The Apocalyptic and the Ethical in 1 Corinthians

At Moore College‘s annual School of Theology, Michael Jensen (lecturer in theology and church history at Moore College) delivered a paper titled The Apocalyptic and the Ethical in 1 Corinthians.

Michael began by showing how Christian hope has been criticised for not putting the focus on the good of the present, but making the present tenuous and contingent on an eschatological future. The words ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘goodness’ do not rest easy in the minds of many, because Christians are often perceived as finding good in the future only. This, therefore, produces a dissonance between hoping for the world to come and living in the present.

However, Michael argued, Paul’s apocalyptic vision in 1 Corinthians is not drawing a dichotomy between a seemingly useless present world and a glorious future world, but rather presents a critique of the present when it is absolutised. Paul aims to frame the present by the cross of Christ. The effect of this is to produce a Christ-centred ethic that impels current action.

Michael briefly explored two commentators vigorously opposed to the essential contours of Christian eschatology. Firstly, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) argued that Christianity, with its belief in a hereafter, conferred a religious sanction upon the abasement of a vita activa to a position secondary to a vita contemplativa. The vita activa retained a certain dignity only insofar as it helped one attain a blessed future, and therefore it has no inherent value in Christian thought. The result of this is to downgrade the importance of current political action. While Arendt saw Jesus as an ‘action’ man, Arendt charged the Apostle Paul with denigrating action and producing a vita contemplativa that subordinates and abases active life in the present.

Secondly, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) described Pauline Christianity as driven by ressentiment, seeing Christian eschatology as a form of systematic cruelty against human life. Nietzsche viewed Paul as taking everything good about this life and casting it into an imagined (and therefore false) future of eternal life, thus robbing humanity of current good and subjugating people to a lie.

Michael then turned to the commentator J. Louis Martyn. According to Martin, an apocalyptic motif is central to Paul’s gospel, as Paul’s gospel is a revelation (ἀποκάλυψις) of God’s ‘invasion’ into historical reality. A whole new way of life and thinking emerges from this ‘invasion’. There is an apocalyptic discontinuity in which the present evil age is pitted against the new creation. In Christ, God delivers humanity from slavery to this current age with its existential focus and, ultimately, death. God’s invasion into the current age is a movement from beyond. It’s not about humans moving into a blessed state, but about God breaking into the brokenness of human reality. The cross is where God is currently making things right in an expectation-shattering topsy-turvy way. Paul has a sense of his own calling within an apocalyptic framework. The change in his own life is evidence of the apocalyptic discontinuity that occurs as a result of God’s invasion into human reality. Another consequence of this ‘invasion’ and its surprising reorientation is that classic pairs of opposites reflecting a kind of apocalyptic dualism are changed. Flesh (σάρξ) and spirit (πνεῦμα) are now shown to be opposites, while other opposites, like Jew and Gentle, are undermined. The present evil age and the new creation are brought together as Christ breaks into the world. Michael also critiqued Martyn for not giving the continuity between the current age and the coming world enough weight. The analogy of ‘invasion’ perhaps gives the discontinuity too much purchase.

In believers, the end of the ages has come. Most crucially, they have not reached for this age. Rather, it has reached them. Believers embody both ages, functioning as a nexus between the two. The believer is now the contested field in an apocalyptic ‘war’. However, this is a temporary war, as the invading age will overcome the present age. But this is not about removing believers from the world, but rather transforming them in the present in anticipation of the future.

Michael moved on to consider Paul’s advice to virgins in 1 Cor 7.25–40 as a demonstration of how Christian eschatology informs current ethics. He noted how Paul appeals here to ‘good’ and ‘better’, rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This overturns a classic antimony in which the future is viewed as ‘good’ and the present viewed as ‘bad’, seeing that as a mistaken caricature of Christian eschatology and ethics. Paul’s purpose is not to denigrate current existence and its concerns, such as marriage and family life. Rather, Paul affirms the goodness of such current existence, but does not wish to absolutise it as ultimate reality. Paul wants to remind his readers that there is an eschaton coming and, therefore, ‘better’ acts are also now warranted. Reality has been revealed as something contrary to ‘normal’ human expectation, resulting in a relativising of certain actions and patterns of thinking. Yet, this does not provide impetus for withdrawal from the world, but rather a reorientation of human life. The Corinthians are not to denigrate their bodies as something from which they will be released in the future. Rather, he wishes the Corinthians to reorient their thinking to see that they are temples of the Holy Spirit—people over whom God has made a claim. As such, they need to consider carefully what provides for human flourishing in the current age in anticipation of the age to come. This orientation comes from considering the Christ who represents God’s apocalyptic invasion of the present.

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2 thoughts on “The Apocalyptic and the Ethical in 1 Corinthians

  1. Pingback: why cataclysm and doom may not be so bad after all « standing and waiting

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