Formations 10.01.2017: Freedom Resisted

Galatians 1:1-12

The introduction to Galatians from an illuminated manuscript. (Wikimedia Commons)

As Paul introduces his letter to the Galatians, he speaks of “another gospel” preached in their community. It is, he says, “not really another gospel” but an attempt “to change the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). Paul quickly and assuredly rejects this other gospel so as to preserve the one that “delivered us [set us free,” NRSV] from this present evil age” (v. 4).

This week we begin a five-week exploration of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Without a doubt, we should follow Paul’s commitment to freedom, but as we do so, it may be fruitful to recognize some tensions that arise within the text and in conversations surrounding it.

First, both Paul and his opponents describe their messages as gospels. Their messages are certainly different, which explains their conflict, but all who preach in Galatia understand their messages to be gospels of Jesus Christ. This invites us to ask how we can tell the difference between true and false gospels. But it also invites us to consider the gospels that we each proclaim.

Second, the content of the two gospels in Galatians isn’t always clear. Traditional interpretation, at least by Protestant standards, has seen Paul’s message as one of salvation by grace. On the other hand, his opponents preached works-based righteousness. But over the last century, this perspective has come into question.

A growing number of New Testament scholars see obedience to the law, not as a path to salvation, but as a response to the covenant as well as a mark of inclusion in the covenant community. Along these lines, Paul’s message in Galatians has less to do with salvation and more to do with Gentile inclusion. His opponents believed Gentiles who followed Jesus needed to embrace certain marks of Jewish identity in order to be included. Paul believed that Gentiles only needed to embrace Christ to be included in the covenant community. And more than likely, looking more deeply into our traditions would yield even more ways to understand this conflict.

And finally, this letter asks us to consider how we relate our particular experiences with universal truth. Do those experiences and practices which provide us with freedom and meaning offer the same to everyone? Both Paul and his opponents, in line with a significant strain of Jewish thought, believed that all people, not just the community of Israel, could experience God’s liberating work. But they struggled, as do we, with how to understand the role that their own particular religious beliefs and practices played in this universal promise.

Paul’s concern with freedom, which we hear so strongly in this introduction, will guide us over the next few weeks. But as Paul shows us that not all visions for the gospel are equal, we know that not all visions of freedom are the same either.

We use the language of freedom to describe many parts of our lives—our political lives, our economic lives, our spiritual lives. It can be used to describe theft and mercy, as we might take goods for free or we might receive them for free.

Chance the Rapper brings our attention to these many dimensions of freedom. In the first verse of “Blessings,” he says, “I don’t make songs for free, I make them for freedom.”

Interestingly, Chance marked a new point in commercial music by winning the 2017 Grammy awards for best new artist, best rap performance, and best rap album without selling any physical copies. Instead, his record was free for people to stream in any number of places online.

So it is in this line that he points to the many dimensions of freedom. It references personal costs that come with this work. It questions a vision of freedom that is only interested in consumption. And finally, it points to a fuller vision of freedom.

As we listen to Paul preach on Christian freedom in Galatians, what visions of freedom will shape how we listen? Even more, in what parts of our lives will Paul help us to seek and sow freedom?

Discussion

• What conditions in your own life and in your community’s life oppose experiences of freedom?
• In what ways are individual experiences of freedom and oppression connected to communal experiences of freedom and oppression?
• What gospels of freedom do you see at work in the world? What other gospels do you see?
• How have you experienced the liberation that Christ brings? How can you help to bring this freedom more fully?

Reference Shelf

Paul and the Law

Paul’s comments on the Law have caused debate right to the present time. Hardly anything derogatory was said about the Law by other NT writers, but Paul made surprisingly negative statements about the Law. In his theology the Law brings a curse (Gal 3:13), is not a means to being declared righteous before God (Rom 3:20), works wrath (Rom 4:15), actually leads to the increase of sin (Rom 5:20), is associated with sin to create transgression and death (Rom 7:8-11), is the power of sin (1 Cor 15:56), becomes a tyrant from which people need to be freed (Rom 7:1, 6), and has a ministry of condemnation (2 Cor 3:9).

At the same time Paul mad the most positive statements about the Law. The Law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good (Rom 7:12). The Law is spiritual (Rom 7:14) and gives knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20). The righteous requirement of the Law is to be fulfilled (Rom 8:4) and doing the Law as opposed to merely hearing it is a factor in being declared righteous (Rom 2:13). Contrary to what is often asserted, Paul did not argue that Christ brought the Law to an end. In Rom 3:31 Paul asserted that his understanding of faith did not nullify the Law; rather it established the Law. Rom 10:4 is the verse cited most often to show Paul vied the Law as obsolete, but this verse should probably be translated “For Christ is the goal (telos) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (cf. the use of “goal,” telos, in 1 Tim 1:5).

Paul quoted the Law as validation for his arguments (Gal 3:13). He expected people to obey its ethical injunctions and saw the Lord as encapsulated in the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Rom 13:8-10). Paul did not explain how he made distinctions in the Law, but he clearly did. He saw the love command as universally binding, but he rejected the Law’s focus on circumcision, food laws, and sabbath keeping. Apparently those items that separated Jews from gentiles were the items he saw as no longer binding. The Law was no longer determinative; Jesus Christ was. In fact, Paul saw Christian acts of love as fulfilling the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).

One key to understanding Paul’s statements on the Law is in seeing the context in which Law is placed. When viewed in connection with sin and flesh (by which Paul means humanity apart from God), the Law is negative. It brings people to subjection and death. But this is contrary to God’s intention. The Law has, in fact, become a tool that sin has commandeered to cause rebellion and transgression (Rom 7:7-13). When, however, the Law is viewed (as God intended) in connection with faith and God’s Spirit, then the Law is positive and is to be lived (Rom 8:4).

Klyne R. Snodgrass, “Law in the New Testament,” The Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et. al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 502.

Another Gospel

What did this group advocate that evoked from Paul such a passionate response? Three times in the letter the expression “compel to be circumcised” is used (2:3, 14; 6:12), indicating that one of the essential tenets of their teaching was the necessity for non-Jews to be circumcised in order to be fully members of the family of God.

In Gal 3:6-29, in a complex argument involving Old Testament texts, Paul responds to the demand for circumcision. He sets out to answer the question, which the agitators themselves may have initially raised, “Who are Abraham’s descendants?” No doubt the agitators answered that those who are circumcised are the true offspring of Abraham (cf. Gen 17:9-14). Using Gen 15:6 and 12:3 as his key texts, Paul argues instead that people of faith, those who belong to Christ, are Abraham’s descendants and that baptism has removed any significant distinction between Jew and non-Jew, i.e., between circumcision and uncircumcision.

In addition to circumcision, the agitators may have urged the observance of the Jewish festivals (4:10-11) and possibly the keeping of kosher food laws (2:11-14), though these issues do not figure as prominently in Paul’s response as does circumcision.

What the agitators did not propose is a form of legalism that demands that people must keep the law in order to be saved. It is Paul who says that if circumcision is the gateway into the people of God, then the law must be kept in its entirety (5:3), and it is Paul who declares that the agitators have not themselves observed the whole law (6:13). It is inaccurate to suggest that Paul is fighting against people who contend for a salvation by works and who think that humans must earn God’s favor by keeping the law. Individual salvation is not so much the theme of Galatians as the question of who belongs to the people of God. (For a full discussion of the agitators, their message, and the attractiveness of their proposals, see Barclay 1988, 36-74.)

Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 12–13.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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