The Reality of God and Historical Method

Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright

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Samuel V. Adams
New Explorations in Theology
  • Westmont, IL: 
    InterVarsity Press
    , November
     297 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this revision of his own thesis supervised at the University of St. Andrews author Samuel V. Adams critiques N. T. Wright’s historical method, applauding Wright for bringing history and theology back together, but arguing that it is, nevertheless, “disingenuous” not to begin with the “reality of God” when the goal is to speak about God. Adams builds his methodological correction of Wright by placing the reality of God at the head of Adams’s theology of history and proceeds with a theological historiography by elaborating an apocalyptic theology. This is done in six chapters of tightly argued prose. First, he introduces Wright’s historical method. There is nothing new here and if anyone is not familiar with Wright from this perspective, Adams—clearly well versed in Wright’s work—provides a good break-down, which comports well with what is readily available elsewhere. Second, Adams critiques Wright’s critical realist epistemology as wanting, finding it “metaphysically thin,” and failing to put the reality of God at its head (104-106). Wright has been critiqued for this before, so again nothing surprising. Third, building on this with a constructive proposal, Adams argues that the reality of God is best understood in terms of the apocalyptic in-breaking of God in Christ, which is so disruptive that it has implications “hermeneutically, theologically, epistemologically, and historically,” (140). Fourth, Adams further unpacks apocalyptic theology as requiring a necessarily subjective epistemology, relying on God’s grace and the work of the Spirit for true knowledge (172), which he earlier termed a “participatory epistemology” (106). In the final two chapters Adams concludes that “method” is probably the wrong word for all of this: “How does one go about studying and learning history in light of the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, an epistemological commitment that is grounded not in the center of human intellect, but eccentrically, in the very mind of Christ?” (227) Adams suggests a better word than method might be “hearing and proclamation” or possibly “prayer and doxology” (227).

Adams provides a constructive theology that takes revelation seriously. His monograph is well written, if dense in places, but as a graduate seminar text—where his argument could be further unpacked—there is a wealth of material for fruitful discussion here. Wright is one of those rare theologians who have taken pains to think through and elaborate on their methodological commitments in print, allowing and facilitating discussion of such matters, so Adams’s monograph provides an excellent invitation to do just that. Advanced undergraduates could also profit from engagement with this material if carefully guided, given that this book is really about two things. First, his title is somewhat misleading as Adams’s work here is not primarily about historical method, but about properly grounding an apocalyptic theology in dialog with Wright’s historical method as entrée to his Christology.

This highlights two weaknesses of this monograph. First, Adams’s argument—and the bibliography bears this out—fails to engage with the wider literature on the relationship between the historical and theological method. Unfortunately this is not the result of shortening his bibliography for publication. The bibliography of his thesis is substantially the same. Rather, his aim is to take-up the work of J. Louis Martyn (on apocalyptic theology), and extend it constructively by extrapolating from T. F. Torrance and Søren Kierkegaard. Second, clearly Wright’s historical method does not deny the reality of God, considering that it is part-and-parcel of his worldview as both a historian and a theologian. Faulting Wright for not being methodologically explicit on this runs the risk of submarining any form of realist epistemology acceptable to many theologians and historians alike. This is further exacerbated by Adams’s notion of a subjective if participatory epistemology grounded in grace and revelation. Wright’s method was meant to coordinate historical (Jesus) and theological Christological claims (Christ) in order to counter positivist denials of theological claims when they appeared as unjustifiable historical claims; thus, in my view, Adams risks conflating the historical and theological spheres of engagement, subordinating history to theology if not completely conflating the two. This is most evident well into his project when he creatively appropriates the hypostatic union, citing only Torrance and ignoring the patristic literature and any notion of doctrinal development on this altogether, even quoting part of the council of Chalcedon without attribution (142). Thus, I suggest his argument would have benefited from engagement with the work of Mark Knoll, George Marsden, and others in terms of his theological treatment of history, not to mention patristic scholars rather than risk treating doctrine has historically flat (without development) and theologically timeless.

Further, Wright works to separate empathy and special pleading by acknowledging that history and theology have legitimate, if separate, and coordinating roles; whereas, Adams could be read to be arguing for a form of providentialism, conflating the two by subordinating history to theology in the totalizing discourse of apocalyptic theology. Finally, if the relationship between history and theology remains difficult, Adams has taken-up the challenge and plotted a course through the discussion. He provides a thought provoking and constructive delineation of the issues. In my view he does not have the final word, but this is an excellent book nonetheless for use in a graduate seminar for theologians on the historical method, if not also advanced undergraduates, if appropriately guided inspiring much fruitful reflection and discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Ables is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Samuel V. Adams is director of graduate studies and assistant professor of theology and social justice at Kilns College in Bend, Oregon. He previously lectured at the University of St Andrews and was the founding pastor of Bend Mennonite Church. His research currently focuses on understanding theologies of history and their relationship to theories of social action.



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