Apocalyptic Discipleship

Apocalyptic Discipleship July 16, 2018

What happens to discipleship in apocalyptic theology? One things seems clear to me: virtue ethics is shelved for later. But does apocalyptic discipleship look like?

Philip Ziegler, in his new important study on apocalyptic theology, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology, presents a case for an apocalyptic discipleship. A few opening quotations to get the ball teed up:

Discipleship is a category with which theology denotes the dynamic form of Christian life that results from the gift of God’s gracious salvation in and through Jesus Christ.

n short, when we make discipleship our theme, we ask, How ought we to characterize a human life that, having been justified, redeemed, and reconciled to God by Jesus Christ, is now given time and place in which to live anew in and with Christ?

Ziegler then turns to various forms of framing Christian living in the church tradition, none of which are connected to Cappadocian or Orthodox theologians: the monastic forms, the revival of lay Christian living, and then he turns to the Reformers:

These Protestants commended as normative a single pattern of Christian life, characterized as the free and priestly service of all believers in the power of the Spirit (Lutheran), or Spirit-afforded grateful obedience to the law of grace (Reformed).

Such accounts—variously developed and amplified in particular by later Puritan and pietistic theologies during following centuries—typically emphasized the conformity of Christian life to the shape of Christ’s own humility and self-giving by stressing motifs such as self-denial, neighbor love, cross bearing, and submission to Christ “living and reigning within.”8 Yet they rarely spoke of “discipleship.”

Quite important here is the civic calling of the Christian to reframe Christian living:

In any case, leading Protestant accounts settled on the understanding that the Christian life cannot be solely one of evangelical discipleship but must always somehow combine discipleship and the prudential ethics suited to negotiating life in the world that is.

As an alternative to the Reformers’ approach, the Anabaptist ecclesiology was accused in its day of creating an alternative monastic life.

This leads Ziegler to Gerhard Forde’s very Lutheran (and more congenial to apocalyptic theology) set of warnings about framing the Christian life as obedience — it’s got to be grace or it becomes moralism (we contribute to our salvation) or unreality (the vision is too unachievable).

So now Ziegler lays out his major cards, and all italics are mine:

I suggest that if we are to discern the promise of discipleship while forestalling the attendant perils, we need a clear assertion and tenacious defense of the fact that the form and substance of discipleship is entirely derivative of the identity and saving work of the living Lord Jesus Christ.

More than any methodological commitment, what proves singularly decisive here is the real dynamic presence and activity of the living Lord Jesus Christ himself, eloquent in the power of the Spirit to announce with effect the forgiveness and sovereign claim of God, the advent of the Kingdom.

Each of the major terms at work in these italicized words asks for carefully nuanced descriptions, and Ziegler moves forward and here are his major further explanations of these big ideas:

The function of the discourse of discipleship is to recollect the living lordship of Jesus Christ—crucified, risen, and ascended—as the principal matter of the Christian life, and thus to ensure that such a life is suffused with and animated by the militancy of the eschatological gospel of God.

The relationship between the Christian and Jesus Christ is profoundly asymmetrical, far exceeding the ordering of the relations between teachers and pupils generally.

Jesus calls his disciples, then, not finally as an exemplar, a religious sage or teacher of the law, but in accordance with his unique and unsubstitutable identity as the Son and Christ of God.

The disciple is not in pursuit of an ideal, not even of an embodied ideal. Instead, disciples are laboring in the Spirit to remain in the wake of Jesus’s own singular work and way, with an eye on the difference that the dawning of the reign of God makes to their reality.

To be seized by divine grace in this way is to be bound in solidarity to Christ, to track his course, and to serve his cause in the world.

semantic range of the biblical concept of “following” used in connection with the call of Jesus includes reference to the movement of warriors who have been called up to accompany their leader into the fray, an image also extended into the depiction of Israel “go[ing out] after the Lord” (e.g., Hos. 11:10).

Disciples are those “enlisted” into Christ’s service and standing at his disposal, rallied to him in the cause of his reign; faith in the captain takes the form of loyalty to his direction amid the fray; and the order and movement of the Christian community, like the order of a troop of combatants, arises from the commanding presence of their captain in their midst.The turning point in the eschatological contest to which Christ recruits is undoubtedly the 

As concepts of kingship and captaincy are here subjected to radical redefinition in view of the actuality of the cross, so too is the meaning of that martial struggle into which the Christian is drawn.

Best statement of all:

The life of discipleship is a pragmatic answer to the question “Who is lord of the world?”

And he returns to the Forde worry:

The sterile opposition between understandings of Christian righteousness as a “legal fiction” and as the achievement of “work-saints” is surmounted only where salvation is seen in an eschatological perspective, where the invasion of divine grace in Christ does not merely “remove” sin while leaving the person intact but rather removes the person from the sin-ruled world and translates him or her into the Christ-governed world.

In any case the theological reality is but one: discipleship is and remains solely an eschatological possibility arising from the gracious call and command of Christ the Lord. As such, it is the shape of the human life of faith now militant in love during the time that remains.

Questions: Has apocalyptic colonized all theological and ethical discourses into one dominant rhetoric? Put differently, Do we need the rhetoric of demand in the Sermon on the Mount, the rhetoric of follow me as moral exemplar, the rhetoric of love and abiding, the rhetoric of warning, and the rhetoric the gracious invasion of God in Christ through the Spirit?

What happens to our ethics when the rhetoric of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount has to be re-constructed in order to fit into a theoretical (=apocalyptic) interpretation of Pauline theology?

Is not the impact of the Sermon on the Mount christological first (who is Jesus?) before it is anything about what to do or what time it is? (Matt 7:28-29)

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