Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Message of Galatians (Mutiny 2)

To follow the chain back, see the previous entry of this chapter, The Setting of Galatians.

We continue with part 2 of chapter 8: "The Message of Galatians." Last night after long consideration, I finally conceded to myself that I need to give up the northern Galatia hypothesis. In any case, I can continue the chapter...
So the situation Galatians addresses is a primarily Gentile audience being urged to convert fully to Judaism by undergoing circumcision. Those who are trying to convince them are most likely Christian Jews, perhaps one key person in particular, who has come to Galatia from elsewhere, quite possibly from somewhere in Palestine like Antioch. It is important to recognize that their detractors claim to be Christians, not non-believing Jews. They are like the Christian Pharisees of Acts 15:5. Paul would probably consider them "false brothers" (e.g., Gal. 2:4), but they think of themselves as believers in Christ and the Jerusalem church likely would as well.

The central issue at debate is circumcision. If the meeting we call the Jerusalem Council was widely known, it is a little strange that we would find missionaries of a sort who are teaching that the Gentiles should get circumcised. [1] But we remember that Galatians 2:3 says Titus "was not compelled" to become circumcised, meaning it was still likely James and Peter's preference. It would thus be understandable if some were telling the Galatians they should fully commit and go the whole way.

One of the more peculiar features of the situation was the fact that these missionaries were apparently claiming that Paul himself agreed with them or at least had submitted to the authority of Jerusalem. They were apparently telling the Galatians that Paul himself thought it preferable for them to become circumcised (Gal. 5:11). How they made such an argument is puzzling to us, since we so strongly associate Paul with the opposite position. Perhaps he and Barnabas were still somewhat tentative on the subject when they came through the area on the first missionary journey. After all, it was after the first journey that Paul made the visit of Galatians 2 to Jerusalem. And Acts tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy at Lystra on his second journey (Acts 16:3), which certainly could have given the impression that circumcision was the optimal scenario.

Whatever they specifically argued, the undermining of his mission clearly infuriated him. This situation was personal, and no doubt reminded him of losing the argument at Antioch. Now they were tampering with his churches in his territory. One of the noticeable features of Galatians is the fact that Paul does not have a thanksgiving section at its opening, like his other letters. Instead, he launches into the Galatians in astonishment that they are beginning to act as if God's gracious acceptance of them is somehow not enough. They are beginning to observe aspects of the Jewish calendar (Gal. 4:10) and even to consider circumcision (5:2).

Paul's counterargument is not only that no amount of such "works of Law" could make one right with God. He is arguing that such Jewish particulars have no impact on one's status with God at all, particularly if one is a Gentile. To the Gentiles, God was offering a remarkable gift. Through the faithful death of Jesus the Messiah, he was offering both Jew and Gentile the possibility of being right with God regardless of how much wrongdoing a person had previously done. To try then to earn God's favor by keeping the particulars of the Jewish Law was a slap in God's face, tantamount to a rejection of His grace.

We have fallen off the log perhaps with the majority in thinking that Paul might be at Ephesus on his third missionary journey as he writes Galatians, perhaps not too long after he wrote 1 Corinthians. While many argue Paul's theology of getting right with God may have been intact very early on in his ministry, it does not really show itself in 1 Thessalonians and hardly in 1 Corinthians. [2] But just after our placement of Galatians in our reconstruction, we hear verses like Philippians 3:9 and then 2 Corinthians 5:21, culminating in Romans. Indeed, Philippians 3 and 2 Corinthians 10-13 address similar issues that Galatians does. We have from Galatians on a deeper exploration of what it might mean to be incorporated in Christ. [3] We even hear of "new creation" in Galatians (6:15) and 2 Corinthians (5:17).

Acts tells us that Paul rented out one Hall of Tyrannus while he was at Ephesus (19:9). Is it possible that Paul ran something like a school of interpretation while he was there? Is it possible that some of the arguments in Galatians are a product of his teaching there? These suggestions are all speculation, but they are not impossible.

The Message of Galatians
The heart of the message of Galatians is thus about what, in fact, makes a person right with God. The argument of Galatians is very thick, perhaps the thickest in the whole Bible. But the basic point is that Jesus is the only way to be right with God. Arguments over whether Gentiles need to get circumcised or whether you need to observe certain days certain ways are ultimately irrelevant to being right with God. Trusting in what God has done through Jesus--that's the ticket!

Of course there are countless debates both between scholars and churches over the details. Paul would no doubt be both perplexed and amused. It might be worth it to take just a little time to spell out what Paul was likely saying so that we can avoid some of the arguments between Christian groups today over theology.

First, it is important to hear exactly what Paul is arguing over concretely. Paul says that no matter how many "works of Law" a Jew might do, it will not make them right with God. It will not "justify" you. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther heard Paul saying very generally that no one could earn God's favor. No matter how many good "works" you did, you could not earn a right standing with God.

Luther was of course correct. Paul did believe you could not earn God's favor (e.g., Rom. 4:4-5). Whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, all had wronged God and others at some point (e.g., Gal. 2:17; Rom. 3:23), thus requiring Him to overlook our sins. In other words, we all need God's grace, His "unmerited favor."

At the same time, Luther slightly changed the focus of Paul's argument. Particularly in Galatians, Paul is not really talking about faith versus good works in general. He is talking about whether "works of Law," that is the Jewish Law, could gain you right standing before God. [2] In other words, it was things like circumcision, the purity rules of Leviticus, and sabbath observance that were in the "bubble" above his head, not good works like feeding the poor or clothing the needy. One of the documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls has an argument over "works of Law," and the things it has in mind are squabbles between Jewish groups over what makes a person unclean, not good works.

What Paul is arguing over, therefore, is the parts of the Jewish Law that were most distinctly Jewish, the things that distinguished the Jews ethnically from other people. Around the world, people knew that Jews did not eat pork and did not work on Saturday. These were exactly the kinds of "works of Law" that Paul is targeting. These are the sorts of things at Antioch that got in the way of Jewish and Gentile believers eating together. Paul's main point in Galatians is that none of these things actually help a person get in right standing with God.

In fact, relying on such things can be a slap in Christ's face. Here God has offered a free gift through Christ's death on the cross. It is a gift so good, no one could possibly deserve it. Yet you are insistent on trying to pay for it, and you cannot accept the gift for what it is.

Peter and James apparently agreed that a person could not be in right standing with God apart from trusting in Jesus' death. Paul uses an expression in Galatians 2:16 that scholars debate over, but we think Paul is saying that both he and Peter agree that you could only be right with God if you trusted in the faithful death of Jesus on the cross that one can become right with God. [3] But where they disagreed is in the value of keeping the Jewish particulars of the Mosaic Law. Paul goes on to say that those particulars do not help a person be right with God at all, while Peter and others still saw them playing a role in "justification," in being pronounced right with God. Only trust in what God has done through Christ works.

Paul uses Abraham as his fundamental example of this principle: "justification by faith." Abraham was a superb example because Paul could use him both as a model for the justification of Jews and Gentiles. Paul interpreted Genesis 15:6 to say that Abraham had faith in God, and God considered him right with him as a result (Gal. 3:6). Thus Abraham was a model to Gentiles of how to be right with God. Have faith in what God has done through Jesus the Christ and God will consider you righteous, right with Him. Paul understood Genesis 12:3's promise that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham as a promise that they would get right with God through faith, with Abraham showing them the way (Gal. 3:8-9, 14).

Paul's opponents no doubt had some arguments of their own, and most think Paul is responding to some of them in Galatians. One of the key questions he needed to answer was what the purpose of the Jewish Law was. If it was not meant to show how to be in right relationship with God, then what was it for? Paul's answer is that the Law was like a child's guardian (Gal. 4:24) that watches over it until it comes of age.

So also, the Law served several functions before Christ came. For example, it taught us the difference between right and wrong (e.g., Rom. 7:7). Paul here has seemed to shift a little in what he is talking about. When he was talking about "works of Law," he seemed to be thinking of what many Christians think of as the ritual or "ceremonial" parts of the Jewish Law. [4] But now he is talking about the heart of the Law, what later Christians would call the "moral law." The fact that Paul can glide without notice between these various parts of the Jewish Law is the primary source of confusion over what exactly he meant.

Before Christ, we were all, Paul taught, under the power of Sin in the world. Before Christ, the Law pointed out our weakness in the face of this power (e.g., Gal. 4:3). But now that Christ has come, God's Holy Spirit is available to empower us to do what is right. We no longer need the instruction of our guardian, the Law. We have the power of the Spirit inside us to keep the essence of the (moral) Law.

Galatians thus turns to an exhortation to the Galatians not to let their freedom from works of Law to lead to sinful living. This is the tight rope Paul's theology walks. On the one hand, he argues that the Jewish particulars of the Law cannot make us right with God, nor were we able to live above sin before Christ. But now Christ has enabled us to receive the Spirit of adoption and sonship. Now if we walk in the Spirit, we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

Works of law cannot make us right with God, but if we have the Spirit inside us, fruit will follow. The fruit of the Spirit are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Quite different are the works of the flesh, things like sexual immorality, strife, jealousy, anger, and so forth (5:19-21).

And so Paul closes his letter to the Galatians, likely to churches in south Galatia like Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Pisidian Antioch. He points out the hypocrisy of those urging them to get circumcised. They are not models of Jewish Law keeping. And Paul would know, since he was once a Pharisee who paid close attention to such things. But in the end, it is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision that matters before God, he claims. It is the new creation of the Spirit made possible through the cross of Jesus the Messiah.

[1] Even though we called them "missionaries of a sort," we are not insistent at all that the main reason they have come to Galatia is to further instruct Paul's converts. They might just as likely have come into the area on other business.

[2] Another article in James Dunn's The New Perspective on Paul is a classic here, "Works of Law," ***.

[3] The expression is "the faith of Jesus Christ." To understand the debate, you have to look at a phrase like "love of God." What does this phrase mean? Is it God's love, as in "The love of God led Him to send His Son"? Or is it our love for God, as in "Your love of God should lead you to serve Him better"? The phrase Paul uses, "faith of Jesus," could also mean either the faithfulness of Jesus or faith in Jesus.

The three main reasons I finally concluded that the first expression in Gal. 2:16 and Rom. 3:22 refer to the faithfulness of Jesus are 1) Otherwise these verses are quite redundant, Galatians 2:16 then referring to faith in Christ three times in the same sentence, 2) the parallelism between Romans 5:19--"through the obedience of one person many will be established as righteous" and finally, 3) 2 Corinthians 4:13, while the train of thought is hard to follow, seems to say that just as Jesus had faith and was resurrected, so we must have faith and be resurrected. It thus seems to substantiate the notion that Jesus' faith was indeed one of Paul's categories.

[4] It is significant to point out that a Jew, indeed Paul himself, would not not have categorized things this way.


npmccallum said...

You have a typo in that your reference to Gal. 4:24 should be to Gal. 3:24.

Further, it may be that I am merely ignorant, but it seems that many scholars pass over a key hermeneutic argument here in chapter 3. Paul argues not just for Abraham's generic faith in God. If this were so perhaps the demonstration of leaving Uz or sacrificing Isaac would be used. However, Paul doesn't use these examples as we see elsewhere. Instead, Paul cites a Christological interpretation of the seed covenant (3:16). Then he states that the law came "by an angel through a mediator" (contrast this with the lack of a mediator in 1:1; also compare with 2 Timothy 3:16). Paul's argument here is that Abraham's faith is not just a generic faith, but of faith in God in Christ. The law is therefore temporal (to lead us to Christ [3:24-25]) but Christ/covenant is eternal. This then forms Paul's justification for abandoning circumcision: it is replaced by baptism (3:26-29).

This reading is significant, I think, for several reasons:
1. It allows us to see clearly Paul's justification for the allegorical readings of the OT found throughout the rest of the book: Christ is the meaning of the OT.
2. It provides a prototype for the clear hermeneutical patterns found in the (pre-Nicene) post-Apostolic Fathers. This is most clearly demonstrated when Irenaeus says that Christ is "the hypothesis of the scriptures" (he is merely re-appropriating Paul's argument against the Judaisers to work against the Gnostics).
3. It is an internally consistent argument for the divinity of the Son (he pre-exists the Abrahamic covenant, he is not an angel or mediator [a la Moses] and God is one). It thus provides the clear thrust towards the difficulties resulting in Nicene Christianity.
4. It avoids the "good works" vs faith dichotomy found in Luther (as you mention) while still affirming the centrality of the scriptures to the Christian life. Hat tip to Dunn here of course.
5. It provides clear textual definition to your claim that circumcision is "a slap in God's face," namely that to go back to circumcision is to miss the whole point of that law: prophecy of our baptism into the death of Christ.

Oh well, I could be way off. But I thought I'd at least mention it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Richard Fellows said...


Firstly, welcome to south Galatia. By combining the south Galatia hypothesis with the theory that Gal 2 = Acts15 some exciting interpretive possibilities come into play:

Yes, the agitators were "telling the Galatians that Paul himself thought it preferable for them to become circumcised (Gal. 5:11)". They no doubt got this impression after Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). You raise the question of how the Galatian Christians reconciled this with the fact that Paul had preached non-circumcision to them. I believe that Acts 16:4 provides the answer. Paul had delivered the decision of the Jerusalem church leaders, confirming Gentile liberty. This made the Galatian believers speculate that Paul was subservient to the Judean church leaders and had preached Gentile liberty only out of obedience to them, and not out of conviction. The agitators were saying, "it's OK to be circumcised because Paul believes in it: he preached against circumcision only to please the Judean church leaders". Paul then wrote Galatians, arguing that he was not subservient to the Judean church leaders on this issue.

I believe this understanding of the background of Galatians removes the tensions between Galatians and Romans, and it also reconciles Galatians with Acts.

jeff martin said...

Dr. Schenck,

Isn't this message an indictment on the Wesleyan Church in having different levels of membership - covenant being the highest. My question is, do Wesleyans truly believe that anyone who believes its ok to drink alcohol in moderation is not a mature Christian? Would it not be better to allow those in leadership who are mature in general and not get into specific issues which can be well argued (i.e. Almost any topic that appears in the 3 or 4 views books?