Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Some Notes on Galatians 3

I wrote these up for the pastor doing sermon prep at my church and then discussed some of this during the weekly sermon-prep study group thing that happens at our church.  Obviously, not all of this is uncontroversial (what in Galatians interpretation isn't?!), but it's the best sense I could make of the text after a long time spent wrestling through it.  Perceptive readers will probably note a lot of influence from N.T. Wright and other narrative-oriented scholars here, though the interpretation at the end of the day is still my own. 


The general idea of Galatians 3, in my opinion, is this: What time is it?  Prior to Christ, the Law had an old function but this was only to prepare for Christ.  Now that Christ has come, the old function is completed and in the past.  The Galatians, however, are treating the old function as still in play, as if Christ had not come.  This is hence tantamount to a denial that Christ has come and brought the kingdom, fulfilling God’s promises to bring blessing through his people to all nations – a denial of the gospel.  The old function was necessary and needed prior to Christ but that time is past!

In other words, this does not say that the Law is bad or that its rules were overburdensome or bad or that the Law did not reveal God’s will or that there is no function left to the Law in governing Christian conduct or that Christians should not have rules to follow – no first century Jew, least of all Paul, would agree with any of that (Paul over and over endorses many rules and even says that both Christ and believers do fulfill the Law, which in its current function he calls the “law of Christ”), though these are “lessons” Christians often get from taking Galatians out of context.  Nor is this about legalism or earning salvation – it is about whether we live in acknowledgment of Christ and his work or instead live as if it has not yet happened, as if the kingdom had not been begun by Christ on earth and the promises of God fulfilled in him.  For the Judaizers this meant ignoring that Christ had come to make a single people out of Gentiles and Jews in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, requiring that the people be confined to Jews only.  Again, this was not about rules but about ethnicity and about one’s place in salvation history – the Judaizers were placing themselves and the Galatians in the wrong act of the play, so to speak.

For us today this might involve denying the power of God and the presence of the kingdom in our lives or denying that we too have been granted the Spirit of God in accordance with his promises.  We act as if we have not been redeemed or as if we do not have the resources of God in our daily lives.  We act as if the kingdom has not begun in Christ and in us and hence put it into the future and do not take responsibility for our part in it.  Or, like the Judaizers, we deny that Christ came to make a single family of all the families of the earth, and require that everyone look like, act like, or talk like us.

Paul in Galatians wants the Galatians to understand what time it is and not to live as if it was a previous time.  The Spirit of God is a gift of the kingdom and associated with Christ’s time, made available by his crucifixion, and not the previous time, something Paul emphasizes in 3:1-14.  If it is the eschatological gift of the age to come, then it is not associated with being a Jew (“works of the law”), which would instead associate it with the previous epoch.  The promise to Abraham was blessing for all nations as those nations, not as Jews – a promise of a single family made of Jews and all other nations.  Since this promise has been and has begun to be fulfilled by Jesus in his crucifixion, being a Jew and doing the works of the law cannot be tied necessarily to the reception of the Spirit.  Instead, it is trust and faithfulness to God that marks one out as a member of God’s people, not one’s ethnicity since the family is to be from every ethnicity on earth. 

Paul contrasts in this passage those who are “out of faith” and those who are “out of works of the law”.  These phrases get translated in English various ways – “rely on the works of the law”, “take their identity from works of the law”, etc. are various alternatives in the translations of “out of works of the law”.  These are fine as long as “rely on” is not taken to mean “rely on for salvation” or “rely on to earn salvation” since that would be an over-interpretation and does not actually fit the context, where – if we want to speak of “relying on” at all – it is a matter of people relying on works of the law to display their identity as God’s people (in other words, relying on their ethnicity to show that they are members of God’s people).  For Paul, who are the ones who are “out of works of the law”? Israel, of course – they are the ones to whom God gave the works of the law.  However, by putting its faith in Christ, ethnic Israel is able to become part of those who are “out of faith” – whose identity is determined by faith, not by ethnicity. 

This begins to make sense of verses 10-14, then, since the idea here is not an individualistic focus but one on Israel as an ethnic group.  In 3:10, we find that Israel is under a curse – the curse of the law, the exile which the Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish writings all declare to have ended geographically but not spiritually or in regards to the full restoration of God’s blessings and the ingathering of the Gentiles which was to come from this.  Israel has not been restored or come out from God’s wrath for its failure to abide by its covenant as enshrined in the Law.  In other words, if Israel fails to abide by the Law, it is cursed; Israel has in fact failed in that regard (as Joshua-II Kings repeat over and over); hence, as the Old Testament affirms, Israel has been cursed.  The quote from Habakkuk comes in the context of Israel’s unrighteousness and subsequent exile and the future need for a new identity based on faith.  So coming out from the curse will involve a new era of faith-based identity. 

The Law belongs to the old era, however, as Paul emphasizes in 3:12.  In 3:13-14 Paul says that that era is past – the new era has come through Christ.  Christ brought a new exodus (note the Exodus word “redemption” here) – a return or restoration from the curse of the law/Israel’s exile suffered by Israel (“us” here refers to Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians).  The blessing to the nations, which was to flow from Abraham’s descendants, had been blocked by their own sin, which brought the curse.  But now that Christ has exhausted the curse in his own self, taking Israel’s exile/curse onto himself on their behalf, that has opened the way now for the blessing to come to the Gentiles as well.  In other words, the restoration of Israel, the time of faith-based identity, and hence the gathering in of the Gentiles into a single people of God (and the pouring out of the Spirit) has come, and this has been fulfilled through Christ’s sacrificial death on behalf of Israel. 

3:15-18 is basically about how there was meant to be a single people made of both Jews and Gentiles, not just Jews, and that one should not misread the purpose of the law as if it was meant forever to exclude Gentiles and thus cancel the promise.  The earlier promise of a single people out of both takes precedence and is fulfilled in Christ, who takes on the role of the single people (Abraham’s seed) as their representative and king and hence all who are in him are part of that seed, whether Jew or Gentile (3:29).  This shows that the ethnic-specific aspects of the law were never meant for God’s whole people forever.

In 3:19-29 Paul tells us that the law did have a legitimate function prior to Christ but that the time for that function is over.  3:19 says that the law was added “because of transgressions”.  This cannot mean that it was to restrain transgression since, as Paul states in Romans, there is no transgression without the law (since transgression = sin + law).  Instead, the law creates transgression, it turns sin into law-breaking by making Israel aware of that sin as against God’s will and turns it into explicit rebellion against God.  In the words of Romans, it makes sin “utterly sinful”.  Paul picks up more on what this means a bit further on, but maintains that this function was meant to continue until Christ and the single people of God had come.  The law came via Moses as a mediator.  Verse 20 is difficult but should read something like N.T. Wright’s translation: “He, however, is not the mediator of the ‘one’ – but God is one!”  In other words there is only one God and hence he desires one single people – but Moses was not the mediator of that one single people since that people was still to come. 

The law, however, is not contrary to the establishment of that single family, despite all Paul has said so far.  The bringing in of righteousness and the establishment of God’s promises – the law could not bring these about because of sin.  Instead, the law both condemns and incubates Israel so that, as a result of exhausting the curse laid on Israel by the law, Christ, through his faithfulness to the covenant in doing what Israel could not because of the sin which blocked it (3:22, in the Greek, says “the promise by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”, not, as in most 20th-century translations, “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ”), brought the promise of a single family to fulfillment, a family marked out by faith, not ethnicity.  Prior to that time, as verse 23 indicates (that is, prior to Christ, not prior to an individual’s reception of faith – that is too individualistic of a reading here and out of context), Israel (note the “we” here again referring to Paul and his fellow Jews) was kept incubated or quarantined by the law.  The law made sin into transgression but also taught the people God’s will (and actually turned sin into even more sinful transgression precisely by teaching this) and helped to keep them separate from other nations. 

But now the time of faith has arrived – the Law, which watched over Israel until Christ (it does not say “to lead us to Christ” – “lead us” is not in the Greek but is read in as an individualistic, subjective reading) has reached its goal not in marking out God’s people by ethnicity but by faith.  And with faith comes the end of the old function of the law in keeping Israel separate to prepare for Christ.  All, Jews and Gentiles, are God’s people marked out by faith since it is now the time of the kingdom as foretold.  Christ, the one seed, the fulfiller of all the promises, is our representative and hence we are inheritors of those promises, the fulfillers of them – in Christ, there is a single people of God as God intended there to be.  Being Jewish or Gentile does not matter – all are equally part of God’s family – to which, Paul also adds that gender and social status are not determinative either.  There is one people, Abraham’s seed, marked out by faith alone – not by denomination, not by how we decide to use the word “justification”, not by race or ethnicity or gender or social status, not by culture or label, but by faith pure and simple.  The gospel is that Jesus is Lord – he has brought the kingdom of God, the new coming age, and we should not deny that in word or action.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Short Science and God Presentation Notes

Some brief working notes I used to put together my 10 minute presentation I gave at Cornerstone Fellowship's Faith and Doubt event.  Fitting these sorts of things into 10 minutes is pretty difficult and, obviously, a lot has to be left out:

*“Science has disproven the existence of God”
Usually the idea is that we have no use for God.  Laplace: “I have no use for that hypothesis”.  The Big Bang gives us the origin of the universe and evolution the origin of living things.  So no room for God – we can explain the existence of things using only physical stuff and natural laws.

Several responses:
1)      Suppose the Big Bang and evolution are correct explanations of the universe and life.  God could still be the Creator since he could have used the Big Bang and evolution to create.  Just because someone uses a tool to make something doesn’t mean that they aren’t the one who made it.  Big Bang/evolution could be the tools God used.
2)      There are some things science cannot explain using only natural things (physical stuff and natural laws).  For example, natural things might not have existed and so need an explanation outside of themselves.  Science, then, cannot explain why there are any natural things at all by appealing to more natural things since those are part of what needs explaining – you can explain some natural things in terms of others, but not why there are any at all in the first place.  (Like trying to explain why there is any cereal in your house by saying you got the cereal in your bowl from the box in your cupboard – you’ve explained how some of the cereal got in your bowl, but not how any cereal got in your house in the first place)   Natural things cannot explain this, but God can.
3)      Science actually offers us evidence of God.  There is evidence everywhere that the universe was designed to support complex life.  If any of the most basic laws of physics, for example, or the basic values that show up in their equations, were slightly off, life would not be possible.  Without electromagnetic forces, for instance, we could not have chemistry and without chemistry, there could be no life.  Since the universe is so exactly fit for life and this is much more likely if it was designed than if not, we have good evidence for design.

Notes on ideas that didn't make it into the presentation:
* God is not, for the Christian, a theoretical postulate!  We don’t think up God merely in order to fill in some gap in our understanding of the world.  God is a person with whom we have a relationship – a someone we know, not a something we know about.  Ex: My mom is not some entity I posit to explain certain bizarre phenomena such as cell phone transmissions, birthday cards, past experiences, etc.  Not something I know about merely as an inference based on evidence but someone I know through my relationship with them.

* Suppose we did, however, explain how something in the physical universe works only in terms of physical stuff and natural laws.  Is there now no room for God in explaining it?  No – a fully physical explanations and a divine one are not mutually exclusive. 
Ordinary Christian thought: No contradiction between “The doctor saved my life” and “God saved my life” (contrast with some faith healing groups).  Bible accounts with same idea
* Not only are there tons of events which have no predetermined physical explanation and are not determined by natural laws (quantum mechanics), but even if there weren’t, we must remember that God is the creator and sustainer of everything that is not God – he not only created space, time, matter, etc. but every second, every event, every natural law, everything that is, is directly dependent for its existence on God.  God is the source of natural laws and the one who sustains them in place.  Anytime any physical things interact by virtue of natural laws, God is there.  Colossians – all things held together by him.  Acts – in him, we live and move and have our being.  When the doctor saves the patient, God is there sustaining the natural laws and physical interactions that will make that a success, even if everything is just going according to physics.  God works under and through natural processes.
* (1) Science cannot use God in its theories (methodological naturalism).  (2) Science gives/will give/can give a complete, unified, fully accurate picture of the whole world.  BUT: If 2 and there IS a God, science must include God, so 1 is only true if no God.  And so if 1, 2 is true only if no God.  So cannot accept BOTH 1 and 2 without already showing God does not exist – at most, can accept one of these.  2 wildly optimistic anyway.