Thursday, August 16, 2007

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


While it is indisputable that “freedom,” eleutheria, is central to Paul’s conception of the gospel of salvation, Pauline scholarship remains divided in its interpretation of how Paul understands this important idea.[1] What prior Jewish and Hellenistic influences are operative in Paul’s understanding of freedom? In what ways can his use of the term be distinguished from these influences? What is the range of freedom operative in his thought? Is it personal/interior or public/political in scope? The purpose of this essay is to explore these questions concentrating on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.[2]

In doing so, I will argue that Paul’s apocalyptic vision is crucial to his understanding of freedom, a vision in which God’s action in Christ creates a public sphere of freedom in an otherwise enslaved world. This vision infuses Paul’s argument in Galatians and demarks the source, scope, and content of freedom in the letter.[3]

Pre-Pauline Background: Freedom in Hellenism and Judaism

“At the time of Paul, the classical Greek notion of freedom had largely been reduced to an old dream.”[4] So writes Hans Dieter Betz, arguing that what once was a political term rooted in the metaphysical idea that all men are free by nature had become an apolitical and even anti-political term. In its original context, the meaning of eleutheria was shaped by the experience of Athenian democracy. Freedom was exemplified by the citizen’s participation in the political life of the polis and by his ability to live without undo constraint, “living as one wished.”[5]

With Roman occupation and rule came the severing of the idea of freedom from its metaphysical roots, as freedom became identified with the order of the Pax Romana enshrined in civil law. The older Greek idea of freedom became suspect as anarchic antinomianism. This changing political climate, along with a growing religious pessimism that came to see humans as enslaved by cosmic, spiritual powers, combined to promote a philosophical turn to the individual.[6]

Thus, freedom became interiorized and individualized as a spiritual state that the human person, enslaved by Tyche/Fatum, could attain only by withdrawal from the world into union with the divine. According to Betz, the various philosophical schools, including the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans, exemplified this basic motif. This, too, could lead to Roman charges of antinomianism, as the wise man thereby achieved autarchy, self-sufficiency, above and beyond civil law, free even from the state’s ultimate coercive power – the fear of death.

As a consequence of this development, the original connection of the free person with the community of the free was almost lost. Limited attempts were made by some to retain this aspect of the concept and to realize it in small philosophical groups and in certain mystery religions, among them Hellenistic Judaism and the early Christian Church.[7]

Given Paul’s background – an educated, Hellenistic Jew with Roman citizenship – it is highly likely that he was aware of the various philosophical options of his time. As Hans Wedell has noted, Paul need only have gone to the marketplace in Tarsus to hear itinerant Stoic and Cynic philosophers. Greek thought, moreover, had begun to influence Jewish philosophy by the second century BCE, so that Paul might well have encountered Stoic ideas in the rabbinical schools of Tarsus or Jerusalem.[8]

In this regard, it is important to note that Betz and Wedell’s conflation of Stoic and Cynic understandings of freedom has been criticized. “For Stoics, freedom is internalized . . . It is all a question of your own self-awareness, self-assessment. For Cynics, freedom must be overt, active, socially effective.”[9] As F. Gerald Downing argues, Cynic practice was much more directly and publicly subversive of social conventions and norms.

In fact, the baptismal formula of Gal. 3:28 may well draw on familiar Cynic topoi, suggesting itself as particularly relevant to the former pagan audience that Paul addresses in Galatians, who had so clearly broken with the conventions and norms of their former way of life by becoming Christians.[10] Whatever the case may be with regard to the origins of Gal. 3:28, the point is that the ideas regarding freedom current in Hellenistic society may not have been uniformly inward-looking in their orientation, and that Paul was probably conversant with these ideas.

This point is reinforced by a consideration of Paul’s Jewish background. James D. G. Dunn, drawing upon the work of E. P. Sanders,[11] has postulated that a proper understanding of Galatians (and, therefore, Paul’s conception of freedom) requires an appreciation of the relationship between God and Israel as understood by Paul’s Jewish contemporaries.

Fundamental to Judaism’s sense of identity was the conviction that God had made a special covenant with the patriarchs, the central feature of which was the choice of Israel to be God’s peculiar people (e.g., Deut. 4:31; 2 Macc. 8:15; Pss. Sol. 9:10; CD 6:2, 8:18), and had given the law as an integral part of the covenant both to show Israel how to live within that covenant (“This do and you shall live” [Deut. 4:1, 10, 40; 5:29-33; 6:1-2, 18, 24; etc.]) and to make it possible for them to do so (the system of atonement). Thus in the phrase “covenantal nomism,” the former word emphasizes God’s prevenient grace, and the latter cannot and should not be confused with legalism or with any idea of “earning” salvation.[12]

Indeed, implicit in the idea of covenantal nomism is the understanding that Torah observance signifies and enables the practice of freedom. Freedom is coterminous with inclusion in the covenant people, Israel, and such inclusion is marked by Torah observance. Freedom is identified with the national-ethnic liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage that is consolidated in the Sinai covenant. It is God who sets free, and who through Torah provides the means to sustain authentic freedom in daily life. However much the prophetic tradition within Israel moves to stretch the boundaries of the covenant people to include Gentiles, their inclusion is on the basis of accepting the markers of Jewish ethnic identity and national aspirations.[13]

It is important to note that this conception of freedom is distinctly public and communal, in contrast to the philosophies predominate in Hellenism, but in such a way as to privilege Jews vis-à-vis Gentiles and to heighten the separation between the two groups. As we will see, what is distinctive about Paul is the way in which he draws from both Jewish and Hellenistic ideas about freedom, while transforming them in light of the cross of Christ and the new community that it brings into being.

Click on to Part Two.
[1] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p. 15 notes the frequency and importance of Paul’s use of eleutheria in his letters and its close connection to his understanding of both salvation and community.
[2] H. D. Betz, Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 32 notes that the notion of freedom underlies the entire letter, and is explicitly employed as “an argumentative weapon” in the exhortation (Gal. 5:1 – 6:10).
[3] J. Louis Martyn, “Apocalyptic Antinomies,” in Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), pp. 111-123 summarizes the argument for the central role Paul’s apocalyptic vision in the interpretation of Galatians. See also his commentary, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 97-105.
[4] H. D. Betz, “Paul’s Concept of Freedom in the Context of Hellenistic Discussions about Possibilities of Human Freedom,” Protocol of the Twenty-Sixth Colloquy of the Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, W. Wuellner, ed. (Berkeley: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1977), p. 1.
[5] Ibid., p. 2. The use of the masculine pronoun in this context refers exclusively to men, as citizenship was the prerogative of freeborn male property holders.
[6] Ibid., pp. 3-4.
[7] Ibid., pp. 4-5.
[8] Hans Wedell, “The Idea of Freedom in the Teaching of the Apostle Paul,” Anglican Theological Review, v. 32, no. 3, 1950, pp. 205-206. Betz, op. cit., p. 6 comments that Paul’s ideas regarding freedom indicate a serious engagement with the philosophical and religious alternatives of his day.
[9] F. Gerald Downing, “A Cynic Preparation for Paul’s Gospel for Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female,” New Testament Studies, v. 42, 1996, p. 459.
[10] Ibid., pp. 457-461.
[11] For a concise summary of Sanders’ definition of “covenantal nomism” see Bruce W. Longenecker, The Triumph of Abraham’s God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1998), p. 15-17.
[12] James D. G. Dunn, “The Theology of Galatians: The Issue of Covenantal Nomism,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Volume I: Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 126.
[13] Ibid., pp. 126-128. Cf. Banks, op. cit., pp. 20-21.

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