BEN: On p. 427 you speak about Paul personifying the flesh in parallel to his personification of the Spirit. I am doubting this is quite what Paul is doing vis a vis the Spirit, since he takes the Spirit to actually be personal– having a will, capable of being grieved, offering the same benefits as Christ etc. (see Fee’s classic God’s Empowering Presence). Could you clarify what you mean?
JOHN: I did not mean that Paul had himself personified an impersonal Spirit (who I agree is always taken to be personal in Paul) but that in the flesh-Spirit antithesis, the fact that the second party (Spirit) is personal and spoken of in personal terms, may be one factor that inclines Paul to give the flesh a matching profile, desiring and opposing (Gal 5.16-17), so that Flesh takes on, through this antithesis, a kind of personification.
BEN: You say on p. 428 that freedom for Paul doesn’t mean individual autonomy, it means paradoxically enough that while one has been set free from previous things that could enslave one (i.e. the stoicheia) one has been set free for becoming a slave of others in love and service. Can you unpack this paradoxical concept of freedom and slavery for us?
JOHN: Freedom in antiquity was a relative and relational concept: to be free was not to be owned by, or constantly answerable to, a master, although it does not mean one lived outside all inter-personal relationships. Similarly, ‘free cities’ were immune from the power of others to dictate their political constitution, but had their own laws and regulations. In the modern era, we have made it an absolute concept and pushed it into the way we think about every aspect of each individual person: to be free means to have absolute freedom to be and do whatever I like, i.e., individual autonomy. I imagine Paul knows he sounds paradoxical when he says ‘you have been called to freedom .. and through love be slaves of one another’ (Gal 5.13), but the paradox is not a self-contradiction. What you are free from is the authority of the Torah or the authority of the stoicheia (the natural elements) or any other determining force outside the realm of Christ. But just as the Christian confession is ‘Jesus is Lord/Master’ (Jesous kyrios), so the freedom believers have in Christ is not an absolute freedom but a freedom to live in the new creation on the new creation’s terms: and the core element of those terms is love, which involves a mutual care for the other, amounting to a kind of mutual slavery (there is another paradoxical idea!).
BEN: I agree with your assessment that Paul’s ethics do not have as their primary goal self-control and self-mastery (or self-understanding) but rather participation in one’s social identity, in the body of Christ by other-directed self-sacrificial behavior. I would say that many of the mistaken readings of Paul’s ethics come from approaching the subject from an all too modern concept of individual identity, individual responsibility, etc. Modern individualism has skewed the reading of this material. Would you agree?
JOHN: The primary focus of Paul’s ethics, in Galatians and elsewhere, is the formation of Christian communities, and it follows that most of the instructions are about social relations, and directed to ‘you’ plural. Sometimes, for the good of the community, individuals have to be told, ‘each one’, to do, or not to do something, and Gal 6.4-5 is a good example of that. But that is not because Paul thinks the individual is the basic unit, and the community is a conglomeration of individuals, but because he believes (rightly, I think) that we are formed in community, that is, in our relation to one another. Because we are made for community, and because communities make us what we are, the most central question is not about the self-understanding of the individual, but about how communities do or do not accord with the truth of the good news.
BEN: Since the Christian is not under the Torah, many have puzzled over Gal. 5.14. You say that Paul means that when the Christian loves others prompted by the Spirit they fulfill what the Law had originally envisioned by the great commandment etc. In other words, while they are not observing the Law, the larger aims of the Law are fulfilled by following the leading of the Spirit, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit etc. Right?
JOHN: Yes, I have long felt that is it is important that Paul does not say here, ‘you must observe the Law, and here is what it tells you to do’, but ‘you must walk by the Spirit, and when you do so in love, lo and behold, you end up fulfilling the Law’. So two things are important to observe: i) the direct command is in 5.13: be slaves to one another in love; ii) the verb in 5.14 is not do/obey/observe, but fulfil. It is extremely rare in Jewish literature to use the verb pleroo (fulfil) in relation to the Law (see my Obeying the Truth on this), and Paul is not even telling them to fulfil the Law: he is saying that, when you love, the whole Law is fulfilled in relation to its statement about love. (Note also the intriguing suggestion of Martin de Boer in his commentary on Galatians: does Paul take the Greek form of the command ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (future tense) as a prophecy, rather than an instruction?)
BEN: In my discussion about the Law of Christ in Gal.. 6 in my commentary, I pointed out that Paul in fact quotes variant versions of two sayings of Jesus in Gal. 6 to make his case for both mutual burden bearing, and for each person carrying their own load if they are able. While I realize we have only a few references to the Law of Christ, here and in 1 Cor. 9, if one actually analyzes in detail the ethics of Paul in passages like Gal. 5-6 and Rom. 12-15 what appears is the following— Paul appeals to the self-sacrificial example of Christ, he appeals to some of the sayings of Christ, he appeals to some of the OT commandments which Christ himself reinscribed, and in some cases even intensified (i.e. the adultery command), and he appeals to some new apostolic teachings as well, for example the notion of adiaphora when it comes to food or which day one observes unto the Lord. This, broadly speaking, is what I think Paul means by ‘the Law of Christ’ not merely some nebulous idea of following the leading of the Spirit and all will be well. There is a concrete content to the Law of Christ. This is also true for the negative injunctions— Paul is opposing anti-social behavior, including engaging in rivalry practices, not merely talking about individual private sins. How would you respond to this suggestion? And one more question— it appears clear to me that Paul is inscribing a communal ethic, not trying to impose one on society in general. Change and the critique of the agonistic culture comes in house, not in the public square. Right?
JOHN: I certainly think ‘the Law of Christ’ has plenty of concrete manifestations and is given plenty of specific examples, as Galatians 5-6 demonstrates very well. Many of these can be traced, verbally and conceptually, to the list of the fruit of the Spirit in 5.22-23 (love, kindness, self-control, goodness etc.), and Hays has argued that if the core of this is love, it echoes the statement about ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (2.20). So I certainly think that the example of Christ is part of the mix here. Whether the teaching of Jesus is also in view is harder to say, given that a) there is certainly overlap between much of what Paul says and what we find in the Gospels, but b) Paul almost never says ‘as Jesus said’, and c) sometimes when he does cite Jesus, he does not apply the instruction to himself (1 Cor 9.14ff.)! So this is certainly not nebulous and certainly not just about the private sphere. I agree that what he is driving towards is a reshaped community in the church, though whether that could be in some senses a model or spearhead for society as a whole is not impossible.
BEN: Paul’s social ethic seems clearly enough to be radical. Not only does he redefine the meaning of both honor and shame (see e.g. the cross), but he insists on anti-rivalry practices that deconstruct the usual negative reciprocity cycles of behavior, competing for superiority and honor. At one point you talk about (p. 436) the inversion of hierarchy rather than its eradication. I agree. Paul is still the apostle over his converts giving them direction, but he is doing so as their servant, not their master. Can you expound a bit on this inversion of values while not leaving prior concepts and structures entirely behind? When humility, gentleness, deference, burden bearing become general community praxis, then a slave’s ethic becomes the ethic of choice—this is the approved behavior of the lowest on the social pecking order.
JOHN: Yes, I am interested in the ways that Paul submits hierarchy to what I call ‘continual inversion’ – the constant turning of a hierarchy on its head, and then on its head again, etc. This is what Badiou calls ‘reciprocal asymmetry’ – not so much making everything equal, as making an asymmetry in one direction turn into an asymmetry in another, either simultaneously (superior in one respect, inferior in another) or over time (superior at one time, inferior at another). Paul’s call to reciprocity (‘to one another’) extends to such striking phrases as ‘be slaves to one another’ (Gal 5.13), so I am slave to someone (a hierarchical relationship if ever there was one) and they are also slave to me! In the Pauline community, you get the highest prestige by not seeking it, and the result of that prestige is that you submit yourself to the community, not that you lord it over them. This is the Pauline notion of ‘equality’ not as a static ideal but as a dynamic and never-ending process of reciprocation in which power-flows are continually being reversed and power dynamics constantly inverted. It is a challenge to work that out in practice, to be sure.
BEN: I would say that one of the causes for the assumed disjunction between Pauline theology and Pauline ethics is the false premise that behavior has nothing to do with being saved, or with ‘true belief’, which is assumed to be the basis of salvation. At the other end of the spectrum from such an analysis is what you say on pp. 439-40, namely that the relationship between theology and social practice is mutually constitutive. It is in social practice, and the building of a community like that described in the summaries at the end of Acts 2 and 4, that the Christ event takes on new flesh or is actualized in the community. Self-sacrificial love by Christ leads to the same practice in the community. To say Jesus is Lord is to not merely profess allegiance to the Law of Christ, but to live it out in community. The imperative is not merely built on the indicative, it is enabled by the indicative. The converse is also true—if the theology is false (.e.g if Christ is not raised from the dead), then the ethics and praxis are futile, and provide no remedy for sin. Why is it, do you think, that it seems so hard for Protestants in particular to grasp the intertwining of theology and ethics in Paul?
JOHN: Protestants have a special anxiety, stemming from the Reformation, about making ethics the core of theology, or a means to a spiritual end. We are terrified of ‘works-righteousness’, and the more specific the ethical instruction becomes, the more easily it is labelled a kind of ‘legalism’. The Lutheran tradition, in particular, has tended to separate spheres of life (the two kingdoms), and to regard what is true of the soul and of the individual as existing in a different realm to what is true of society or politics. The liberal movement in the 1930s generated what was labelled as ‘the social gospel’, and in reaction against it evangelicalism was very wary of what could be represented as confusing the gospel with social/political ethics. Fortunately, things have changed a lot in recent decades: think how John Stott made action on worldwide poverty again integral to Protestant evangelicalism, picking up the legacy of British evangelicals who spearheaded the campaign against slavery. So I think there have been a series of theological anxieties and cultural blocks, but things may now make it easier to appreciate how the formation of radical communities was not just the result of Paul’s gospel, but integral to it. I make quite a strong claim at the end of chapter 14 that transformed social practice is the necessary realization of grace, not an optional extra: as in Antioch, so in Galatia (and now), the good news is lost altogether if it is not enacted in social relationships that embody the values of the gospel.
BEN: Talk to us about the Pauline concept of apostasy, which you rightly see as referred to in Galatians 5 in various ways. You say “since these warnings are directed to the believing community, it is clearly possible to lose all the benefits of the Christ-gift [i.e. to fall from grace, to use Paul’s language).” “Thus Paul makes clear that the gift that was given without regard to preexisting worth nonetheless requires its recipients to live worthily of its own quality of rule.” (p. 440). A Calvinist would say that those who commit apostasy were not among the elect, were not genuine Christians in the first place. Paul, by addressing the whole community about the dangers of apostasy would not seem to agree with such a theology as inevitable ‘perseverance of the saints’. Can you help us understand this conundrum better? What do you mean by saying that the gift is unconditioned, but not unconditional, it is incongruous but it makes the recipient fit, if lived out, to receive its final benefits. What is energism as opposed to monergism or synergism?
JOHN: Lots of questions here packed into one! The notion of the guaranteed ‘perseverance of the saints’ is an example of the way that Augustine, and then Calvin, perfected what I call the efficacy of grace: if it is grace it must be irresistable and it must be totally effective, otherise our wills could countermand God’s. That has a certain logic to it, but when it runs up so clearly against the evidence of the Pauline texts, with their warnings to Christians that they could fall from grace, we have to ask whether we have latched onto the right perfections of grace, or have pushed this one further than Paul would go. (Of course, I recognize that Gundry-Volf, and others, would read the Pauline texts differently to me, but I can’t go into the exegesis here.) As far I can see, Paul fears that genuine Christians in Galatia might be cut off from Christ and fall from grace (Gal 5.4).
I find that people mean ‘unconditional’ in two senses, often without recognizing the difference between them: unconditional can mean ‘without prior conditions’ or it can mean ‘expecting nothing in return’. For the first meaning I prefer to use the adjective ‘unconditioned’, which is less ambiguous, and it is core for Paul that God’s gift in Christ is unconditioned, or incongruous, taking no regard of previous conditions. But it is not ‘unconditional’ if by that we mean (the second meaning above), expecting nothing in return. Although no gift can demand or force a return, it is given in order to create a relationship, and that relationship is generally and rightly reciprocal. When I give I care about what happens to the gift, and I hope and expect that there will be some return, even if that is only gratitude: that is what God expects with his gifts, since he knows we flourish best when we are in a grateful relationship to him.
On making us fit to receive rewards, I think that Paul figures God’s gifts as transformative: they do not leave us as we are, but make us Christ-like and ‘holy’, fitting for God. Christ died for his enemies, to make them his friends; he died for the ungodly to make them godly. As Luther put it, the love of God does not find, but create that which is pleasing to him. The power of that love is at work within us, in our own energy and enthusiasm: it is not a power that just co-operates with our independent, free will (synergism), nor does it replace our will (monergism), but somehow work in a non-competitive relation within our will. I have tried to navigate my way through this very difficult terrain by using the word ‘energism’ which depends on seeing God’s agency as not in a zero-sum relation with ours (the more God, the less us) but as a transcendent phenomenon that is not creates and energises everything that we, as genuine agents, do.