A letter to the Galatian churches
1 Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through human agency but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead) 2 and all the brothers who are with me. To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.
6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel, 7 which is not (a gospel). For there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or a messenger from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 I say again: if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! 10 Am I to seek the favour of God or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people I would surely not be a servant of Christ. [Gal1:1-10]
Quest for the true gospel
Delving into Galatians, we come straight away to the heart of the matter – the true gospel and how it was perverted by some within the Galatian churches. The key issue is to identify the precise nature of the subversion that Paul was addressing (posts to follow). For he is shocked and disturbed (“amazed” v6) by what he has discovered so he addresses the issue from the outset. But firstly, I will comment on his opening greeting.
The two-tier benefits of the Atonement
In verse 4 he refers to Jesus Christ as the One “who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age”. Reflecting on that – if Christ’s death was exclusively to pardon sin, in what sense would that rescue the believer from the current evil age? It might rescue him or her from future punishment at God’s hands but that is not what Paul has just stated. As considered in a recent post, Christ’s atonement was unlimited, providing pardon and propitiation for all true humanity (1Jn2:2 & 3:12 ). What is limited is the number who are “saved” by participating in the life of Christ (Rom5:10).
They and only they can be delivered from the power and malign influence of the current age and its structures (κόσμος) over which the Evil One still holds sway (1Jn5:19NASB). What is more, those experiencing the participatory benefits of the Atonement, being enabled by the Holy Spirit are empowered to order their lives as God would wish them to whilst still in mortal flesh – Paul’s “body of this death” (Rom7:24-25). Hence: “He died for all so that those who live would no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose on their behalf” (2Cor5:15).
Paul’s extraordinary repetition
I have made the point previously that Paul is not inclined to waste his words. That is why a verse we shall come across in the next chapter (2:16) is demonstrably mistranslated in many English versions of the bible. The translators have failed to differentiate between “διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ” referring to the faithfulness of Christ” and “εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν” referring to the Christian’s faith in Christ. Most translations effectively make Paul out to be saying the same thing three times over in that one verse. More importantly it obscures a lexical distinction that is vital to understanding Paul in the context of the broader benign providence I have been outlining.
But here in the opening chapter of Galatians Paul is repeating himself and blatantly so: “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to YOU, he is to be accursed!” [repeat]. But why have I highlighted “you”? From Paul’s perspective the key word would have been “we” (Paul and his fellow workers). Not so today – for it refers to the gospel the Galatian churches will have heard from Paul. Regrettably that is not necessarily the gospel you or I may have heard from those who first evangelized us. Indeed, I know that to be so in my case – the Spirit has revealed it to me. And He repeated Himself fourteen years later as I disclosed a few posts ago, albeit revealing new facets of the error and its originators.
A gospel subverted
For many, my presentation of the gospel will be in Paul’s words “contrary to what you have received”. But I say again, the “you” Paul refers to pertains to the first century Christians to whom he was writing. So in the present day context I would say: If I should proclaim a gospel contrary in nature and tenor to that which I firmly believe the Galatian churches heard from Paul, let me be accursed. And if I present a message that the churches of the late first and second century would fail to recognize as the Gospel, likewise [note#1].
Of course, what the Galatians, Ephesians, Romans and every other late first century church first heard from Paul is the point of contention. For it is dependent on the interpretation of his writing. If that is sometimes abstruse (which it undoubtedly is), it is because Paul was writing pastoral letters, not constructing an orderly comprehensive theological treatise.
But what the second century church unitedly understood by the gospel has been more comprehensively and intelligibly recorded by the likes of 2nd century Irenaeus and 3rd century Church historian Eusebius. It is available on internet for anyone to examine. I delight in such writing, for it affirms God’s intelligible goodness and universal justice. It acknowledges effectual free will (to do good and perform that which is pleasing to God, not to be saved in the gospel sense). It affirms a tripartite theology resulting in a positive role for natural law (which I have recently shown is not unconnected to the Atonement for it is Christ’s law – Jn1:3). Most significantly in the context of the process in hand, it portrays a sacerdotal church, hierarchal in structure, administering sacred mysteries that were understood to be indispensable for salvation.
For thanks to the internet and the availability of digital printing, there is no longer anywhere for intransigent defenders of any particular tradition to hide. Nor is it as easy for the Christian laity (ordinary believers) to be shielded from historical realities that challenge their pastoral overseers’ assertions.
No easy path to reunification
But as a first step it is surely right and just that the hearts of the fathers be turned towards the children. And half a century ago, the Roman Catholic Church from which the children of the Reformation had departed, pleasingly and seemingly without precedent acknowledged a measure of error: “We humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brothers and sisters, just as we forgive them that trespass against us” [Unitatis Redintegratio 21st Nov 1964 – para 7]. But she surely needs to go much further and acknowledge the historical fallibility of the Roman Catholic Church regarding matters of substantial importance, albeit not directly pertaining to gospel salvation (in the inclusive sense – note 2). Such errors include much pre-Conciliar teaching on God’s perceived intentions towards those outside the Catholic Church. That had profoundly detracted from God’s intelligible goodness, His loving nature and providential care.
For let us be frank, the Catholic Church’s earlier narrow Augustinian-derived providential perspective had been subverted at Vatican II and necessarily so. Yet precisely how “all people of good will” are justified in God’s sight was not underpinned or integrated with the rest of Scripture, nor could it be without substantial deconstruction. In its present form, the Church’s more benevolent teaching will also be perceived by many as detracting from the essentiality of gospel, church and sacrament. But not, I humbly submit, as reformulated within the Little Book of Providence. Regarding the Eastern Orthodox Church, in a very positive sense she is the proverbial elephant in the room within these considerations, indeed within the whole Reformation debate.
As for yours truly – “Am I to seek the favour of God or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people I would surely not be a servant of Christ”.
- Note#1 There would be aspects the 2nd century church would not be familiar with partly in view of authentic development/insights through the centuries and partly because Scripture indicates there are concepts that were never intended to be grasped until the very end. But fundamentals such as divine and human nature, saving faith, free will, the role of natural law and the sacraments cannot have been turned on their head.
- Note #2. All that was necessary for salvation has been provided but not all deemed to be necessary is in fact necessary.
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