Prophecy vs. Apocalyptic: Heiko Oberman on the Reformation

Some of you, gentle readers, perhaps remember the brief video tribute to Heiko Oberman that I recorded (also embedded below). One of the books that I spoke about in that video was Forerunners of the Reformation (Fortress, 1981). I wanted to highlight a piece of Oberman’s introduction for you.

By Dürer [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Oberman discusses what it means to be a forerunner of the reformation, and how we ought to understand the reformation period and the late middle ages vis-à-vis one another. An important point here is that criticisms of church and clerics are not new to the reformation period; the late medieval period is replete with them. They are a standard feature. But Oberman notes that once you recognize them as a standard feature, you can better identify shifts within these persistent criticisms. And he characterizes the major shift that occurs moving into the 15th century as a shift from prophetic to apocalyptic criticism. Here is how he distinguishes between the two (as always, bold is mine:

[The sources] suggest a transition from a prophetic to an apocalyptic criticism of the times, new not in its despair but in the form of its hope. In its original sense, the word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” or “unveiling”; in its more technical sense, “apocalypticism” is a theology of history on the basis of often secret revelation with regard to the last things, the eschata (hence: eschatology).

The still uncharted and amazingly rich eschatological speculation in the later Middle Ages has led historians to describe the texture of late medieval thought as apocalyptic. In order to sharpen the meaning of the term as it is here used, we might contrast apocalypticism with prophecy as it is encountered in the pre-exilic period in the Old Testament. To phrase it as succinctly as possible: Prophecy judges the human condition on the basis of the acts of God; apocalypticism judges the acts of God on the basis of the human [im]moral condition. The focus of attention of prophecy is directed from God’s acts in history, for example, the Exodus from Egypt, to the moral implications these acts might have for the people of the Covenant. The focus of attention of apocalypticism is direct from the moral state of the people of the Covenant, that is, the Church, to the implied future acts of God. One of the mean features of the apocalyptic stance, then, is the computation of God’s final acts by reading “the signs of the times.” One may even go so far as to say that here prophecy has become eschatology.

. . . Whereas the prophet has a positive notion of history as the God-given time for repentance, the apocalyptic herald announces that the time for repentance is past, that the superhuman powers of good and evil have taken over, and that the final showdown, the Armageddon, is at hand. (12)

The significance of all this, as Oberman goes on to elucidate, is that criticism of church and clerics in the late middle ages was prophetic: it aimed at renewal or restoration, and viewed this as a possibility. But moving into the 15th century, the tone shifted to an apocalyptic one: this sort of renewal or restoration was no longer possible and if any improvement was to be expected it was only because God would intervene to reconstitute God’s people. From the perspective of those swept up in the Protestant reformation, that reformation and the early reformers (esp. Luther) are just such a divine intervention.




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