Thursday, August 16, 2007

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

Part One can be found here.

The Old Cosmos: The Sphere of Slavery

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, freedom is clearly the issue at stake.[1] “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1, RSV) summarizes the matter.[2] Apparently, this Gentile Christian community, founded by Paul, was infiltrated by a group of Jewish Christian missionaries (the “Teachers”), perhaps associated with the Jerusalem Church, who presented “another gospel” that contradicted Paul’s message.[3] Their alternative teaching, emphasizing the necessity of Torah observance (including circumcision) for membership in the Christian movement, appears to have been in many ways consistent with the theology of covenantal nomism noted above.[4] Does Christian freedom presuppose the Jewish basis for freedom, i.e. Torah observance? The Teachers answer, “yes,” while Paul forcefully argues “no.” It is this question that shapes Paul’s rhetoric of freedom in Galatians.[5]

It is important to note, however, that this rhetoric exhibits continuities, as well as discontinuities, with Jewish and Hellenistic conceptions of freedom. In this regard, Betz notes that Paul not only shares the generally pessimistic mood of his time, he even exceeds it in his consignment of the entire cosmos to a state of enslavement.[6] Christ came to set us free from this present evil age (Gal. 1:3-4), an age in which both Jews (“those born under the law”) and Gentiles (“enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods”) are in bondage to the elemental spirits of the cosmos (Gal. 3:22-4:11). Indeed, this state of slavery is so pervasive that Paul speaks of the cross of Christ as the means whereby the entire cosmos has been crucified to make way for a new creation (Gal. 6:14-15).

In this we begin to glimpse the radical eschatological vision that shapes Paul’s view of freedom. As J. Louis Martyn notes, for Paul the cross of Christ represents God’s apocalyptic invasion of the cosmos overturning the structures of domination that had previously enslaved both Jew and Gentile.[7] Christ has overcome these enslaving powers, “the elements of the cosmos,” bringing to an end the present age and inaugurating a new creation, a sphere of freedom marked by life in the Spirit.

Crucial to Paul’s argument is his understanding of these enslaving powers. Drawing upon notions prevalent in Greek and, later, Jewish thought, Paul conceives of “the elements of the cosmos” as pairs of opposites that constitute the foundation of the world: earth, air, fire, and water. In some forms of pagan worship, to which the Galatians presumably adhered prior to their conversion, these elements were reified as divine powers governing the cosmic order. [8] Paul, however, defines these powers as sources of domination and division rather than as benevolent or, at least, neutral spiritual forces.

This is clear from Paul’s mention of these powers in 4:3 and 4:9. Pagan worship of them is therefore a form of slavery. This judgment illuminates the pairs of opposites mentioned in the baptismal formula quoted by Paul in 3:28 - Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female[9] – as identity markers that are transcended in baptism. Such distinctions, and the relationships of superordination and subordination that they define, exemplify life governed by the enslaving elements of the cosmos.[10]

What is startling, however, is Paul’s association of Torah with these enslaving powers as well. This is evident throughout his argument in 3:19 – 4:11. Because Christ is the fulfillment of the covenantal promises made to Abraham, incorporation into Christ through faith in him, rather than incorporation into Abraham/Israel through Torah observance, is the means of salvation. This is the essence of Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith in 3:1 – 18. The function of Torah, therefore, is defined as a “confining custodian” from whom Christ now liberates those united with him in baptism (3:24-29). For the Galatians, having been liberated from the elements of the cosmos, to now adopt Torah observance would be a return to bondage (4:8-10).[11]

Paul underscores this conclusion with the allegory of the covenants of Hagar and Sarah in 4:21-31, bringing the issue of slavery and freedom into sharp focus. Returning again to the Genesis narrative, Paul elaborates yet another set of opposites to elaborate the contrast between the nature of the liberating covenant of which Sarah is the type, to whom Isaac was born of faith in God’s promise, and the enslaving covenant of which Hagar is the type, to whom Ishmael was born of circumcision in the flesh.

While interpreters have long read this passage as setting up an opposition between Christianity and Judaism,[12] Martyn provides a more creative and contextual reading that identifies the typology as a contrast between two different Gentile missions – that of Paul presenting the gospel from the “Jerusalem above” and that of the Teachers from the Jerusalem Church whose mission is tantamount to persecution.[13] For the Gentiles in Galatia, who have already been born of the Spirit, to adopt the Sinai covenant would be to turn from freedom to slavery. Thus, the allegory serves to reinforce Paul’s conclusion in 4:8-9 and his attempt to persuade the Galatians to reject the Teachers and the instruction they offer, clinging instead to their freedom in Christ (4:30-5:1). The comprehensive nature of the enslavement of the cosmos in Paul’s thought, encompassing both pagan and Jewish religious options, is remarkable.

In a word, Paul employs the ancient equation of the world’s elements with the archaic pairs of opposites to interpret the religious impact of Christ’s advent. Following the baptismal formula, he applies that tradition not to the sensible elements, but rather to the elements of religious distinction. These are the cosmic elements that have found their termination in Christ. Specifically, the cosmos that was crucified on the cross is the cosmos that was founded on the distinction between Jew and Gentile, between sacred and profane, between the Law and the Not-Law.[14]

Freedom requires overcoming these antinomies and their enslaving power. How is this accomplished? This brings us to a consideration of Paul’s understanding of the new creation in Christ.

The New Creation: the Sphere of Freedom

Consistent with the covenantal nomism of the Judaism of his day, Paul understands human freedom as the result of God’s liberating action in history.[15] This is in stark contrast to the Greek philosophical options current at the time, which stressed ascetic disciplines and self-knowledge leading to self-control as prerequisites of freedom.[16] Like other Jews, Paul understands freedom as the result of divine, not human, action.

Whereas Judaism locates this act of divine liberation in the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Paul locates it in the cross of Christ. It is only through Christ’s self-offering on the cross that the enslaving powers of the cosmos have been overcome, creating the possibility of human freedom.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father . . . (Gal. 1:3-4, RSV)

But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:14-15, RSV)

These verses, marking the beginning and end of the letter, make clear Paul’s understanding that it is God’s action in Christ that liberates. As has been seen already in Paul’s exegetical argument in chapter three of Galatians, this liberating act creates a new creation whereby the enslaving cosmic antinomies, including that between Torah and not-Torah, have been transcended.

It is important to note that Paul is not arguing for a continuous salvation history from the patriarchs to Christ, whereby Christianity now supercedes Judaism. Rather, God’s apocalyptic invasion of and triumph over the cosmos in Christ is a singular event that, while fulfilling the promise to Abraham, does so not as an extension of the Sinai covenant, not as a new covenant, but as a novum creating the covenant people of God for the first time. It is not that Gentiles are now added to the “old” Jewish covenant, but that both Jews and Gentiles are now made heirs of the promise through Christ.[17]

It follows from this that one’s incorporation into the new creation cannot come through circumcision, but only through faith in Christ (Gal. 2:15-16, 20-21).[18] It is trusting that Christ is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, not Torah observance, that is decisive. Baptism is therefore the effective sign of union with Christ and membership in the covenantal community of those who are by faith heirs of the promise.

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:26-29, RSV).

It is the community of those “baptized into Christ” who constitute the covenantal people of God. Again, there is continuity with Jewish covenantal nomism, in that the sphere of divine liberation is communal/public rather than individual/private in nature, but also discontinuity in that this community is no longer defined by a particular ethnic-national identity or experience. Indeed, all enslaving antinomies are transcended in this new creation.

Gal. 3:28 is best understood as a communal Christian self-definition rather than a statement about the baptized individual. It proclaims that in the Christian community all distinctions of religion, race, class, nationality, and gender are insignificant. All the baptized are equal, they are one in Christ.[19]

Once again, Paul’s apocalyptic perspective is clear. Baptism marks one’s entry into the true eschatological community in Christ Jesus. There is, however, a decidedly this-worldly character to the new creation, for when Paul invokes the baptismal formula he “makes these statements not as utopian ideals or as ethical demands, but as accomplished facts.”[20] While Paul is most concerned in the context of Galatians with the first pair of opposites in the baptismal formula - neither Jew nor Greek, Betz has noted that all three pairs would have had an emancipatory appeal to the Gentile communities in Galatia.[21]

This explains, in part, the nature of the problem Paul faces in Galatia. The gospel Paul preached there was one of freedom in Christ, but a freedom so radical that the whole world that the Galatians had known, the “elements of the cosmos” that gave it order, had been shattered by the cross. While the Galatians accepted the good news of salvation Paul preached, they may well have felt at a loss as to how to exercise the freedom implied in it.

Apparently the anti-Pauline opposition promoted observance of the Jewish law by arguing that only within the law can true freedom be found and preserved, an old argument that appears in many discussions about the nature of the law in Greek and Roman philosophy. Thus Paul’s argument for freedom from the Jewish Torah would have occurred in the context of alternative solutions which conceived of the Torah as basis and protector of freedom.[22]

The Galatians’ experience of freedom may well have occasioned a sense of “moral vertigo,” providing the Teachers with the opportunity to promote Torah observance as the solution to this problem. Thus, it remains for Paul to explain how the Galatians’ freedom in Christ works itself out in daily life. This brings us to the exhortation of Gal. 5:2 – 6:10.

Click on to Part Three.
[1] Betz, Galatians, pp. 2-3: “Paul’s message of ‘freedom in Christ’ must have found attentive ears among people interested in political, social, cultural, and religious emancipation.”
[2] Ibid., pp. 255-256 notes that the theme announced in 5:1 is anticipated in 2:4-5, and that it is implicit in the exegetical arguments that precede it in chapters 3 & 4.
[3] See Gal. 1:6-7. Cf. Betz, Ibid., pp. 5-9 and J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 117-136 on the message and success of these “Teachers” to whom Paul is opposed.
[4] See Gal. 1:6-9; 3:1-5; 4:21; 5:2-4, 7-12; 6:12-13 for Paul’s characterization of his opponents. Cf. Dunn, op. cit, pp. 129 ff. and J. Louis Martyn, “Events in Galatia,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Volume I: Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 163-179, who both agree that Paul’s opponents presented a “Christianized” version of covenantal nomism, though they differ as to whether Paul modifies (Dunn) or rejects (Martyn) their point of view.
[5] Betz, op. cit., pp. 14-25, argues that Galatians exemplifies the genre of apologetic letters, employing judicial rhetoric that was common in the period; whereas Martyn, Galatians, op. cit., pp. 20-23, while acknowledging these stylistic elements in the letter, argues that Galatians is really a highly situational sermon in form and content.
[6] Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom,” pp. 5-6.
[7] Martyn, op. cit., pp. 95-105, 570-574.
[8] See Martyn, ibid., pp. 393-406 for an extended discussion of the meaning of this phrase.
[9] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1983), pp. 208-218 persuasively argues that the male/female dichotomy is best understood in the context of the patriarchal household and might be translated more accurately as husband/wife, pointing to the transcendence in baptism of the inequalities inherent in the institution of marriage.
[10] Martyn, op. cit., pp. 404-406.
[11] Ibid., pp. 294-418.
[12] See for example Betz, op. cit., pp. 238-252, who argues that “According to Galatians, Judaism is excluded from salvation altogether . . .”.
[13] Martyn, op. cit., pp. 447-466.
[14] Ibid., pp. 405-406.
[15] Banks, op. cit., p. 21.
[16] Ibid., pp. 21-22.
[17] Martyn, “Events in Galatia,” pp. 172-174.
[18] While Paul, at lest in Galatians, is not precisely clear about how it is that Christ’s death on the cross provides the decisive victory over the enslaving elements of the cosmos, vs. 20 provides an important clue: is the action of self-giving love exemplified by the cross that liberates. This clearly underlies the parenetic material in 5:1 – 6:10. See Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom,” pp. 8-9 on the relationship between sacrifice and freedom in antiquity.
[19] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, op. cit., p. 213.
[20] Betz, Galatians, p. 189.
[21] Ibid., pp. 189-201. Betz proposes that while Paul finds himself having to back away from some of the implications of this emancipatory appeal in his later correspondence, in Galatians the transcending of ethnic, religious, class, and gender distinctions in Christ Jesus is announced without further qualification.
[22] Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom,” p. 11. Cf. Betz, Galatians, pp. 5-9.

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