Creation Care, NT Wright, Faith and Science, Art, Being Human, and More

January 21st, 2009 at 2:47 pm

A New Perspective on Galatians

As I mentioned in a post about NT Wright a while back, I was first exposed to Wright’s teaching by listening to a tape series (or part of a tape series) on Galatians at Regent College in 1989. I do not remember exactly what I thought at the time about Wright’s take on Galatians. But I have been reading Galatians over and over since. Over the course of time three ideas have crystallized which have significantly changed my reading of that letter and my understanding of the rest of the New Testament.

Rather than dig around for quotable quotes from NT Wright I am going to speak off the top of my head about my own observations.

The first question I found myself asking of Galatians was this: did first century Judaism believe that a person was accepted by God according to merit? Did the Judaizers of the Epistles or the Pharisees of the Gospels believe that a person got right with God by their meritorious action, by doing more good things than bad things, i.e., by “works.” As far as I can understand things, the answer to that question is almost surely “no.”

When I first heard the gospel back in the 1970’s the answer to this question was clearly “yes.”

The contrast was always between the person who accepted God’s gift of salvation “by grace,” or whether one thought he could get into heaven “by works.” The latter group of people were “legalistic” and “self-righteous,” and intrinsically guilty of the basic human sin of pride. Whereas Catholics, Jews, and many of our parents were into works righteousness, Jesus was into grace.

Put another way, whereas SOME people (like Catholics today and Jews of Jesus’ day) believed that they could, as it were, earn God’s favor by works, that is, by accumulating more good things than bad things in the divine ledger, JESUS and PAUL taught that we were saved by grace alone, etc.

I have no doubt that a lot of people do think this way, and perhaps some Jews along the way have thought this way (since Jews are people too). I just don’t think that that is the issue in Galatians or in the Gospels.

But Protestants have been reading Galatians through the grid of “meritorious  righteousness” for 500 years. They have been reading Paul’s phrase “works of the law” just this way, which is fine except that it is not what Paul meant.

In fact, if first century Jews erred (according to the teaching of John and Jesus) it was on the side of presumption of election. That is, they deeply believed that God had chosen and called Israel out of all the nations of the earth. They understood themselves to be “children of Abraham” even when they didn’t act like it. Thus John the Baptist’s words, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9) Or as Jesus would say “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28 – read the section). And again, “They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (John 8:39-40).

The fact that EP Sanders is given credit for this idea bothers many people given Sanders’ obvious lack of orthodoxy otherwise. All I can do is quote Johnny Cash. When asked how he could record a song written by Trent Reznor of the group Nine Inch Nails (the song “Hurt”), Cash replied, “A good song is a good song.” Likewise, a good idea is a good idea.

The second idea that popped out for me had to do with the way we have translated the Greek word “nomos.”  In almost all cases this Greek word is translated in our English Bibles by the general word “law,”   which we are trained to think of as  some system of moral rules. Thus, when we read phrases like “works of the law”  immediately we think of some system of meritorious righteousness. But in fact, in the vast majority of cases in the writings of Paul where we find the Greek word “nomos” it does not mean “law” in the sense of meritorious righteousness at all, but rather  ”Torah,” the “law of Moses,” the “Mosaic Covenant.” Thus the phrase “works of the law” should be translated as “works of Torah.” And the only way we can understand “works of Torah” as “meritorious righteousness” is by ignoring the overarching concept of covenant and the role of the “stipulations” of the Mosaic covenant.

And third, as I have  read Galatians over and over now over the years, the primary issue in the letter  has become clear. That issue is this: does one have to be a Jew to be a Christian? Put another way, does one have to submit to the regulations or stipulations of the Mosaic covenant to be included in the new people of God being formed around Jesus? And the answer for Paul clearly was “no.” But if not, then what about the Torah? What happened to it? Why was it nolonger binding or  ”in force.” What about all the promises of Israel’s God? What about the Mosaic covenant? Paul spends most of the letter on these “what-abouts.”

These then are the three ideas that have changed my reading of Galatians, and therefore also Romans and Philippians:

1. Jews of Paul and Jesus’ day did not believe in or teach “meritorious righteousness.”

2. The word “law” in Galatians should be translated “torah” and refers to requirements of the Mosaic Covenant.

3. The issue in Galatians is quite  simply this:  does one have to submit to Torah to be a Christian?

The odd thing is that these points make Galatians easy to understand in a basic sense, but also very complicated in another. If you want to see the complexity of the exegetical issues just do a quick read of Galatians with these three ideas in mind. You will find on the one hand that you keep wanting to “default” to the way the book was first taught to you, that is, through the grid of “meritorious righteousness.”  It is hard to step out of that. But if you can step out of that you will find that the book is way more exciting, interesting, and complex than you had ever thought before.

I will pick up here next time.

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