Thursday, August 16, 2007

Christ Against the Cosmos: An Essay on Pauline Freedom, Part III

Part Two can be found here.

Freedom as Life in the Spirit

Paul argues that the experience of the Spirit was a formative part of the Galatians’ initial acceptance of the gospel (3:1-5), and the allegory of Hagar and Sarah served to remind them of their identity as those “born according to the Spirit” (4:28-31). It is the Spirit, then, that also enables the practice of freedom – “walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16). The Spirit, through faith in Christ, establishes the sphere of freedom, and it is the Spirit that maintains it.

Verse 5:1, which concludes the allegorical argument that precedes it, makes clear that freedom for Paul is understood as a sphere or realm of existence established by God’s action in Christ, and not simply as an internal attitude. A better translation might be Martyn’s: “It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free.” [1] In this image of the realm of freedom, Paul once again emphasizes the contrast between Christ and the cosmos, a contrast that he develops with apocalyptic language in the following verses. Importantly, the exhortation in 5:1 to maintain this freedom reveals that for Paul, freedom is understood in both an indicative and an imperative sense: as that which has been accomplished through Christ and as that which it is the community’s task to retain. Freedom is both the result of Christ’s liberating action, and the sharing in this action (cf. Gal. 2:20; 3:27-28; 5:24; 6:14). [2]

In speaking of the Spirit as the enabler of the practice of freedom, Paul refers, as he has earlier in the letter, to the Spirit of Christ – not to the spirit of the community or of the individual.[3] The freedom that the Spirit brings is not manifest in Torah observance (or, for that matter, in its avoidance), but rather in “faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6). Authentic freedom issues in love evidenced as mutual service in the life of the community, for Christ has completed the Torah in one sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14).[4]

Freedom is, therefore, something that Christ exercises through us by his Spirit, rather than a function of an autonomous human will. This is emphasized in the contrast that Paul introduces in verse 16 between the Flesh and the Spirit. Martyn has argued that whereas Paul has spoken of “flesh” previously in the letter in terms of the (un)circumcised foreskin, here he speaks of “Flesh” as another enslaving power.[5] The apocalyptic battle in which the Christian community is engaged is not between divine Spirit and human flesh, but between the Spirit and the Flesh – with both understood as cosmic powers.[6]

The battlefield imagery that Paul invokes begins in vs. 13, where “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (RSV) can be read as “do not allow your freedom to be turned into a military base of operations for the Flesh” – as Paul’s use of the word aphormê is a metaphor for “a point from which a war can be waged” rather than simply meaning an “opportunity.”[7] Paul’s description of the conflict between the Flesh and the Spirit in the verses that follow is replete with such imagery; these powers are at war with each other, and the Galatian community is the site of battle.

The consequences of this battle are seen in the life of the Galatian community with reference to the catalogue of vices and of virtues that Paul invokes in Gal. 5:16-25. While it is true that Paul here takes over and slightly revises traditional catalogues common to both Greco-Roman and Jewish moral discourse, “Paul speaks neither of vices nor of virtues attributable to individuals, but rather of marks of a community under the influence of the Flesh and marks of a community led by the Spirit.” [8] Paul rejects both Hellenistic philosophical ethics, which argues that individuals attain virtues through paideia, the training or cultivation of human nature, and Jewish ritual ethics, which focuses on the prevention of transgression through keeping Torah. In contrast to both, Paul asserts that the “virtues” are the “fruit of the Spirit,” the result of a communities’ living daily life under the guidance of the Spirit, rather than a human attainment.[9]

It is, then, a serious mistake to read Paul’s descriptions of the activities of the Flesh and the Spirit in Gal. 5:19-24 as an example of nomistic, moral discourse focused on “vices” and “virtues.” By concentrating on the matter of community life, and by speaking of the Flesh and the Spirit as supra-human, apocalyptic powers, Paul transforms what had traditionally been a form of moral discourse – vices and virtues attributable to individuals – into marks left on communities by these two apocalyptic powers.[10]

Such a reading takes seriously Paul’s assertion in Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (RSV). For Paul, freedom is not a matter of individuals choosing a way of life, much less a lifestyle, but rather the sphere of existence determined by the Spirit of Christ. Against the Teachers, Paul argues that victory over the power of the Flesh can only come through submission to life in the Spirit, and not through submission to Torah observance.

Conclusion: Freedom in the 21st Century

God’s action in Christ has inaugurated a New Creation, a sphere of freedom bringing release from the enslaving elements of the cosmos, Torah, and the Flesh, and marked by mutual self-giving love in the community of those who have been baptized into Christ. This is the essence of Paul’s argument in the letter to the Galatians. In it, we can see traces of the Jewish and, perhaps, Cynic influences on Paul, for whom freedom is a decidedly public, communal phenomenon with social consequences (Gal. 3:28; 4:22.). Paul’s elaboration of the marks of freedom, with the important exception of love, is largely consistent with Greek and Jewish ethics. Also in keeping with his Jewish roots, Paul sees freedom as a function of divine action in history.

What is radically different in Paul is his identification of the cross of Christ as the locus of God’s action in history establishing the realm of freedom and his consignment of the entire cosmos to enslavement. So complete is this enslavement, God’s apocalyptic invasion of the cosmos through Christ can only be understood as a New Creation, a novum in history that stands over and against all that preceded it (both Torah and not-Torah) and all that remains under the domination of the Flesh. Paul differs from his contemporaries, too, in his understanding of life in the Spirit as the source and guarantor of authentic freedom manifest in love, rather than human ethical or ritual disciplines.

Perhaps what is most challenging about Pauline freedom for many contemporary North American Christians is Paul’s insistence that freedom is a divine gift lived out in community, rather than an individual right rooted in human nature. Rather than serving as the cornerstone of liberal individualism’s ideology of the autonomous person, Paul’s understanding of freedom can be characterized as the cornerstone of a Christian ecclesiology of the pneumatic community. It is the Spirit-filled community, not the liberated individual, which is the locale of freedom, a freedom that seeks to express the agency of God rather than humanity.

The church’s task in the 21st Century is to critically evaluate and reclaim a Pauline conception of freedom as an antidote to the modern/postmodern retreat of the “liberated” individual into a self-contained privacy marked by self-indulgence and consumerism, offering instead an alternative vision of freedom as the discipleship of equals in the Spirit-filled ecclesia.[11] The Church in our day faces a challenge similar to that of the Galatian churches to whom Paul addressed himself: the challenge of fully accepting the implications of our baptismal identity as expressed in Gal. 3:28.
[1] Martyn, Galatians, pp. 446-447, follows Smyth in arguing that the word “freedom” in the dative case, which begins the sentence, is best understood in the sense “of place whither.”
[2] “The whole sentence states in a very concise form both the “indicative” and the “imperative” of Christian salvation in the Pauline sense.” Betz, op. cit., pp. 256 – 257.
[3] Cf. Gal. 3:2, 3, 5, 14; 4:6, 29; 5:5. See also Martyn, op. cit., p. 492.
[4] Ibid., pp. 486-491. Martyn here provides a very interesting interpretation of verse 14, arguing that is best understood in the sense of Christ having completed the law.
[5] Ibid., pp. 485-486.
[6] Ibid., pp. 484-540. It is not that humans cannot exercise free will, but rather that authentic freedom is found only in obedience to the Spirit. Otherwise, one comes under the dominance of some other cosmic power.
[7] Ibid., p. 485.
[8] Ibid., p. 496. Cf. Betz, op. cit., pp. 278-283, who agrees that for Paul the catalogues are the results of spiritual powers, and not vices and virtues per se, but interprets “flesh” as a human agent of evil rather than a cosmic power and understands the effects of these powers in terms of individuals rather than communities. At this point Betz, wrongly, I think, interprets Galatians in terms of Romans and reads both through the lense of modern individualism.
[9] Betz, Galatians, pp. 257-258. Cf. Martyn, op. cit., pp. 524-536.
[10] Martyn, Galatians, Ibid., p. 484.
[11] Schüssler Fiorenza, op. cit., pp. 160-236, 343-351 provides an excellent example of a critical retrieval of the “Pauline” idea of freedom for the contemporary ecclesia of women. “Pauline,” because what I have taken to be representative of Paul’s understanding of freedom she takes to be representative of the early Christian missionary movement that preceded Paul, a concept of freedom that Paul subsequently modifies in a conservative direction. While I agree that this is ultimately true of Paul, it don’t believe this modification is yet evident in Galatians.

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