Since the Reformation, the letter of the apostle Paul to the Galatians has been the special domain of mainline Protestant groups which emphasize justification by faith apart from works. The Radical Reformation and its progeny have not given Galatians as high a profile because of this tradition’s concern for the questions of conversion and new life (discipleship). However, recent study of the letter has identified prominent themes beyond those associated with classical Protestantism, thus making Galatians more relevant to the broader Christian family and its wider range of interests and concerns.
These recent developments touch especially on the areas of ethics and ecclesiology. In the letter, Paul places the theme of identification with Christ (2:20; 3:27-28; 4:19) alongside justification (2:16) in a way that emphasizes both right relationship with God (justification) and moral formation in the likeness of Jesus Christ. All of life is made new in Christ as a “new creation” (6:15) Along with this life changing identification with Christ is the complementary emphasis on the Spirit’s empowering for righteous living (3:1-5; 5:16-26). The power of sin can be overcome only in the counter power of the Spirit. The Law of Moses, still valid as the revelation of God, must be interpreted and used in subordination to Christ and the Spirit. Moreover, a careful reading of Galatians discloses a strong vision of the community of faith, the church. To be incorporated into Christ is to be incorporated with all who are in Christ (3:26-29). Where there is the Messiah there is a messianic people. Christian life is family life as a child of God, the Father (4:5-7). The practical teaching for faithful living in chapter 5 and 6 gives major focus to virtues and practices that build and maintain community.
Date, Setting, and Author
The most certain fact about the background of Galatians is that Paul, the apostle, is its author. The letter claims such (1:1), but it also reflects in stark terms the distinctive viewpoint of the Paul known in other sources. The deeply personal dimension of its style speaks of its authenticity. The large number of autobiographical references help to verify its author. On the other hand, the questions of addressees and date of origin are disputed. The geographical term, Galatia, is ambiguous since it can refer either to a region in north central Asia Minor or to a larger Roman province in Asia Minor. The latter province included most of the cities in Paul’s first missionary journey in southern Asia Minor (Acts 13-14). The other area, the region, is likely the one mentioned in Paul’s second missionary journey but lacking any description of churches being founded there (Acts 16:6). Consequently, scholars differ about whether a “North Galatia” or a “South Galatia” theory best fits the letter and identifies its recipients. There is some recent tendency in the English-speaking world to prefer the “South Galatia” view, although the “North Galatia” view has been strongest in the longer tradition.
The uncertainty about the addressees is then reflected in the date of writing. On a “South Galatia” assumption, the date could be in the late 40’s or the early 50’s C.E., while the “North Galatia” view would require a date of writing in the middle 50’s C.E. The significance of date of origin is that, on any theory, Galatians is one of the earliest New Testament writings, pre-dated likely by 1 Thessalonians alone. To read Galatians is to sense the spiritual pulse and to overhear the theological debates of the first twenty years of the Jesus movement. To observe a high level of theological development already at this early stage is cause for some amazement and reassurance that we have access to the impact that the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, made on his first followers.
The reader of Galatian will readily recognize the form of a letter with its introduction and conclusion containing all the usual formal features of a Greco-Roman letter. At the same time, Paul adapts the form to serve his own purposes, reflecting the language and concepts of early believers. More striking to students of the letter is the way Paul uses the full range of rhetorical styles to persuade his audience. He appeals to logic (theological argument), to personal reputation (autobiographical story), and to emotion (appeal to relational and experiential sentiment). Paul uses a mix of classical rhetorical forms of his time to defend, correct, and exhort the Galatian churches.
The common practice is to identify a three-part structure of the letter: autobiographical narrative (chs. 1-2); theological argument (chs. 3-4); practical teaching (chs. 5-6). However, the clean separation of the theoretical and the practical that this implies breaks down at multiple points and weakens the coherence of Paul’s argument. More helpful is the observation that the language of rebuke (indicative verbs) marks the section from 1:6 to 4:11, while the language of request (imperative verbs) marks the section from 4:12 to 6:10. Within this general structure Paul can freely exploit the range of rhetorical styles identified above. The following outline builds on this assumption.
|The Letter Opening||1:1-5|
|PART 1: A REBUKE: DEFENDING THE TRUTH||1:6–4:11|
|The Problem in the Galatian Churches (Exordium)||1:6-10|
|Paul’s Defense of the Gospel as New Revelation (Narratio)
|Paul’s Defense of the Gospel as Fulfilled Revelation
The Issue Identified
Application to the Galatians
|PART 2: A REQUEST: OBEYING THE TRUTH||4:12–6:10|
|Example of the Apostle||4:12-20|
|A Scriptural Case for Corrective Action||4:21-31|
|Standing Fast in Freedom
Yoke of Law Righteousness
|Overcoming the Flesh by the Spirit
Conflict of Spirit and Flesh
|Acting in Conformity to the Spirit
Virtues That Build the Faith Community
|Conclusion to the Letter
Restatement of the Argument
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is of particular importance in relation to the hermeneutical role it plays within the canon of scripture. Galatians is the first expression of an attempt to understand salvation history and its sacred scriptures (known to us as the Old Testament) in the light of the person and work of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. In Jesus, the aspirations of the older revelation in the Law and the Prophets reach their climax and fulfillment. As a result, there are new priorities and new resources determined by the work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. These are the new norm. The Law of Moses is de-centered, but not discarded. The major effects for Paul are a move from a national people of God to a family from all peoples, and from a legal-centered way of life to life in the Spirit. There is, however, a reverse sense of the hermeneutical place of Galatians. The letter is responding to a specific situation in Galatia of which we know only the surface features. Its polemical character means that it reflects a particular dimension of truth to make its point, but does not aspire to complete balance. Therefore, an interpretation of Galatians needs the rest of Paul’s writings and, indeed, the whole of scripture in order to be properly understood and received as authority for the church.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Faith of Jesus Christ
Paul’s View of the Law
Invitation to Comment
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|—George R. Brunk III|