Sunday, June 23, 2013

Some More In-Depth Notes on Galatians 3:1-18

Basically, this is a revised, more in-depth version of parts of this previous post, this time focusing in on the first 18 verses of Galatians 3 and with some other applications:

To understand what’s going on in this passage (and much of the book), we have to understand the Old Testament background – the basic narrative of the people of God – that Paul, in line with other Jewish writers of the time, would have been presupposing as he writes.  As the narrative goes, Adam and Eve messed up and sin entered the world.  God then chooses Abraham to begin his rescue operation – to defeat sin and death and create a new humanity, a loving family, out of all the nations on earth.  The means will be through Abraham’s descendants – they will be the beginning of that family, through which others will also join into it, and sin will be taken care of.  Once Abraham’s descendants are many, God, in order to proceed with the rescue operation, redeems them and gives them a covenant with instructions as to how to live within that covenant (the law) so as to bring others into the family.  But these descendants, Israel, fail in their vocation and suffer the consequences of violation of the covenant – the curse of the law, which is exile and suffering.  The prophets foretell that return from exile, the lifting of the curse, is coming and that this will usher in the completion of God’s rescue operation (the age to come/kingdom of God/restoration of all things as it gets variously called) – Israel’s vocation will be completed, the Spirit poured out on God’s people, sin and death defeated, and all nations will join together in one family along with Israel.  Yet, when they return to the land geographically, they are forced to acknowledge that the prophecies have not been completely fulfilled – they are still in spiritual exile, not fully restored, and God’s rescue operation has not been completed.  Here the Old Testament ends.  Now enter Jesus, who Paul and other early Christians saw as the one who completed Israel’s vocation – as the true king and earthly representative of his people (the True Israel), he took their plight and their mission upon himself, suffering and completing their curse and exile in his own person and thus bringing about the promised restoration, thus paving the way for the Spirit and opening the way for all nations to come into the family as prophesied. 

The point of Galatians 3:1-14, then, is all about what time it is – it is not the time before the coming of the restoration/kingdom of God, for Christ has changed everything and it is now the prophesied time of the ingathering of the nations into God’s people.  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.  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” (ek pisteos) and those who are “out of works of the law” (ex ergon nomou).  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 and who would be living with their identity marked out by 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.  The quote from Deuteronomy is, in its original context, part of a broader set of passages about Israel’s disobedience and the predicted result of exile.  In other words, 3:10 gives us the following reasoning: if Israel fails to abide by the law, it is cursed/under exile; Israel has in fact failed in that regard (as Leviticus and Deuteronomy predict and Joshua-II Kings (and the prophets) repeat over and over); hence, as the Old Testament affirms, Israel has been cursed/under exile. 

In 3:11, Paul quotes from Habakkuk.  In its original context, this quote comes again in the context of exile.  Habakkuk begins with lamenting over the deplorable state of God’s people, to which God replies that Babylon will come and basically destroy them (Babylon took them into exile).  Habakkuk then laments over this and God replies that Babylon will itself receive judgment, thus presenting a glimmer of hope.  In the midst of this, we find the quote noting that the identity of the true Israelite, the one who is right with God, by contrast with the Babylonians, will be one founded on faith.  In other words, for Paul, 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 – which says that we are Abraham’s seed).  That is, God promised Abraham a single family, the promised seed, which begins with Israel.  Jesus takes on Israel’s destiny as the true Israel/seed, so that those who have him as their representative also take on that identity as part of the people of God.  This shows that the ethnic-specific aspects of the law were never meant for God’s whole people forever.

In other words, Christ’s roles as promised seed and as curse breaker are really the same – he is being the true Israel, taking on both Israel’s punishment and its mission in himself and fulfilling both so that all nations could have a place in him – that is, in his family with himself as head and representative so that what is true of him may be true of us.  We are to follow his example, bringing people from all nations into God’s family and not excluding or ignoring based on irrelevant factors like culture, preferred worship style, etc.  It is Christ’s faithfulness, formed now in us as our own faithfulness to God, that provides us with our identity as part of God’s people, not any of those other things.  And as Christ took on responsibility for his people even when he did not himself sin, so we too can follow his example and take responsibility for the sins of our own groups, whether racial, ethnic, religious, or any other kind of group we may belong to.  This may involve apologizing or trying to make repairs for something we were not involved in (e.g., the legacy of slavery and racism, crusades, past misdeeds of the US, etc.), but it is what Jesus himself modeled for us with his own ethnic and religious group. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Why We Shouldn't Use the Word "Legalism"

Regarding my previous post, I'd like to make a qualification to my statement that Galatians 3 is not "about legalism".  The qualification would be that it really depends on what we mean by "legalism".  As it is normally used, "legalism" does not really have a strict definition - it is more a term of abuse - everyone says something different when asked to define what they mean by it.  In actuality, it is used of anything involving rules and which we do not like.  For instance: X says we should follow rule Y, but I don't like Y - legalism!  X applies Y in a way I do not like - legalism!  X applies Y in a way I do in fact like - ...NOT legalism....

The word therefore is not useful except to register one's disagreement and maybe to vilify what one disagrees with.  It does not tell us why you disagree with it - it's simply an easy way to condemn and scorn something by sticking it with a bad name, yet without actually giving any substantive reasons why we should think it is wrong.  This is argument through persuasive labeling, not actual reasoning.

But not only is using the word pretty useless, it can actually also be harmful (and, yes, I have in fact seen versions of what I'm about to describe - this isn't purely just made up).  Our preacher in a sermon we listen to might define the term as carefully as he can - say, in way W - and show that something A is legalistic in that sense and then go on to say some bad stuff P about A (or those who do A) because of W applying.  Now suppose we run across some new behavior B involving rules and we do not like it - we will not remember and use our "legalism" terms in way W like the preacher did but rather in the normal way as a term of abuse and will apply it to B even though, say, it doesn't fit with W.  So we will apply "legalism" to B and, because of the sermon, will associate P with B even though W doesn't apply as it did with A. 

Example: Suppose W has to do with trying to earn salvation apart from Christ through following certain pagan rules.  And suppose P is something like lacking true salvation in Christ.  We will remember, after the sermon, that "legalism" is associated with lack of salvation and, seeing someone, say, tell someone else that Christians shouldn't dance (a stance we don't like), we will be tempted to doubt that person's salvation since they are engaged in "legalism".  And then, of course, someone might disagree with us and think we are legalistic and in danger of not being saved.  And then someone else might disagree with them about that, and so on.  So we might have a mess.

In other words, let's stop using "legalism" and actually give reasons for what we disagree with instead of vilifying people and positions with that label.  (As an aside, in theology, I think "supersessionism" is another term like this - a term of vilification used for any view we don't like involving how Christians view Christian stuff in relation Jewish stuff and which puts Christian stuff in a good light)