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Galatian Letter and N.T. Wright

Our church will begin a study on Galatians for our Sunday morning Bible class. I have gone through the study Bibles and commentaries that I own and they all pretty much say the same thing, which is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps the reformed theological view on Galatians is the majority view, which can loosely be summarized as Paul fighting legalism because Judaizers are distorting the gospel to include necessity of works of the law.

N.T. Wright has another take on the theme of Galatians in his work, The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology. While it is impossible to summarize his 22 page work, I would like to reproduce a few paragraphs.

Although this account (Gal. 2:15-21) is not itself about soteriology per se, it carries, of course, huge soteriological implications.If one has already died and risen with the Messiah, and if one has been grasped by the grace of God and enabled to come to faith and (by implication, brought into daylight in) baptism (3:26-28), then one is marked out thereby precisely as a member of the renewed, eschatological community of Israel, one for whom the act of God in the Messiah has dealt finally with one’s sinful past, one who is assured of God’s salvation on the Last Day.But the point of justification by faith, in this context, is not to stress this soteriological aspect, but to insist that all those who share this Christian faith are members of the same single family of God in Christ and therefore belong at the same table.This is the definite, positive, and of course deeply polemical thrust of the first-ever exposition of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith.

I have already provided a summary account of Galatians 3 and 4, seen as a narrative, or part of a larger implicit narrative, about the promises of God to Abraham and the way in which these are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. It remains here simply to note the way in which justification emerges within this structure of thought, which itself is grounded in Paul’s sense of the community he is addressing.

His emphasis throughout is that the true people whom God promised to Abraham are defined by their faith.  He is not here concerned with how one enters the family, but with how, once one has entered, the family is then defined, assured of its status as God’s people.The arguments in chapter 3 about the curse of the law, and how it is exhausted in the death of Jesus, and about the apparent tension between the promise and the law, are not primarily abstract statements about the atonement on the one hand and about the existential or spiritual superiority or preferability of trusting promises rather than keeping moral codes on the other.No doubt they contribute to discussions at these more abstract levels, but such matters were not what Paul was basically talking about.And in the great climactic passage at the end of chapter 3 and the start of chapter 4, the question of justification is set within the narrative about slavery and sonship – that is, the exodus story, in which the key interlocking categories for the present status of Christians are incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit.These are not “about” something other than justification. Rather, justification by faith itself, in the letter to Galatia, is all about the definition of the community of the people of the true God.

I am exploring this alternative idea for the theme of Galatians. It certainly does reconcile some of the problems that the typical reformed theological view cannot avoid and have troubled me for quite some time (I don’t have time or space now to present those problems). It certainly offers the best bridge of chapters 1-2 to chapters 3-4 that I have read. While Wright may not be right, we always need to be open-minded to other ideas and not so dogmatic that we will not listen to alternatives.

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