More than any other book in the New Testament, including perhaps even Romans, Paul's letter to the Galatians has been the source of theological teaching for the church in the midst of its deepest crises. Already in the original context of the letter, the Judaizing heresy threatened to undermine the work of the gospel among the Gentile churches and thus destroy the unity of God's people. In the second century, as the Christian church struggled with the Marcionite heresy, Galatians played a central role in the controversy. Much later, at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Protestant leaders identified in this letter the key to the fundamental theological problems facing them. Just what is the teaching of Paul's letter to the Galatians?
If we wish to answer that question accurately, we must not dissociate the theology of the letter from the historical setting in which it was written. All of Paul's letters were written to deal with specific problems, but in the case of Galatians the situation was especially urgent. The crisis was so great that Paul begins the letter, not with the kind of thanksgiving he normally used, but with an expression of amazement that the churches of Galatia had been persuaded by certain teachers to follow a false gospel ( 1:6 ). These teachers argued that Gentile Christians, if they wanted to share in Abraham's blessing, must be circumcised and submit themselves to the Old Testament Law. Because this requirement contradicted the message Paul preached, the false teachers also claimed that Paul did not have proper authority.
Traditionally, interpreters have divided the letter into three sections. The first section (chaps. 1-2), in which Paul defends his authority, is historical in character; the second is theological (chap. 3-4); and the final two chapters are practical or hortatory. While this division is useful, it may give the wrong impression, as though chapters 1-2 and 5-6 were not theological (or as though the first four chapters were not practical!). In fact this epistle is forcefully theological from beginning to end. Already in the salutation, which is longer than usual, Paul addresses the major issues, such as the divine origin of his apostleship and the redeeming character of Christ's work. The rest of chapters 1 and 2, true, are written in the form of a narrative, but even this section is fundamentally concerened with "the truth of the gospel" ( 2:5 ): the reason Paul must defend his apostleship is that the integrity of the Christian message is at stake. Moreover, the practical or ethical thrust of chapters 5-6 cannot be dissociated from the theological questions in view. In the past, scholars have tended to view Paul's exhortations in this letter as more or less "tacked on, " but recent studies have demonstrated that such a perspective is inadequate.
The thesis of chapters 1-2but in a general sense also of the letter as a wholeis stated in 1:11-12: the message the Galatians heard from Paul has a divine, not a human, origin. This point is set forth very emphatically in verses 15-16. Just as God had chosen Jeremiah even before his birth ( Jer 1:5 ), so Paul's ministry and message were the result of divine initiative and grace. Neither Paul's pre-Christian experience (vv. 13-14) nor his first years as a Christian (vv. 17-24) can explain the origin of his gospel. Moreover, it was not trueas his opponents probably claimedthat the integrity of his preaching had been compromised on two specific occasionshis consultation with the leaders of the Jerusalem church ( 2:1-10 ) and his confrontation with Peter in Antioch ( 2:11-14 ).
This last incident is of special significance, because it leads Paul to address the theological issue in a very explicit way ( 2:15-21 ). The moment Peter decided to stop having meal-fellowship with the Gentile Christians, he was in fact suggesting that they could not be fully accepted into God's people without first becoming Jewish. But such a view would contradict the very faith that Peter himself proclaimed. When Peter put his faith in Christ, he was acknowledging that even Jewish people (who were not considered "sinners" in the same way the Gentiles were) could not expect to be justified by fulfilling the requirements of the Mosaic Law. In other words, by seeking salvation in Christ, Peter was recognizing that he was as needy a sinner as the Gentiles were. Therfore, it was quite proper to break down the barriers of Jewish ceremonies and to eat with the Gentiles.
But now, afraid of what some Jews might think, Peter had decided to go back to his earlier and stricter Jewish conduct ( 2:12 ). By breaking meal-fellowship with the Gentiles, Paul charged, Peter was in effect building up what he had already torn down, and that made him a transgressor of the law ( 2:18 ; Paul says "I" perhaps to be polite, but Peter clearly is in view). How can Paul make such a claim? Because the Law itself, he says, leads people to die to the Law ( 2:19 )a remarkable and powerful statement that he develops in 3:19-24. This death, however, results in true life through Jesus Christ. The concluding statement ( 2:21 ) reveals Paul's true motivation: if our actions indicate that justification can be reached by the observance of the Law, then Christ's death must have been unnecessary and the doctrine of grace is subverted.
We get a new insight into the nature of the Galatian problem in the first few verses of chapter 3. There Paul describes the change in behavior among the Christians of Galatia by suggesting that, although they had begun in the power of the Spirit are now seeking to complete their salvation by means of the flesh. This contrast between Spirit and flesh is very important for Paul, especially in this letter. The word "flesh" is appropriate because of the Judaizers' emphasis on circumcision ( 6:12-13 ), but it also suggests the weakness of human nature and thus our inability to please God (cf. Rom 8:7 ). At the end of chapter 4 Paul uses the same two terms to contrast the birth of Ishmael (by natural human abilities) with that of Isaac (by the supernatural power of the spirit in fulfillment of the promise). Accordingly, the term "flesh" becomes shorthand to describe the character of the present evil world (a phrase used in 1:4 ), that is, everything that is opposite the world to come, which in turn is represented by the Spirit.
The world of the Spirit, however, is a world of faith, not of works of the law. If the Galatians really want to share in the Abrahamic inheritanceif they really want to be regarded as Abraham's childrenthey must live by faith as Abraham did ( Galatians 3:6-7 Galatians 3:29 ). Perhaps the Judaizers claimed that Paul created a contradition between the Abrahamic promise and the Mosic Law. In fact, says the apostle, it is the Judaizers who oppose these two principles. When God gave the Law four centuries after Abraham, he could not have intended that Law to alter the promise. But if the Judiazers were right, that is, if the inheritance could be received by the works of the Law, then the Law would be against the promise, which can only be had by faith ( 3:12-21 ).
No, the real purpose of the Law was temporary: to function as a guardian or jailor, condemning the sin of the Israelites, and thus preparing the way for Christ. Once Christ comes, the new age of faith breaks in and we do not need a guardian. It is union with Christ by faith that makes us not merely children of Abraham, but also children of God. All of this means that, so far as our standing with God is concerened, there are no differences among God's children: we are all one in Christ ( 3:22-28 ; 4:4-7 ).
In the course of his argument, Paul sets up a sharp distinction between two modes of existence, represented by various concepts. Reflecting on these contrasts provides significant insights into Paul's theology.
Works of the law
Sin and death
Justification and life
Hagar the slave woman
[Sarah] the free woman
Sinai and present Jerusalem
Jerusalem from above
Being under law
Being led by the Spirit
Works of the flesh
Fruit of the Spirit
The last two sets of items occur in the hortatory section, particularly in 5:13-26. As already suggested, the practical concerns of the epistle are woven into its theological message. Paul's concern with the behavior of the Galatian Christians, that is, must not be viewed as an ethical question more or less unrelated to the doctrinal conflict they were facing. It may be that the emphasis on Law-keeping, which focused on ceremonial regulations, ironically made them insensitive to serious moral issues. Or perhaps they were simply confused about proper guidelines for godly conduct and the means to sanctification.
Whatever the precise circumstances behind the Galatians' problem, Paul's answer suggests that the Law does indeed represent accurately God's will for them (5:14); however, the Law gives no power to fulfill the divine will (as suggested by 5:18 ; cf. 3:21 ; and Rom 8:3 ; elsewhere Paul points out that the Law actually abets sin, Rom 7:7-13 ; 1 Col 15:56 ). The only way to conquer the impulses of the flesh is to "walk" in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to bear the fruit of the Spirit, to "keep in step" with the Spirit ( Galatians 5:16 Galatians 5:18 Galatians 5:22 Galatians 5:25 ). This emphasis on the power of the Spirit for sanctification raises the possibility that back in 3:3 Paul was already thinking about the ethical conduct of the Galatians. Their moral lives as much as their submission to ceremonial rules indicated a serious lapse in their relationship with God.
Central in this discussion is 5:6, one of the most important statements in all of Paul's letters: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." The phrase "expressing itself" translates the Greek verb energeo, "to work, be effective." It is evident that in opposing faith to the works of the law, the apostle does not view faith as a passive idea. On the contrary, true faith is at work through love. A comparison of this verse with 6:15 and 1co 7:19 suggests that, in Paul's theology, the principle of a working faith corresponds to the concept of the "new creation" and to the responsibility of "keeping the commadments of God." Because the leading of the Spirit produces conduct that the Law does not condemn (5:23), by implication those who live by the Spirit are the ones who truly fulfill the Law (cf. also 6:2 ; and Rom 8:4 ).
For some scholars, such an emphasis in this part of Galatians does not cohere with Paul's negative statements about the Law in the earlier sections of the letter. What needs to be recognized, however, is that the discussion in chapter 3 was not intended to provide a comprehensive essay on "the Pauline theology of the Law" (several aspects of that theology, not covered at all in Galatians, do surface in some of the other letters). The controversy that motivated Paul to write Galatians focused specifically on the relationship between the Law and justification. While Paul affirms that the believer is justified apart from the Law, he nowhere suggests that we are therefore free to break that Law. If anything, the gospel confirms the Law (cf. Gal 3:21 ; with Rom 3:31 ).
An additional question has been raised by recent scholarship. During the second half of the twentieth century, researchers have gained a fresh understanding of the positive qualities in Jewish theology at the time of the New Testament. It is clear, for example, that much rabbinic teaching appreciated the biblical emphasis on divine grace and that the Pharisees did not necessarily have a crass view of "works righteousness." On that basis, some theologians have argued that Protestant theology was misguided by Luther's own conversion experience. The medieval doctrine of human merit, we are told, was read into ancient Judaism and that affected our interpretation of Paul. According to this new approach, Paul did not really oppose the concepts of faith and Law-obedience. What he argued against in Galatians and elsewhere was the tendency to take the distinguishing marks of Judaism (circumcision, food laws, etc.) and use them to exclude Gentiles from God's purposes.
Undoubtedly, the Jewish-Gentile question was the fundamental issue facing early Christianity, and it may well be that the sixteenth-century Reformers did not sufficiently appreciate that factor as they sought to interpret Galatians. On the other hand, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the insights of the Protestant Reformation are incompatible with a recognition of such a factor. To say that Paul was concerened with nationalistic pride and not with personal self-righteousness is to fall into a false dichotomy (as Php 3:3-9 ; plainly indicates ). The Judaizers who were troubling the Galatian churches indeed focused on Jewish ethnic-religious identity as the means of enjoying the divine blessings. But because such an identity is something that can be achieved by personal effort (the "flesh"), the attempt to gain it reflects not confidence in God (faith) but confidence in one's own righteousness.
Today, no less than in the first century, Paul's letter to the Galatians reminds believers about the inseparability of theology and life. By setting forth in clearest terms what is "the truth of the gospel, " the apostle was able, under divine direction, to preserve the glorious doctrine of salvation by grace.
Bibliography. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galations; J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law; D. Guthrie, Galatians; W. Neil, The Letter of Paul to the Galatians; J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Galatians, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".