Galatians Q and A
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- You mention that Paul’s Gospel is inclusive of all people, but the beginning of Galatians clearly states that Paul is writing to the “Churches in Galatia.” Doesn’t that mean that Paul is speaking specifically to Christians?
- In Paul’s work, he writes to and informs “churches”. In the ancient world, there simply isn’t a means by which one could have a broad spectrum message to the wider, more diverse audience except to debate in city squares, temples, and traveling about, which Paul clearly does. Focusing on churches is not the same as speaking only exclusively to Christian believers. This is an interpretive mistake that can have huge consequences in our theology because it assumes that the conversion experience Paul talks about is what modern Christian refers to conversion to modern Christianity and these are two very different things. Christianity for Paul is not picking another religion, Christianity is the anti-religion that is available to all comers. Thus the churches in Paul’s time were comprised of very religious Jews, Samaritans, gentiles, pagans, working class, and those healed by God who have discovered that faith in Jesus Christ was way in which their individual understanding and religious practices where personalized through a living relationship and not a sterile ritual or empty avoidance. The mail route through churches allowed for a widespread message to be heard and allowed these diverse communities to thrive in the midst of great opposition. Galatia was one location where the dominant Jewish force was pressuring the church to retreat back into separation of innies and outies.
- How are you defining the Gospel? I always understood the gospel to mean that Jesus died for our sins, or that the Gospel is God’s plan of salvation. How do make it into a Gospel of personal freedom?
- In Paul’s work, he is emphatic and extremely distressed that these “churches” have abandoned the gospel in favor of some hybrid version. So he must be referring to some definition from which the Galatians have moved. He uses the religious practice of circumcision and the division it caused as an example in chapter 2. He refers to “false brothers” who “spy out our freedom”and“bringing us into slavery (2:4)”. So clearly he sees the Gospel as a message of freedom, both external and internal. The most likely explanation of this is because Paul was a very educated Jew. He knew the scripture and he knew that the promised Messiah would come and the “gospel” would bring (according to Isaiah 61:1-3) “Good news to the poor, liberation of the captives, opening of prison doors, and a proclamation of the favor of God.” This is the precise verse Jesus quotes in Luke 4:18 claiming that the prophecy is now fulfilled. Therefore, Paul’s gospel is not a message solely of spiritual salvation, but a wider message of personal liberation that leads to spiritual transformation. This seems to be the only gospel definition that holds up to all the texts that refer to it, and fits perfectly within the teachings of Jesus and the old testament. Turning the gospel into the modern Christian binary of choosing Jesus’ new religion or else face a burning hell appears to be a grave misinterpretation of scripture for the puposes of church growth.
- It was hard to follow along in the first few chapters. You were sort of jumping around and cherry picking certain verses. Isn’t that an interpretive mistake? Were there parts that you were avoiding?
- In the first couple of chapters, Paul goes to great length to prove to his audience that he is valid and his opinion is to be heard and respected. To do this he fills a chapter and a half with a monologue about his story and how he came to prominence in the church. Perhaps his previous days reputation was still haunting him, but nonetheless, I felt that for most listeners, that sticking to the his main purpose of the book was more of a priority than joining Paul on his side tangent of propping himself up as an authority in the church. While this may be seen as “cherry picking” it is actually more about leaving the supporting information for those who desire to learn more about Paul’s life for later and focus primarily on his core message without distractions. Rather than contend for his authority, I have assumed it which frees us to stay on task. Clearly there are those who would question it (both now and back then) thus its important if we need to gain a sense of the institutional power plays that were coming against him and how he lays them against the power of the gospel to liberate us.
- Your podcast on putting things right was an interesting spin on Justification. I’ve never heard justification taught so inclusively and from such a wide perspective. In fact it makes me question whether you are truly reflecting Paul’s intent. Romans 10:10 says that “with the heart one believes and is justified and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”In this passage Paul seems to be saying that justification occurs with our full conscious engagement and participation and not as a single act for all people as you portrayed it. Can you further explain this?
- This is great question and I’m super glad you brought this up. The tension you feel is understandable given the modern world’s bias toward binary (black and white) thinking. We are so conditioned to find what seems like a contradiction and then pick a side. This happens all the time in religion and this is why Christianity has over 1000 denominations. The bigger reality, or as many call it, the third way, the trinitarian, or ternary perspective is that a third thing, a higher truth exists that fully includes both sides of the lesser understanding. A good example of this is the question of whether Jesus is a man or God. In discussing Justification, there exists a framework that is both wide and narrow and beyond them both. Even in the text that you quoted in Romans, Paul says just prior to the quote (10:6-7) “Do not say in your heart who will ascend or who will descend?” Paul is trying to get us beyond these binary frameworks because the gospel goes beyond them. Timothy Keller likes to define the gospel as capturing the very worst of humanity and the best of God at the same time and I think he’s correct, but this is only possible by using a ternary framework, not a binary one.
- I used the wide lens to open up a larger reality simply because of the incoherence of the narrow view on Paul’s discourse in Galatians. To only say that God through Jesus gave himself for the sins of a few people and to deliver only a few people from the “evil age” (1:4) would exclude the reader. To simply include oneself simply because you share the faith is to widen the intent of Paul’s message. Since Paul’s message predated your faith, then it’s safe to say that it was somehow true even though it wasn’t yet true for you. Thus the wide view seems (from a theological perspective) the only one that can really reach through time and include all readers. This must also mean that it is universally true for all people even though it may not have personal significance for some yet. I am strongly convicted that this wide, inclusive view of justification is missing from modern Christian theology, and the only possible reason is that those who hold the power can only remain in power if they exclude some people from the story of Justification and only include them if they sign up for their team. This is precisely the behavior of religious people that Paul is vehemently speaking against. It’s kind of on the nose, and thus incoherent to use a narrow view of justification. Yes a narrow view exists, but that is not the point of Galatians.
- In your section on the battle between the flesh and the spirit, I found myself asking if the false self can just keep growing and then what would become of it? It’s like a glass of water that is either filling or emptying. What happens when the glass is empty?
- The confusion isn’t in what you understand about the battle between the flesh and the spirit, the confusion lies in howyou understand it. It is very difficult to extract ourselves from a binary way of thinking and this passage lends itself to very strong polarizing experiences. Try playing it out on the binary framework first. If you are successful at living by the spirit then you would be able to live free of sin and never give opportunity to the flesh. Have you ever seen that? I assure you that while this is a nice ideal toward which we should strive, even the most devout in the world have not accomplished it. If you succumb to the flesh, which most of us do, then we are the perpetual flunky and all of the goodness of the spirt is probably lost on us because its not working.
- While both of these realities are true, they are not all that is true. Something beyond this cosmic game of chess must be taking place. From the third way, or ternary framework, we begin to see that the function of the teeter totter is not to have one person in the air all the time. The flesh and the spirit are not static realities, but both weave into a dynamism which creates a wider reality and beauty. To your question, its not that the glass is empty or full, but that we are a container of both total emptiness and overflowing fullness at the same time. Paul calls us jars of clay that contain a huge treasure.
- So what happens to the empty glass? Yes, we can give way to the flesh and create a life that is entirely false. Paul calls this building a life out of staw in 1 Cor 3. There isn’t anything enduring about it and we have no connection to our true self found in God. Every life will be tested with fire. Paul says that the false life will be consumed and only the true enduring soul will remain which means we can go through life and never know ourselves or our maker, but in the end, we will. Or we can enter the fire now and purify our lives and know ourselves and our maker, and then our life builds something lasting and permanent and transformative. Meaning , we don’t die to go to heaven, we can enter it now and live from it now. This is life by the Spirit. Yes this is a frameshift from the old binary fear tactic of choosing heaven or hell and then hating our flesh, our bodies, and this world until we die one day and we see ourselves going to heaven while we see most of the world suffer in hell. Paul is trying to get us beyond this.
- You mention that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. As much as I want to believe that, I often don’t feel close to God. I feel like my sins are on a scale and they are so many that God, even though he has forgiven me, must be constantly disappointed and that the sense I get. At church I get a sense of relief but then it comes right back a day or two later. What am I doing wrong?
- Your experience is what I called shampoo Christianity. Wash, sin, repeat. The modern church has so focused on sinful behavior as the basis for our need of a savior, that most churches are not able to see any benefit to Jesus beyond our naughtiness cleaner. Jesus has become a problem solver or plan B. The effect on the culture, the church and many Christians is devastating because the majority develop a theology of God as a superparent with a stinkeye. This seems to be the quagmire that you are in.
- This is dangerous and unfortunate because most faith is ultimately just fire insurance, and obedience to church is the means to ensuring you remain in good standing with God, all of which is strategically dangled by a spider web above the eternal flames of hell. The problem that you are experiencing is that because of all the rhetoric beyond substitutional atonement, you are not able to truly believe despite the fact that you have been given what and how to believe. The existential question below the surface of your life is whether any of it is actually true and if it weren’t for your fear you would probably be questioning whether its all BS. Much of my audience has been through or is going through this very doorway.
- The reason church feels like relief is because they have convinced you that you are a slow leaking inner-tube and the church is the only pump around. The Gospel Paul is fighting for is the one where the institution is not there as a conduit or intermediary, but only to educate and build up. We are each pumped up to full capacity exclusively and directly by God through an infinite number of ways. Once we realize God does not treat us according to our sins, that God would not ask us to forgive an enemy if it were not something he has done himself, and that the death of Christ means that the justice of God can no longer be about retribution, but is now based in restoration. These frameshifts open up a true, living faith, whereby you are now free to leave your toxic church and drink directly from the tap and find a community who are fellow sojourners in trusting that God has your back no matter what. Once you realize that you are no better than anyone else, then that community sees no value in differentiation because there are no people with total perfect faith. We are all on our best days only partial beleivers, all with varying experiences and understandings of what it means to be human and to pursue the truth. This is much closer to the biblical idea of every nation, tribe, tongue, creature, coming together at the throne of God. It’s not as though all of these understood their belief exactly according to the charter of the gospel coalition, or some other institution. Calvin said the discovery of yourself and the discovery of God are indistinguishable. Perhaps its time to let go of our fear and learn what it means that God desires mercy and not sacrifice.