Eschatology and Advent (8): Fleming Rutledge and Apocalyptic Theology

Advent is a time of waiting, in hope, for a transformed future. The season of Advent makes dedicated space in the church calendar to reflect on the nature of the Christian faith as life lived in the eschatological tension between two ages – the old age that is passing away, the new age of the Spirit that has dawned with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This eschatological framing of Christianity is a very long way away from the liberalism of Ritschl and Wrede, or the demythologised existential faith of Bultmann.

It sees the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God, the victory of cross and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit as apocalyptic events.

Apocalypse (apokalypsis) means ‘revelation’. Technically it refers to a particular type of literature (like the book of Revelation), full of dramatic symbolism, revealing divine realities in order to help readers (often facing persecution or suffering of some sort) to interpret their present circumstances and live accordingly.

But a broader understanding is used by many today, including Fleming Rutledge. When she uses ‘apocalyptic’ she is referring to a divine invasion into the present world order, a catalyst for something dramatically new that has happened in the here and now, so much so that nothing will ever be the same again.

[An aside: the ‘apocalyptic turn’ in NT theology is not uncontroversial. Building on work by J C Beker (1980) and J L Martyn, others like Beverly Gaventa, Philip Ziegler, Douglas Campbell, Martinus de Boer and others, have stressed themes of divine invasion, discontinuity with previous revelation, and a cosmic war with almost personified forces of Sin, Death, Flesh and the Powers. This emphasis on a great spiritual conflict behind the scenes has a very different feel to emphasis in much traditional Christianity on individual faith, divine grace and forgiveness of sin. It does not have to be a case of ‘either / or’ – though some theologians push in that direction].

In her Introduction Rutledge summarises the main components of apocalyptic theology (pp.18-21). All of them resonate with the fully eschatological character of the Christian faith that we have been talking about in this series.

These themes continually appear in her Advent sermons and are thus essential for the book as a whole. We will summarise them here and after this post we will simply look at a selection of her sermons in the lead up to Christmas.

A question first – do you think of Christianity as an ‘apocalyptic’ faith? Do you see your life, and the vocation of the people of God in the world, as being lived out within a cosmic battle behind the scenes between God and forces opposed to his good purposes?

Does this sort of language and imagery feel a bit ‘extreme’? Or do you find it truthful, making sense of the ‘heart of darkness’ which describes our world?

The Components of Apocalytpic Theology

1. God is the acting subject

The action of God is revealed in Jesus Christ (‘When the time had fully come’ Gal. 4:4). It is God who inaugurates his kingdom and takes on the forces of evil. It is God’s prophet John the Baptist who announces judgement. The active agent in history is God.

2. The Three Agencies

Liberal theology tends to elevate human experience and reason. God may or may not be an actual person. Apocalyptic theology begins with God, his enemy who has invaded the world, and human beings who are under his power.

3. Two Ages Overlapping with one another

The NT world is one of two ages, two powers in conflict with each other: Spirit versus Flesh; God versus the Devil; two kingdoms in battle; darkness versus light. (Rutledge has a passing swipe at language of ‘spiritual journey’ as if we face no opposition, just a journey towards maturity and wisdom).

4. Struggle and Conflict at the turn of the ages

The ages are in battle; believers are called to participate – to be non-violent soldiers in a spiritual conflict against this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and the Enemy and his powers.

5. The Apocalyptic Role of the Church

Christians do not fight alone. Called into community, the battle is corporate not isolated soldiers on their own. The task of the church is to be a bridgehead of the kingdom of God in the world (kosmos).

6. The Armour of Light

The ‘weapons’ of the Church are different to those of the world. Patience, love, kindness, forgiveness, prayer (see Eph 6)

7. The Stance toward the Enemy

Rutledge calls the Great Enemy “the personified power of Sin and Death” to whom all humans are in bondage. All of us are God’s enemies until the Gospel brings us over to his side (not by our own wisdom or efforts but by grace).

8. The Justification of the Ungodly

Everyone is ungodly – this is the great argument of Romans 1-4. Pagan Gentiles but also Jews are alike unrighteous. “None of us deserves God’s favor” (p.20). Hope depends utterly on God’s redeeming action.

9. The Future of God

The Christ-event has inaugurated the reign of God but it remains unfulfilled. “God’s future determines the present, rather than the other way round.” The present evil age is temporary.

10. Suffering and Hope

In the inbetween times Christians are to expect suffering, trials and tribulations. Apocalyptic literature is written to encourage believers in desperate circumstances. But the promises of God will have the last say at the return of Christ.

11. Apocalyptic Transvision

Christians need discernment to understand the battle they are in. The Spirit is given to the church as a sign of the age of come, empowering and equipping the church for life in the inbetween times.

12. Continuity and Discontinuity

Rutledge rightly acknowledges that this is the issue where most controversy exists around apocalyptic theology. Some so stress ‘invasion’ and newness that it seems to cut off the NT from the story of Israel (N T Wright is especially critical of some apocalyptic theology at this point). She argues discontinuity does NOT mean severance from the OT.

What it does mean is a rereading of the Old Testament in light of the first and second comings of Christ. It means that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise of God from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God … This is the truly radical nature of the Advent promise, which sweeps away cheap comforts and superficial reassurances and, in the midst of the most world-overturning circumstances, still testifies that “Behold, I am coming soon! … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end! (Rev. 22:12, 13) (p.21).

What, I wonder are your present circumstances this Advent? Perhaps they are, humanly speaking, practically devoid of hope. Perhaps you find little to rejoice about this Christmas. Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed by the scale of bad news and prophecies of doom in your newsfeed.

It is precisely into such darkness that Advent speaks hope.

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