not recommend that theology pursue renewed accountability to all of Scripture, but to “the apocalyptic gospel.” In this precise sense Ziegler’s book can be understood to offer a truly evangelical theology, that is, a theology singularly concentrated on the gospel to which Scripture is a witness—at some points a useful witness, at other points less so. The conviction of the book is the following: that the light of the gospel most brightly shines in Paul’s apocalyptic articulation of it. To paraphrase Luther, where some might urge Scripture against the apocalyptic gospel, Militant Grace urges the apocalyptic gospel against Scripture. Might it indeed be fair to say that, as a particularly Protestant theology, Ziegler’s instincts are more Lutheran than Reformed at this point?
Second, there is a question to be asked regarding the practice of inhabiting the Bible’s “apocalyptic idiom.” Ziegler’s argument in the opening chapters is that Scripture’s apocalyptic idiom is not dispensable; it is not a language that can be replaced by another language without detrimental loss of meaning. It is “not only a historic fixture of early Christian witness, but also something that can and must, in some sense, be recovered as a permanent feature of Christian faith and theology so long as we are about the business of the gospel.” These are claims which cut against the grain of much modern theology, and so much the worse for modern theology, in Ziegler’s view. But they also sit in some tension with contemporary attempts to develop a “Bultmannian” apocalyptic theology. I am thinking particularly of the work of David Congdon. It might be asked, in the light of Congdon’s work, if the inhabiting of Scripture’s “apocalyptic idiom” is not an un-apocalyptic gesture? Is this not to be beholden to a past that must eventually give way to new forms of expression? Asked more positively, what is it about the New Testament’s apocalyptic idiom that makes it a permanent and indispensable feature of Christian theology?
II. The Proclamation of the Gospel
Theology’s riveting to the gospel, I have already stated, is a Protestant sensibility at the heart of Militant Grace. For Ziegler, such a riveting will not be without effect on the very nature and form of theology. To pursue a renewed accountability for the apocalyptic gospel “means undertaking to discern and inhabit forms of thought that eschew conformity with the schema of that old ‘world which is passing away’ because they seek to accord with the world graciously remade by God in Christ.” A brief sketch of what such a theology might look like is offered in the last of the six theses that conclude chapter 2. “Apocalyptic theology,” Ziegler writes, “will be a nonspeculative, concrete, and practical form of knowing.” It “will itself be a militant discourse, always on the verge of tipping over into proclamation.”
Though Ziegler acknowledges the “provisional and transitory character” of theology, one might consider whether apocalyptic theology carries a burden that it cannot bear. Can theology, which only ever occurs on “this side of the resurrection” (to borrow Barth’s repeated phrase from Der Römerbrief), ever inhabit the forms of thought in accord with the new world? Gerhard Forde, whose work is the focus of the book’s first chapter, argues that it is the mistake of Barth’s Church Dogmatics to seek to think within the logic of the new age. For Forde, this mistake is related to the blurring of the lines between the task of the theologian and the task of the preacher, a blurring of the lines which seems to be recommended in Ziegler’s view of a theology always on the verge of becoming proclamation.
According to Forde, dogmatics on this side of the eschaton cannot but be abstraction, therefore “it is proclamation, not theology, that is the end of abstraction and the beginning of concretion.” Rather than seeking to itself become proclamation, what dogmatics should do, in Forde’s view, is to realise its distinction from proclamation “and to construct itself so as to drive to and foster proper proclamation.” For “the purpose of the dogmatic enterprise . . . is to drive to proclamation as a distinct activity.”
Such a view of the relationship between theology and proclamation is almost analogous to the Lutheran view of the relationship between law and gospel: theology generates problems that can only be solved in the actual coming of God in Word (and sacrament). I have suggested that Ziegler’s construal of the relationship between theology and Scripture is somewhat Lutheran in character. But does Forde’s view on theology and proclamation represent a Lutheranism too far?
Militant Grace recommends a christocentric theology that is at every turn a soteriology. This is not only a methodological recommendation, but one borne of the fact that theology’s Sitz im Leben is in the midst of God’s saving activity. The book exhibits little interest in what Bonhoeffer called “Christ in himself,” or in developing a robust account of the second person of the Trinity. If christology is at the heart of apocalyptic theology, according to Ziegler, this is because Jesus Christ names God’s “eschatological act of redemption.” It is this soteriological impulse as much as any other that fulfils Ziegler’s desire for apocalyptic theology to be both a recovery of and an advance on Protestant thought. Melanchthon’s “to know Christ is to know his benefits” is reformulated in an eschatological key, and his initial bypassing of those doctrines so vigorously disputed among the scholastics is a move implicitly recommended in Ziegler’s call in his sixth thesis for apocalyptic theology to adopt a “nonspeculative” mode of discourse.
But if this orientation to soteriology is a Protestant impulse, it is one always on the brink of being subdued. In an essay on “soteriology and the doctrine of God,” John Webster balks at the idea that Christian doctrine could be “resolved into soteriology” or even that it revolved around soteriology. For Webster, soteriology is a “derivative” doctrine, and thus any attempt to make it the centre would involve a displacement of the true centre of Christian teaching: the doctrine of God. Webster finally argues for “the subordination of soteriology to the doctrine of the Trinity,” and proposes that soteriology “requires a theological metaphysics of God in se.”
It quickly becomes apparent that such a “theological metaphysics” is in short supply in Militant Grace. But it is worth reiterating that failure to supply a metaphysics is not only due to the limits of space. Ziegler’s second and sixth theses in chapter 2 represent an attempt at distancing theology from scholasticism old and new. But where does this leave what Webster takes to be the true centre of Christian doctrine: the doctrine of God, or, more specifically, the doctrine of the Trinity? In the later editions of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, there was eventually included some of those doctrines which were initially deemed too speculative. Might one eventually see an apocalyptic theological metaphysics in the future? Or would such an endeavour betray the very spirit of the apocalyptic turn?
As its subtitle indicates, Militant Grace is everywhere concerned with “the future of theology.” Are those theological systems of the past like old wineskins into which should not be poured the new wine of the apocalyptic turn? Apocalyptic has always had a complicated relationship with history, and apocalypticism has generally been on the margins of religious expression. Apocalyptic theology, Ziegler indicates, will have no less complicated a relationship to the history of theology. It is also destined to be ever on the margins of theological expression, perhaps even Protestant theological expression. Its willingness to take seriously God’s salvation of humanity as salvation from the power of the devil virtually ensures as much. It may well lose its meaning if it goes “mainstream,” and occupies a space alongside other theological systems. For now, at least, the apocalyptic theology on display in Militant Grace constitutes a challenge for theologians to take seriously the rootage of theological work in the hearing of the Word of God in Scripture. The wager of apocalyptic theology is that when that Word is heard, it will be heard as a Word of salvation in an apocalyptic key. And the conviction of apocalyptic theology is that when that saving Word is heard in an apocalyptic key, one neither has to transpose it nor silence it and listen elsewhere for a different word. If fresh hearings of New Testament apocalyptic continue to give rise to books like Militant Grace, one can indeed have hope for the future of Protestant theology.
Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), xvi–xvii.
See LW 34:112.
Ziegler, Militant Grace, 19.
See David W. Congdon, ‘Eschatologizing Apocalyptic: An Assessment of the Present Conversation on Pauline Apocalyptic’, in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn, ed. Joshua B. Davis and Douglas Harink (Eugene: Cascade, 2012), 118–36; ‘Bonhoeffer and Bultmann: Toward an Apocalyptic Rapprochement’, International Journal of Systematic Theology15, no. 2 (2013): 172–95; ‘Apocalypse as Perpetual Advent: The Apocalyptic Sermons of Rudolf Bultmann’, Theology Today75, no. 1 (2018): 51–63.
Ziegler, Militant Grace, xv.
See Gerhard O. Forde, ‘Karl Barth on the Consequences of Lutheran Christology’, in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, ed. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); Gerhard O. Forde, The Law-Gospel Debate: An Interpretation of Its Historical Development(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 208–13; Gerhard O. Forde, ‘The Work of Christ’, in Christian Dogmatics: Volume 2, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 70–72.Gospel and Law, pp 208–13, Work of Christ, 70–2
Forde, ‘Karl Barth on the Consequences of Lutheran Christology’, 84.
See Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Lectures in Christology” in DBW 12.
Ziegler, Militant Grace, 26.
John Webster, ‘It Was the Will of the Lord to Bruise Him’: Soteriology and the Doctrine of God’, in God of Salvation: Soteriology in Theological Perspective, ed. Ivor J. Davidson and Murray A. Rae (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 16.
It is worth calling to mind here Barth’s claim in 1922 that if his theology ever became more than a footnote, and took up space alongside other great systems, it would lose its meaning! Barth scholars who live on the other side of the Church Dogmatics have not always reckoned with this troubling claim. See Karl Barth, ‘The Need and Promise of Christian Proclamation, 1922’, in The Word of God and Theology, trans. Amy Marga (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 101–29.