Apocalyptic Readings in Romans: Reviewing “Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8”

What does it mean to read Paul as an apocalyptic theologian? This isn’t exactly an easy question to answer, and for some the term itself can feel a bit off-putting. If nothing else, though, it means contextualizing Paul by placing him in conversation with the many apocalyptic texts produced during the Second Temple period—such as 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra—and looking to see what these writings reveal about the underlying shape of his theological convictions.

In another (related) sense, reading Paul with an apocalyptic lens has to do with highlighting theological emphases such as, among other things, understanding the death and resurrection of Christ to be primarily a redemptive event that marked the overthrow of Sin and Death. In the words of prominent Pauline scholar Martinus C. de Boer, an apocalyptic construal of Paul’s gospel has “everything to do with the invasive action of God in this world to deliver human beings from this present evil age” (2002, p.33).

Pride of place for sparking off this line of scholarship is generally given to the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Ernst Käsemann, who was deeply impacted by his experience of the German church struggle and the Second World War. Following Käsemann, the ranks of those studying Paul’s writings through an apocalyptic lens continued to grow throughout the rest of the 20th century, and currently all signs point to it remaining a lively part Pauline studies in the years to come. The essays that make up Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 come together to give readers a deeply interesting and well-rounded introduction to most of the major ideas and figures currently shaping this way of reading Paul, with essays by contributors like de Boer himself and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, along with a thoughtful afterward by J. Louis Martyn.  

Marks of the Apocalyptic

De Boer’s essay starts off the volume by sketching out what he sees as the main marks of the apocalyptic in Paul. De Boer suggests that our understanding of Paul’s reasoning in Romans 5-8 will be inadequate unless we notice that his frame of reference is cosmic, meaning “pertaining to the whole human world” (p.8). This cosmic horizon can be seen in Paul’s Adam-Christ typology in Rom. 5:12-21:

Just as Adam stands at the head of the old world or age for all, so Christ stands at the head of the new world or age for all. This cosmic frame of reference is one of the distinguishing marks of an apocalyptic perspective, as is the implicit notion of two world ages. (p.9)

In the same passage, de Boer points out another common mark of the Pauline apocalyptic: the personification of Sin and Death as enslaving powers (pp.13-14). In v.14, for example, the Apostle declares that “death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses” (NRSV). This language is anticipated by Paul’s statement in Rom. 3:9 that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (NRSV). Passages like these lead many apocalyptic interpreters, most notably Gaventa, to stress that while of course Paul speaks of sins as hurtful actions for which humanity needs forgiveness, he also frequently refers to Sin as a personified, enslaving power from which humanity needs to be liberated (pp. 13-14; see also Gaventa 2016, pp. 32-43).

De Boer also briefly engages with some of the translation issues surrounding the much-contested phrase, “righteousness of God” (dikaiosyne theou). Under the influence of Käsemann, many proponents of the apocalyptic Paul understand this phrase to refer, not just to a moral quality of God, but to God’s own active saving activity, His way of making things right and “coming on the human scene to liberate human beings from the cosmological forces and powers that have enslaved them” (pp. 6-7). De Boer ends on a hopeful note by gathering these themes up together into an affirmation of God’s redemptive purposes: “In Christ, God himself has entered the human cosmos, and God’s powerful Grace… is more than equal to the task of putting an end to the reigns of Sin and Death” (p.20). 

Sin and the Torah 

One other essay worth mentioning is Gaventa’s piece on the “I” of Rom. 7. Gaventa’s work here is noteworthy because she considers the most important concern of Rom. 7 to be Sin and its ability to “reach into and use even the holy and right and good Law of God,” rather than the specific identity of the speaker (p.77). Therefore, she spends less time discussing the identity of the speaker and more on the shape of the “I” (p.79). To do this, she turns to the many first-person passages in the Psalter. In Psalm 17, for example, there is also an “I” who also pleads for deliverance, though this speaker also says things like My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped” (v.5, NRSV). After looking at a few more psalms, she steps back to summarize her findings: “on the whole the speaker not only delights in God’s Law but observes that Law and reflects a sense of confidence in his ability to do so” (p.85).

The “I” of Rom. 7 shares a number of things in common with its more ancient psalmist counterpart. It also loves God’s Law and calls it “holy, right, and good,” according to Gaventa (p.86). However, there are also a few differences:

Although this “I” in Romans 7 knows that the Law is holy, right, and good, that the Law is spiritual, this “I” also knows that Sin can make use of the Law… And Sin has already enslaved the “I,” who declares himself to be “sold under Sin’s power” (v.14). (p.87)

And here we again find the distinctive emphasis on Sin as a personified power that de Boer mentioned in his introductory essay. For Gaventa, it’s not that there is something wrong with the Law itself. Instead, the disquieting emphasis is on Sin’s overpowering of even God’s good and wise Law (p.90). What could be the solution to this apocalyptically flavored plight? For Gaventa, Paul’s answer is found in the deliverance of God accomplished on behalf of all humanity through the cross and resurrection (p.90).

Conclusion

One of the main controversies involved in the apocalyptic approach to Paul, when viewed in the wider context of contemporary Pauline studies, is how it relates to more narrative-centered/covenantal readings. This volume of essays doesn’t really seem to reflect explicitly on this question, as its interests are more narrowly focused on Rom. 5-8, but it’s still a question I’m quite interested in. As David A. Shaw puts it in a 2013 article, “Is Paul’s gospel fundamentally about a decisive divine incursion to defeat enslaving cosmic powers or is it about promises fulfilled: the forgiveness of sins and the justification by faith of Jew and Gentile alike?” (p.155). There is much to be gained, in my opinion, from holding these two emphases together and avoiding the trap of pitting them in opposition. This allows us to say, along with Michael F. Bird, that “through the invasion of the gospel, God had brought about the long-awaited climax to Israel’s history, and through this climax, God is recapturing the world for himself” (2016, p.166). This framework welds together both the newness and decisiveness of God’s action in Christ so emphasized by apocalyptic interpreters while still affirming with covenantal readings that these events are a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to God’s covenantal promises for the sake of the world. But of course, the conversation will continue about all these things.

In the end, the essays gathered together by Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s editorship in Apocalyptic Paul helpfully map out for readers most of the basic themes and figures prominent in the apocalyptic approach to Paul, and because of this the book seems well-suited for readers seeking to familiarize themselves with this provocative and energetic realm of modern Pauline scholarship. These explorations of Rom. 5-8 persuasively show that this letter, like the rest of Scripture—and even after many centuries of study—continues to surprise and challenge its readers and hearers.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baylor University Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

Other Works Cited

Bird, Michael F. An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016.

De Boer, Martinus C. “Paul, theologian of God’s apocalypse.” Interpretation 56, no. 1 (2002): 21-33.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.

Shaw, David A. “Apocalyptic and Covenant: Perspectives on Paul or Antinomies at War?.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36, no. 2 (2013): 155-171.

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