Galatians Is Not About “Works Righteousness”

We’ve been studying Galatians here on Sundays. The conversation has caused me to reflect on why it is so difficult to communicate effectively the challenge that exegesis issues to the traditional Reformation and evangelical readings of the letter.

I’ll let N. T. Wright speak for the exegesis:

What, then, is Paul attacking under the label works of the law? Not, we must insist, what one might call proto-Pelagianism, the belief that one must earn ones justification and salvation by unaided good works. (Of course, had Paul met Pelagians, real or proto-, he would have given them short shrift. But there is no evidence that he did.) Nor, we note, is he attacking the idea that true religion is about outward observances rather than inward attitudes. That caricature of Paul has become so popular that Paul is still sometimes criticised as though he had anticipated Luther, or even Kant. . . . Rather, Paul is denying that the basic biblical commands [sabbath, food laws, circumcision], which in his day were the most obvious defining marks of Israel over against the nations, are of any continuing relevance in defining the true people of God, the people in and for whom the promises of Deuteronomy, and for that matter the promises to Abraham, were now coming true.

We should note in the same breath, of course, that for Paul the basis of this critique of the works of Torah is not that the Torah, or its commands, were evil, stupid, wrong-headed, demonic, or any of the myriad other things that Paul has been thought to say about the law (often by those in the Reformation or Enlightenment tradition who wanted him to say such things about law in general, about medieval catholic superstitions, or whatever). Rather, the basis for the critique is eschatological. Torah has done its primary job, a job designed for the period before the time when Deuteronomy 30 would be fulfilled. Now, in the new age ushered in by Jesus death and resurrection, Torah is relativized, and in particular is of no use, as it stands, when it comes to defining the eschatological people of God. (N. T. Wright, “4QMMT and Paul: Justification, ‘Works,’ and Eschatology,” History and Exegesis: New Testament Essays in Honor of Dr E. Earl Ellis for His 80th Birthday, ed. Aang-Won [Aaron] Son [New York: T & T Clark, 2006], 124-25;

Despite the historical and textual evidence that brings Wright and others to this (in my view) well-founded conclusion, I see one overarching and two specific reasons why it is so difficult to let the text say what Paul meant. There are undoubtedly more, but these seem primary. The overarching reason is the current of historical theology: swimming against it, one realizes how powerful it is. Because “justification by faith alone,” conceived of in direct relation to the passages in Galatians and Romans that deal with “works of the law,” was so essential to the Reformation a whole, it is a central pillar in the theological system(s) that spun out of it. I’m mixing metaphors, but the point is simple: the whole of Reformation and, subsequently, evangelical theology is moving in the direction set by a certain reading of Paul. That reading is like a small stream that initially cut a channel in the ground and eventually grew into a massive river. Challenging that reading is like trying to carve out a new small channel to divert the whole river. The rest of the theology wants to keep flowing down the previous reading’s spacious riverbed—the path of least resistance.

That is the general issue that shapes two specific difficulties: the established “logic” of the straightforward reading and the established hermeneutical move.

By the “logic” of the straightforward reading I mean the theological thought world that controls the deductive reasoning applied to specific statements. This reasoning process must make meaning out of statements that presume a great deal about Paul, the Galatians, and the judaizers’ beliefs. This is specifically where the exegesis issues its challenge. The fruit of exegesis is a reconstruction of their thought world that is no less “logical” where the reading of those ambiguous passages is concerned. Yet, when someone with Reformation assumptions attempts to read Galatians in light of this exegetical insight (generally called the New Perspective on Paul), the “apparent” meaning of Paul’s phrasing still seems to cohere far more logically with the Reformation system. This is because reconstructing the first century thought world does not amount restructuring our own. The current of the river pulls us along, whereas the logic that coheres with the exegetical evidence feels, as a thought process, like swimming upstream. Thus, in the course of the discussion, it is very difficult to communicate what that evidence suggests, because it already seems so “obvious” what Paul is saying. Of course, it is equally obvious that he is saying something else once that Reformation logic is no longer operative.

Gal 3:10-14 is a good example:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for The one who is righteous will live by faith. But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, Whoever does the works of the law will live by them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for usfor it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (NRSV)

The Reformation system assumes certain meanings of works of the law (along with a entire conception of the OT law), curse (along with a entire theology of “the fall” and sin), and justification that control the passage’s logic, making its meaning fairly straightforward. This passage in particular plays an important role in reinforcing those assumptions. Thus, when one claims that “works of the law” refers so specific practices (sabbath, food laws, circumcision) rather than an attempt to “earn righteousness,” the rejoinder is that obviously they were trying to keep the whole law in order to be justified. Why else would Paul (quoting the law itself) say “cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law”? The “clear” meaning of this, coherent with the Reformation system of theology, is that the law required Israel to be perfect or go to hell.

Yet, the point of this example is that from within the thought world of the letter’s original context, that phrase would have very logically meant something else. It only seems to mean “Jews had to earn salvation” because of the imposed theological system that creates that logic. Unfortunately, it is actually the “obviousness” that comprises the force of the argument against the New Perspective’s alternate account, forgoing the possibility of a corrective to the Reformation system. The only way to avoid this circularity is to allow the results of exegesis to create dissonance with our systems and assumptions. Since we cannot revise them all at once, dissonance is inevitable.

I’ll try briefly to explain the logic of Gal 3:10-14 within a NPP reading of the letter before coming to the second (hermeneutical) difficulty.

(1) The “curse” is not the condemnation that corresponds to sinfulness in general. It is, very specifically, the result of Israel’s collective, persistent, historically particular unfaithfulness as members of the Sinai covenant—that result being, namely, exile (Deut 29:24-28). Exile was loss of “the land,” but that loss came to its sharp point in the loss of the temple, which is to say, of God’s special presence. This is the curse in simplified terms. This curse is not generalized or individualized. It is the historical reality to which the law, and therefore the Sinai covenant, had come.

(2) By quoting “Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them” (Deut 27:26), Paul does not intend to extract it from its entire OT context. It is one of many instances in Deuteronomy alone where God says that Israel must obey all the commands that he has given them. That God says it and means it is not in dispute. Rather, the reader of Galatians, in order to understand Paul’s logic correctly, must also presume the grace and forgiveness that permeates the OT, including the law. Paul does not separate the quotation from this context, therefore it cannot be understood as a proof text for the demand of moral perfection with its corollary need to “merit” justification. It is a proof text for the issue that hangs over the judaizers’ intentions in Galatia: we already know how the story of the law ends. To bring Gentiles into the Sinai covenant is to bring them into a realm in which curse already overcame blessing.

(3) There are a number of grammatical points that would clarify the sense of Paul’s wording if they didn’t get lost in translation. The translation I’ve used starts, “For all who rely on the works of the the law. . . .” This wording is already pushing the mind in the wrong direction. Literally, the phrase is, “For as many as are of works of the law.” This is important because parallel constructions throughout the passage (and the letter) help clarify Paul’s logic. The point here isn’t to quibble over whether they were “relying” on the works of the law—the NRSV translators are not to fault for choosing dynamic equivalent language. But what we need to see is the construction “of works of the law” (ex erga nomou). Paul explains, the curse pertains to those who are “of works of the law”—defined by circumcision, sabbath, and food laws. Being “of” those works places one “in” the law, which is where curse rather than justification already (in history, as exile) reigns. By contrast, those who are “of” faith are “in” Christ, which is where blessing reigns. Now, the fruit of these observations is clearer when we put all the phrasing together. I’ll use the same translation but change the key phrases to reflect Paul’s parallelism.

For all who are of works of the law (ex erga nomou) are under a curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God in law (en nomō); for The one who is righteous will live of faith (ek pisteos). But the law is not of faith (ek pisteos); on the contrary, Whoever does the works of the law them will live in them (en autois). Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us for it is written, Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree in order that in (en) Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (NRSV)

(For readers with an understanding Greek grammar, I am not trying to make a case for a strictly locative use of en nomō or en autois, over against the more natural instrumental use. But there is a very important theological sense in which Paul relies upon the idea of being “in” Christ for his understanding of justification. That usage in parallelism with the law necessarily gives it at least a locative flavor, so to speak.)

As a side note, the translators’ decision to help the reader by making “works of the law” the antecedent of “them” in “Whoever does them will live in them” is understandable but, I think, wrong. The original text of Lev 18:5 is actually quite different than Paul’s phrasing: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD.” In any case, “them” would appear to be all the law’s statues and ordinances, which includes but is not synonymous with Paul’s use of “works of the law.”

So, boiled down, the parallelism goes like this:

of works of the law > in law > under curse > [lose presence]

of faith > in Christ > under blessing > receive Spirit

(4) It is important to reiterate that this curse did not come merely because individuals were morally imperfect.

It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. They turned and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them (Deut 29:25-26).

A broad covenant unfaithfulness is in view, which culminated after centuries of patience and forgiveness on God’s part.

Thus, there is no sense in which the judaizers were attempting to make the Gentile converts earn justification or merit salvation by “observing and obeying all the things written in the law.” Instead, they were apparently attempting to make Gentiles to be covenant members “of works of the law” (circumcision, et al.), and Paul’s point is that if they are “of works of the law,” then they are necessarily “in” the whole law—and that logically means under the curse. In other words, Gal 3:10 means that the law is where the curse is, and it is impossible to participate in just the works of the law and not the whole law (“all the things written”).

(5) “The law is not of faith” is not making the claim that keeping the law is somehow opposed to having faith in God. The prophet whom Paul quotes as saying “The one who is righteous will live of faith” was himself a law-abiding OT Jew who would have rejected that dichotomy. The key to understanding the passage is once again to note the grammar but also to grasp that Paul means something very specific when he says “of faith.” Namely, he is referring to faith in Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah. Paul appropriates Habakkuk’s phrase to talk about faith in Jesus. His argument is simply that the law is not “of faith” because what is “of faith” places the believer “in Christ” rather than “in law.” But whoever does the law lives “in law”—so it is self-evident that the law is not “of faith.” In summary, the two are mutually exclusive realms; the judaizers who believe in Jesus but still want to be “of works of the law” cannot overcome this paradox.

(6) The “us” of “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” refers only to Jews. As obvious as it should be that only those under the law (Israel) would need redemption from its curse, this observation is especially difficult for many to hear, because the passage is taken so personally. But Paul’s argument unfolds reasonably enough. It is necessary for Israel to be redeemed from the curse “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles.” The blessing, which Paul quotes and identifies just verses earlier as “the gospel,” must come through Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12:3). Yet, they are under the curse of the law, which is a status that impedes the flow of the blessing through them. Thus, Christ takes care of the curse in order that the blessing might finally flow to the nations. Given that dilemma, it is inconceivable to Paul that the judaizers would want to bring the Gentile converts into the law and the curse.

(7) Moreover, among many things, the arrival of the promised Spirit is the answer to exile and the fulfillment of blessing. It is, therefore, also unnecessary for Jews (much less Gentiles) to look for blessing in the law, since the ultimate outcome of Israel’s redemption from the curse “in Christ” was “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” If the blessing is already fulfilled through redemption from the law’s curse “in Christ,” then why the preoccupation with being “in law”?

Swimming against the current sometimes feels futile. Hopefully I’ve offered a glimpse into a thought world that necessitates a very different reading of the passage but one from within which Paul’s words have an equally logical and straightforward meaning. Now for the second problem.

The almost instinctual rejection of a non-traditional reading of Galatians is rooted, in part, in the fact that the interpretive move from text to application is so seamless and, again, straightforward in Reformation and evangelical traditions. My perception is that people are at a loss for how to apply a New Perspective reading as easily to their own lives. Additionally, by now the desire to hear Paul saying, “Don’t try to be good enough” and/or “Don’t be a legalist,” in deeply ingrained in many. Thus, it is a rather foreign experience to hear the New Perspective explanation and be unable to nod along with immediate application to one’s own guilt complex.

Indeed, this guilt complex may be the most important factor of all. Krister Stendhal’s “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” continues to be one of the most insightful articles in the last century of Pauline studies, in my opinion. The extent to which the Western conservative conscience feels guilt and fears condemnation, provoking a deep longing and need to hear Paul say, “You don’t have to be good enough,” is impressive to say the least. The study of Galatians is therefore never just a detached cognitive exercise in which exegesis is free to draw its conclusions. The emotional element is powerful and often reactionary—even though we can go to many other passages to come to the conclusion that grace is actually a free gift. To say that Paul is not claiming “you can’t earn justification” in Galatians is not to say that he wouldn’t make that claim. That matters little, however, when dealing with passages that have been go-to proof-texts for the anti-works-righteousness claim during the entire history of Protestant Christianity.

Such difficulty aside, if we come to the conclusion that Paul is logically making a different point, then we must still ask hermeneutical questions. So, what application can we make from a New Perspective reading? I’ll quote from N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn’s work respectively, to demonstrate what the natural, easy connection probably is:

To sum up thus far, then, the phrase “the works of the law,” does, of course, refer to all or whatever the law requires, covenantal nomism as a whole. But in a context where the relationship of Israel with other nations is at issue, certain laws would naturally come more into focus than others. We have instanced circumcision and food laws in particular. In the Qumran sect the sensitive issues were not those between Jew and Gentile, but those between Jew and Jew, and so focused on internal disagreements on issues like sacrifice and purity. Elsewhere int he Jewish literature of the time we are aware of violent disagreement about how to calculate the appropriate feast days, whether by the sun or by the moon. The disagreement was so sharp that each regarded the other as failing to keep the feast, as observing the feasts of Gentiles and not those of Israel’s covenant. Equivalent defining issues within the history of Christianity have included believers’ baptism, speaking in tongues, or apartheid. Today we might think of issues like abortion, women priests, scriptural inerrancy, or papal infallibility. None of the disputants in such internal controversies would regard the point at issue as the whole of their faith or even as the most important element in their faith. But the issues have become foci of controversy to such an extent that the status of the opponent’s confession as a whole can in fact be called into question. (James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 358-59; emphasis added.)

The passage speaks powerfully to every situation in which as is, sadly, far more common than in Pauls day the church is divided along ethnic or cultural lines. Most of the great divisions in Christendom—Eastern Orthodox over against the Western churches (i.e. Rome and the churches that broke away from Rome); the protestantism of northern Europe and its colonies against the catholicism of southern Europe and its offshoots; the vestigial Scottish/English division of presbyterian and episcopalian; and many of the newer free churches, often reflecting different cultures and social types—most of these divisions, though understandable historically, fall under Gods judgment when considered in the light of this chapter. A passion for Pauls gospel translates directly into a passion for the unity of the church. (N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, New Testament for Everyone [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002; Kindle Edition], 42-43.)

Wright, in the commentary referenced, also has a steady drumbeat throughout in reference to racial and ethnic divisions as well as table fellowship. These are equally natural interpretive connections, and which to emphasize will depend upon the interpreters’ context. But regarding the intentions of the judaizers and the covenantal meaning of “works of the law,” I think they are right to see the divisions within Christianity as the most direct correlation. Yet, I also think that neither (at least in these paragraphs) has really pried underneath the equivalency to the deeper issue of identity.

The first difficulty of application here is that Paul bases the illegitimacy of the judaizers’ claim specifically on the curse. The problem with their desire to “wear certain badges of covenant membership,” as both Dunn and Wright would put it, was the “of works of the law” that placed them firmly “in law” and thus “under curse.” While we might principlize the problem of “covenant badges other than faith,” we have to admit that other badges are not problematic for the same reason—others would not place us under the law’s curse. Still, it is legitimate to draw out the implication from Paul’s argument that the only acceptable badge of covenant membership is faith, because it is the only one that places one “in Christ.” (Others wouldn’t place us under curse, but they might leave us under wrath—a different but related issue for which we need would have to turn to Romans.)

This in no way short-circuits doctrinal differences, because Paul would say on the same breath that being in Christ necessarily produces certain results. So we can come in the back door and go on arguing about what those necessary results are, with the exact same divisions as the outcome. My expectation is not that understanding faith as the only badge of identity will preclude all division, as though saying “we all believe in Jesus” were sufficient. James certainly didn’t think so! I don’t think Paul wants Jesus to be an excuse for facile pluralism.

But it is game-changing if we begin by fighting, as ferociously as Paul, for faith in the crucified and resurrected Messiah as the one and only badge of covenant membership. If our essential identity is those who are in Christ by faith alone, then we have a basis for working out together the results and implications of that life. It makes possible the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, discerning God’s will through difficult conversation and communion. Because we are all still “us.” If, however, something else becomes a defining mark of Christian identity, there is no basis for us to sit at the table together; the conversation is over before it starts; “they” are not “us.” (Speaking of Christian unity, not the hospitality that should characterize the church’s table anyway.)

Given that Wright’s observation is correct—divisions often reflect cultural and social differences—it is all too easy to avoid the missional engagement of cross-cultural dialogue by allowing things other than faith to define God’s people. Instead, let us fight to sit at the table with all who are in Christ and discern together how to love and serve each other for God’s glory.

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