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Militant Grace: The apocalyptic turn and the future of Christian theology, by Philip G. Ziegler

14 September 2018

Peter Forster considers God’s relationship to humankind’s history

THIS is a robust and lively defence of an apocalyptic heart to Christianity. By this is meant that in Jesus Christ God acted decisively and unexpectedly to redeem the world, as a form of protest against the world, which was also its rebirth and renewal.

Ziegler builds especially upon the work of two modern New Testament scholars: J. Louis Martyn and Ernst Käsemann. In the earlier background are Albert Schweitzer and Søren Kierkegaard.

Ziegler advances the view that modern theology has tended to suppress Christianity’s apocalyptic character, by turning the Messiah of Israel into a love-promoting Guru. The Messiah represents a seizure of power by God, and the absolute priority of divine grace. The coming of the Kingdom of God has a revolutionary impact, which renews and recreates the world.

The framework is quite Calvinistic, and Ziegler endorses Calvin’s belief in the “total depravity” of humankind. The divine image in creation is blotted out by sin. Soteriology overshadows, perhaps overwhelms, anthropology.

The underlying dilemma is how to express and explain the two dimensions of the Christian faith, that it is both new every morning, and yet as old as the hills. Ziegler struggles with the latter aspect. He seems to accept, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that the grace of God has accompanied the history of the world from the beginning, but finds it hard to articulate how this might be understood. He seems somewhat stuck in Kierkegaard’s paradoxical rhetoric.

There are hints in the book of a way forward. Ziegler refers to John Marsh’s perceptive presentation of Jesus Christ as the Archimedean point of salvation, the axis of time itself. He also refers to Hans Frei’s account of God’s revelation in Christ as encountering the world with “an intimacy of total contrast which is paradoxically one with total identity”.

Ziegler, however, doesn’t explore further how the Crucified One is also the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever, and the saviour of all.

This book recalled to me Walter Kasper’s memorable lecture at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, when he gently chided Protestantism for so emphasising the Lordship of Christ that it neglected the presence of Christ in the Church and in the world. If God can be known only through the “radicality, sovereignty, and militancy of divine grace”, as claimed here, at the same time he is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being”.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

Militant Grace: The apocalyptic turn and the future of Christian theology
Philip G. Ziegler
Baker Academic £16.99

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