How will I read Paul and Galatians?

An wandering exercise in interpretation...

This is where I began with Paul.

When I read this long ago man Paul, I find places where he makes no sense at all. He cannot be interpreted using my logic. I am beginning to see this is not only a difference of culture. It is also that he is not writing material for me to argue with, or even to persuade me; instead, he is announcing something. He is trying to communicate an experience of God; a new experience.

 J. Louis Martyn says,

... the Gospel has the effect of placing at issue the nature of argument itself. ...since the Gospel is God's own utterance, it is not and can never be subject to ratiocinative criteria that have been developed apart from it.

[Paul's understanding is that]... God has invaded the cosmos. Paul does not argue, then, on the basis of a cosmos that remains that remains undisturbed... [He] is not at all formulating an argument... that faith is better than observance of the Law. He is constructing an announcement designed to wake the Galatians up to the real cosmos... (Galatians J. Louis Martyn. Anchor Bible pp22-23)

We are used to debating with and being persuaded by arguments with which we share some common ground. Even in the gospels, we share a common humanity with the people in the stories. But here, in Paul, is a basic assumption that is quite at odds with twenty-first century self understandings. Paul believes "that all human beings are subject to powers beyond their control." (Galatians J. Louis Martyn. Anchor Bible pp23)

It's true that this is not news to many of us, although we may have a different understanding of such 'powers.' Yet even those of us who do realise how much we are shaped by external forces are effectively strangers to the concept that God has invaded our sphere of reality to overthrow those forces. We may assent theologically to such a statement, but we tend to live as though we were free agents. We are, as someone said, "functional atheists."

 So I think to hear Paul—not to understand him—but to hear him, I need to suspend judgement. I need to accept his view of the cosmos, immerse myself in it, and see if I begin to experience the reality he is trying to announce to me. 

In a discussion group, we talked about interpreting Paul and what he says about how we are justified; that is, how he saw our relationship with God being restored. There is a distinction between being justified by the faith of Christ and being justified by our faith in Christ. (eg Galatians 2:15, 20) Grammatically the Greek supports either translation, but in the English there is a crucial distinction introduced by the choice of words. This disctinciton completely changes the tone of the gospel.

One translation and understanding requires work on our part. Salvation is dependent upon how good our faith is. God could conceivable say, "You do not have enough faith."

The other translation lets us be at peace because we are saved by the faith of Christ. We don't have to do anything. There is no standard we have to meet. His faith is always adequate.

As we discussed these alternative translations it became apparent that we were speaking as though Paul's statement that Jesus' faith justifies us is objective truth. We were discussing it with the same kind of language that we would use about whether a table top was real oak, or only a veneer.

But in reality, justification by the faith of Christ is Paul's explanatory hypothesis of what had happened to him! He had found an enormous freedom because he realised that God simply loved him, and he didn't have to do anything to merit that love, or to make it happen. It just was.

How it happened, and happens; how it is that God loves us is a mystery. It is not something which we can understand. We either we experience this love as simply given to us, or we feel we have to do something to make this love happen for us. Paul realised the first thing is the situation; God's love is simply given. That was his crucial understanding. That realisation was where his freedom came from.

We do not know what the mechanism is that enabled it to happen for him,  or enables it to happen for us. It is beyond us to understand why God should freely love us when so much of our instinct is that we deserve no such thing.

To think we understand the mechanism is to think we understand God, which is perhaps the truest indication that we are not 'standing under' God but setting up an idol that we have defined, and therefore control.

So for Paul to say we our relationship with God is set right by the faith of Christ was, in a sense, speculation. It was an hypothesis which he made, and which made sense in his cosmology and philosophy .

All this is implied by the fact that there are multiple theories of atonement. There are so many because we cannot understand how it happens. None of them is adequate.

Rather than make our experience fit the culture of Paul, would it not be better if we reflected on our freedom that has come from knowing Christ, in language and thought forms that work for us? What brought us to realise that God simply loves us and there is nothing we need to do to work for it?

What traditional theology does is emphasize the need to understand Paul's explanatory hypothesis of justification by faith; whether it is my faith or the faith of Christ, rather than reflect upon my personal experience with Jesus.

My task is not to repeat to you Paul's theory as a real fact to which you should submit, but rather to tell you of my freedom and how it happened for me; my attempt at an explanation. I have spent too long trying to make what Paul said as an explanation for his time fit my experience—I have even tried to make my experience fit his explanation—rather than thinking about how my experience has been like his experience, and wondering what it is about Jesus that causes my experience.

As a result I can spend a lot of time telling you about Paul but I find it very hard to talk coherently about what Jesus has done for me simply because I have not spent the time I should have spent thinking about that. Both you and I suffer the consequence. My talking to you inherently lessens or even dismisses the validity of your experience of the Divine, and this means you and I miss the richness of your experience and what it may give to us.

We need constantly to be alert to reifying our explanations of God, that is making them as though they are real, rather than an approximation. What is real is our experience. Our descriptions of how; that is, our attempts to understand how what has happened has happened is only hypothesis. If we make it binding fact we not only abuse people who do not have our experience. We also wrap God up in an explanation—in a box, indeed—and this is idolatry.

Going further…

Paul saw Christ as a kind of pivot point in the history of the world. God was breaking in and making a new creation. There is, in his mind, a definitive BC and AD, as it were.

It is now respectful for us to say BCE and CE; that is, Before the Common Era and, Common Era. But this much needed respect ties in with a major difference in our understanding of the world compared to Paul.

Our world evolves. There is a steady progression about things. We may be cynical that it involves much progress toward the good, but we do not conceive that there is some fundamental point of change, a discontinuity where God—or anything—breaks in.

The physicists' speculation about what precedes the "Big Bang" is not mere curiosity about how things work. Our whole psychological makeup; the way we understand ourselves, requires a 'pre Big Bang world.' Radical discontinuity is not acceptable for our understanding of reality.

So we theologians face a question: Can we learn to see the world in the way Paul does; is he more fundamentally correct about the nature of the cosmos than we are? Or do we let his hypothesis of the metaphysics of the world work illuminate our hypothesis of how the metaphysics of the world work?

I say metaphysics not as something apart from physics. Physics that tries to describe the world apart from our psychological and philosophical presuppositions is just as unconscious and, ultimately, foolish, as the religious person who reflects on the world whilst ignoring or denying the insights of the physical sciences.

This is a humbling exercise. It allows that our perception of reality is not the last word. It introduces ambiguity and widens the area of discussion far beyond the nicely set out but artificial boundaries of our scientific disciplines. it involves accepting that our descriptions of reality are partial attempts to understand, not controlling descriptions.

Formally, we may say that we understand our descriptions are limited and contingent. Practically we act as though our attempted descriptions are reality. Psychologically, when we say something "is," we imply our understanding of what is controls it, and grant ourselves existential safety.

If nothing else, Paul's alternative view of reality in Galatians, should alert us to how limited and contingent our world view is. Our world view is essentially arrogant. (I can't track down who gave me this insight.) We in the West proceed as though our description of reality is superior to other cultures both now and in the past. We have failed to see that these cultures had/have an adequacy as a total description of their world experience, and that to judge one total description is 'better' than another is extraordinarily difficult. Such judgments rest upon foundations of which we are barely aware.

What if more years alive, in greater physical comfort, with ever more personal autonomy, were not the acme of human experience? The fact that we so rarely even  ask this question, let alone give it serious consideration, indicates how much we are trapped within our own world view.

Everything in our culture, and especially our institutions of higher education, orients us toward solutions, toward answers, toward ways to fix the human body, the human mind, the world’s economy, the inside of a laptop, the woes of Washington, the finances of Greece, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the poverty of Somalia. …Our culture’s operational assumption has long been that the central problem of human existence is mortality. From the moment we come into the world, our fundamental crisis is that we are going to die. In the words of Samuel Beckett, we “give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more” (Beckett 1956)…

What I want to highlight right now is that if you assume that the fundamental human problem is mortality and if the great majority of your institutional endeavor is committed to creating opportunities for people to overcome the world’s limitations and their own, then it is highly likely that you will configure service and mission in corresponding terms. You will be upholding the Millennium Development Goals. You will be providing artificial limbs for use by people in war zones who have been maimed by landmines. You will be digging wells for people in locations where there is a dearth of fresh water. When the human problem is mortality, then this is what mission and service are: they are generous acts of reducing mortality, alleviating human limitation, in ways that are not income-generating but are nonetheless life-enhancing, for both giver and receiver….

What if it turned out that the fundamental human problem was not mortality after all? What if it turned out that all along the fundamental human problem was isolation? What do I mean by this? If the fundamental human problem is isolation, then the solutions we are looking for do not lie in the laboratory or the hospital or the frontiers of human knowledge or experience. Instead the solutions lie in things we already have—most of all, in one another. … (Samuel Wells)

A different way of seeing things can fundamentally alter the way we live, and what we strive for. So far, at least, I am not reading Paul to submit myself to his way of seeing the world. I am reading him so that he—his equally adequate whole view of the world—shines a light on my experience from his experience; so that he expands my ways of seeing and understanding and acting.

If I simply submit to his hypothesis; if I reify it, and say Christ's faith justifies me as some real concrete thing, I am first of all being intellectually lazy, if not naïve. But I am also limiting the ways in which my experience and his experience may enrich my life. Perhaps I could say that if I say " Christ's faith justifies me" is true, then, paradoxically, I limit its truth.

Andrew Prior



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