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. 

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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.

2 comments:

James Jordan said...

Just admit what you really think: Paul was wrong.

After all, the Jews did not descend from Hagar and the Gentiles did not descend from Sarah. But the Muslims, taking Paul literally, actually believe the Jews descended from Hagar and the Ishmaelites from Sarah! Its one reason they hate Jews. Paul's "allegory" (really a complete reversal of the literal text) is only good for fomenting anti-semitism. It can't prove the point that Paul is trying to make because the objection is always at hand 'Paul, you reversed the text: that's not a valid interpretation.' The same can often be said of Paul's proof-texting: he hardly ever gets a text right. We can always say, 'no, that's not what that passage means, Paul.' When he gets off on his rants against the Law, his interpretations get even sillier. Poor silly Paul.

D. Ian Spencer said...

Er, no, I don't think Paul was wrong; I'm not sure why you would think that I think that. You don't seem to even have read my post since you're making comments on a different chapter of Galatians than the one I covered.
As far as Paul's use of Hagar and Sarah are concerned, you seem to have completely missed the point that it is in fact an allegory, not an interpretation of the text. Paul does not think that the Jews are literally descended from Hagar and the Gentiles from Sarah, nor is he trying to use the story as a proof - it is an illustration of his views, not an attempt to foist this off as the one true interpretation of the Genesis passage. Again, he is USING it to allegorically make his point.
As far as "proof-texting" is concerned, I couldn't disagree more. When Paul quotes a text, there are a number of things to keep in mind: Paul, in giving Scriptural quotes could be up to a number of things; he could be using it as an illustration and not interpreting it, he could be using the words with his own meaning without intending this to be an interpretation of the text itself, he could be using the text in conjunction with other beliefs and principles to derive something else without explicitly stating those other beliefs and principles (and hence, again, is NOT in fact giving an interpretation of the text itself), as in many NT quotes of Scripture he may in fact have in mind the wider passage from which it is drawn and hence is not in fact offering an interpretation of that verse he quotes alone but rather is drawing from the whole passage, he may be abstracting some principle from the specifics of the verse at hand rather than interpreting it, etc. I think once you actually take into the account the very large variety of what Paul or any other writer may be doing when quoting from Scripture rather than simply assuming without argument that they must be offering what they believe to be THE interpretation of that single quote in isolation without any other input, etc., then Paul turns out to actually be a fairly good exegete of Scripture. Oh, and I don't think Paul has any rants against the Law - you are reading him wrong. Paul is not against the Law. This may be why you think his interpretations are silly. That and you seem to think everything he says about Scripture is an interpretation. Sorry, as a Christian, I actually like and respect Paul and in fact agree with him. My academic studies have only confirmed his amazing acumen in dealing with Scriptures rather than showing them or him to be poor or silly. I realize you might not agree with any of this and I have not argued here for my own viewpoint but hopefully you can understand why I disagree with most of what you said in your comment.