The Importance of Galatians for Us Today
Galatians has had a very large impact on the Church throughout her history. Merrill C. Tenney (1973, 15-16), in his commentary on Galatians, states the letter to be the manifesto of Martin Luther in his “revolt against the Roman ritual and hierarchy.” It has been known as the “Magna Charta of spiritual emancipation,” especially with its teachings of faith and liberty for the whole Church (Tenney 1973, 16). Almost from the beginning of the writings of Paul, Galatians has been used throughout the whole of the Church (Ibid., 19-21). It’s thought that Paul used, or even expounded upon, it when he wrote Romans (Ibid., 19). It’s believed that Polycarp alluded to Galatians twice in his Epistle to the Philippians (Ibid.). Polycarp says, “God is not mocked” (5.1 connected with Gal 6:7 CSB; Tenney 1973, 19). He also states, “”Father who raised him [Jesus Christ] from the dead” (XII. ii connected to Gal 1:1 CSB; Tenney 1973, 19). Irenaeus mentions the Epistle by name (Against Heresies 5.11.1) and Origen (ca. AD 200) talks about it in his various commentaries, and finally, Jerome and Pelagius (fourth-century scholars) both focused on the Epistle to the Galatians in their works (Tenney 1973, 20). At the start of the Reformation, this Epistle was vastly important. Luther said, “[t]he Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it [sic] I am as it were in wedlock. It is my Katherine [his actual wife]” (Luther 1535, Kindle Edition). If this letter can leave such a powerful experience on Luther, then we, who follow, should also be left with such an experience.
Why was this Letter Written?
Paul writes his epistle with a very specific tone of voice toward his various churches in Galatia (Gal 4:20 CSB). Paul has to speak, rather harshly it seems, due to a very important issue that has happened in churches. It is even noticeable that out of all of his letters, this one does not even have a thanksgiving or praise part to it, which was vitally important in this genre during Paul’s day (there are only two other letters, 2 Cor., 1 Tim., and Titus that did not have the thanksgiving portion in it). Paul uses very harsh words, things like curse and mutilation. In English, these words do not hold a very harsh or scary tone to them, but in the original Greek, they hold a very different meaning. When Paul says, twice, that anyone who teaches a different gospel is to be cursed, the Greek word is anathema, which is Paul saying that they are to be damned, to go to hell (Gal 1:8-9 CSB). Also, when Paul wishes that false teachers would be mutilated he is talking of not just circumcising themselves, he wants them to cut their whole manhood off—if you get what I mean—which is what is found in the meaning of the Greek word apokopsontai (Gal 5:12 CSB). The Greek word does mean to cut off, however, Paul means the whole thing, take it all the way he is telling his agitators. That is some harsh wording for his audience, even for his enemies.
It must be understood, the Churches themselves are not the problem and therefore Paul says, “[y]ou have not wronged me; you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a weakness of the flesh. You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you. On the contrary, you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus himself” (Gal 4:12b-14 CSB). If Paul is not blaming his churches for the problem, then what is it that he is so harshly reprimanding them for? Paul even has to ask them this: “[y]ou were running well. Who prevented you from being persuaded regarding the truth” (Gal 5:7 CSB)? What has happened, then, is something like this. Some Jewish-Christians, those who have been named Judaizers (Gal 2:14 CSB), came into Paul’s churches in Galatia and began teaching that Jesus was not the only answer to salvation, that their faith was not enough, they needed to follow the Law in order to be fully saved. Now, technically, there is no translation that uses the word Judaizer, most say “live like Jews” (Gal 2:14 CSB, ESV, NABRE, NET, and NRSV). However, the meaning is still the same, to make someone who is not Jewish, live like one who is. This is the straight problem that fills all of the epistle.
There are many schools of thought on what this letter, then, means. The first argument comes from Gerd Theissen (2003, 63) who believes that Paul was exaggerating in his remarks of the so-called proponents in his letter. He then states the actual truth was more in the fact that the Judaizers came in to fully complete Paul’s work by introducing circumcision (Ibid.). Theissen then completes his interpretation of the so-called proponents as holding to a more Jewish understanding of conversion in a two-stage process. First the Gentiles become God-fearers by attending services at the local synagogue; second, themselves or their children become fully Jewish by becoming circumcised (Ibid.). Thus, Paul’s argument (as Theissen believes) is that circumcision is not necessary to complete their faith but that faith itself finishes this work (Ibid., 64-65). Theissen plays down the seriousness of Paul’s letter. For him, the so-called proponents are just simply misunderstood.
Bruce Chilton and Deirdre Good (2011, 66-69), interpret Galatians with the background of the events in Acts 15 (CSB) and James’ letter to the Gentile believers. For Chilton and Good, Paul and James do not get along, James believes that the Gentiles are nothing more than a mere support to the true Israelites and for Paul, everything in the Torah and its rituals is not spiritual but merely idol worshipping (Ibid.). Because of the issue in Antioch, with Peter and Barnabas siding with the Judaizers, switching dinner fellowship from the Gentiles to the Jews, causes Paul to be excommunicated from Antioch (Ibid.). Therefore, Paul sets up shop in Ephesus and shows his fierce anger at the Galatians when the same thing begins to happen in their churches (Ibid.). For Chilton and Good, Paul is nothing more than an excommunicated, angry, free-spirited, radical Jew who will not have anything Jewish in his churches. If Theissen sees the anger of Paul as over exaggerated, then Chilton and Good view Paul as right to be so angry, maybe not even mad enough.
There is a field of research in New Testament studies known as Social-Science Criticism. Basically, these are sociologists and social historians (historians who focus on the social aspect of history) who apply sociology and social-science methodology in their understanding of the New Testament. One group of scholars in this field, Bruce Malina and John Pilch (2006, 178-180), have written a commentary on the so-called authentic letters of Paul (most liberal scholars do not think that all thirteen letters were written by Paul). They believe that Galatians is written by Paul on the defense of Greek Jews living outside of Judea not needing to live as those in Judea (Ibid.). Basically, in Malina and Pilch’s understanding, Paul did not convert anyone outside of Judaism to Christ. What this means, in their field, is that for the Jew there were Judean Jews (Greeks thought of them as barbarians) and Greek Jews (Greeks were the civilized ones); essentially, Greek Jews did not practice all of the strict rituals that the Judeans did (Ibid.). Paul went to the Greek Jews in Galatia, taught them of Christ, saw that the Greek view of Judaism was compatible with his message of Christ and did not require them to become Judean in their practice of Judaism. This is a tough pill to swallow, mainly because Acts records that Paul went to the Jew first in the synagogues, and then when he was rejected he moved on to the Gentiles, not Jewish Greeks but Greco-Romans, pagans (Acts 18:6 CSB).
Let’s look at these arguments from a different view. First, we know that Paul and Barnabas (thanks to Luke’s account of Paul’s journeys in Acts 13-14, CSB) went throughout the southern region of Galatia preaching and teaching first in the synagogues, then when other Jews began to stir up trouble they moved to the Gentiles (Carson, Moo, and Morris 1992, 295).
Therefore, the churches of Galatia are going to be mostly Gentile (Ibid.). Second, the local issue of the Jewish-Christians is not that they are simply Jewish, mostly because the Jews did not bother trying to correct Christian understanding, they just came against them (Ibid.). What this means, then, is that these Jewish-Christians are false teachers (Ibid.). Next, Paul’s Gospel was brought into question, which means that the true Gospel of God was under fire (Elwell and Yarbrough 1998, 298-299). Because his Gospel is called into question, Paul is thus doubted as a true apostle (Carson, Moo, and Morris 1992, 295). This is why Paul opens his letter, “an apostle—not from men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead” (Gal 1:1 CSB). It’s also why Paul states at the end of his letter, “let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal 6:17 CSB; Carson, Moo, and Morris 1992, 295). The false gospel, being taught by the false teachers, was that Jesus was not the only way to be saved, you still had to follow the Law—mainly, circumcision and dietary (Gal 2:15-16; 3:10, 23; 5:2-6, 12; 6:12 CSB). Paul’s rhetoric, which is valid and strong, states that if one is to take on circumcision, then one is to practice the whole Law and therefore negating the freedom one has under Christ (Carlson, Moo, and Morris 1992, 295). What is Paul’s answer to the false teachers? It’s not a simple one, though it seems that way to others. Paul’s answer is that we are “justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law…[we] have been crucified with Christ…[we] live by faith in the Son of God [Jesus]…for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:16, 20, 21 CSB).
What is the Doctrine of Justification and Why is it so Important?
When you read the epistle of Galatians, certain things begin to pop out at you. One of the first things to be seen is best illustrated with the two word clouds on the whole of the Epistle to the Galatians, the first one taken from Blue Letter Bible (BLB) and the one, directly above, is from Logos 7. You can see that one of the major words in the cloud is “justify” and one other word, that stems from the same Greek word, which is slightly smaller in the Logos 7 word cloud is “righteous.” When we look at the key verse for this in Galatians (2:15-21 CSB), we can see that the word justified is even bigger, while righteousness is smaller.
Next, we can see that there are several large words, other than justified, within this word cloud. First, it must be noted that the word sinners is fairly large, as well as Christ and died. What is happening in this portion of the text is something crazy, which gets carried out throughout the whole portion of the letter—the dualism between sinners (under the Law) and those who are justified (the ones that have faith in Christ). To understand this, we need to grasp the word dikaioutai, which the lexical form dikaioo, in English, means to justify, vindicate, or be free. The word pie below, taken from Logos 7 Bible Word Study Guide, shows that the lexical form of dikaioo, justify, has its root in the word dike, which means punishment; or penalty; or justice. Basically, this is a legal term, which shows that justified means that we are made right with God, through our faith in the sacrificial act of Jesus on the cross.
The Council of Trent (1531) states “[f]or faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body.” What this means, is that for modern Roman Catholics, one is only justified if they meet it with charity—fides caritate formata (Dulles 2011, 98). However, this was not how the reformers saw it. According to scripture (Galatians, Romans, 1 Corinthians, etc.), we are justified by faith alone (sola fide). R. C. Sproul (2014, 233), states “justification is a legal pronouncement made by God. In other words, justification can occur only when God, who is Himself just, becomes the Justifier by decreeing someone to be just in His sight.” This is why the words justified and sinner are bigger words in the word cloud than any other. As sinners, we deserve the full wrath and judgment of God, however, Jesus Christ came, as a human, lived righteously, because we could not. When He was placed on the cross, he took our sins, in exchange we received His righteousness upon His resurrection from the dead. This is how our faith, in Christ, makes us right with God. Thus, this is the message of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. 1992. Introduction to the New Testament. 289-303. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Chilton, Bruce and Deirdre Good. 2011. Studying the New Testament: A Fortress Introduction. 66-69. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Dulles, Avery. “Faith and Revelation.” In Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives. Edited by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin. 79-108. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Elwell, Walter and Robert W. Yarbrough. 1998. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. 296-303. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535). Translated by Theodore Graebner. Kindle edition.
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch. 2006. Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. 177-218. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Sproul, R. C. (2014). Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. 233-236. Orlando: Reformation Trust.
Tenney, Merrill C. 1973. Galatians: The Charter of Christian Liberty. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Theissen, Gerd. 2003. Fortress Introduction to the New Testament. Translated by John Bowden. 62-66. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
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