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July 13th, 2009 at 12:32 pm

My New Take on Galatians: Why It Matters

In my last post on “My New Take on Galatians” I explained 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?
Many people who have followed the work of NT Wright are greatly distressed over the way in which Wright has redefined the concept of “justification.” Eventually I will get to that point. Suffice it to say at this point that I am not writing to defend or oppose Wright’s view of justification. Rather I want to stimulate thought as a result of reading Galatians with the above three ideas in mind. How they impact the way we understand justification we will see as we go along.
The question has arisen as to what difference any of these ideas above really make anyway. The answer to this question will best be determined as we go along. However I did want to offer a preliminary answer.
As we read and interpret the Bible it is inherently of importance that we read and interpret it rightly. Our interest is first of all in understanding what a portion of Scripture meant when it was written. For an epistle we wish to understand the original intent of the writer. We must be concerned first of all in finding the letters meaning in the context in which is was written. We should not go to a part of Scripture and try to impose on it questions it was not intended to answer. Doing that causes us to engage in eisegesis (or isogesis) and not exegesis, the one “reading into” the passage one’s own ideas and the other “reading out of” the passage its own ideas.
Even we do not know the full implications of correct understanding it is always better to understand a passage more accurately. That can be the only foundation upon which can build our faith and practice as Christians.
The first idea presented above is the hardest to extract from any one text using its own inner logic and clues, although it makes perfect sense given the other two ideas. Establishing the point that the Jews of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day did not believe in meritorious righteousness comes as a result of reading extra biblical material, intertestamental writings, as well as the canonical New Testament the biblical material.
But we have an enormously difficult time divesting ourselves of this idea. This assumption  is the lens through which Protestants have read Galatians and Romans for hundreds of years. And so with us today. So we come to the material with the question burning within, “How can I find favor with God?” “How can I escape the wrath of His judgment?” Or, as one evangelism model would have us imagine a question from God, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven.”
But this is not the question that Paul is addressing or answering in Galatians at all. In fact, an undo focus on that question will cause us to miss the point of the book altogether!
Many years ago, even before I knew about NT Wright or the “New Perspective,” I had become quite taken by the unfolding covenantal structure of the Bible. As I read and tried to understand this more and more it became apparent to me that promises given to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12:1-3 provided the framework for understanding all the rest of the Old and New Testament. God’s intent was to bless the world, and to bless it through the descendents or seed of Abraham. Ultimately and eventually this “seed” would be revealed as Jesus Christ, descendent of Abraham in the flesh, but more importantly the very son of God.
It became clear to me that God could not fulfill his covenant promise to bring blessing to the nations through Israel herself. She had been called to be a light to the nations but had failed ultimately, and was caught up in the curse of the covenant. But bringing His blessing to the whole world and not just one nation within it was God’s grand purpose, and that purpose provided the narrative framework for the rest of the Scripture.
Rather than seeing ourselves in the grand story of God’s purpose for the whole world, we tended to look at it from the standpoint of questions above, such as “How can I find favor with God.” Quite probably this very question is what causes us to translate “law” in terms of the general fallen human tendency (we think) of trying to earn or merit God’s favor. This question almost certainly has caused us to misunderstand the Jews of Jesus’ day as being all about meritorious righteousness. At any rate the question and assumption reinforce each other and cause us to miss the point of the letter to the Galatians.
The role of the Abrahamic covenant and God’s intention to bless the whole world through his “seed” Jesus will become a central theme of the letter to the Galatians.
So, when I speak of Greek “nomos” being better translated as “Torah” rather than “law” in a vague “general principle” sense, the difference is actually very crucial. For Paul,  the “Judaizers” seeking to impose circumcision upon the Galatians Christians were threatening the very nature of the gospel, not because they believed in “meritorious salvation” which they didn’t, but because they were opposing God’s promise to Abraham to bring blessing to all the nations through his seed, through Jesus Christ.
By submitting to Torah Christians would as a people not merely become subject to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, but in so doing God’s people again would become subject to the cursings and blessings of that covenant, particularly its cursings. And in doing so God’s promise to Abraham would never have a way to “get out” to the rest of the world, a world He had every intention to bless.
So what is at stake in these discussions is the full nature of the gospel itself, the fulfillment of God’s promises going back to Abraham, and to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before that.
Really, when it comes down to it, in ,my opinion, is whether we choose to see the gospel more in terms of God plan for and promise regarding the world being finally fulfilled in and through Jesus, or not, and less in terms of how can I imagine to get myself into heaven and not hell.
More soon…

In my last post on “My New Take on Galatians” I explained 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?

Many people who have followed the work of NT Wright are greatly distressed over the way in which Wright has redefined the concept of “justification.” Eventually I will get to that point. Suffice it to say right now that I am not writing to defend or oppose Wright’s view of justification. Rather I want to stimulate thought as a result of reading Galatians with the above three ideas in mind. How they impact the way we understand justification we will see as we go along.

The question has arisen as to what difference any of these ideas above really make anyway. The answer to this question will also best be determined as apply these three ideas to the letter. However I did want to offer a preliminary answer.

As we read and interpret the Bible it is of of course very important that we read and interpret it accurately and in keeping with original intent. Our interest is first of all in understanding what a portion of Scripture meant when it was written. For an epistle, we must be concerned first of all in finding the letter’s meaning in the context in which is was written. We should not go to a part of Scripture and try to impose on it questions it was not intended to answer. Doing that causes us to engage in eisegesis (or isogesis) and not exegesis, the one “reading into” the passage one’s own ideas and the other “reading out of” the passage its own ideas.

Even if we do not know the full implications of a historically and contextually correct understanding of a passage we must nevertheless stay the course and grapple with all the implications as best as we can. Sometimes over the course of the history of the church’s reading of the Bible old “ways of seeing” that have become ingrained are challenged. Such is the case with these simple ideas acting as a baseline for understanding Paul’s argument. As for myself this has caused a major shift in how I real the whole of the New Testament. Part of this shift is that I am no longer sure of somethings I used to be quite sure of, and am sure of other things I used to have no udnerstanding of. I no of no other way to establish a foundation upon which I can build my faith and practice as a Christian than rightly udnerstandfing the word of God.

The first idea presented above is the hardest to extract from any one text using its own inner logic and clues, although it makes perfect sense given the other two ideas. Establishing the point that the Jews of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day did not believe in meritorious righteousness comes as a result of reading extra biblical material, intertestamental writings, as well as the canonical New Testament writings.

But we have an enormously difficult time divesting ourselves of this idea. This assumption is the lens through which Protestants have read Galatians and Romans for hundreds of years. And so it is with us today. We come to the material with the question burning within, “How can I find favor with God?” “How can I escape the wrath of His judgment?” Or, as one evangelism model would have us imagine a question from God, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven.”

But this is not the question that Paul is addressing or answering in Galatians at all. In fact, an undo focus on that question will cause us to miss the point of the book altogether!

Many years ago, even before I knew about NT Wright or the “New Perspective,” I had become quite taken by the unfolding covenantal structure of the Bible. As I read and tried to understand this more and more it became apparent to me that promises given to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12:1-3 provided the framework for understanding all the rest of the Old and New Testament. God’s intent was to bless the world, and to bless it through the descendant or seed of Abraham. Ultimately and eventually this “seed” would be revealed as Jesus Christ, descendant of Abraham in the flesh, but more importantly the very son of God.

It became clear to me that God could not fulfill his covenant promise to bring blessing to the nations through Israel herself. She had been called to be a light to the nations but had failed ultimately, and was caught up in the curse of the covenant. But bringing His blessing to the whole world and not just one nation was God’s grand purpose, and that purpose provided the narrative framework for the rest of the Scripture.

Rather than seeing ourselves in the grand story of God’s purpose for the whole world, we have tended to look at it from the standpoint of questions above, such as “How can I find favor with God.” Quite probably this very question is what causes us to translate “law” in terms of the general fallen human tendency (we think) of trying to earn or merit God’s favor. This question almost certainly has caused us to misunderstand the Jews of Jesus’ day as being all about meritorious righteousness. At any rate the question and assumption reinforce each other and cause us to miss the point of the letter to the Galatians.

The role of the Abrahamic covenant and God’s intention to bless the whole world through his “seed” Jesus will become a central theme of the letter to the Galatians.

So, when I speak of Greek “nomos” being better translated as “Torah” rather than “law” in a vague “general principle” sense, the difference is actually very crucial. For Paul, the “Judaizers” seeking to impose circumcision upon the Galatians Christians were threatening the very nature of the gospel, not because they believed in “meritorious salvation” which they didn’t, but because they were opposing God’s promise to Abraham to bring blessing to all the nations through his seed, through Jesus Christ.

By submitting to Torah Christians would as a people not merely become subject to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, but in so doing God’s people again would become subject to the cursings and blessings of that covenant, particularly its cursings. And in doing so God’s promise to Abraham would never have a way to “get out” to the rest of the world, a world He had every intention to bless.

So what is at stake in these discussions is the full nature of the gospel itself, the fulfillment of God’s promises going back to Abraham, and to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before that.

Really, what it comes down to, in my opinion, is whether we choose to see the gospel more in terms of God’s plan for and promise regarding the world being finally fulfilled in and through Jesus, and less in terms of how can I manage to get myself into heaven and not into hell.

More soon…

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