Lecture 4: Defining the Gospel in Galatians

Course: Galatians

Lecture: Defining the Gospel in Galatians

I. The Gospel

There are new ideas about the Gospel. The language of the good news has two different groups. It has roots in the Old Testament, of course, where God fulfills his purpose in Israel and God redeems them and this is the good news. Paul is saying that for Israel, that day of news has arrived with Jesus Christ. Paul, a Jew who knew his Old Testament and also deeply rooted in that Old Testament. Just as we use images from our own culture to help people understand the Gospel, so Paul does the same in his culture of that day. The language of the good news also relates to how the Romans talked about their own rules over the Roman Empire by establishing Roman peace; this was good news to the world as the Roman Emperors proclaimed. We have evidence from an inscription in Paul’s day that this kind of language was being used. The emperor was like a savior to his people of bringing in an era of good news to the world; establishing their way and power over the world was good news. On the basis of this background, N.T Wright has written a couple of books in regards to this background. And for Paul, it was not just an individual matter of being saved; it was bigger than that; it was God establishing his rule over the universe through Jesus. The good news is not simply I can be put right with God, it also includes the message that Jesus is now Lord of all, that he is Lord and he is establishing his reign and power over the world. So when we talk about preaching the Gospel, it is not just inviting people to accept Jesus that they might be saved; it also means preaching the good news that Jesus is now Lord. It also involves me following Jesus and being a disciple of his.

So, is there evidence in Paul’s language for this broader Gospel? Salvation is evidenced by obedience and so obedience becomes part of that. I found nothing in the language of Paul in regards to this idea of Lordship. I have mixed feelings about this; I think some of these things that Wright and McNight and others are doing are useful in making the point that we shouldn’t confine our teaching and preaching about Christ simply to the salvation of individuals. It is much bigger thing than that. I think we can make the mistake of looking too narrowly at what it means to be preaching Christian truth. I think it is more of a stereotype than it is any reality. But the stereotype of those who are understood in bringing people to conversion, getting them into the kingdom, but after that, they are left alone to fend for themselves. So, there is a concern that we broaden out the scope for what it means to be Christian and how we proclaim Christian truth. I’m in favor of this but the language of the Gospel doesn’t seem to accomplish this. It seems to be a little more narrowly focused as Paul tends to use it. If you look at the Roman evidence, it is not so much that these Greco-Roman instances of the language mean that Caesar is lord and so when the New Testament uses the word Gospel, that means Jesus is Lord. It is rather that Caesar’s lordship is a beneficial lordship for you. It is good news for you and the language tends to be used that way. It is not just the abstract point of Caesar being king, but it is Caesar being king in a way that is bringing benefit to you. I think that is the flavor of Paul’s use of the language. God has done something in Christ who is the Lord, to be an in estimate benefit to those who respond to the message. That is the cutting edge of the Good News.

As I look at the culture of Christianity, there is a careful balance between that and responding to the Gospel in order to escape the wrath to come by taking the benefit of the atoning work of Christ. It has to be the heart of what we do and our preaching of the proclamation of what it means to be Christian. But we should never confine it to that; we should always have a bigger view of what it means to be a faithfully Christian. This is so we can help people to consider Christian values, for example in voting, their voting has been informed by this picture of Christianity and its truth. There is more going on than the saving souls for Christ in Christianity. But sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way as well, where the vital need to proclaim the Good News that Jesus died for the sins of individuals gets assumed in a way that could lead to becoming too peripheral for life. We should be careful and not deny or even make less the work of Christ to bring others to him through the forgiveness of sins. Any particular text we seize on, there may be elements that are not clear and the problem of defining the Gospel has to do with whether we stay with the Word or whether we think that we are looking at a concept. If you are thinking about a concept Gospel, all the text is about Jesus being Lord. So, I don’t think looking at the broader concept of Christianity is a bad thing, but beginning at places where Paul uses the language is a good starting point; a good foundational sort of test for what Paul means.

In Galatians, we see Paul talking about departing from the Gospel, the truth of the Gospel and this having to do with gentiles joining with Jews. I have also highlighted words like grace that Paul uses throughout chapters one and two. For me, the Gospel has the flavor of the basic message of what Jesus Christ offers to everyone. This is a fundamental aspect of the Gospel for Paul. It is for everybody and there is something in that revelation for Galatia. Those who were causing problems in Galatia were trying to subtract from the Gospel, but I think McNight and others aren’t doing this as such in their books. Paul sees these people as ultimately taking away from the Gospel. I think what Wright and others are saying that the teaching of Christ is not just individuals coming to be saved but also involve how those individuals relate to each other in church and in the formation of community. It relates to our obligation to show our love for God by how we treat people in the world. All of those things are part of what it means to be a Christians and part of the kingdom in some sense. They are trying to bring that into the language of the Gospel and that is where I’m a little reluctant to see Paul doing that clearly. There are some illusions to the Greco-Roman world. The language of Jesus as Lord is obviously also rooted very strongly in the Old Testament where Greek writers used Lord to describe God. Calling Jesus Lord is a fundamental way to talk about his identity in relationship to the God of the Bible and of course to remind us of his relationship to the world. Yet, at the same time, there is the overtone of who the Lord is and who should rightly make such claims. Included within the New Testament study is the language of an empire where you have the New Testament making some kind of implicit contrast with the rhetoric and politics of empire in that day where so much attention was paid to the emperor and the Roman government. The emperor was being viewed as divine at this time and was being called God on a regular basis. You have this whole ideology of the political Roman Empire and the New Testament writers are implicitly saying that you can’t accept this. Rome is not the answer. It is just in our day that people are to be reminded that the government isn’t the answer; secular government and philosophy isn’t the answer. Education isn’t the answer and all these other lords that people make a big deal about aren’t the answer. They are useful in their place but there is an ultimate claim of what God and Christ make that has to be honored.

Paul’s description of the Gospel seems to be focused consistently on this offer that God makes to humanity; they can now enter into a new and right relationship with him. If we define the Gospel in this narrowly way, we must quickly move on to understand that the Gospel includes all these other consequences of having Jesus as your Lord as to the community, the world, etc. We have unity in the Gospel but not necessarily uniformity. Paul wants Jews and gentiles to eat together, the implications are they still Jews and Gentiles. In some sense, it seems that they still are.

II. The New Perspective

Now, for the new perspective, it is a difficult movement to understand but I know there are lots of people interested in it. Why is this important in reference to the Galatians? It has its roots in a book published in 1977 by E.P. Sanders entitled, ‘Paul in Palestinian Judaism.’ He argued that many Christians were operating with an unfair view of 1st century Judaism. They were thinking that 1st century Judaism was this religion of legalism and thus you could neatly contrast it with Christianity; Jews believed that you were saved by works whereas Christians believe that it is by grace and faith. Sanders said that this wasn’t accurate. According to Sanders, 1st century Judaism is best described as covenant nomism which was the belief that Jews did not believe in works righteousness. It suggests that the Jewish view of the relationship with God is that keeping the law is based only on a prior understanding of the relationship with God. The structure of covenant nomism can be described as God having chosen Israel and given them the law. This implies that God’s promise to maintain the election and the requirement to obey. God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. The law provides for a means of atonement and that results in maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. Sanders accuse many of ignoring the importance of this covenant. Jews believed that God had already saved them by entering into this covenant. God chose Israel among all the nations of the world to be his own nation. Their salvation rested in God’s initiative in graciousness entering into this covenant with the people of Israel. So they were saved through belonging to the nation of Israel whom God had chosen. Roman Catholics would perhaps say something similar. They are baptized into the church and they go to Mass regularly and I’m part of that movement where salvation takes places. The law isn’t a means of getting into as such but as a means of staying in.

Nomism is used in purposeful contrast to legalism. This is based on the Greek word nomas which meant law. In this, Jews sought to obey the law in response to the God who had entered into a covenant with them. I don’t think Sander’s work is actually part of the New Perspective. It may have given rise to the New Perspective. Many people thought that he was indeed on to something when he published his work. The question that arose out of this is what to do with Paul. In Galatians 2:16 he says that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Jews believed that they were justified by the works of the law. But if there were those Jews that said that we were justified by the works of the law, if that wasn’t a part of Judaism, what do we do with Paul. How do we explain Paul if 1st century Jews thought they were justified by being in the covenant, not by works? So what is Paul talking about? If Sanders is correct about 1st century Judaism, then Paul is simply deliberately misrepresenting Judaism. He is doing what most of these politicians do in not giving an accurate description of their opponents. So some is arguing that this is what Paul is doing in his letters to Christians. He wants to make Christianity look really good and so he is trying to make Judaism look really bad by describing it as a works-righteousness religion.

The New Perspective on Paul represents a significant divergence from the way some scholars, especially Protestant scholars interpret the writing of the Apostle Paul. Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. Paul was not addressing good works in general, but instead questioning only observances such as circumcision, dietary laws, and the Sabbath laws, which were boundary makers. The written works of E.P. Sanders saw the Jews of Pauline times were saved through being God’s chosen covenantal people. This movement is also connected to studying the Bible within context of other ancient writings. In 2003, Wright distanced himself from Sanders and Dunn. The idea of what Paul actually mean by ‘works of the law’ has to do with the impossibility that humanity can merit salvation from God by their good works alone. New perspective scholars see Paul as talking about emblems of covenant membership.

It is out of this context that the New Perspective arose. It was a very positive movement in which some scholars said, in assuming Sanders was correct, wanted to maintain Paul’s integrity and see if we can better understand Paul in what he is saying. So, on certain key theological categories, there is a bit of a shift in understanding what Paul is saying which would fit better within the context of what Sanders was describing. It is essentially an attempt to read Paul very carefully in light of this 1st-century context. James Dunn and N.T. Wright are two key players in establishing this new perspective. Ever since then, people have been elaborating on this new perspective while others have contested it. Some have gone beyond it and then certain advocates themselves have softened their stand on it a little. You will find these two backing off some of their earlier sensational claims. Fundamental to their approach is not using the law to get saved translating it into Galatians; the agitators aren’t saying that you have to do works to be saved. They were not legalist in that sense, but rather, the Jews were using the law to maintain their privileged status to keep the gentiles out. Wright and Dunn talk about ethnocentrism, the social function of law. So then in Galatians, according to the New Perspective, the problem with the law as Paul is describing it, is that the law has been inappropriately used, now that Christ has come, as a way to keep Gentiles out. With the coming of Christ, the door has been opened to gentiles to join with God’s people with the full rights that Jews have and the law can’t figure into that anymore because the law is a Jewish law and it divides and sets up barriers and boundaries. So the problem with the law is not that I can’t use it to get saved, it is being kept in place by certain Jewish Christians as a barrier to keep Gentiles out. Or at least the only way for the Gentiles to get in is by accessing the law.

An example of the social function of law we read from a Jewish letter written in the 2nd century BC where they are describing the Jewish faith to a pagan. It says, ‘our law-giver being a wise man especially endowed by God to understand all things; that is Moses being the law-giver who took a comprehensive view of each detail and fenced us round with impregnable ramparts and walls of iron that we might not mingle at all with any of the other nations but to remain pure in body and soul, free from all vain imaginations, worshipping the one almighty God who is above all creation.’ This was a fundamental purpose of the law that Jews understood to be in Paul’s 1st-century world. So in order to be a Jew, you were circumcised and took on yourself the obedience to the Law of Moses. Think of someone who converts to Roman Catholicism who has to be baptized by the Catholic rite; they have to confess their sins in an appropriate way. They have to go to Mass. So, are they being saved by those rituals that may be the same as works? In order to enter into the Catholic Church with the salvation it claims to offer, you have to go to these rituals. Is this entering in by works, I’m not so sure. This seems to be a little complicated to me. So how were gentiles who did not convert to Judaism being understood by Jews? There were many Jews who hoped that in the last days many gentiles would be converted. There are passages in Isaiah that suggest that was what would happen; when the Lord came and ushered in the Day of the Lord, Jews would flock to Jerusalem again and this would attract gentiles as well to the Kingdom of God. They were clear however that in their own day if a Gentile wanted to be saved, they had to join Israel. They had to come to circumcision and obey the law and once they did that, they were considered full members of Israel. They were considered to be within God’s covenant; there still might have been some discrimination as often is in our day where you have a congregation of one ethnic group and someone from another ethnic group converts and comes in.

In regards to Peter in Antioch, I’m not so sure that Peter was seeing the gentiles as second-class citizens as such. It would be unfair to accuse Peter of that. But the agitators were clearly saying that unless gentiles were circumcised and take on themselves the law, they couldn’t be part of the people of God. They couldn’t hope for ultimate salvation unless they did this. There is also the point in contrast to Sanders, a lot of work on ancient Judaism since then suggests that Judaism was a fairly diverse thing. To explain this would be the same as describing the diverseness of Christianity among individual Christians today. There would be some fundamental things in common I suppose but really a lot of differences. 1st century Judaism was like that; we have evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls that give us one type of Judaism and then in other writings gave us a window into yet another type of Judaism. It was a diverse thing as not everyone believed the same thing. But Sanders tried to fit everything into one model. This diversity is also seen in the New Testament with the different groups of people Paul meets. Romans two is an example of this.

There is some real strength in this new perspective. I’m not a new perspective’s basher. I have problems with it as a full explanation of what is going on, but it has some positive sides to it. They are trying to make good sense of Paul in his own context. And indeed N.T. Wright has extended that to a lot of work on Jesus as well. And surely he is correct about that as well. We have to make sure that we are viewing Jesus and Paul as real 1st century Jews engaged with the actual issues of that time. This is because we want to maintain the historical creditability of the New Testament writings. If we are not able to do that, we are in deep trouble. We have to appreciate the attempts of these scholars who say that we need to understand what the 1st Century Jewish world was like. We need to understand what the language would have meant in that context and time, and make sense of Jesus and Paul within that context. Both Dunn and Wright are taking Scripture seriously; they are honestly trying to deal with the evidence. If you have read Dunn’s commentary on Galatians, I think you will see that. He is trying to deal with the evidence of the text as we have it. There is a concern with larger issues of church, world, and creation that relate to the Gospel discussion. In the traditional view of Galatians, I think we would state a particular emphasis on how individuals get right with God or be justified with God by their faith rather than their works. Luther, Calvin and John Stott and if you then take a new perspective reading, it is much more about the inclusion of social groups which goes down very well in the current atmosphere. We have a concern about those things. Just as gentiles are to be included as full members of the people of God so we can extend that principle of inclusiveness. The Gospel and the church is the place where ethnic groups, all races, all genders, all people from all kinds of walks of life can be brought together. It is an emphasis on inclusiveness. And finally, as I have already indicated, there has been a considerable moderation over time. When N.T. Wright first started out, he said that the reformers missed a lot of things, but now you have a more endorsement of what the reformers have said but we need to go beyond them. There is a gradual moderation of tone; I think is the best way to put it.

I think N.T. Wright is basically on our side, basically. I disagree with him on some points of the doctrine of which some are not insignificant. But on the whole, he has done an effective job of presenting a positive case for what I would call basic Christian orthodoxy. We need to be appreciative of that. I think sometimes, we can look so narrowly at certain kinds of issues thinking that they are such big issues that we are missing other things such as the claims of Christ, the fundamental Judeo Christian ethic. This would include the reality of a God who wants to be in a relationship with us through Jesus and the power of the Spirit to transform lives. There are fundamental points that Wright has taken a firm stand on and has written very compelling about. For people who don’t know the Lord, they are going to get a fairly good dose of biblical Christianity from N.T. Wright. But Wright often goes against Southern American evangelicalism. I don’t believe his description of Southern evangelicalism is fair. He has this idea of the Billy Graham Crusade and the altar call that you give every week. That is all you do in the church. All you are interested in is saving souls with no concern for impacting society or working toward a healthy community of Christians. This is what he is resisting. Yet, I don’t think he would differ in preaching the Gospel to an audience as we would.

There are some problems in regards to the new perspective. We have already talked about the diversity of 1st century Judaism. My teacher Richard Longnecker long ago said that if you look at 1st century Judaism, there will immediately be different approaches, different tendencies where you see some Jews as being very legalistic. This is what he called acting legalism, but other Jews seemed to be much milder on that, being called reactive nomist. Legalists who seemed to think that he or she were saved by the works they do, were opposed to the nomos that E.P. Sanders described. One such study entitled ‘Variegated Nomism’ written by people that I know. Even if you take Sanders view of things, that he is correct in what he is saying; there is still a sense that even on his reading, Jews are saved by their works. This contains some interesting complexities with respect to the variety of Christian theology. It has long been noted that some of the ideas of Sanders are much more amenable to Armenian type Christians than Calvinists type Christians. According to Sanders, while Jews get in by covenant, by birth as it were; you were born a Jew in a Jewish family into a Jewish heritage. And so, doing the law is a way to maintain your status. When you look at the ultimate decision of God, the Day of Judgement, and the issue of salvation or condemnation on the Day of Judgement, it is only those Jews who have performed works that are saved. And so works are involved in their salvation and even in Sanders view, it might be that Paul is responding to people like that when he says that we are not justified by works of the law. We are not ultimately put right with God by doing the law and for Jews that was still part of the picture. And then finally, of course, the most important thing for all of us, can the new perspective provide a compelling and convincing fit to what the New Testament seems to be saying. We need to factor in Paul and some of the strong language about Pharisees as in Matthew 23; some of the strong language about Jews in the Gospel of John. It is not just Paul involved here but there are legitimate questions to be raised; if all Jews were as Sanders describes them, it is hard to explain all of these New Testament passages in relation to that. This applies to the things Jesus says and what Paul says and things in the Book of Hebrews. So, it is not just Paul or Romans or Galatians, but it becomes a bigger issue as well. In addition, New Testament scholarship is taking a very leftist tone within the New Perspective ideas. You have the Roman Empire in the New Testament and now you have the new empire of American who is imposing their will over the earth. This is from some of the more extreme people.

As I approach Galatians, I approach it with a recognition that some of the things that have been emphasized are useful to remember. The 1st-century world, the big issued faced by the church was the continuity of the Old and New Testament. In a time before there were any New Testament books written, in how did they understand gentiles and how could they be brought into the church and on what basis do we do that. We see the obvious now because we have been reading the New Testament and have been informed by it for centuries but it wasn’t so obvious than for these first Jewish Christians; those that first embraced Jesus as Messiah. So, this was an important aspect of what was going on in Galatians and Romans and elsewhere. Ultimately, I would argue that the new perspective view is reductionist; that is, it doesn’t go quite far enough. Paul is not only talking about the social issues of gentiles and Jews, in Galatians he seems to be talking also about fundamental human issues. It is not just Jew and gentiles but also humanity and God; Paul is relating the law to fundamental human issues. So, ultimately the reading of Galatians and a lot of us have inherited from the Reformation, is fundamental on the right track. Galatians does say some important things to us about what it means to be put right with God and how that can happen and why the law and works associated with the law are dead ends in that process; that could never ultimately function to do what some people claim that they could do. Paul says things in Romans that are very similar to Galatians in regards to being justified not by works of the law. There is some degree of overlap because the language is similar.

To sum things up, let’s not forget that the New Perspective has been around for a long time by academic standards. There is a lot going on way beyond the New Perspective these days, making the New Perspective seem tame and orthodox. Galatians has a lot to say about the New Messianic Jewish movement. A book on this makes the point that Jews who follow Jesus as their Messiah are bound to keeping the law. Paul says in Galatians not to impose this on Gentiles and he doesn’t say that Jews should stop doing it. So you end up with a separate Jewish and Gentile Christian community. Another way that a lot of people have gone beyond the new perspective is to say that it is helpful but it doesn’t far enough; it just retargets anti-Judaism. Traditionally, we have been anti-Jewish because they were legalists, but now we are anti-Jewish because they are selfish and focused people. But Judaism is still being criticized. There is a significant movement in New Testament scholarship, not evangelical circles, saying that Paul’s talk is all about the gentiles. He doesn’t suggest that Jews are already included because of the covenant relationship with them. So Jews are saved by their own covenant, they obey the Torah but the Gentiles are saved by Christ. This is how people are saying that the new perspective didn’t go far enough. But I say that the new perspective was fairly conservative movement compared to what is being said these days.