Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Apocalyptic gospel: J. Louis Martyn on Galatians

Here's a short excerpt from my aforementioned AAR paper, entitled "Apocalyptic Gospel: J. Louis Martyn's Galatians Commentary as a Critique of Contemporary Theology". The paper focuses on Martyn's commentary on Galatians, and it has three sections: I. The Gospel against Religion; II. Gospel as God's Apocalypse; III. The Truth of the Gospel. This excerpt comes from section II:

Martyn’s Galatians commentary is thus best understood as a sort of speech-act reading of Paul: he emphasises not so much the content of the letter as the performative action of Paul’s address. Paul is doing something to the Galatians; he is proclaiming the gospel, and thus directly situating his Galatian hearers in the unsettling, liberating presence of God. In Paul’s announcement, ‘God himself steps on the scene, addressing the hearers directly’. Paul’s gospel ‘is the active power of God, because in it God himself comes on the scene, speaking his own word-event’. For this reason, Paul underscores the fact that his gospel did not come through any line of tradition; it came to him directly from God, as God’s own self-utterance, ‘the good event that God is causing to happen now’. In the same vein, Martyn suggests that Paul’s use of the word ‘amen!’ – both in the opening and close of the letter – is an attempt ‘to rob the Galatians of the lethal luxury of considering themselves observers.’ They stand before God, and are confronted not merely by Paul’s word, but by the very speech of God.

Martyn’s indebtedness to the Bultmannian tradition is often overlooked. But in this connection the deep Bultmannian undercurrent of his thought becomes evident. For Bultmann, as also for Käsemann (to whom the Galatians commentary is dedicated), Christ is risen into the proclaimed gospel; the risen life of Christ confronts the community only in the word-event. ‘The exalted Christ is present only in Christian proclamation’, as Käsemann says. Here, the content of the proclamation (the ‘what’) is less important than its sheer eventfulness (the ‘that’). The gospel is God’s own liberating act; it is not a subsequent report about the saving event, but it is part of the very fabric of that event. The gospel, we might say, belongs to the divine economy. The proclamation of Christ is part of Christ’s own identity. To put it in Barthian terms, the risen Christ is not only Lord, he is also the living contemporaneous witness to his own lordship.

All this has profound implications for the way Martyn understands the relation between present proclamation and God's apocalypse in Christ. Just as Bultmann refuses any disjunction between Christ’s past historicity (Historie) and present eventfulness (Geschichte), so Martyn insists that Paul has no interest in an ‘objective’ report about a Christ-event of the past. Nor does Paul try to bring out the present ‘relevance’ or ‘significance’ of that past event. The gospel is betrayed if one speaks about it ‘solely in terms of the once-upon-a-time’. Instead, Paul’s theme is ‘the activity of God then and now’; his one question is: ‘What was God doing in Jerusalem that is revealing as to what God is doing now in Galatia?’ Again, the contemporaneity of God’s action is not a mere application of an event that belongs essentially to the past. God is unceasingly active through the apocalypse of the gospel announcement: ‘for Paul, the history of the gospel is what it is because the God who acted in it is the God who is now acting in it’. The saving event happens in the word of the gospel. The proclamation of Christ’s ‘there and then’ is itself the mode of Christ’s redemptive presence ‘here and now’.

As Martyn also puts it in his book on History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, the incarnation of the Word is not an event ‘which transpired only in the past’: the drama of this event unfolds on two levels simultaneously, the level of the unique past and the contemporary level. More than that, Martyn insists that the occurrence of this event on both levels ‘is, to a large extent, the good news itself.’ Thus in his work on both Paul and John, Martyn foregrounds the church’s continuing gospel proclamation as part of the very fabric of the salvation-event, part of Christ’s own identity as the risen one.

NB: Although I won't be at AAR in person, someone sent me this photo from a recent paper I gave in Canberra. So now you've read the text and you've seen me presenting it: my work here is done.

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