The Freedom of God in Apocalyptic Theology

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 10.25.46 AMReading Samuel Adams’ sketch of apocalyptic theology (The Reality of God and Historical Method) as it impacts on NT Wright’s approach to history (that is, his critical realism) comes with the request (or demand) to do the whole task differently. It is not always immediately obvious whether one is talking about epistemology or the content of theology, but that comes in part with the choice to give the word “apocalyptic” such a leading voice. Apocalyptic theology begins with soteriology (or reconciliation), then Christology, and then creation. Today I want to look at Adams’ approach to creation.

Here the force of Barthian-Torrancian theology comes to the fore, and it does with fierceness in the concept of the freedom of God. How can God be known in creation if God is absolutely other and absolutely free?

One approach is to begin with the resurrection (as does Oliver O’Donovan) and to see essential continuity between creation and salvation and knowledge of God through that resurrection. (NT Wright follows O’Donovan in grounding epistemology in resurrection.)

Adams says apocalyptic theology does not agree because (1) in Christ all things are new, and (2) baptism into Christ invites us into a new order not into the restoration of the old. Hence Adams contrasts the two approaches of a creation-order through resurrection and an apocalyptic order:

For the creation-order account, continuity is guaranteed by the ontological unity of the creation itself (even if guaranteed by God). For the apocalyptic account, continuity is guaranteed by God’s action of raising Jesus from the dead, an ontologically unique and novel event (155).


O’Donovan emphasizes the continuity and stability of a normative created order, validated by the resurrection. Salvation is understood in this view in restorative terms, even if the attempt is made to describe it eschatologically. The apocalyptic approach emphasizes the discontinuity of the soteriological event and deemphasizes any positive gain from an appeal to creation order (unless that order is christologically determined) (156).

This distancing of God from creation order is at the heart of apocalyptic theology so Adams is in quest of an “apocalyptic doctrine of creation” (156). [So much of Adams frustrates me as a NT specialist since he grounds his theology in a conversation — Barth and Torrance — instead of a more patient examination of crucial terms as used in biblical theology.]

He appeals to J. Louis Martyn’s theological conclusions from Galatians and its cosmic and spatial approach vs. Wright’s Israel and covenant (or narratival) approach. All of this leads to what I think is one of his most illuminating (for his theory) set of lines:

So, for example if we know God through history, that means that he has a relationship with human history in which he is given to be known according to the norms of human knowledge of past events. [Psalm 19? Romans 1?] However, if God’s relationship to history is other than this, if the continuity, the stability that makes knowledge of anything possible, is grounded in God’s elective grace—if it is apocalyptic— then the doctrine of creation must be articulated so that creation order is understood with respect to this contingency, rather than as an epistemo
logical ground in its own right. If the continuity that makes knowledge of God possible is the elective (and therefore active) grace of God, seen supremely in the resurrection, then the appropriate way to describe the metaphysical relationship between God and creation is through the doctrine
 of creatio ex nihilo. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo maintains two key affirmations essential to an apocalyptic account of creation: (a) the absolute distinction between God and the world, and (b) the freedom of the Creator. [bold mine]

Freedom then is the key word. God’s absolute freedom. [This is very Barthian and could have been explained more: what does “absolutely” mean and what does “freedom” mean?] Here are some expressions of the belief that knowledge of the creator is to be had through the resurrection as an apocalyptic newness in God’s free act of grace:

Creation is affirmed, but it does not become epistemologically central. The resurrection affirms the value and goodness of creation, but because this affirmation comes from the freedom of God, God is the only epistemological ground for knowledge of the relationship between the Creator and the creation (160).

Here is one that strains making sense to me [Can God’s will be anything other than an expression of God’s being?]:

Gods lordship and his act of creating order are grounded in the free act of God, according to his will, rather than according to his being (161, my emphasis).

This is expressed in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo since the world is not created out of God’s being, but out of nothing. There is no ontological link, no path back from the contingent to the necessary that we can follow to have our questions answered (165).

Therefore the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo turns us back on the God who is absolutely free with respect to creation, and who is related in continuity with it, not in his being, but in his freedom, in his electing and reconciling grace (165).

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, therefore, separates the being of the cosmos from the being of God, but links Gods creation to God ultimately according to the free act of divine self-giving love in which the Creator takes into himself the very being of the creature. The tautology God is God is therefore an apocalyptic movement of God that includes “movement” of God into the world and his return to himself, bringing humanity (and the cosmos; see Rom 8:18-25) along with him (165).

Yes, this means Wright’s view of “apocalyptic” (tied to genre and worldview at work in that historical genre) and Adams’ (and all those in apocalyptic theology, or better yet Barthian/Torrancian theology) creates tension between these two over the term itself. The tension, though clear, is bearable and fruitful for the discussion. Here is Wright expressing his both-and: history and covenant narrative along with sudden newness in Christ:

We cannot expound Paul’s covenant theology in such a way as to make it a smooth, steady progress of historical fulfilment; but nor can we propose a kind of “apocalyptic” view in which nothing that happened before Jesus is of any value even as preparation. In the messianic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul believes both that the covenant promises were at last fulfilled and that this constituted a massive and dramatic irruption into the process of world history unlike anything before or since. And at the heart of both parts of this tension stands the cross of the Messiah, at once the long-awaited fulfilment and the slap in the face for all human pride. Unless we hold on to both parts we are missing something absolutely central to Paul (169).

Though he thinks Wright opens the door for apocalyptic theology, one could say Wright opens the door for the theologians to do some history and exegesis. At any rate, Wright does not here agree with where Adams thinks Wright should go. Wright sees in the Bible, when interpreted historically, a both-and: both a covenant history and a sudden breakthrough because he thinks the texts, when interpreted on a historical template, reveal that pattern. Adams, doing theology because only theology can deliver the goods, presses for the freedom of God in apocalyptic theology that alone permits knowledge of God through God’s gracious act of reconciliation in Christ.

What then does history look like for the theologian in apocalyptic theology? (Next post.)

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