Friday, 6 November 2009

Once more with J. Louis Martyn: divine action and the church

OK, since the last post generated so much enthusiasm about Bultmann and my beige jacket, I thought I'd give you another excerpt from my AAR paper, which is now titled "Apocalyptic Gospel: J. Louis Martyn’s Galatians Commentary as a Challenge to Contemporary Theology". (Seriously though, I appreciated the comments on Bultmann, and I revised that section accordingly. But I'm keeping the jacket.) This excerpt is from the paper's conclusion:

Where so much contemporary theology seems hesitant to invoke the category of divine action – or to replace divine action with the church’s own drama of virtue and moral agency – Martyn’s work remains unfashionably committed to the absolute distinction between God’s act in Christ and all other forms of religious or irreligious agency. Here, the fundamental antinomy is not between religion and lack of religion, or between church and world, or even between human works and a human exercise of faith. Instead, it is ‘the cosmic antinomy between religion and apocalypse’. Thus in his essay on Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Martyn underscores O’Connor’s ‘vision of [the] burning away of virtues and thus a vision of tax collectors and prostitutes preceding you into the Kingdom of the God who rectifies the ungodly’. It is precisely the dissolution of virtue – the dissolution of religion – that the gospel announces, since even virtue itself stands on the wrong side of the apocalyptic antinomy between the way of God and all human ways.

If we take this seriously, the result ought to be a rather humbler, more circumscribed ecclesiology. The church cannot become a new polis, as Nate Kerr has also argued. It cannot become a secure alternative order over against the world. It cannot, Martyn says, ‘stand aloof as a new “us”.’ God’s apocalypse in Christ has already dissolved every distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. God’s power is manifest not in the virtue or cohesiveness of the church, but ‘in the foolishness of a Christ-centred gospel that brings its proclaimers into solidarity with those who are weak and stumbling’.

14 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

"... By the awful invading power of God's unconditional grace, without a single if ..."
(from Martyn's great essay on Paul and O'Connor that you mention).

Oh - and I like Paul's threads. Is green the new black?

Todd said...

If you give a mouse a cookie...

Is this essay going to be published in JAAR? Can you post the essay on the site?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Todd. Unfortunately one of my baptismal vows was to renounce the JAAR and all its works. But I'll probably try to publish it somewhere (since there's a whole panel on Martyn, it's also possible that we'll try to publish the papers together).

In the mean time though, I'm happy to email a copy (you can contact me via the email link at the bottom of the page).

Erin said...

If I understand things correctly here, your description sounds to me like Barth's description of the scapegoat (CDII.2), the elect sacrificed to purify the remaining animal. It makes me wonder what kind of picture in this sacrificial sense the church is; how is the church "a vehicle of God's apocalypse?"

Ecclesiology makes my head hurt. Your jacket, however, is warm and inviting. Keep up the good work, Ben, thanks!

Halden said...

Funny, I know this one publishing company . . .

Anonymous said...

You cannot be "humble" and at the same time promote the arrogant power-seeking conceit of the "absolute distinction between "God's" act in Christ and all other forms of religious or irreligious agency".

Such is in effect a declaration of war against all other Faith Traditions and their various cultural expressions.

We true believers alone possess the truth.

jockyboy said...

Ben,

Thanks for your blog. I know you've had various posts about preaching and recently what preaching isn't. This seems like a good descriptor of what preaching is. Thanks.

The 'us' and 'them' reminded me of some discussion from congregation members I've heard about church engagement in local mission. I agree its not 'us' and 'them' but I'm struggling to find a new language (and concept). Can you help me out with a better alternative?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jockyboy: that's a great question. Personally, I think the alternative to an 'us-and-them' mission is a mission of witness. Martyn points in this direction with the passage I quoted above, at the end of the post. But my favourite passage on this question is from Bonhoeffer:

“The church of Jesus Christ is the place ... in the world where the reign of Jesus Christ over the whole world is to be demonstrated and proclaimed. The space of the church does not, therefore, exist just for itself, but its existence is already always something that reaches far beyond it. This is because the it is not the space of a cult that would have to fight for its own existence in the world. The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely that world that is loved and reconciled by God. It is not true that the church intends to or must spread its space out over the space of the world. It desires no more space than it needs to serve the world with its witness to Jesus Christ and to the world’s reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 63-64).

So the church's witness is the very opposite of an 'us and them' mentality: it's where the church stands alongside the world, telling the world 'that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God'.

Anonymous said...

That quote should be it's own post...

J said...

Is this vision of the Church sympatico with like the continuing aristocratic power of the Family Windsor? Rowan Williams seems to suggest as much.

(Locke was one of a few protestant thinkers who correctly perceived the injustice and absurdity of the so-called "Divine right of Kings"--arguably THE central political-theological issue.)

jockyboy said...

Thanks Ben. I'll give that some more thought and reflection... and I think its time for me to read more Bonhoeffer.

Fat said...

When only the best will do .... and isn't that all the time?

(Now I'll be showing my age)

John Paulling said...

Thanks for the post. Could you give the reference to Martyn's essay on O'Connor. Thanks again.

Ben Myers said...

John, the O'Connor essay is the final chapter in Martyn's book, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul.

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