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.


kim fabricius said...

Power point without PowerPoint. Do I hear an "Amen!"?

Lucy said...

But as Nathan Kerr has taught us to say, we should not let the church itself become the apocalyptic event and in this way abstract from the "singularity" and "independence" of Jesus. The church participates in God's apocalypse, but only as it is, through the Spirit, given over to a way of life made actual in the particular man Jesus. Surely Martyn would agree?

Or as Robert Jenson has said, the "openness to the future" that Bultmann insists must be the content of proclamation must in fact be openness to a DESCRIBABLE future and not simply openness to openness as it is in Bultmann himself. That is, the content of the gospel's event is the very particular life of Jesus of Nazareth told as a promise.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Lucy -- those are very good points, and I agree with you completely. Certainly for Martyn the gospel has a very particular shape and content -- but he still thinks this is secondary to the sheer 'event' of the gospel's proclamation, since this event is God's own apocalyptic incursion.

Todd Brewer said...

The connection of Martyn's indebtedness to a revelatory speech-act and Bultmann's historie-geschichte distinction is not immediately apparent. Ebeling, Fuchs, and Jungel themselves used the speech-act theory as a means of drawing continuity between the Jesus of historie and and the Christ of geschichte. Martyn's doktorvater Kasemann saw the historical Jesus as a criterion for the Church's proclamation.

I have not read a whole lot of Martyn, but it seems unlikely that he would himself reaffirm the same Bultmannian error that his teacher(s) so dilegently tried to overcome.

R.O. Flyer said...

This is good stuff, Ben. I find the connection to Bultmann quite compelling, but I think Martyn differs from Bultmann in important ways, particularly with regard to the fundamentally cosmic character of Paul's apocalyptic gospel. Contrary to Bultmann, Martyn's emphasis on event is not primarily concerned with the transformation of individual subjectivity, but with God's cosmic and political victory in Christ.

Thanks for sharing this. I would love a copy if you're willing to share.

Unknown said...


I'm having a hard time understanding your privileging of the eventfulness of the gospel (its "thatness") vis-a-vis the content (its "whatness"). God's apocalypse is the invasive sending of Christ; Jesus Christ is the singular apocalypse of God. And this apocalypse is "Christ's faithful death for all." The very lived "faithfulness" of Christ (which surely connotes a particular shape and content -- if minimally as cross and resurrection) is the event God's apocalyptic action. To put it otherwise would surely be to betray the being-in-act of God by way of a privileging of sheer act vis-a-vis being.

(The quotes above are from Martyn's essay, "Events in Galatia.")

Fat said...

The message of the gospel is not about salvation - it is salvation.

Andy Rowell said...

Thanks for this.

There is a lot of discussion about these issues at Duke--some in New Testament and other among people in theological ethics.

Martyn lives in Chapel Hill, NC and Joel Marcus picked him up for our Duke New Testament Colloquium last week. Martyn does not hear well anymore but is very sharp and asked questions to Brad Trick with his highlighted, marked and frayed up Greek New Testament in hand.

I was also interested to see Douglas Campbell's comments about Martyn and Käsemann in an interview about Campbell's new tome The Deliverance of God which is receiving lots of attention at SBL.

Richard Hays, my advisor, has also been very influenced by Martyn and Käsemann.

Meanwhile, over in theological ethics, Hauerwas is teaching a course right now using Nathan Kerr's book and they are reading Troeltsch, Barth and Yoder.

All of that to say, I appreciate the theological reflection on the biblical studies work by Ben.

kim fabricius said...

Can I take it, Ben, that you would agree with Nate's important comment, even if Martyn wouldn't? Indeed I would want to press on from Nate's point about the minimum of cross and resurrection to speak of the entire narrative, including the teaching, of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, as Alice said, while you can have a cat without a grin, you cannot have a grin without a cat. What I am after is, if you like - my minimum - the totus Iesus (in distinction from the totus Christus).

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments. Perhaps some confusion is arising from the fact that I have quite a sympathetic reading of Bultmann. My point wasn't to try to divide the gospel's "content" from its "thatness", but to highlight the unity between the Christ-event and its proclamation.

So to return to one of my quotes from Martyn's commentary: ‘What was God doing in Jerusalem that is revealing as to what God is doing now in Galatia?’ There's no notion here of a merely 'minimal' content to the gospel: the gospel has a highly specified shape and content. The point is simply that this 'content' is not simply a narrative about the past — it includes both the past narrative and 'what God is doing now'. I.e., the Galatians themselves are part of the 'content' of the gospel, since God's apocalypse in Christ is happening now among them, as Paul's letter is read.

I don't know if this clarifies anything. But I can see that I'll need to do a bit more work on this part of the paper...

Anyways, one of the implications of all this is that Martyn's exegetical method is explicitly theological. To illustrate, here's another paragraph from the paper:

"The sole purpose of Paul’s letter is to be a vehicle of God’s apocalypse. Martyn writes: ‘The oral communication for which the letter is a substitute would have been an argumentative sermon preached in the context of a service of worship — and thus in the acknowledged presence of God — not a speech made by a rhetorician’. It may seem rather startling to hear an exegete appeal to the ‘presence of God’ as an interpretive criterion: but this is exactly Martyn’s stance. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Martyn’s commentary has been compared to Barth’s Römerbrief. In both cases, the exegete enters imaginatively into Paul’s own theological world, allowing Paul himself — or rather, Paul’s gospel — to supply the basic hermeneutical assumptions about what the world is really like. And in both cases, Paul’s letter is thus understood not as a document of the past, but as an event that belongs to God’s own redemptive project in the world. In short, like Barth, Martyn reads Paul’s letter as nothing less than a divine act.

kim fabricius said...

My point wasn't to try to divide the gospel's "content" from its "thatness", but to highlight the unity between the Christ-event and its proclamation.

Excellent. That's what I thought - hence my first comment.

As for the past and present: the reign of the exalted Christ is what Jesus of Nazareth is doing now - and may do again next Sunday morning around 11:00 a.m.

Anthony Douglas said...

I'm not an expert in these things, but does this post constitute a speech act? ;-)

Fat said...

To make a terrible pun - Am I then reading a type of speech?

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if there isn't a danger in this joyfull mixing of thatness and whatness which is quite similar of the danger of the lack of filioque.

I mean this mixing is nothing new of course and quite a valuable correction of theologies that got stuck in the past, but wouldn't this at least give an opening to overestimating the power of God in the now, while forgetting what Christ did for me two thousand years ago.

The danger being that it can become a power of God happening in the now that loses its connection to or its source in the "Everything is done!" on Golgota. Speechacting this into the now, there is a danger that this would become loosened from that particular time and place. Why do you need his rising from the grave then, when this power of God is present now? Why do you need the historical Christ if everything is actually happening realtime now?

Without the filioque the Spirit (in our thinking anyway) becomes an all emcompasing power of God working everywhere and doing everything in the present. Could the same mistake be made here and Gods salvation become some sort of free Spirit of salvation and life in the now?

Anonymous said...

a terrible, terrible crime against fashion. jumper and jacket?

zip said...

Crime against fashion is the new fashion.

kim fabricius said...

A misdemeanour, perhaps (I wouldn't go all zero-tolerance on it). Jeans with shirt and tie - now that would be a felony. Mind, beige in October would be pushing it if it weren't for the fact that October is the spring in Oz; but the chinos certainly could use a press.

Emerson Fast said...


It's about time someone published a sound theological commentary on Galatians. I'm up to my ears in college with bibliographies that deliberately ignore Luther's magnum opus in favor of some fastly-fading historical-critical ditties. I think Paul would turn over in his grave to see how scholars handle this epistle! It has been deliberately robbed of its powerful law-gospel hemerneutical challenge to readers of scripture in favor of some flightly holistic and unitive principle.

I look forward to reading this book. Perhaps it will silence in some manner the Moses-worship that is rampant in my circles.

Unknown said...


You're comment reminds me of a comment that I thought of posting last night, and that I suppose I will now: Of just as critical importance as the fact that what was happening "there and then" in Jesus' life is happening "here and now" in the gospel's proclamation, is the question of how that is happening. (I'm thinking Kierkegaard.)

Ben Myers said...

A correction: Käsemann wasn't actually Martyn's Doktorvater — Martyn did his doctorate and Yale, and then went to do postdoctoral studies with Käsemann. So I've deleted this mistake from the post. (Thanks to Beverly Gaventa for catching this error!)

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