Apocalyptic identity: How ‘new’ is the new identity? – a comment on Gal 3.27–28 & 1 Cor 7.17–24

identityIn his essay on ‘The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians’, J. Louis Martyn insists that Paul’s apocalyptic theology – particularly in Galatians – is ‘focused on the motif of invasive movement from beyond’. In other words, Paul is concerned to track the shape of God’s ‘fundamental and determining line of movement’ and its ecclesial/missional implications. He writes:

In Paul’s gospel … the fundamental and determining line of movement is God’s. Since the antidote to what is wrong in the world does not lie in the world, the point of departure – on the apocalyptic landscape – from which there can be movement to set things right cannot be found in the world, or in any of its ideas of bad news and good news.

In short, it is not as though, provided with a good religious foundation for a good religious ladder, one could ascend from the wrong to the right. Things are the other way around. God has elected to invade the realm of the wrong – ‘the present evil age’ (1:4) – by sending God’s Son and the Spirit of the Son into it from outside it (4:4–6). And it is in this apocalyptic invasion that God has liberated us from the powers of the present evil age. Galatians is a particularly clear witness to one of Paul’s basic convictions: the gospel is not about human movement into blessedness (religion); it is about God’s liberating invasion of the cosmos (theology).

The divine movement in Jesus Christ and specifically in his cross, Martyn avers, is set against the ‘community-destroying effect of Sin as a cosmic power’ and the creation of an embodied new community characterised by mutual service in the world and by the putting to death of religion and the boundaries – ethnic and otherwise – that religion is concerned to preserve, often taking up the tools of violence in order to do so. He writes:

The Christ who is confessed in the formula solus Christus is the Christ in whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Instead of being the holy community that stands apart from the profane orb of the world, then, the church of this Christ is the active beachhead God is planting in a war of liberation from all religious differentiations. In short, it is in the birth and life of the church that Paul perceives the polarity between human religion and God’s apocalypse. Thus, a significant commentary on Paul’s letters can be found in the remark of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that ‘God has founded his church beyond religion …’.

Such a claim immediately raises the question about just how ‘new’ is this ‘active beachhead’ that God has created and/or is creating. Certainly there ought to be no (over-realised) talk of the community being anything other than truly worldly. And although we must go on to say something about the fact that the community resides in the world as ‘aliens and strangers’ (1 Pet 2.11), it is, in fact, the most worldly of communities, called and given over by the Word for a vocation entirely in this world but dependent entirely on resources from outwith. We might even say that apart from the church there is no world. This need not, of course, be to claim any more than Barth is hinting at when he reminds us that

The only advantage of the Church over against the world is that the Church knows the real situation of the world. Christians know what non-Christians do not … It belongs to the Church to witness to the dominion of Christ clearly, explicitly, and consciously.

One of the clearest expressions of this witness (made explicit in the Galatian letter) is when the Christian community resists the temptation to define itself along lines determined by the old creation and instead is defined by the apocalyptic reality dawned in Christ’s resurrection from the old order. So 3.27–28:

As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The baptismal liturgy drawn upon here presupposes that clothes are removed, an act which signifies a departure from ‘the old self with its practices and [being] clothed … with the new self’ (Col 3.9–10); i.e., with Christ who is himself both ‘the “place” in which the baptized now find their corporate life’ and the announcement of the old cosmos’ end. In this new situation, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3.28). Martyn suggests elsewhere that while in the Epistle to the Galatians Paul is only interested in the first pair of opposites (i.e., the relationship between ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’), the text here presents a table in which certain pairs of opposites were identified as the elements that, it was believed, give to the cosmos its dependable structure. To therefore ‘pronounce the nonexistence of these opposites is to announce nothing less than the end of the cosmos’.

Religious, social, and sexual pairs of opposites are not replaced by equality, but rather by a newly created unity … so fundamentally and irreducibly identified with Christ himself as to cause Paul to use the masculine form of the word ‘one’. Members of the church are not one thing; they are one person, having been taken into the corpus of the One New Man.

St Paul was unwavering in his conviction that ‘God was making a new creation by drawing into one church both Jews and Gentiles’, believing that it was not enough simply to maintain a spiritual unity in the church catholic; the unity created in the second – or last – Adam needed to be seen and experienced in a concrete and local social reality as well. The break in sharing meals together would end the social unity of the church against the divisive forces of human recalcitrance.

While St Paul in Galatians is uninterested in attending to the distinction between ‘male and female’, our attendance to such can serve to sharpen our appreciation of the Apostle’s overall argument in this passage and to highlight how it exemplifies the apocalyptic nature of the Gospel that he was intent on proclaiming. In Galatians 3.28, the words ‘male and female’ seem to refer back to the Genesis narrative as if to say the distinction and differentiation was important then but in Christ those created distinctions cease to be relevant to God’s purposes; that is, they are superseded by participation in Christ, in the new creation.

The Synoptics, of course, reveal an astonishing tension on matters of sexual differentiation and family. On the one hand – say the example of Jesus’ response to the question about divorce – Jesus is content to employ the ancient and widespread assumptions based on the fact of how things were (or were perceived to be) ‘from the beginning of creation’ (Mark 10.6), suggesting an ethic grounded in (at least) the abiding functional goodness of creation. On the other hand, when informed that his biological mother and brothers were waiting for him, Jesus’ response indicates a re-evaluation of family relationships based not on the logic of the old creation but of the radical newness of the new eschatological family defined around himself (Mark 3.33–35). He is, it would seem, the new creation in nuce.

There is clearly a discernible tension here between theological arguments offered on the basis of creation and those made on the gospel’s power to bring about a new reality. We see this tension not only in the Gospels but also in Paul’s writing itself. So, for example, in Romans 1.18–32, Paul employs an argument explicitly based on creation and draws certain conclusions from ‘the things [God] has made’ in ‘the creation of the cosmos’ (Rom 1.20). In Galatians 3 and 6, however, Paul employs an entirely different – we might even say ‘opposite’ – logic when he argues that it is ‘explicitly not creation, but rather the new creation in which the building blocks of the old creation are declared to be nonexistent’ that the church is to take her theological and ethical cues from.

The divine affirmation recorded in Genesis 2 – ‘It is not good that the man should be alone (Gen 2.18) – is now brought under the scrutiny of the inbreaking of a new reality in the resurrection resulting in a different answer to Adam’s problem. ‘Now the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ (Gal 3:28b; 5:6,13, 22; 6:15)’. Of course, in a different context, Paul’s polemic takes different shape. So in the Corinthian correspondence, for example, the strict dichotomy between old and new is not so strictly championed and the pastor-missionary-theologian will ‘negotiate the relation between new creation and creation by advising married people to be married as though not being married (1 Cor 7:20)’. The apocalyptic realism underscored so heavily in Galatians cannot – if Paul is to be our theological guide – be simply employed to create a template to be placed on all and every situation. Rather, the theologian’s task calls for much more sensitivity than that, and requires equal attention to the particularities of context. So James Dunn:

It must be stressed again that this recognition of the historical relativity of the word of God does not diminish its authority as word of God. Precisely to the contrary, it sets scripture free to function as word of God in the way intended. If we insist, with the logic of the inerrancy school, that scripture must always say precisely the same thing in every historical context, then we muzzle scripture: we filter the word of God through a systematizing and harmonizing process which filters out much that God would say to particular situations, and lets through a message which soon becomes predictably repetitive, whatever the scripture consulted. Why should it be so hard to accept that God speaks different words to different situations (because different situations require different words)? In Jesus Christ, God committed his word to all the relativities of historical existence in first-century Palestine. Paul did not hesitate to express the gospel in different contexts, terms which no doubt would sound contradictory if they were abstracted from these contexts into some system and harmony which paid no heed to these contexts (1 Cor 9:20f.) – hence the apparent conflict between Paul and James (cf. Rom 3:28, ‘justified by faith apart from works’; James 2:26, ‘faith without works is dead’). Mark did not hesitate to press the implications of Jesus’ words about true cleanliness with a view presumably to the Gentile mission (Mark 7:19); whereas Matthew softened the force of the same words, since he had the Jewish mission in view (Matt 15:17). If we ignore such differentiation of the word of God in and to different situations, we rob scripture of its power to speak to different situations. It is only when we properly recognise the historical relativity of scripture that our ears can be properly attuned to hear the authoritative word which God speaks to us in the words of scripture here and now.

While 1 Corinthians 7.17–24, words which appear in an epistle addressed to a ‘multi-ethnic community’ (Witherington) existing in an ethnically and religiously diverse population, is principally concerned with social rather than ethnic realities, it is possible that we might observe here a general principle – ‘to remain as you are’ – that concerns both. In a recent study, J. Brian Tucker surveys and assesses ways in which the Apostle Paul negotiates and transforms existing social identities of the Christ-followers in Corinth in order to extend his gentile mission. He notes that the apostle is concerned to form a Christ-movement identity in the diaspora churches in such a way that previous ethno-social identities are not abrogated but are genuinely transformed ‘in Christ’. Rejecting the view that the church is a community in which such identities are so radically relativised as to be rendered meaningless, Tucker argues (on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7.17, 20 and 24) that Paul’s ‘primary ideological perspective’ is that Christ-followers should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. ‘The result of this interpretive move’, he suggests, ‘is that Paul, rather [than] seeking to obliterate existing social identities, is seen as one drawing from these to form diverse expressions of Christ-movement identity’. He concludes that for Paul, the continuation of various social and ethnic identities remains an open question and is always situationally determined. We might here wish to follow Gordon Fee and insist that such situational determination is determined first and foremost by God’s call rather than by the situation itself, and that the challenge that 1 Corinthians 7 poses to us is that believers need to learn to live out their calling before God in whatever situation they are found, letting the call of God itself ‘sanctify to oneself the situation’.

This is indeed consistent with what we observe throughout the Pauline corpus; namely, that the retention of one’s particularity in Christ is a basic characteristic in our understanding of the process of identity-construction as Christ-followers. This means, among other things, that ‘despite our enormous potential for identity construction, not all structures are feasible or available to us’ as identity builders. ‘We are forced to start from where we are and, in the world of Paul’s day, that meant as either Jews or gentiles, accepting these components to a great extent as part of the given’. So Philip Esler:

In any particular case, therefore, we need to be open to the possible stubbornness of ethnic affiliation, while not underestimating the power of individuals and groups to modify ethnic identity for particular social, political or religious ends.

It is important to note also, particularly if St Paul is to be our guide here, that the construction of identity in Christ occurs within a complex of layers of significant sub-identities (so Rom 11.1; Phil 3.5–6) all of which are important although not equally so and none of which ought to dethrone the primacy of baptismal identity in Christ. So William Campbell:

Paul shares with gentiles in Christ the primary identity-marker which is faith in Christ. He shares with gentiles a special bond as apostle to the gentiles but he differs from them in that he is both Jewish and, by divine commission, apostle to the gentiles. So whilst Paul shares the primary identification of being in Christ, this is accompanied by a differentiation in terms of ethnic and cultural affiliation. He is an Israelite but they are not Israelites despite being in Christ.

To be in Christ is not universal and the same for all peoples. Paul’s converts from the nations are clearly designated by him as gentiles throughout his letters. His strong insistence on their not becoming Jews underlines the fact that for Paul Jew and gentile are fundamental categories and that however much Jews and gentiles share in Christ this in no wise makes them the same … In Christ ethnic difference is not transcended but the hostility that accompanies this should be … Paul’s theologizing is dynamic and he by no means views his converts as continuing in an unchanged existence. They are continually changed by being in Christ but this involves their transformation as Jews or as gentiles, not into some third entity.

So what is being championed by the Apostle Paul (in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and elsewhere) is not that humanity has been liberated from religious boundaries in order to take up residence as a citizen of a secular, desacralised world, but rather that those baptised into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ as both the boundary and centre of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in our cultural/ethnic/gendered/social/historical particularities. Christ’s kenotic community therefore must not violate the divine-human solidarity announced and secured in the hypostatic union by placing boundaries between itself and the world. But this is not all, for, the radical solidarity created in the incarnation also creates a dissonance between that which depends upon arrangements which are passing away and those which depend upon and point to the coming reign of God. Put otherwise, the incarnation and the coming of the eschatological Spirit announce that ‘historical precedence must give way to eschatological preference’. So John Zizioulas insists that even Jesus must be liberated from his past history in order to bring to the present history of the church his eschatological presence and power:

Now if becoming history is the particularity of the Son in the economy, what is the contribution of the Spirit? Well, precisely the opposite: it is to liberate the Son and the economy from the bondage of history. If the Son dies on the cross, thus succumbing to the bondage of historical existence, it is the Spirit that raises him from the dead. The Spirit is the beyond history, and when he acts in history he does so in order to bring into history the last days, the eschaton.

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