J. Louis Martyn on life after the invasion

After building a case that Paul’s letter to the Galatians witnesses to the apostles’ basic conviction that ‘the gospel is not about human movement into blessedness (religion); it is about God’s liberating invasion of the cosmos (theology)’, J. Louis Martyn – in a brilliant essay, ‘The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians’ (Interpretation 54, no. 3 (2000): 246–66) – proceeds to articulate more fully the shape of that ‘invasion’. Specifically, it means, according to Martyn, a truly crucified cosmos and a genuinely new creation. Commenting on Galatians 6.15, he writes:

Having repeatedly stated that the subject of his letter is the invasive route God has elected in order to make right what has gone wrong, Paul caps his argument by addressing that subject yet again. What do things look like when, having entered the present evil age in Christ, God has begun to set things right? To give the climactic answer to this question, our radical apocalyptic theologian does not refer to an improvement in the human situation. In an unbridled way, Paul speaks rather of nothing less than the dawn of the new creation.

“For me boasting is excluded, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the cosmos has been crucified to me and I to the cosmos. For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything. What is something is the new creation” (6:14–15; Anchor Bible translation slightly modified).

Our attention is first seized by Paul’s verbs, “is excluded,” “has been crucified,” and “is.” We have in this paragraph a stunning declaration from which the word “should” is altogether absent. Paul speaks about what does and does not exist, not about what should and should not exist. There are two different worlds, the (old) cosmos and the new creation. Second, remembering Paul’s early reference to the present evil age, we also recall that in that reference he celebrated our deliverance from its power. Now, in closing his letter, he speaks of the old world, from which he has been painfully separated—by Christ’s death, by the death of that world, and by his own death to that world. The liberating dawn of the new creation is death? God’s idea of good news includes the crucifixion of God’s Son, of the world, and of human beings?

The crucified cosmos. After announcing the crucifixion of the cosmos, Paul explicates that announcement with an astonishing negation, “neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything.” Surprising is the form of this negation (cf. Gal 5:6 and 1 Cor 7:19). In the immediate context, Paul has just referred to the circumcising Teachers (6:12–13). We are prepared, therefore, to find him striking a final blow, directly and simply, against observance of the Law. We expect Paul to say “neither circumcision, nor the food laws, nor the keeping of the sabbath is anything, for gentile observance of the Law reflects the enslaving power of the present evil age!”

He surprises his readers, however, by negating not merely Law observance, but also its opposite, non-Law observance. That to which Paul denies real existence is, in the technical sense of the expression, a pair of opposites, what Aristotle might have called an instance of fanantia, and what I will refer to as an antinomy.

This observation may prove to be of considerable help in our efforts to understand both of Paul’s major apocalyptic expressions in Galatians, “the present evil age” (1:4; in 6:14 the cosmos) and “the new creation” (6:15). For when we note that Paul speaks about a pair of opposites—an antinomy—and that he does so between the making of two cosmic announcements, we may recall how widespread in the ancient world was the thought that the fundamental building blocks of the cosmos are pairs of opposites. A number of the Galatians are almost certain to have been acquainted with this notion, and it is precisely the pattern of thought Paul presupposes in Gal 6:15.

He is making use of it, however, in a very peculiar fashion. He is denying real existence to an antinomy in order to show what it means to say that the old cosmos has suffered its death. He says in effect that the foundation of the cosmos has been subjected to a volcanic explosion that has scattered the pieces into new and confusing patterns. For example, citing an early Christian baptismal tradition, Paul emphatically says that the cosmos, founded as it was on certain pairs of opposites, no longer exists.

For when all of you were baptized into Christ,
you put on Christ as though he were your clothing.
There is neither Jew nor Greek;
there is neither slave nor free;
there is no “male and female”;
for all of you are One in Christ Jesus (3:27–28).

A frightening statement of what is and what is not—again absent the motif of exhortation—this declaration is one in which, as the baptizands are told of their unity in Christ, they also suffer loss of cosmos, as though a fissure had opened up under their feet, hurling them into an abyss.

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