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’.

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