§1 Approaching Galatians (session 1, part 1)—Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: A Presbyterian Adult Spiritual Formation Series

§1. Approaching Galatians

1. Preamble


McMaken: Good morning, everybody


Crowd: Good morning


McMaken: Thanks for making it out even though there were some pieces of ice or something falling from the sky earlier. Glad you made it safely. We’re going to talk together about Galatians for a while. As y’all know, I come and share once a year around this time, and for different lengths of time. And unlike previous years, we’re going to be able to spend a longer period of time together. So I thought, what’s something that we could talk about that would definitely take us that long?

And I'm sure some of you remember when we were talking about—what was it? 1st Timothy?—and we spent 6 weeks and got through half of the first chapter or something. So, y’all know how this could go. But with Galatians, we probably won’t make it all the way through. We’ll probably be able to circle back next year and pick it back up and just keep at it until we do make it all the way thorough. That’s my current plan. And so, thanks for coming out and joining in with that. 


2. Sources


McMaken: I've got one thing to pass out and if you stick this in your purse or in your Bible or something just so that you have it, in future, it might come in handy. I basically took a picture of two pages out of a commentary to get us a map of Asia Minor and I stitched them together and that’s what's on top. And, on the bottom, is an outline of the book of Galatians that Nancy Bedford put together. We’ll talk about that a little bit in a coming week and what that means for how we understand the book.

Before we get going, here are some of books that I'm reading as I work on this. I showed you Bedford.[1] Up at Lindenwood, when there's time, we try to do a theology reading group with a number of folks who come from around the campus and around the community, and this is one of the books that we read one semester. The author was the doctoral supervisor of one of the pastors in town here and she spoke very highly of it. It’s a very good book on Galatians. Since I had read it, when I was thinking of Galatians, I knew it was a good book and decided to use it as my basic frame of reference. So, as we’re going through, I’m following her outline and her way of breaking up the text into pieces. She’ll be an important part of the conversation for me and also, as I translate it, for all of us.

Also, I can't do much without talking about Luther and Calvin. These are their commentaries. Luther came first, but you all know I love Calvin. This is most of Luther's lectures on Galatians from 1535.[2] There’s another part volume that I’ll get out if we get far enough. He did another lecture cycle on it in 1519. I’ll talk about that more later. This is Calvin’s set of commentaries on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.[3] So, you can see the relative size. Calvin's a lot more concise and to the point than Luther.

And then this is another commentary. This is a modern commentary published in 1997. The author is J. Louis Martyn.[4] I’ll talk more about all of these things as we get in, probably next week. We’ll see how it goes. But, just in the interest of show and tell, we can pass these around as folks want to flip through.


3. Opening Questions


McMaken: I want to start by asking some questions. How many of us have read Galatians before at all? Like, you’ve opened your Bible the book of Galatians at some point. Okay, we’ve got a decent number of people who must’ve passed through Galatians. Anybody ever spend more time with it than that? Any other series of, you know, adult studies that you’ve done or sermon series that you’ve heard on the book of Galatians?


Participant: Probably at one point. The question is how much I remember.


McMaken: Well, they tell us in teaching, it’s always helpful to gage the preunderstanding of your folks. That helps us figure out how to frame things and what level to pitch things at. So, what I’m getting is that we haven’t had a lot of intensive experience with the book of Galatians. Alright. Has anybody ever read it in one sitting? Just sit down and read the whole book?


Participant: Probably in high school. I read the whole Bible. I probably did read it, all at once.


McMaken: What about any of the other Pauline epistles? It’s really interesting because, I don’t often do it and I did it again a couple weeks ago for this. You get a very different perspective when you say, okay, I’m just going to sit down and read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Right? And just read the whole thing. Because, so often, when we read Paul’s letters, we’re doing it for a reason. We are reading them because it’s part of our devotions. We’re reading them spiritually and devotionally. Or we’re hearing snippets of it in the service when the text come up in the lectionary or when its being preached. Or maybe we’re thinking about a particular topic that ties in, so we’re reading a few verses here and there. But if you sit down and read the whole thing, you just get this bigger picture, and it feels like it's actually a letter. Go figure, right? Rather than feeling like, oh its some biblical book. Well, it’s a letter. This guy wrote a letter. And he was kinds ticked off at the time, if we’re being honest. And a lot of that just starts coming through in a very new way.

So, I would definitely encourage you to sit down and read it in one sitting. It’s not that long. It’ll take a half hour, hour maybe, and you’ll have a much different perspective on it. I’m personally going to try and do that a few times as we go through, just to keep that kind of perspective, and I think that could be an interesting practice.

Okay. So, we have a little bit of experience reading the book of Galatians, in the past. Do we have any kind of preconceptions about the book of Galatians? What comes to mind when you think: Paul's letter to the Galatians? Do we have any ideas there? Do we have any thoughts, any connections?


Participant: Like all things that Paul wrote, to me personally, he’s very verbose. He loves his words.


McMaken: You should read him in Greek! I think there’s maybe 5 sentences in the whole letter. No, it’s not that bad. But, he has really long Greek sentences. You can imagine his secretary taking it down while he’s talking. He’s just talking and talking nonstop. So, it’s understandable if we don’t like his style of writing.


Participant: I always think that Paul, with the exception of Philippians, he was usually ticked off. So, when I'm opening a Pauline letter, I usually just try to remember, what was he ticked off abut again with this one?


McMaken: Maybe not Romans. But, yeah, he’s always writing for a reason, right? And sometimes he’s fairly agitated. So, do we have any sense of what the reason in Galatians is? How would we articulate that? No?

Alright, so, we don’t have a lot of preconceptions about Galatians. That works for me because I can give you some to work with moving forward because there are some kicking around out there and so I want to flag a few of those because that'll give us a sense of the kind of topics we’ll be getting into. But also, if you ever encounter other people talking about it, you might have a map to frame things and locate things.

Obviously, I showed you the Luther commentary, and I'll say more about this, but the book of Galatians was very important at the time of the Reformation, and it was very important for Luther developing his doctrine of justification—his understanding of salvation. So, theologically speaking, it played a very key role there for us as Protestants. That’s really important.

Also, it’s an important text on the subject of how Judaism and Christianity relate to one another because Paul talks a lot about the law. Paul talks a lot about whether it’s necessary to observe the law in the Jewish sense. And so, down through the years, beginning pretty early, and even as soon as it was received by the Galatians, it became a touchstone for how to think though those things. It has been used in damaging ways. There’s a position that we call supersessionism. It’s not just about having a really great group of elders at your local Presbyterian church.

Supersessionism is the idea that Gentile Jesus followers—which I’m pretty sure is all of us in the room—replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen people so that, with the advent of Jesus, Jews are no longer God’s chosen people but we Gentile Jesus followers, “Christians,” are. And I think we all know enough about 20th century history to understand how that could and has produced some very negative consequences. The repercussions of those kinds of ideas are still playing out in global politics, and it seems to have come around again more recently in local and national politics within the United States. The book of Galatians has been a text that’s central to all of that, so it’s important to understand the text well so that we don’t end up inadvertently hurting people.

There’s also the subject of what we call apocalyptic. That’s where the J. Louis Martyn’s commentary comes in, and I’ll talk about this more. Apocalyptic is a particular kind of eschatology, and now I’m using the fancy theology works—the multisyllabic words. Eschatology is when you’re talking about the “end” of things. So any of the speculations about the end times and the rapture and all of this kind of stuff, or thinking about Jesus as the last thing of God—like, the “end” as the “goal” and not thinking chronologically—all of this falls under this idea of eschatology. Apocalyptic comes from the Greek word apokálupsis and it’s a particular way of thinking about the end things. I’ll get into a lot more details but it’s a very conflict-based way of thinking about it. It basically involves viewing the world through a framework of cosmic spiritual warfare. Martyn stands in a tradition that tries to understand the New Testament in those kinds of terms because it seems like it was very much part of Jesus’ world, and part of Paul’s world. We’ll get more into the details of some of that but Galatians is an important book for that.

And then, finally, I imagine that you’ve encountered some of the most famous passages in Galatians. One of those is 2:19-20. Tell me if you recognize this when I read it:


“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”


Sound familiar? That’s a touchstone for kind of the Reformation-doctrine-of-justification interpretation of Galatians. But then 3:28. Well, we’ll start with 27. Tell me if you recognize this:


“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”


Does that sound familiar, too? That’s a very important text for feminism and feminist reading in the New Testament and of Paul, and for trying to understand all the debates that surrounded whether women should be involved in ministry, and to what extent, and so on. I appreciate how this passage bases everything on Baptism. There’s a sense in which in the Christian community, Baptism is the basic ordination. Everybody’s baptized and part of being baptized means bearing witness to Christ, proclaiming Christ, talking about Christ. For everyone in the Christian community, it’s being baptized and being in Christ Jesus that is the fundamental point.


[This is an edited transcript from an adult spiritual formation group that met at St. Charles Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri. It was transcribed and edited with the help of a student worker at Lindenwood University who wishes to remain anonymous, but who was also a big help. Click here to find an index of the full series.]

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works, Volume 26: Lectures on Galatians 1535, Chapters 1–4 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963).

[3] John Calvin, “Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians,” in Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, William Pringle, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003).



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