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Samuel Adams: The Reality of God and Historical Method

For Adams, Wright does not recognize this important point. His failure to do so is a vital flaw in his method. Instead of adequately differentiating between different metaphysical and ontological orders of external reality, Wright lumps them all together (67). For this reason, Adams asks “how does God’s reality impinge upon and even determine the way in which he is known?” (64), and sees this key question as actually arising from within Wright’s own approach.

True to his word, Adams attempts to address this supposed aporia in Wright’s method by offering an alternate theological epistemology. Against a hermeneutical approach which emphasizes the importance of context, Adams looks for an alternative, revelation-based way to know God. Here, he draws heavily on Barthian influences – like much of apocalyptic theology. For Adams, following an interpretive trajectory inspired by the work of J. Louis Martyn (114) and associated with Douglas Campbell, Martinus C. De Boer, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, and Ernst Käsemann (120, n.33), “apocalyptic names a unique event, the revelation of God in Jesus the messiah, which brings with it its own self-determining context” (115). Adams does acknowledge that Wright has had a sustained and occasionally intense engagement with various of these thinkers (e.g. 112-13), but aims for “a certain rapprochement” (170) between the positions. He tries to achieve this by placing an account of theological knowledge fitted to the unique requirements of having God as its object at the heart of Wright’s own method – though it is not clear that Wright would thank him for his efforts.

Adams’ account draws on Thomas F. Torrance and Søren Kierkegaard in chapter two to argue that human knowledge of God depends on the prior action of God in salvation to give the elect the ability to know. This means that God provides both revelation, and the way to understand revelation – much the same way as a cinema might provide 3D glasses along with the film itself. Positively, this means that knowledge of God is based solely on the gracious act of God, and cannot be approached any other way. On the other hand, Adams is not really breaking much new ground here: at various points, his argument effectively rehearses Barth’s infamous engagement with Emil Brunner regarding the possibility of natural theology. His argument has typically Barthian drawbacks, too. When speaking from a ‘theological perspective’, Adams occasionally appears to be speaking from inside the mind of God in a unique way. Similarly, his insistence that knowledge of God can be understood only within its self-provided context seems to undermine the relevance of anything that might reasonably be expected to pass as history.

In chapters three and four, Adams follows Barth’s understanding of creation as gaining its meaning in light of the resurrection and considers the theological implications of his epistemological position according to a ‘soteriology-Christology-creation’ sequence. In these chapters, Adams lays the groundwork for his later treatment of history. The most significant move he makes comes in his treatment of new creation. He sees the new breaking radically with the old: the in-breaking of the new creation is an eschatological event. This means that only from God’s perspective – which Adams somehow seems to share – can continuity be discerned between BC and AD. Only from here is the salvation historical status of both pre- and post-Easter history as expressions of the freely given love of God visible.

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2016

About the Author: Mark Wreford, M.A. (University of Nottingham), is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nottingham, where he works closely with the Centre for Bible, Ethics and Theology. He is currently part of a campus plant from Heart Church (Nottingham), and has served the church in various roles over the last 16 years. He has a background in Christian journalism as a staff writer for New Life Publishing, and his Ph.D. focusses on the link between religious experience and the creation of Scripture.

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