The Barthian (Mis-)Appropriation of Paul in Galatians

The Barthian (Mis-)Appropriation of Paul in Galatians February 7, 2012

Karl Barth was a true Paulinist. Paul’s theology is the essence that runs through Barth’s veins. For years I have been fascinated with J.L. Martyn’s Galatians commentary precisely because it is so stridently Barthian and it attempts to resolutely prosecute the significance of Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. Graham Stanton heralded J.L. Martyn’s Galatians commentary as one of the greatest commentaries of the twentieth century.[1] A comment I concur with since Martyn’s approach to Galatians is a fresh, provocative, and coherent account of Paul’s argument. There is no recycling of Protestant exegesis, no downplaying the radical implication concerning what Paul says about the law, and no attempt to domesticate Paul to any ecclesial culture.[2] Many will also find Martyn’s approach attractive because its Barthianesque slant fits with so much criticism of American civil religion. Martyn’s Pauline Barthianism shines through when he says things like “the gospel is about the divine invasion of the cosmos (theology), not about human movement into blessedness (religion).”[3] On top of that, Martyn’s emphasis on “antinomy” presents a rather convenient vehicle to introduce some “dialectic theology” into a reading of Galatians as well. That said I do have a few significant issues with Martyn’s reading of Galatians based on exegetical, biblical theological, and theological concerns. One immediate problem is that Martyn’s Paul is so thoroughly christological, that there is no space for Israel as elect nor the possibility of a salvation history. Not only does this imply an uber-supersessionism, but as J.C. Beker pointed out the Barthian project collapses apocalyptic eschatology into christology and then defines christology as simply God’s ultimate revelatory word.

First, on exegesis, Martyn often gives subtle but very significant renderings of prepositions that are purposed to dislocate God from the law. So the law given δι’ ἀγγέλων means not “through angels” as with most translations but “by angels” (Gal 3:19) turning the law into an “angelic parenthesis”.  The guardianship of the law which leads us εἰς Χριστόν, means not the goal of the law itself, but the goal God had in mind during the period of the law (Gal 3:24).[4] If I did not know better, I’d have to say that Martyn was using some kind of Marcionite Greek Grammar to authenticate some peculiar rendering of Greek prepositions when it suits his theological purposes.[5]

The second problem with Martyn’s interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that we also have Paul’s letter to the Romans. If Romans is, as Martyn even thinks, the earliest interpretation of Galatians, then several of Martyn’s assertions about the Abraham, the covenant, and the law are simply untenable. Now Galatians gives us Paul at his most raw and radical. Paul writes Galatians as an emotive form of discourse. His argumentation parodies his opponents at points and also reaches rhetorically against them with vicious contempt. Though Paul writes Romans with much on his mind, the environs of Corinth seem to have offered him some space and respite to think through his gospel more consistently. Thus, what he wrote to the Romans is indeed apologetic and rhetorical, but far more sanguine and restrained than when he wrote Galatians. Yet the basic substructure of Paul’s thought across Romans and Galatians remains the same, the grammar and vocabulary are consistent, the theological premises begun in Galatians about the law are further worked out and applied not abandoned in Romans, and there was too little time between Galatians and Romans for seismic shifts in his thinking to take place. What connects Galatians and Romans is that Paul is consistently apocalyptic in his worldview, but that apocalypticism was storied in nature and was part of a linear sequence that climaxed in redemption and renewal. The major deficiency of Martyn’s reading of Galatians is precisely his excision of the salvation historical elements. As Dunn notes, Martyn “does not do sufficient justice to the extent to which Paul sees God’s saving purpose as a historical process: Abraham as progenitor of seed; the giving of the law as having a role prior to Christ. Christ coming in ‘the fullness of time’; the growing up of heirs from minority (= slavery) to majority (the gift of the Spirit). In Jewish (and Paul’s!) perspective, apocalypse is the climax of God’s saving purpose for his people, not a whole new start.”[6]

Third, I have to add that if one were to attempt to deconstruct Martyn’s Galatians commentary, i.e., identify the clashes of power and influence being waged by interpretive communities underneath the text, one has to wonder if Martyn is mounting a Barthian assault on American evangelicalism. I say this because Martyn’s Paul looks boldly Barthian in places with his rather impassioned dismissal of salvation history and his animated focus on Christ’s faithfulness, creating a Paul who looks like a collage of portions of Barth’s Commentary on Romans and Church Dogmatics. What is more, Martyn’s Jewish “Teachers,” with their emphasis on salvation history, continuity, militant proselytism, and enforcing boundaries could be said to be reminiscent of conservative American evangelicals. I think such a postmodern unveiling of Martyn gains even more traction if bears in mind that some of Martyn’s apocalyptic-colleagues like Douglas Harink and Douglas Campbell are engaged in a deliberate Barthian vs. Evangelical Cultural Conservative campaigns via the type of apocalyptic reading that Martyn has proposed. Such an observation might be more a matter of context than purpose as we all project our own world into the stories we read. I’ll even out myself as one of those evangelical types (though more British than American in ethos), though I retain a deep admiration of Barth precisely as an “evangelical” interpreter of sorts.[7] But it is still worth noting that many of the debates over Paul and Galatians that we find here might really be about “something else” if we can read between the lines. For me this is not so much of a criticism as a caution for those following the apocalyptic vs. salvation history debate over Paul. In other words – “Let the reader understand” – there are currents underneath the surface of the words that one needs to be aware of it. What I will say in criticism is that the Barthian project to stave off any attempt to root theology in the progress of the religious man and to safeguard the transcendence of God, all by picturing the gospel as an invasive and incursive inruption of divine grace, noble as it is, is simply overkill. It is like trying to shoot down a butterfly with a 155mm howitzer. While God undoubtedly invades the world in the Christ-event and in the evangelical summons to faith, which effectively shatters the old world while launching a new one, even so, when the veil is drawn back, we become aware that the One who was hidden was always there and was always active. Indeed, God was behind the scenes of creation and covenant, caching the world with divine grace and calling a people to himself, readying the world for the moment when he would act to recapture the world for himself. The unity of God’s purpose across history and the continuity of his dealings with Israel and the Church cannot swept under the rug of gospel singularity. What is more, I would add that Barth’s punctilliar perspective in his Romans was more properly eclipsed by his more narratological approach in Church Dogmatics 4/4.[8]Thus, the cryptic-Barthian antinomy that sets apocalypticism and salvation history into a binary opposition is a false dichotomy, broken down by a preliminary reading of Jewish apocalyptic literature and by close reading of Galatians which integrates salvation history and apocalypticism together.

[1] Graham Stanton, “Review of Galatians by J.L. Martyn,” JTS 51 (2000): 54.

[2] Though see criticisms in Dunn, Theology of Galatians, 36-52; idem, Beginning from Jerusalem, 744-45; Hays, Faith of Jesus Christ, xxxv-xl.

[3] Martyn, Galatians, 349.

[4] Martyn, Galatians, 356, 363, 389.

[5] To be fair to Martyn, even though he flirts with a quasi-Marcionite Paul, he believes that “Paul will not allow their view [i.e., the view of the teachers] of the nomistic people of God to separate him either from the God of Israel or from Israel itself” (Galatians, 574).

[6] Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 744-45 n. 402.

[7] Deeply formative for me was reading Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology which was my own entrée into Barth’s theology and a critical appreciation of Barth makes its way onto several pages of my own Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming).

[8] See discussion in Hays, “Is Paul’s Gospel Narratable?” 238-39.


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  • Andrew Wilson

    Brilliant. This is such a helpful series of comments on the new apocalypticism, and helps make sense of Campbell as well as Martyn; the last paragraph, in particular, is superb. Keep up the good work!

  • Anonymous

    I wrote my Th.M. thesis at DTS in 2000 on this very question of salvation history although not the barthian elements. It was titled Heilsgeschichte in Galatians: the use of Isaiah 54:1 in Galatians 4:24b-27 : a response to J. Louis Martyn. See it here,+24-27+–+Criticism,+interpretation,+etc.__Otitle__X0?lang=eng&suite=def.

    • Though it seems that you need to be able to log in to actually see it…

  • Bugger, there goes my MTh… it was going to be on “Apocalyptic & Paul’s Teaching Regarding δικαιoω and δικαιοσύνη in the Letter to the Galatians”

  • One further observation – there are not a few connections between this and Bruce McCormack’s crit of Douglas Harink in if I remember correctly his essay in the Rutherford House Justification volume

  • Douglas

    Yikes. This is a bit clumsy… I see that Barth has risen from the grave to write another section in his Dogmatics, namely, 4/4 (unless you are referring to the fragment as definitive?: surely not). And this is indicative really of the account of Barth supplied here, which is a bit wobbly. Likewise for Martyn. It’s important to appreciate for the latter especially that the concern is with FOUNDATIONALIST salvation history, and never with salvation history per se. Both Barth and Martyn are concerned to push back hard on this because of the experience of the German Christians and the capitulation of most of the church at the time to Nazism–a reasonable concern one would have thought in retrospect. You need to name this in relation to their programs. As to my concern with American Evangelicals. Well… the perils of psychologizing as C. S. Lewis once famously pointed out. I wrote the bulk of Deliverance of God when I lived in the U.K., and the key preliminary moves were written in New Zealand. It does apply to American Fundamentalists I’m happy to say, but has slightly wider relevance than that hopefully. But on to more important matters. If the key distinction between prospective and retrospective theological epistemology is not in play, these sorts of discussions tend to get very lost. I assume that you’re not suggesting that we depart from a Christological central point in terms of theological epistemology Joel? And that you would be happy to understand other things in the light of this, like salvation history? If we then perceived the continuities holding in creation and salvation we would not be Marcionite for doing things in this order and in this way then? So what EXACTLY is your problem with Martyn, and with Barth, if these preliminary things have been cleared up? Since this is what they’re actually doing.

  • Douglas

    Sorry, that should have been “Mike.”

  • Douglas

    BTW, it’s nice to see you up and back behind the keypad. Strength!

  • Mike, as you know, I’m a committed Barthian (heck, I’m a committed Bultmannian, for that matter, but those are one and the same for me). What makes me uncomfortable about this post is the apparent assumption that the only appropriate interpretation of Paul is one that adopts or inhabits all of Paul’s own historically limited assumptions about the world. Is that assumed as necessary? And if so, why? Martyn and Barth agree in rejecting absolutely the kind of bifurcated approach of someone like Stendahl, in which we isolate what the text meant from what it means. For both, every interpretation is a matter of reading the text within the situation of the reader. That means the assumptions of Second Temple Judaism are not taken as a given; we have to read the text as a word spoken today in our modern situation. So I completely agree with you that Martyn’s apocalyptic is a radical break from Jewish apocalyptic (even a break from the work of Käsemann and Beker), but I see nothing problematic about this. Martyn isn’t interested in reproducing Paul’s own thoughts. Like Barth’s Römerbrief, he understands exegesis to be a matter of hearing the biblical text as our contemporary. It’s a hermeneutical difference that is really at stake here, right?