The final installment in our symposium comes from Professor Philip Ziegler himself, who is a personal chair in dogmatics at King’s College, University of Aberdeen (Scotland). We at Theology Corner extend our gratitude to Professor Ziegler for taking the time to participate in this symposium by responding to the various contributors.


Introduction

I am hugely grateful to the conveners of Theology Corner as well as to these reviewers and respondents for their interest in Militant Grace and their willingness to engage it with such open-handedness and energy. It goes without saying that I am as surprised as I am delighted at this interest. I hope that my brief response to these reviews will begin to repay something of what I owe these astute readers for their attention and critical acumen. 

Spaulding’s generous and apt rehearsal of the substance of the book—a helpful starting point for those who haven’t (yet!) read the book itself—rightly observes that Militant Grace is an effort to attempt to discern the possible relevance and fruitfulness of drawing apocalyptic discourse into the work of Christian dogmatic reflection. More narrowly, he rightly stresses that the intuition pressed in the book conceives that the key elements of Pauline apocalyptic are properly material—he says of ‘the very essence of theological conviction itself’— and not at all merely ‘ornamental’ to the essential business of Christian theology. And Spaulding also helpfully espies that the nub of this concerns the unsettling evangelical acknowledgement of the ‘unforeseen opening’ that is God’s gracious eruption into the ‘immanent processes’ of our (in)human existence, processes which also encompass the business of contemporary theology.  I am grateful for his final observations about the way in which the book might serve to refurbish contemporary theology with something of the language it may need if it is to do justice to the gospel itself, as well as what is required to articulate that gospel and set out its implications in our present moment. The book itself has scarcely accomplished anything like this, but should its proposals stir folks to reflect on the necessity of such linguistic and conceptual refurbishment, that would be a welcome upshot.

Scripture and Theology

One of the joys of working on this project over recent years has been the opportunity to draw my theological thinking alongside scripture and biblical scholarship in a way that might otherwise not have been the case. The ‘Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic’ working group has been a conversation between theologically-minded biblical scholars and biblically-minded theologians. That the conversation has been more narrowly focussed upon recent developments and debates concerning the interpretation of the apostle Paul is undoubtedly true, and this fact and its consequences lie at the base of Cornell’s comments and questions, as well as of the ‘real point of challenge’ raised by Harris. Perhaps somewhat akin to Douglas Harink’s earlier study, Paul Among the Postliberals (Brazos, 2003), my book represents an attempt to provide some tentative answers in reply to the question: ‘What might follow for dogmatic theology if those pursuing an ‘apocalyptic’ reading of Paul, are on to something right and important?’.  As I mention in the book’s preface, the historic importance of Paul to the impulses of the Protestant Reformation freight this question and its answers with a particular importance for those of us who inhabit and serve Christian churches in this sweep of the tradition.  Both Harris and Cornell worry that this fixation on Paul—and perhaps worse, on a sub-section of Pauline writing at that—is simply too narrow, and might even betray our theological responsibility to think canonically if we are to do justice to the demands of the biblical witness in the labour of doctrine. 

Now, Cornell is kind enough to offer me an escape hatch here, namely, that the one-sided concentration on the Pauline apocalyptic idiom is ‘tactical’ only. It is true that my thinking about this includes tactical elements of the kind at which he gestures—I suppose the concern about historicism raised in the opening chapter invites just such a correction. But I am not sure I can (or should) get away so easily. I do align with the historic Protestant conviction that Scripture in some sense ‘interprets itself’, if not perhaps exactly with the way a scholar like Käsemann applies it with such critical verve. This conviction has always kept close company with an approach to reading the Bible that attends to the task of discerning its centre and peripheries, allowing the most evangelically radiant texts to illumine the meaning and significance of all others for Christian faith, thought, and life. If this is Sachkritik of a sort, then it is one of long provenance, the burden of which I am content to shoulder. Kelly’s suggestion that sensibility and practice might put the book in a more, rather than less, Lutheran orbit seems fair comment on this point.

If once we admit that the canon is not ‘flat’—as Cornell himself does in his remarks—then we are made responsible for venturing actual material discernments as to centre and peripheries, to various places of what might be called evangelical intensity and extensity, as well as the complex interrelations between the texts so construed. Then, navigating the contoured character of the canon of Scripture—acknowledged as manifold, variegated and tensive testimony to the ways of God with humanity and so also of the extended conversation between God and humanity—becomes a theological necessity. I am content that materially, a concentration upon Paul’s witness is not capricious or profoundly idiosyncratic as an exercise of just such an exercise of theological judgment.  If someone were in fact to want to contend for the crucial centrality of the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch to the biblical witness to the gospel—as Cornell suggests, teasingly—I would certainly be open to being instructed: the material debate involved in assessing that kind of case would be just the thing, and fundamentally edifying, I’m sure. In fact, in Katherine Sonderegger’s continuing Systematic Theology (the second volume of which will appear in print in coming weeks) we have a contemporary example of an account of Christian dogma which self-consciously finds its decisive biblical centre in the five books of Moses. 

Perhaps Paul’s own way of ‘being canonical’ here is suggestive. The apostle makes extensive use of the wide witness of his scriptures to be sure, something we can learn afresh and in depth from the recent scholarship of Francis Watson and Richard Hays, among others. But it is just as true that Paul’s own canon has marked centres and peripheries: not all of ‘what is written’ similarly or equally seems to serve his effort to give astonished and broken witness to the apocalypse of God in Jesus Christ, and that which does is (re-)read and understood afresh—and often, a-strange, as it were—squarely in light of that event. Aspects of Paul’s differentiated engagement with scripture are no doubt in part merely contingent—a question of texts to hand or that ‘came to mind’ on this or that occasion—and others in part ‘tactical’ or specifically rhetorical, engaging contested texts and their interpretations—explicitly or implicitly—in the ears of his correspondents. But Paul’s handling of scripture will also and always reflect the apostle’s own discernment of the relative clarity, force, and relevance of the variegated received scriptural witness to the Lord Jesus Christ in the service of hearing and speaking of the gospel of God that has overrun, undone and remade him, Saul become Paul, apostle to the nations.

I might then defend the book’s focussed pre-occupation with Paul as at once both contingent and tactical. But it would also be true to say that it reflects one theologian’s present discernment of something of the contours of the canon of Scripture which sees Paul’s evangelical witness as one of those illuminating centres. This certainly commits me, as Harris, Cornell, and others rightly insist, to go on to work out and to widen the scope of my biblical engagement beyond the confines of Paul’s letter collection. Such an experiment will involve thinking about how the grammar of the apocalyptic gospel comports with other patterns of biblical witness. A first and obvious step, for example, might be to explore how the dualism that pervades the Johannine corpus of the New Testament might be understood and its theological significance considered afresh. Harris’s comments draw up the prominence of the confrontation between Jesus and the devil/demons as a hallmark of the Lukan witness, a theme that would afford an obvious place to start with those texts. Similarly, I would be keen to undertake to think theologically in close encounter with the extensive commentary Joel Marcus has recently produced on the Gospel of Mark, perhaps on the model of the engagement with J. L. Martyn and other Pauline exegetes undertaken in Militant Grace. I can well imagine a series of engagements with major and minor prophets which might explore the connections between the form and substance of Pauline apocalyptic and the expectations and expression of radical judgement and radical mercy in those texts. In any event, I am keen that the theological programme adumbrated in the book becomes more, rather than less, biblically and exegetically exposed and enriched and am grateful for the sturdy encouragement this ambition finds here amongst these readers and critics. This is right kind of problem for a theologian of my ilk to have, it seems to me, and I am glad for the concrete encouragements to press into it.

Of course, my own discernment ventured in the book concerning the centres and peripheries of Scripture’s polyphonic witness—unlike that of the apostle Paul noted above—carries no authority at all, beyond perhaps that modest scholarly service to the gospel it hopes to offer. Others will have to weigh just what that service amounts to as the conversation continues. Be that as it may, I am heartened by Harris’ suggestion that the book’s narrow Pauline focus might have helpfully served to unearth certain neglected motifs, including those of salvation by ‘creative negation’, and the necessary priority of redemption over reconciliation in Christian soteriology.  If some modes of thinking about the ‘non-competitive agency’ of God and human beings have the effect of cooling our talk of God’s acting for and upon and against us almost to absolute zero, I am hopeful that my one-sided attention to Paul’s apocalyptic idiom serves to render such biblical and dogmatic language ‘hot’ and newly meaningful once again. 

Politics and Ethics

Trowbridge rightly registers that there is an underdeveloped political aspect to the position staked out in the book and I am grateful to him for his thinking in this direction in his reply.  The chapters in the mid-section of the book do undertake some puzzling about the place of natural law in Protestant ethics precisely in order to think through something of the notable consequences apocalyptic theology might have for the orientation of Christian ethical thinking. I suggest here (as Harris also notes) that such theology might lean particularly upon the creed’s third article—and so to pneumatology—to do moral-dogmatic work that traditionally has been funded exclusively from the first article, i.e., with reference to the doctrine of creation as such. 

The possibility I have in view is that of funding a public theology on grounds other than those provided by appeals to the stabilities and regularities of a putatively undisrupted ‘creation’ to which reason affords ready access. What kind of public theology could responsibly arise from the recognition of the reality of the ‘twice invaded’ world doubly disrupted by both sin and grace down to its fundaments? What orientations in political theology might track with an acknowledgement of the present pressure of the adventitious Kingdom of God as a ‘political fact’, as Käsemann once put it? 

And so, I am glad for Trowbridge’s appreciation of the suggestive work of Paul Lehmann along these lines, as well as for his comments about the limitations of any turn to formative Christian ‘practices’ in securing and shaping the kinds of Christian lives that tell of having been crossed by the radical and disorienting freedom of the gospel. I suppose I see myself to be in pursuit of something like a kind of ‘politics of discipleship’ which, along lines intimated by the late Bonhoeffer, inquires about what exercise of Christian witness, service and responsible freedom is involved in taking theological and practical responsibility for the human significance of the Lordship of Christ ‘in a world come of age’ after Christendom. Again, it is certainly true that while the book works to surface these problems and to express certain intuitions about possible directions in which such thinking might be taken, it does not amount to a fully worked out account by any means. I am hopeful that others who possess a fuller and firmer sense than I of the specific current field of political / public theology might be drawn to think together with me here.

Trowbridge is also right to note that the business of specific, local discernments demanded by such a political theology cannot be abstractly prescribed—by a book like Militant Grace or any other work of doctrinal theology—even as the dogmatic questions it presses insist on the need for just such concrete discernment. That said, there are no doubt further conversations yet to be had about what shape and direction a political theology funded by Pauline apocalyptic sensibilities might take, questions that are, as admitted, raised but scarcely settled in the book already. I am hoping that future work on my part to thing with others who have made much of the specifically political importance of Christian eschatology—one thinks, e.g., of Johann Baptist Metz (of blessed memory), or of the kind of ‘messianic politics’ espoused by an anabaptist thinker like Travis Kroeker, or perhaps also of certain strains of liberation theology—might offer fruitful next steps along this way.  

Heuristic Possibilities

Taken together, these thoughtful responses all in their own way raise two further questions regarding the programme pursued in the book. The first concerns the relationship between apocalyptic theology of the kind espoused in the book and the legacy of the dialectical theology of the early decades of the 20thcentury. In the book’s opening chapters, there is some specific reflection on impulses taken over from Karl Barth, and reflection on the abiding challenges of historicism in theology more generally, but there is certainly scope for much more besides. There is undoubtedly need for contemporary thinking to engage very closely, carefully and afresh with the crucible of late 19thand early 20thcentury theology and its complex wrestling with eschatological texts, motifs, logics and tropes. It is not clear to me that we are as easily and comfortably ‘post-modern’ as may think we are—or long to be—and that the formative debates of the era of the genesis and emergence of ‘dialectical theology’ have much to teach us yet.

The second question concerns the potential heuristic value of attending to Pauline apocalyptic for the interpretation and appreciation of the work of other theologians more broadly. In the final part of the book itself I venture a handful of such interpretative encounters—with Calvin, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer—and suggest that reading from this apocalyptic angle, as it were, can be generative of fresh readings that surface important features of the work of such theologians which can otherwise be overlooked or occluded when approached from other perspectives or framed by other concerns. Theologians whose work is particularly exposed to the testimony of the apostle Paul inevitably register the impact of the apocalyptic grammar of this witness in their work. I suppose the thought is that we, together with such figures in the tradition, are engaged in a shared effort to hear the testimony to the gospel of God’s apocalypse in Jesus Christ and to register its importance for our thinking about Christian faith, life and witness. As those three chapters suggest, Paul’s gospel puts determinative pressure upon the thinking of such theologians and it is possible—and I think valuable—to attend to the consequences of that pressure more fully and frankly in our attempts to understand their work and its abiding significance and challenge for us. Not all theology is usefully or insightfully read as footnotes to Paul, of course, though much might well be. But the radical grammar of adventitious grace Paul’s witness encodes does, I think, shed instructive and critical light on the widest range of theological texts and arguments.

I would like to think that this sort of heuristic possibility to be won from the programme of apocalyptic theology may be one of its worthwhile contributions. The temptation to see apocalyptic everywhere or to deploy it as a skeleton key that unlocks all doors must be resisted to be sure. Yet, I have been struck by the lively new and surprising insights that can be won from received texts and sources when approached and reframed in terms of the interests, perspectives and questions that are at the heart of the kind of theology pursued in Militant Grace.

On the Agenda

Finally, I am grateful to these reviewers for their several suggestions concerning where the programme sketched in the book is notably incomplete as it stands and for their help in identifying important lines of inquiry that must be pursued if the ‘promise’ of the book—such as it is—is to be pursued. For instance, just what kind of account of the doctrine of God might be offered by an ‘apocalyptic theology’ of this kind (Kelly)? What, if any, interest and investments should it have in the kinds of metaphysical matters commonly central to theology proper? Is there metaphysics that comports with the demands of apocalyptic theology? Or again, what of the fuller and more adequate pneumatology seemingly demanded by the book’s soteriology and sketch of the Christian life (Spaulding) as well as its possible openness to and overlap with elements of contemporary Pentecostal theology (Harris)? 

Kelly’s searching question as to whether in all this apocalyptic theology ‘carries a burden that it cannot bear’ is certainly one worth pondering. I float a variant of this question myself at the end of chapter two when I worry aloud about whether there ‘really is no time’ for theology in the wake of a fresh and disruptive acknowledgment of the urgency of evangelical reality (p. 31). Whether it is possible to conduct the service of theology in a manner that acknowledges this unsettling exposure in its form, focus, and content is something only to be ventured and proved in the attempt I imagine. 

There are important and pressing questions to be asked, as well, about what an apocalyptic theology of the kind envisaged in Militant Grace might go on to offer in treating of the doctrines of creation, theological anthropology, covenant and so also ecclesiology, to name only some few loci where questions about the approach toward and material treatment of classic themes are evidently pressing. What sort of account of these themes might be offered by a theology keyed to an evangelical recognition that divine faithfulness to a faithless world takes the form of radical discontinuity, of ever new beginnings, of creative and saving disruptions, of the effective outworking of the ‘no’ of judgment in the service of the ‘yes’ of conversion, redemption and reconciliation? What distinctives might mark discussions of these loci in a mode of theological reflection at whose heart is acknowledgement that the gospel is a ‘creative and revelatory divine act’, the humble advent of God in saving power—a divine disclosure, yes, but more basically a divine doing, which is to say, an apocalypse of grace? 

When such questions are taken together with the other puzzles and vistas opened up by the reviewers more broadly, it becomes clear that there is much work to be done. I will be glad should Militant Grace prove a small provocation and encouragement to such work.  Whether an ‘apocalyptic turn’ in theology turns out to be a positive research programme—as one might put it rather coolly—remains an open question and an invitation.


For those interested, a follow-up essay on apocalyptic theology and the analogy of being (written not in response to, but rather in the light of Professor Ziegler’s manuscript) may be found here:

  • “Apocalyptic Theology and the Analogia Entis: On ‘Nature and Grace’ and the ‘Old and New Creation'” (PDF below)

For those interested in reading the essays which gave rise to the above response from Professor Ziegler, follow the links below:

  1. Hank Spaulding
  2. Steve Harris
  3. Kyle Trowbridge
  4. Declan Kelly
  5. Collin Cornell