Psychology and Biblical Studies


SBL Annual Meeting Papers, November 2010

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Growing Up:
Polemic and Pastoral Care in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

Marion Carson
International Christian College


1. Introduction

1. Christians have always believed that they can and should look to Scripture for situations analogous to our own. In the main, this method has been used by readers who are looking to the text for ethical teaching or guidance. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often felt to be particularly fruitful in this regard, particularly by readers facing opposition or division in their church - perhaps because of a disagreement about doctrine or behaviour, or a quarrel with what they see as “legalism”. Indeed, John Riches notes that the practice of drawing analogies between the letter’s Sitz im Leben and that of the reader has been a feature of its reception history:

“For Chrysostom, the connection between Paul’s Judaizing opponents in Galatia and the Jewish community in Antioch was not far to seek; Augustine would make the connection between the world of Antiquity and Paul’s opponents in terms of their love of honour and glory, of their carnal understanding of the Law and their slavish desire for the rewards that it conveyed. And these more analogical connections will remain part of the repertory of Christian commentators for the next thousand years or more.”1

Most famously, Luther’s view that Paul is arguing against the Law, and for justification by faith, spurred him on to argue against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, leading to the momentous events of the Reformation.2 Recently, scholars have been preoccupied with the letter’s role in fuelling anti-Judaic thinking among Christians. Most non-academic readers, however, are looking to the letter to provide guidance for their own church or personal lives, and the difficulties of apparent anti-Jewish polemic are not the issue. What they see is the apostle objecting to the imposition of certain practices – on the basis of the principle of a law free gospel - and urging his congregation to have nothing to do with those who oppose this view. Many have found grounds for seeing fellow believers as somehow going astray and “adding to the gospel”. Believing that they are being faithful to Paul’s example, they have found “permission” to quarrel with and split from those with whom they disagree (both inside and outside the church).3 It is ironic that a letter in which Paul expresses a concern for unity (5:15) should have become an instrument of division over the centuries.

1.1. Given these difficulties, the question arises as to whether this letter is of any use for pastoral guidance today.  Or is it simply just too dangerous, its polemical tone inappropriate for the contemporary pastoral task, too divisive for our twenty-first century sensibilities? My purpose here is to suggest one way in which these problems might be overcome and thus show that Galatians can be rescued for contemporary application. While it may be hermeneutically suspect to look for exact analogies between ancient and contemporary church life, we can, drawing on ideas from the psychology of religion, look behind the possible rhetorical situation of the letter and see types of behaviour which are as common now as they were then.  Building on, and critiquing some arguments of J.L. Martyn’s in his commentary and essays on Galatians, I will argue first, that contemporary application of Paul’s approach in Galatians requires not only a sound understanding of the nature of Paul’s argument but also a recognition of the differences in worldview between ourselves and Paul. Secondly, I will argue that Paul is concerned with a phenomenon which is just as much a part of our own congregational life as it was in Paul’s time, namely, immature, and potentially unhealthy, religion. This, I hope, will enable analogies to be drawn with present day pastoral problems and guidance to be taken without fear of anachronism or pursuing inappropriate and potentially dangerous interpretations.  


2. The Sitz im Leben of Galatians and analogical method

In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics”, James Gustafson states the method of analogy thus:

“Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture”.4

Since Paul’s letters deal with ethical problems raised in pastoral settings, it seems reasonable to see situations reflected in them which might be analogous to our own, consider how he responded to them, and seek guidance from them.5 To put it another way, we find analogies between our own stories and those reflected in the letters of Paul.6 For many, the logical next step is to act in a way which he or she thinks respects and follows Paul’s suggested response to the situation. 

As we have seen, Galatians seems to offer precisely such an opportunity for guidance, particularly for pastors who are worried about what they see as erroneous practices creeping into their congregations. The difficulties of mirror-reading notwithstanding, it is possible, to some extent, to say what the situation in the Galatian churches might be.7 Certain Jewish believers (Judiazers8) are trying to persuade the Gentile believers that it is necessary to take on Jewish practices in order to be followers of Christ (5:2; 6;12,13).9 The men are being encouraged to be circumcised, and all are being told that the observation of Jewish festivals and food laws is a necessary part of their new faith (4:10). Some, though apparently not all (ref), members of the congregation have been persuaded to adopt these practices.

One can see how certain situations in the contemporary church could be thought to have enough similarity to this one for analogies to be drawn. Church disputes (and splits) often revolve around matters of practice. It is easy to imagine present day pastoral situations similar to that reflected in Galatians. For example, there may be differences of opinion regarding mode of dress, attendance at meetings, types of preaching, practices such as confession or the use of charismatic gifts. Often in the church setting, one group attempts to persuade the whole congregation as to the rightness of their way of doing things, and difficulties ensue. For the purposes of this argument, let us imagine, for example, a circumstance in which one group thinks attendance at a midweek meeting is an essential part of the Christian life, while another opposed group is contending that that this is “adding to the gospel”. If we draw an analogy with Galatians, we could say that the advocates of compulsory midweek meeting attendance are analogous to the Judaizers, and that therefore the congregation should resist their view and even cut them off from the community.

2.1. Given the harm that could be done by adopting such an approach, however, it seems wise to examine the use of analogical methodology before adopting Paul’s approach here. Is the use of analogical reasoning is appropriate? Does the analogy stand up to scrutiny? Just how similar is the situation referred to in the letter to our contemporary circumstances? It is easy to see correspondences which do not exist, or to over-stretch the analogy to the extent that it becomes unworkable.

In addition, the method must be used with integrity and care. As Gustafson notes, “the predisposition is to seek those events which confirm one’s present judgements”.10  It is easy to see those with whom we disagree as present day “Judaizers”, and tempting to copy Paul in his polemical approach. But we must ask ourselves: are we seeking biblical warrant for marginalising those with whom we disagree, ensuring that our own power base is unassailable, or are we concerned with the wellbeing of the church? 11

Aware of such potential difficulties, Charles Cosgrove has developed a four-step method for using analogy as a hermeneutical tool.12 The first step is to identify, from our own tradition or through our imaginative discovery, a potential biblical “paradigm case” to govern our contemporary “problem case”. The second task is to explicate the principles behind the judgement in the paradigm case. Thirdly, we determine to what extent these principles apply to the problem.  Lastly, having compared the two, we make a judgement about our own situation. Let us see how this helps us with Galatians.13 

Having identified a possible analogy between the behaviour of the Judaizers in Galatians and that of some believers in a contemporary congregation, we must first try to understand what is going on in Galatians as best we can. As we have seen, the situation seems to be one of people insisting one set of practices be adopted by the whole congregation.  Paul thinks these “Judaizers” are wrong, and insists that his readers take nothing to do with them. If the believers follow this “other gospel” the consequences for the church as a whole will be dire, although all is not yet lost (5:10). The question arises, should the contemporary pastor or church leader with a similar situation follow the example of Paul here and declare his opponents “anathema”?

In order to answer this question, we need to consider Paul’s reasoning. On a practical level, he sees the Judaizers as a threat to the unity of the congregations, and wants the latter to have nothing to do with them. His reason for considering the Judaizers a threat to unity is theological in nature – it is the principle that men and women are justified before God, not by “works of the law”, but by following Jesus Christ. On this basis, he is convinced that Gentile believers should not adopt Jewish practices.- they would be adding unnecessary burdens to their lives in Christ. The message of the Judaizers is tantamount to saying that one has to be Jew to be justified before God, and in Paul’s opinion, this is as good as saying that Christ’s death was for no purpose at all. So he begs the Galatians not to give up on the gospel but to appreciate the freedom Christ has brought them. Concerned for the Galatians’ spiritual wellbeing, he wants not to be hidebound by Jewish law, but living in a community characterised by “agape” love.

These three principles, “freedom from works of the law”, unity in Christ, and agape love are “timeless” – they are, at first sight, as relevant in our times as they are in Paul’s. However, two problems arise. In Paul’s circumstances the term “law” refers to Jewish practices – circumcision and feast days. But to what exactly does law correspond when we analogise this with a modern situation? Secondly, just how far does one go with the principle of unity? Paul himself seems to undermine this principle when he declares his opponents anathema. We have to ask, would a contemporary pastor be correct in banishing someone who felt that attendance at the midweek prayer meeting was an essential part of the Christian life? Paul’s reaction to the problem to us might seem unhelpful if not dangerous. As Todd Still says,

 “Paul cannot be applauded for cursing his opponents. Even though haranguing was a common practice in antiquity, it stands in sharp discontinuity with the agape Paul so ably advocates elsewhere in his letters.”14 

This hardly seems a good example for modern day pastors to follow. The difficulties with the term “law”, apparent inconsistencies in Paul’s approach, and our own contemporary sensibilities all seem to suggest that Paul’s tactics might not be appropriate for today’s church.

2.2. Analogies of course always ultimately break down, and we are on particularly shaky ground when there is a chronological and cultural gap of the nature we find in this case. Aware of this, Cosgrove suggests that we adopt a strategy which he calls “augmentation” - the idea of “fleshing out” the paradigm case. Is there a conceptual reason for his argument which is governing the practical? In other words, does an understanding of the worldview within which Paul is working help us to understand Paul’s reaction? J.L. Martyn’s recent commentary on Galatians argues strongly that Paul is working in a particular worldview – that of apocalyptic Judaism - and that this informs both his analysis of the situation in Galatia and his response to it. Not only that, Martyn suggests that rather than being “anti-law” Paul is “anti-religion”  Does this view help enable application in the present day?

3. J.L. Martyn’s argument

The main thrust of Martyn’s argument is that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker who thinks in thoroughly dualistic terms. He sees old polarities replaced with new ones since the resurrection of Christ. Paul understands his own life as dissected into two eras – the time before he knew Christ and the time after. So too, history itself is sharply divided – between the time before the Messiah came and the time after. 15  He calls these polarities antinomies, some of which belong firmly in the old age and some in the new. Those which belong to the “old age” include law and faith, works and grace, and they have been replaced by new antinomies in the new era – namely, flesh and spirit (chs 5 and 6). Thus the central question in Galatians is  

 “What time is it? It is the time after the apocalypse of the faith of Christ (3:23-25), the time of things being set right by that faith, the time of the presence of the Spirit, and thus the time of the war of liberation commenced by the Spirit. In a word, it is the time of the dawn of the new creation with its new antinomies. The result is a holistic vision, in scope categorically cosmic and emphatically apocalyptic.”16 

In the old age, the world is made up of Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, those who observe kashrut and the Jewish calendar, and those who do not. The Judaizers therefore, are acting as though Christ has never come, as if the new age has not been inaugurated, and Paul is determined that the gentile Christians will not be given this burden. Paul describes these practices as “works of the law”, and Gentiles who observe them are putting themselves under a form of slavery. All this is set in sharp contrast to simple faith (responding to the gospel), grace, freedom, and the work of the Spirit.

Paul finds support for his position in the Hebrew Scriptures. In an exposition of the story of Abraham (in particular the episode of Sarah and Hagar), he expresses the distinction between the Judaizers’ wishes and his own view of freedom in terms of “law“ and “promise”. The Galatian believers (whether Jewish or Gentile), are children of the freewoman and as such are under promise rather than law. They belong to the Jerusalem above rather than the earthly Jerusalem (4:26). They must not act as though the gospel has made no difference at all.

Martyn’ s assessment of the situation in Galatia -  that Paul is objecting to the activities of Judaizers who want to impose Jewish practices on Gentile believers – is similar to most contemporary scholars’. But his emphasis on Paul’s Jewish worldview points up the particularity of the situation addressed by the letter and raises the question: should attempts to draw analogies between Galatia and contemporary church problems be abandoned altogether? It is hard to see how such a very “Jewish” problem can help us in the present day without stretching the analogy to breaking point.

Here Martyn is very helpful indeed, for he looks beyond the merely situational, and suggests that rather than fighting against Judaism, or even legalism, Paul is objecting to religion. It was religion which had preoccupied Paul prior to his encounter with Christ, and he sees the Judaizers devoting themselves to it in Galatia. However, Paul is now convinced that in the new age, religion has been replaced by the gospel, and so it has become obsolete.

Martyn’s argument seems to provide a new opening for contemporary application. It seems to provide an explanation of Paul’s argument which enables the analogy to proceed. Working with Martyn’s paradigm – the answer to the problem of our contemporary example is clear: for law, read religion; for works, read attendance at meetings. Those who are insisting on their necessity must be “adding to the gospel” and operating in the realm of the flesh rather than the spirit.


4. Critique of Martyn

The idea of an opposition between religion and the gospel will be appealing to many, and the notion of discarding “religion” will be attractive to those who question certain practices and the church politics supporting them. It might appear to be highly liberating and facilitating of the kind of unhindered spirituality which Paul seems to speak of in chapters 5 and 6 of the letter. However, there are certain aspects of Martyn’s argument which prevent us from adopting his thesis n it entirety and drawing an unmodified analogy with our situation. The first concerns his idea of Paul’s use of dualism and the second his views on religion.

4.1. Dualism in Paul’s letter

Martyn’s view of the dualisms in Galatians is helpful for highlighting the influences on Paul in his time, and goes a long way to explain the mindset which informs the apostle’s argument. He rightly points out that Paul is using categories common in Jewish apocalyptic and highlights the sheer difference that Christ’s coming has made in Paul’s life and history as a whole. While this emphasis helps us to understand why Paul takes such an oppositional view of the threat of the Judaizers, however, his view is vulnerable insofar as it raises the question of Paul’s attitude to Judaism. His opinion that Paul is drawing a sharp distinction between Law observance and the freedom brought by the Gospel must surely imply the gospel is superior to the law, and this in turn has implications for Paul’s attitude to Judaism. Despite Martyn’s protestations to the contrary, it is hard to see how his Paul can escape the charge of anti-Judaism - something which is distasteful to our post-holocaust sensibilities. Not only that, in terms of our analogy, he still seems to be contravening his own principle of unity in Christ. In his insistence that the Judaizers are not to be tolerated, he comes out looking just as belligerent and divisive as he thinks they are.



4.1.1. Other views of Galatians.

The idea that Paul’s view of Judaism can appear to be one of aggressive antipathy, and the church’s history of anti-Judaic behaviour, has led some scholars to attempt to rid him of his dualistic worldview altogether, thus redeeming the letter for contemporary application with regard to Jewish Christian relations. These writers follow Martyn’s ideas that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker, but rather than focussing on antinomies, they read Galatians through the lens of the statement in 3:28. On this basis they see him as arguing a universalist cause – although Paul thinks in terms of sharp dualisms for the present time, he thinks that in the end all will be One under the sovereignty of God.17  This makes for a far less dangerous Paul, one who is longing for, and working towards, unity rather than division.  However, even one as sympathetic towards Paul as Daniel Boyarin, has admit that universalisms notwithstanding, the apostle cannot be absolved of a supersessionist view of Judaism.18     

The apocalyptic view of Paul is not the only one, however. Many scholars are inclined to see continuity with Judaism rather than the sharp discontinuity which Martyn’s view implies. Certainly, Paul thinks the Messiah has inaugurated a new age, but this need not mean that Paul is divorced from his Jewish heritage.19 The same God who acted in Israel’s history remains active in the new age, and the church is now a part of that history. For Hays and Wright for example, the key to this is in Paul’s view of Torah, which speaks of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.20 That is why, they point out, Paul repeatedly refers to Hebrew Scriptures to back up his argument against the Judaizers.21 It is why he uses the stories of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar to illustrate his point. And, as Paul recalls saying to Peter – even Jews know that Torah does not teach that justification is through the law (ref), or, to put it another way, through “works” as opposed to “faith”. The law, which contains aggadah as well as halakah, is still of use, still good and still valuable. It is the unalloyed adherence to its ritual strictures, the belief that they are absolutely necessary to the life of the believer, to which he objects.22

Paul’s favourable recourse to Torah thus suggests that he is hardly anti-Judaic. And if this is the case, then the dualism between Judaism and Christianity which scholars have seen (although note that Martyn does not think that this is implied by his argument23), must be softened, and the two seen as more closely related that has previously been thought. We cannot simply decide that Judaism is of no importance to Paul or the Church.

By the same token however, nor can we jettison the dualisms in Paul’s letter altogether.  Paul may not be working within the categories of Jewish apocalyptic as rigidly as Martyn suggests, but they do serve a rhetorical purpose. The use of dichotomies suits his argument  - Paul not only uses Jewish categories to make a point about ( and to) to the Judaizers, he is also fully aware of how effective the use of apocalyptic language and categories can be, as Wayne Meeks has pointed out.24 Moreover, well-versed in Hellenistic rhetoric, he knows the value of contrast, dualistic language and exaggeration of the differences between people and ideas are part and parcel of this.25 26 Paul is determined to ensure that he wins, and he will use any rhetorical means at his disposal.  

4.1.2. Law and religion

The second aspect of Martyn’s thesis which we need to consider is his idea that religion is opposed to the gospel. Here, it is important to be sure of what he understands by the term “religion”. For Martyn, religion is not to be confused with ritual as part of worship, but is concerned with man’s own attempt to find God. Religion means,

“the various communal, cultic means (always involving the separation of the sacred from the profane- by which human beings seek to know and to be happily related to the gods or God.”27

He is not, therefore operating in the same humanistic mindset of nineteenth century thinkers such as Feuerbach and Freud who both argued that religion was unnecessary, manufactured, and in Freud’s view, unhealthy.28 Nor is he concerned with Marxist arguments against religion as something which was used to keep people under control.29 What he is concerned about is human rituals and methods which come to be seen as essential in the human quest to relate to God - the outward practices of a group of people who share a belief in the transcendent. In such a setting, rituals and practices can assume such an important role in the believer’s life that they are felt to be indispensible in one’s quest for God, with the result that he or she loses sight of why they are there in the first place. Such practices become ends in themselves rather than means, and Christ’s coming means that religion (in this sense), has no place within the church. As a “human enterprise”  religion is pitted against the work of God, and must ultimately fail as superstition.

However, the same objection which has kept Freud and Feuerbach’s views on religion in general at arm’s length obtain here too. As William James knew, religious practice (as well as belief) is a universal human behaviour, in all ages and cultures.30 Moreover, many studies have shown how cultic practices can be very helpful in promoting wellbeing.31 They can give people a sense of identity, of comfort, of belonging and security. Traditional practices have a definite social and psychological purpose which cannot be underplayed. And I think Paul knows this. It is surely significant that Paul does not require the Judaizers to give up their religious expressions – he only objects to their imposing it on Gentile believers.32   


5. Martyn’s theory and contemporary application of Galatians.

5.1. Dualism and contemporary thinking

On Cosgrove’s advice we looked to see if there might be a conceptual element in Paul’s writing which helps us to understand more of what is going on in the letter. We saw that Paul’s rhetorical technique is to use sharp dichotomies to make his point. While we have not been able to accept all of his argument, Martyn has done us a great service in drawing attention to this aspect of Paul’s writing. For it points up the difference in worldview which exists between Paul’s time and ours.

Whether we take the view that Paul’s use of dualistic language here is because of an apocalyptic mindset, or his awareness of the rhetorical value of dichotomised thinking,  or a mixture of the two, the fact is that this way of thinking and arguing has been increasingly questioned of late.

Certainly, until fairly recently, few people would have seen anything problematic with it. Dualistic thinking has been a major part of philosophical and theological ideas throughout the ages. We might mention Neoplatonism, its influence on Augustine (despite his objections to Manichaeism), the medieval dichotomy between heaven and hell, purity and impurity, and so on. Descartes’ distinction between mind and body, Kantian suspicion of the irrational and Hegel’s distinction between the rational and the spiritual all dominated much of enlightenment thinking, and continue to have great influence even today. Lately, however, misgivings been expressed as to just how healthy a worldview this is, and its weaknesses brought to light. The philosopher Mary Midgley, for example, writing about Cartesian separation of mind and body, says,

“This dualism is really a very extraordinary view. If we were studying a Chinese vase, we would distinguish many different aspects of it such as its shape, its size, its colour, its history and its function. But we would not be likely to say that these aspects were themselves separate existing objects – objects so alien to one another that it was mysterious how they could interact at all.”33

Feminist writers have brought attention to the inherently hierarchical nature of dualistic thinking ( one element of the dichotomy always seems to be superior to the other), and shown how this has been detrimental to women.34 It has also been suggested that sharply dualistic thinking might be incompatible with Christian theology. Wendell Berry, for example, has censured the kind of dualistic Christianity which speaks in terms of

“a cleavage, a radical discontinuity, between Creator and creature, spirit and matter, religion and nature, religion and economy, worship and work, and so on”.35.

Dairmuid O’Murchu, who writes about religious practice in monasticism, suggests that there is a  “human compulsion to divide everything into adversarial opposites”. He insists,

“It is we humans who invented dualism and not God. Out of our insatiable desire to divide and conquer we juxtaposed reality into conflicting pairs of opposites. And over time – an estimated ten thousand years – we presumed that this is how life should be and that is how God wanted it to be.”36

 For O’Murchu, dualistic thinking and argumentation has been a major contribution to violence. Not everyone would go so far as this, but such an indictment should alert us to the fact that to think solely in dualistic terms can be naive, simplistic, and therefore highly suspect.

In the light of these recent arguments, Martyn’s view helps us to see why contemporary application of Galatians is so difficult. Paul is dealing with conceptual categories which to us seem questionable. There can be little doubt that Paul is profoundly influenced by apocalyptic ideas and language – even if, as we have argued here, on closer inspection these dichotomies are rather less straightforward than they appear. However, this kind of argumentation has become highly suspect, precisely because it tends to divide and conquer rather than win by persuasion, and because it seems to negate the other person’s point of view altogether, proclaiming one view to be right and the other entirely wrong – a view which hardly seems conciliatory to the person or group deemed to be wrong.

5.2.  Religious practice and “immature religion” 

As we have seen, while Martyn’s argument seems further to embed Galatians in a situation which seems to be time and culture bound, he also provides a possible way out of this difficulty. For Martyn has seen beyond the immediate historical exigency and spotted the real problem – the Judaizers’ belief that there is only one way to be obedient to God and that everyone should follow it. What worries Paul is not the law itself or its practice by Jewish believers37, but the view of the law which sees it as a taskmaster to be obeyed in its entirety no matter what the circumstance. The Judiasers are behaving as if they are still under the strict instructions of the paedagogos, as if they were still children who need to have rules for every aspect of life, rules which should not be infringed for fear of dire punishment. In psychological terms, they are indulging in “immature religion”, the kind of religion which is concerned to maintain all that is familiar rather than to change, with the desire to know that it is right and to impose its views on other people. Gordon Allport describes this mindset thus,

 “Immature religion, whether in adult or child, is largely concerned with magical thinking, self justification, and creature comfort. Thus it betrays its sustaining motives still to be the drives and desires of the body. By contrast, mature religion is less of a servant, and more of a master, in the economy of the life. No longer goaded and steered exclusively by impulse, fear, wish, it tends rather to control and to direct these motives toward a goal that is no longer determined by mere self interest.”38 

Allport is describing an attitude to religious practice which finds religious freedom hard to tolerate or even understand. It wants to impose itself on other people, ensuring uniformity of practice, because it thinks that it has found the way to be truly spiritual. Those who show this kind of behaviour feel that good things will happen if they do the right thing, and that bad things will happen if they don’t. They want the comfort of knowing that they are right.  And such we see in Galatians. The Judaizers think that everyone should do as they do. They think that certain patterns of behaviour mean a proper relationship with the divine, and that to diverge from their particular way of being is indicative of unrighteousness. Their motives are genuine – they really do think that they are serving God in this way. But Paul fights against it, knowing that, ultimately, such thinking serves only the person, and not the Jesus who died for them. If they become so caught up in doing what they think is right, in order to fulfil the law, they are still behaving as if the Messiah had not come. They are still behaving as if the paedagogos had control and ultimate authority over them, and he wants them to grow up. .

Despite our misgivings about Martyn’s viewpoint then, he has provided us with invaluable insights which help us with contemporary application. He has helped us to think through the practical implications of dichotomous thinking and pointed us away from rigid historical thinking which precludes this application. With regard to contemporary application then, we can see those who insist on certain rituals and practices as religiously immature and try to encourage a more mature spirituality which enjoys the freedom which Christ brings.


5.3. “Religion” in the new age.

There is however, one aspect of Martyn’s argument (and indeed of the letter itself) which we have not yet considered. In Martyn’s view the dichotomy between religion and faith has been replaced by a new one, which is characteristic of the new age – that between flesh and spirit. In chapter 5, believers are commanded to walk in the spirit and to eschew the flesh, not heeding its desires. Freedom in Christ does not mean that they are at liberty to do what they want – there are still ethical standards to guide the believer.39 But in what way is this different from the kind of dualisms we have been detecting with regard to the law?

If, for the believer, one set of dualisms has merely been replaced by another, what difference has Christ’s coming really made? Perhaps prompted by Paul’s prescriptions, the church has tended to interpret the flesh-spirit dualism in terms of individual struggle with bodily appetite (rather than as a cosmic power, or human weakness in general). For writers like Wendell Berry, this kind of teaching has led many to despise the body, the world, its pleasures, and to indulge in what he calls “a rarefied from of gluttony”.40 The hierarchical nature of dualistic thinking noted earlier has implied a denigration of the body as unclean, impure, and its needs as dangerous. Such a negative view of the body has led some to extreme asceticism, and even to physical and mental illness.

It can also lead do division in the church. Those more “spiritually“ inclined may start thinking that those who do not share their predilection for mediation and contemplation are wrong. Or they might think that people who tend towards legalistic thinking are somehow inferior to those who do not. The belief that charismatic gifts (for example) are a necessary element of worship can become the equivalent of the imposition of practices to which Paul objects so strongly. An emphasis on freedom in the Spirit becomes the new legalism. But as in the dualism between law and faith, so it is with that between flesh and spirit. True, too much emphasis on the flesh could lead to the kind of mayhem described in the vice list, but believers still have to live in the material world and rely on what it has to provide for their physical and emotional wellbeing. Just as too much emphasis on faith could lead to the lawlessness which worries Paul in chapter 5, so too, over-emphasis on the spiritual side of things could lead to a neglect, not only of one’s own welfare but that of others in the community. It could lead to a kind of spiritual passivity in which personal responsibility is seen as unimportant. All this is as much a sign of immaturity as the need to follow certain rules. It amounts to seeking our own comfort, robs the gospel of its power, and leads to division in a community in which the fruits of the spirit become increasingly hard to find. 

So how can we find a “mature religion” which is healthier for all concerned? Here again, I suggest, the answer Paul provides for this problem is in terms of proper understanding of the law. But this time, instead of speaking in terms of halakah and aggadah, he speaks of the law preached by Jesus Christ himself. The difference is that in the new creation the adage “love your neighbour as yourself” sums up the law (5:14). Obedience to this principle will lead to the fruits of the spirit being seen in the community. Mutual respect and service, while at the same time caring for ourselves, will result in the realisation of the principle that there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew or Gentile (3:28). The fact that they still look forward to the full harvest of their sowing (6:8) reminds them that walking in the Spirit means crucifying the impulse to try to convince themselves that they can bring about their own righteousness, whether by insistence on religious observance, over scrupulosity or over enthusiasm.

The new creation is, or should be, characterised by a more mature kind of religiosity, which as Allport says, is not concerned with its own self-interest, its own need to be right. 41  Such a religiosity is far less sure of itself, but it is free. The community is not ruled by rigid thinking but by an ethic of love which bears the burdens of others and looks to serve them, while recognising that they live in hope of righteousness in the future.

5.2.  Martyn’s analysis of Galatians and Allport’s notion of “immature religion”, it seems to me, have offers us a hermeneutical keys with which to interpret Galatians for today.  The attitude that certain practices must be continued, when taken to extremes and imposed on all, is, I suggest, analogous to the faulty view of the law which characterised the Judaizers in Paul’s day. It is a failure to see that religious practices, while useful and valuable in the community, should not become burdensome, taskmasters which lead away from the true object of worship. 42 Those who act in this way are acting like the Judaizers who misunderstand the role of Torah as a guide and teacher, and failing to grow in spiritual maturity which will manifest itself in the fruits of the Spirit.  

But we are still left with the problem of Paul’s apparent contravention of his own principle of unity (and agape). Whatever our modern day sensibilities might be, and however we may want to soften his argument, there is no way round the fact that he does think the Judaizers are wrong and that he is right. O’Murchu is probably right to see dualistic thinking as a human compulsion. To think in black and white terms is psychologically comforting. It is reassuring to think that we are on the “right” side of the dualistic divide. It helps us to feel better about ourselves and more secure, but it becomes very easy to demonise the group with which we disagree. However, it seems to me that we should not do as some have been tempted to do, and rid Paul of dualistic thinking altogether. In fact, dualistic thinking is not always unsafe. It can help to make a point, sharpen up debate and aid decision-making. It is even, I suggest, a necessary part of life. Our law courts would not be able to function without the categories of guilt or not guilty. Certainly, dualistic thinking does not take account of the complexity and nuances of life, but there can be good reasons for adopting dualism as a useful tool in debate.43 The post-modern emphasis on the fluidity of ideas could, I believe, blind us to the fact that there are times when we have to work with absolutes – good and bad, right and wrong, truth and lies – and that sometimes we have to make a stand.

Like all apocalyptic literature, Galatians it is intended to strengthen the community, to galvanise them against evil. Like all rhetoric, it is designed to argue a point. But there is a responsibility on the part of the reader to be able to recognise his or her own tendency to lapse into uncompromising polarities which do nothing but fuel on prejudice). Contemporary writers remind us that if used unthinkingly, polarised thinking can, in Mary Midgley’s words, be “counterproductive when we strain it beyond its proper function (22).”44 Life is simply too complex, and we do Paul’s writing a disservice if we treat it as though he were unaware of this. 


6. Conclusion

I have been suggesting that a useful way to apply Paul’s teaching in the contemporary setting is to consider the behaviour of the Judaizers a case of  “immature religion”. The Judaizers’ insistence that Gentiles follow Jewish ways is an instance of treating the law as if it were a taskmaster throughout life, rather than a paedogogos. Paul is arguing that with the coming of the Messiah, Judaism has come of age. A grounding in Torah will always be valuable, but we should no more give it the authority to rob us of the freedom which the gospel brings, than we should allow a respected teacher to rule our lives once we have become mature adults. Like the paedagogos, it will always have an influence,  but the time comes when we should reconsider its proper place in our lives. As it is, the Judaizers are behaving like children, failing to realise that with the coming the Messiah, Judaism has come of age.

With the help of Martyn and Allport, we have been able to see that this kind of thinking is of a sort we might call “immature religion”, which is to be found in some form or other in all communities of faith. We saw too that in chapters 5 and 6 Paul provides an example of what mature religion might look like. Torah is not to be thrown out, but is to be seen as fulfilled in the command to love. In other words, mature religion is characterised by a concern for others, and not the need to feel that one is right.  It is this towards which those who are attracted to immature religion must be pointed.

Of course, such a religiosity is hard – human beings tend to want to feel good about themselves. Maturity means learning to live with paradox and uncertainty. It involves, as Rowan Williams the recognition that

 “Christianity begins in contradictions, in the painful effort to live with the baffling plurality and diversity of God’s manifested life – law and gospel, judgement and grace, the crucified Son crying to the Father.”45

 Not everyone will be able to live with such maturity, as Fowler and others have noted, and there is a pastoral responsibility to understand this and work with it.46 There will be people will never be able to see that attendance at meetings might not have to be compulsory. Moreover, however much we want to avoid it, there may come a time when bullies in the congregation need to be confronted, as Paul does in this letter. And sometimes this may mean a “parting of the ways”. An understanding of Paul’s reasons and recognition of the worldview and culture in which he is operating, help us to see why he adopts the strategy he does in Galatia. But they also show us why these tactics might not be appropriate for wholesale adoption today. Paul may be no different from his contemporaries in his use of rhetoric (whether Jewish and/or Hellenistic), but he does as Todd Still says, run the risk of contravening the principle of love. Language which to our ears, sounds intemperate and even offensive, may have been in keeping with the rhetorical techniques of his time, but we should think twice before adopting the same tactic in ours.

© Marion Carson
October 2010

1 Riches, John Galatians Through the Centuries Blackwell Bible Commentaries Oxford: Blackwell 2008, 3. 

2 Luther commentary..

3 See Fee Pentecostal commentary on Galatians.

4 Gustafson, 442.

5 As Don Browning has pointed out, all pastoral care has an underlying ethical component, being concerned with the wellbeing of the members of the community. See Browning, D.S.  Religious Ethics and Pastoral Care; On Paul as pastor see  A.J, Malherbe Paul and the Thessalonians Philadelphia: Fortress 1987.

6 On the relationship between narrative and letter see Norman R. Petersen Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985, 43-88.

7 Barclay, John M.G. “Mirror Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case” JSNT 31 (1987) 73-93.

8 See… for the view that they are not Christian. see nanos The Galatians Debate.

9 Gaston paul and the Torah; Gager Origins of Anti-Semitism; Stowers re-reading. ( see gaston, gager, neill Elliott, nanos, Stanley k stowers (wd DAVIES)for the belief that the Judaizers are gentiles who misunderstand the law. They tend to argue that there is no antithesis between judaismm and christianity

10 Gustafson

11 See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies Minneapolis: Fortress 1999.

12 Charles H. Cosgrove Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2002, 51.

13 For a recent critique of cosgrove’s work see brock Singing…..

14 Todd Still “Paul: An Appealing and/or Appalling Apostle?” Exp Tim 114:4 (2003), 117.

15 Cf Kasemann, Becker

16 Martyn,  essay 122

17 Badiou, Alain Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism trans Ray Brassier Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2003

18 Boyarin, D. A Radical Jew

19 Scholars are now aware that the study of Paul has also been characterised in the past by dualistic thinking insofar as they have thought of Paul either as having a Jewish or a Hellenistic beackground. That these two categories are more fluid than has been thought is explored in the collection of essays edited by Troels Engberg Petersen. See in particular the essay by Dale B. Martn Paul and the Judaism/Hellenism Dichotomy in Paul Beyond the Judiasm/Hellenism Divide Louisville; Westminster John Knox Press, 29-61. See also Barclay.

20 James G. D. Dunn Jesus, Paul and the Law and The Theology of Paul the Apostle Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1998;  Old perspective scholars could be P Stuhlmacher “Das Ende des Gesetzes: Über ursprung und Ansatz der paulinischen Theologie” ZThK 67 (1970), 14-39; and M Hengel “Der vorchristliche Paulus” Paulus und das Antike Judentum ( WUNT 58; Tübingen: mohr Siebeck 1991:268-91.

21 Hays

22 Further examples - the dichotomy between Jerusalem above and below. As Dieter Luhrmann points out, this is lessened by the fact that the Jersualem above in the model and the Jerusalem below the copy – they are not strict opposites but a relationship of model and copy (91). He criticises Paul for setting them against each other and devaluing the model. But he still thinks that the jerus above is the church which is therefore superior to Judaism. He also points out that (99)  the dichotomy between law and faith is lessened because ultimately for Paul the idea of faith is actually “behaviour in accordance with the law” which rests on the covenant.(98).

23 Martyn Commentary 164.

24  Wayne Meeks.

25 Michael R. Cosby Galatians: Red – Hot Rhetoric in Rhetorical Argumentation in Biblical Texts: Essays from the Lund 2000 Conference (eds) Anders Eriksson, Thomas H. Olbricht, Walter Ubelacker  Harrisburg, PA:Trinity Press International,  ----, 296-309.

26 Anders Eriksson Contrary Arguments in Paul’s Letters in eds Stanley E. Porter and Dennis L.Stamps Rhetorical Criticism and the Bible JSNTSS 195 Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 2002, 336-354..

27 Martyn Commentary footnote 67 p 37

28 Feuerbach the Essence of Christianity; Freud Totem and Taboo.

29 Marx. For an overview of the principal views of religion see Daniel L.Pals, Seven Theories of Religion Oxford: OUP 1996.

30 James Varieties

31 Articles eg in Religion and Health

32 That Paul is consistent in this is I think illustrated by recent interpretations of Romans 14-15.

33 Midgley Mary “Conscious Fatalism and Science”, 21 in eds Niels Henrik, Willem B.  Gregerson,  Drees and Ilf Gorman The Human Person in Science and Technology Edinburgh  T&T Clark, 21-40.  Philosophy of mind here?

34  Helene Cisoux Reader. Cf disability lit. Exposure of these dynamics has been fruitful in helping the voices of other groups such as homosexuals and ethnic minorities to be heard, with obvious implications for astoral care. 

35 Wendell Berry Sex,Economy, Freedom and Community New York, Pantheon 1993 105. For Berry, this has resulted in a theology which disparages all things material, and as a farmer he is particularly concerned with the way Christians have neglected the land and the environment

36 O’Murchu, Diarmuid Poverty, Celibacy and Obedience: A Radical Option for Life  New York: Crossroad 1999, 1.

37 (or even the Gentiles’ misunderstanding of Jewish thinking – so Elliott et al)

38 Gordon Allport The Individual and his Religion: A Psychological Interpretation Toronto: Macmillan 1950, 72.

39 Barclay, J.M.G. Obeying the Truth

40 Wendell Berry A Continuous Harmony 1972 Washington DC: Shoemaker & Hoard 2004, p7. See Jason Peters “Wendell Berry’s Vindication of the Flesh” Christianity and Literature 56(2007), 317-332.

41 Allport  The Individual , 72.

42 Note that I am not equating religious practice with Torah, but the view taken of these two things.

43 See Philosophy in Practice: An Introduction to the Main Questions (2nd edn) 2004,  317.

44 Midgley 22

45 Williams The Wound of Knowledge 178 London DLT 1979. Williams draws on  Ignatius of Antioch Eph 8 “doing fleshly things in a spiritual way” - the dualism is dissolved yet not dissolved.

46 Fowler Stages of Faith etc.