Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Galatians (an introduction)

During the month of September I am going to be drawing our attention to Paul's letter to the Galatians.  Of all the letters attributed to Paul, this is perhaps the most passionate.  So I would offer in this blog post a short introduction to the letter to the Galatians.

The letter to the Galatians is an extremely defining letter when it comes to understanding the theology and person of Paul.  To begin with, Galatians is a letter where Paul’s teachings concerning Christ, as well as his view on earliest Christianity are laid out.  Paul makes it clear that though the law could not provide salvation, its moral and ethical dimensions were not diminished in the face of the message of the Christ.[1]

Galatians is also a tremendous indication of divergent theologies.  It is evident from the content of Galatians that by the time of the letter, Christianity was already developing factions and divisions.  These factions and these other opinions that were apparently contrary to Paul’s understandings are what have forced Paul to write a response.  In the letter to the Galatians, Paul appears to be attempting to not only legitimate his claims to his message and his apostleship, but also to discredit the words of his unnamed opponents.  “As we have said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.”[2]

The issue of the apostleship of Paul, the fact of the divisions, and the claims of the Pauline opponents are the setting for the message of the letter itself; a message that centers itself on ones justification in the sight of God.  Justification in the sight of God, according to Paul, comes through an acceptance of the free gift of God’s grace and love as demonstrated through the death of Christ on the cross.[3]

What Paul also seeks to elucidate (perhaps again to the original readers, but perhaps also with more force) is that the distinctiveness Judaism once claimed through the Law was not removed through Christ.  Likewise, the promises of God, once reserved for the Jews, now applied universally.[4]

Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed.  So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.[5]

Newness of life is through Christ for, as Paul writes, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”[6]

Galatians is also an attempt at a revision of Israel’s history, by explaining in its third and fourth chapters how Abraham’s faith presupposed Christ as well as offering allegorical interpretations of Abraham’s wives.[7]  Paul writes this in order to lead the readers to the conclusions he is proposing – that salvation is through faith, like Abraham had, and in that faith one might have life in the Spirit.  Also, no longer being bound by the law, the reader is to understand that the old self has died to sin, and it is now Christ who lives in them.

Yet while Galatians should be understood as a critical recapitulation of the basic Pauline themes, there are also pastoral concerns being addressed as well.  Too critical an approach tends to miss the deep concern Paul had for the Galatian church.  Not only was he apparently being discredited, the people he had worked for and with to develop a community of faith were moving away from him.  It should not be overlooked that the letter to the Galatians is a letter of anger, reproach, and heartbreak from the spiritual father of the Galatian church. 

While Paul is certainly writing to convince, he is also writing to remind the Galatian readers of that which he has already proclaimed to them.[8]  Galatians begins with Paul asking the remarkable question of who had caused the people to turn away from that which he proclaimed.[9]

[1] White p. 125; Hunter p. 10; Rogerson p. 102; Borg p. 252; Betz p. 30
[2] Galatians 1:9
[3] White p. 125; Duncan p. xv
[4] Ibid
[5] Galatians 3:23-26    
[6] Galatians 6:15
[7]  See Galatians 4:27-31.  Mack states not only that this is what Paul is doing, but that this may well be the first instance of this reinterpretation of Jewish scriptures and traditions in the New Testament(pp. 115-116).  This would not be the first biblical instance.  For example, Chronicles sets out to retell the story of David and some of the Kings from a very different theological standpoint than was found in the books of Samuel and Kings.
[8]  It should be noted here that the term, “the Galatian readers” I utilized is, at best, ambiguous.  Hans Dieter Betz, in his commentary on Galatians, goes to some length to explain that the location of the Galatian churches is "scarce" (p. 3).  Duncan also explains that in the time in which the letter to the Galatians was written, the province known as Galatia included the old kingdom of Galatia as well as parts of Lycaonia, Pisidia, and Phrygia (Duncan p. xix).  So to whom is he writing?  While Duncan presents the arguments well, I would draw the reader’s attention to Betz for a very detailed discussion as well as Richard N. Longenecker (p. LVI) for a tremendous referencing of the discussion to which there appears to be no consensus.
[9]  Galatians 1:6-9; 3:1-4;  This eye-opening problem provides us with tremendous insight into the tumultuous beginnings of Christianity.  While the book of Acts provides us with a very clean, centrist portrayal of early church development, the letter to the Galatians implies (rather overtly) that all was not without difficulty and division.  The fact that Paul feels the need to reiterate his argument lets the reader know that there were other messages being proclaimed, possibly in the name of Christ as well, that were not only drawing adherents, but were drawing Paul’s converts away from him.

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