nine-pointed star etched in stone with letters in each point

A Deeper Look at Galatians

Personally, I have loved the book of Galatians ever since I was sitting in a hotel room in California after some focus groups when I was trying to quit smoking the first time and ran across this in the Gideons’ Bible:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

They didn’t teach us that one in Sunday school.

But they should have.

This month I read what a couple of others have to say about Galatians: sermons of Calvin’s, and a commentary by Dieter Lührmann. Here’s what I learned:

Reading Calvin’s sermons is informative. He doesn’t preach like preachers these days. The sermons are much longer – might take approximately an hour or so to deliver. They’re both exegetical, and exhortative. He draws lessons from what is included in the text. That is: here God is encouraging us not to sin in this way; here God is showing us what can happen if we turn away from the gospel; and so on. It’s rare, at least in my experience, to hear preachers talk about the Bible this way – although I understand that this may simply point to a deficiency in my experience.

But – and call me shallow if you will – they’re also rather tedious. He iterates and re-iterates some of the same themes in each sermon: we’re sinful; we really really need God’s grace; the Papists are wrong. Not that these are all bad themes; and he might be excused for his hostility to the Papists considering that they were trying to kill Protestants at the time. But there’s a sense of, if you’ve heard one of these sermons you’ve heard them all. Not that I might not need to hear those same things over and over again. Except, perhaps, for the one about the Papists. Thank God we’re past that.

There’s something fascinating in Lührmann’s commentary: the idea that the emphasis on the “elemental spirits of the air” in Galatians 4:3 & 4:9 might have something to do with what the “other gospel” preachers were saying, something to do with the way they were portraying the Torah.

There is, in fact, support for this idea. The law given at Sinai was not only a book that contained ethical rules for human interaction. It also defined how cultic matters were to be performed, and one essential function of the cult is to uphold the world order. This world order itself, however, was likewise documented in the law. Whoever read Genesis 1-2, the first chapters of the ‘law,’ could learn from it how the world is ordered. Thus the law of Moses contains not only ethics but also cult and cosmology, three things (moral law ceremonial law, natural law) whose unity was not disrupted until modern times; in Greek as well as Jewish tradition, and later also in medieval Christianity, all three were bound closely together. (84)

That is a lot to think about. And especially because of the way we do, or don’t, advocate feeling bound by the “orders of creation” given in the Torah, these days; because of where we get our information about natural or cosmological law, and where we think it makes sense to get it; and because of the ethical implications of that, which there are. Fascinating, if not necessarily comforting.

Lührmann points out that the ancients would have seen the maintenance of the order of the world as extremely important. We only have to think of the way we depend on the world going right, or think of the natural disasters that can come from each of the four elements (earth & earthquakes, air and storms, fire and fires, water and floods), to see this. It’s important in our own world; the sense that the orders of creation are getting out of hand is rising at the present time, as far as that goes, so we’re no strangers to this consciousness ourselves. Paul, according to Lührmann, makes the connection between Jewish law and the role of cultic observance in more or less keeping the world on track as a kind of idolatrous concern. “Not until Paul was this connection with the world denounced as equivalent to idolatry” (85).

The ‘Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1:10) that the Christian church celebrates lies beyond the natural rhythm of the seven days and is an anticipation of the ‘day of the Lord,’ the end of all days As the ‘first day’ of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), it is the eighth day of creation, the beginning of the new creation in the resurrection of Jesus. Hence, Christians are free both from the law and from the threat of the elements of the world, against which the law promised protection. In the cross the cosmos lost some of its autonomy (cf. 6:14); the world is again creation. (85)

Lührmann understands Paul’s reading of Hagar/Ishmael/Sinai/earthly Jerusalem to matter and to draw together several ideas: a different geography and set of relationships, probably learned in is travels in Arabia referred to early in the letter, the notion that Jerusalem was the meeting place of heaven and earth, which was the justification for the temple; the novel element of restricting the Jerusalem of promise to the heavenly Jerusalem; and also associating it with the encompassing church of Gentile + Jewish Christians (91-92).

Lührmann points out something that has confused me for a long time – now I feel kind of stupid, because once he points it out, it’s pretty obvious – that the reference to the fruit of the Spirit not being “against the law” relates back to the long argument about law and faith that is the main theme of the letter. Following the law doesn’t produce this fruit of the Spirit, and not relying on the law doesn’t prevent it – none of it is “against the law,” so if you’re working out this way, you’re not going against the law that, if you’re trying to follow it, won’t prevent you doing any of these things, but won’t help you do them, either. Ah-ha. (112)

Here, Lührmann rejects talk of “virtues” and “vices” as being irrelevant to the ethical message of the book of Galatians. Paul is not talking about the problem of virtues and vices here. He is presenting the fruit of the Spirit as an ethics that is based on “justification by faith.” “Thus love becomes the realization of the freedom that is based on the cross of Christ (v. 1)” (113).

For us, ‘virtues’ are certain human qualities, characteristics, or fundamental attitudes, whereas ‘vices’ are modes of behavior that result from a lack of such ‘virtues.’ There is, however, a process by which virtues become independent; even a tyrant can have everything that we call virtues, including a kind of perverted sense of justice. Secondary virtues such as duty, loyalty, and decency were also demanded of concentration camp guards; offenses against them were severely punished. One should speak of virtues only when one also speaks of the norms to which they are related. (113)

Ouch. It hurts to read that.

In commenting on the phrase “the family of faith” in Galatians 6:10, and the question of “doing what is right” in that context, Lührmann points out that the ancient family household was the model for political order and for economic order, right up through the middle ages in Europe. So, the distinction between public and private ethics didn’t exist; now, on the other hand, “as a result of the separation of private and public ethics, individual and social ethics also went their own ways. With this separation, however, the social dimension of such an ethic was also lost, and it now reads as though intended only for the private realm” (118). Not so, it seems, for Paul.

The Pauline ethic is not the application of justification to social relations but its execution in the lives of people who never live for themselves but who always find themselves in a web of social relationships. These, however, do not then become the means of self-realization and self-satisfaction but are the locus of love as the working out of faith (118).

He notes that we no longer find the concept of righteousness in Paul’s ethical discussion. That’s not what we’re concerned about anymore. Rather, the working out of faith in love and freedom produces … a whole different set of concerns, a different focus, freedom from that whole calculus. At least, that’s how I understand this.

For Paul, however, confession of the crucified One as Lord of the world means freedom from the world as well as from the law. In the cross the world order is exposed as broken and rendered impotent (cf. 1:14). Attempts to create such order in thought and action through the law are excluded by this radical interpretation of Christology, as it is asserted by Paul. (121)

For Lührmann, Paul sets up and develops these antitheses (which we also see in Romans, maybe even in more detail): law – death – curse – sin – flesh – slavery vs. faith – life – blessing – righteousness – Spirit – freedom. (98) And to this we could add world vs. heaven, I think; and old (fallen) creation vs. new creation. And love, “which remains without an opposite” (128).

For Paul, the whole salvation event is in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not a trace of things Jesus said or did. (128)

For Paul the alternative to faith is also not merely ‘works righteousness,’ for we saw that the Jewish tradition is in no way primarily interested in achieving righteousness through human accomplishments but, on the contrary, must deal with the experience that the blessing has not been ratified, although Israel and individual righteous people hold to the law. With categories such as ‘works righteousness’ we are prisoners of our tradition and probably less of the Reformation tradition than of a certain neo-Protestantism to which, after idealism everything seemed suspect that did not happen for its own sake; such ethical theology was then legitimized historically in interpretations of the Reformation and of Pauline theology (132).

Yikes! Time to rethink that rhetoric!!

If I understand Lührmann correctly, Paul’s proclamation of Christ crucified (and risen), as the Messiah, the anointed one, and the Son of God meaning the righteous one, the one who embodies God’s righteousness – who is rewarded with life, and whose righteousness also encompasses us – is an answer to the difficulty of our experience in the world, in which it seems clear that righteousness is not always the key to life, and that unrighteousness flourishes. The law, the order of the world, the consolation of the next world – all that comes with the law – this offers to make more sense out of our experience. For Lührmann, Paul’s proclamation rejects this, embracing the unambiguous gospel of the cross, the creation, the new – which incorporates our experience of suffering as being under the cross. The world is broken, and we see that in the cross, but it is already definitively redeemed, and that’s the gospel associated with the cross.

A harmonious world view does not have to be postulated with the help of the law or a Christology in order to make life a little more bearable while pointing to another, ‘real’ world or another, otherworldly level of experience. Under the cross, the very radicality of the Pauline basic alternative makes life possible in this world, which is not whole, whose character as creation of God is not to be read from the world itself, but in which, nonetheless, the promises of blessing, life, and righteousness can be realized for the individual and for the church. (134)

That’s his last word. Whew – breathtaking.

Next month: Judges. [If I have a least favorite book of the Bible, this one is it. But one of my professors has told me I’m wrong about this.]


Calvin, John. Sermons on Galatians. Translated by Kathy Childress. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 1997 (1574).

Lührmann, Dieter. Galatians: A Continental Commentary. Translated by O.C. Dean, Jr. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992 (1978).

Gravestone of Georg with fruit of the spirit
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

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