“Not That There Is Another Gospel”… Except for This Distortion by ‘the Teachers’
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul famously opposes ‘another gospel’, which is not really a gospel at all (cf. Gal 1:6–7). By cautiously ‘mirror-reading’ Paul’s polemic, we can discern the contours of this alternative ‘gospel’, which arguably is also reflected in Romans 1–4 and Philippians 3. It is proclaimed by what we might call ‘the Teachers’ (Martyn), Jewish-Christian missionaries who are authorised by the apostles of the Jerusalem church (their ‘mother church’; Gal 4:26) for their Law-observant mission to the Gentiles, and as such rivals to Paul and his Law-free mission in the same areas, such as Galatia and Philippi.
1. Framework: Salvation-History
The Teachers’ ‘gospel’ is historically oriented toward the seed of Abraham, that is, the ethnic people of Israel as constituted by the Mosaic Law. This nation is elected by God to be his covenant people and as such privileged with the supreme gift (charis) of Torah, which was gloriously delivered by angels on Mount Sinai (Gal 3:19). As a grateful response to their election, they observe the Torah to remain a faithful member of the covenant (Sanders’ ‘covenantal nomism’, though see now Barclay 2015).
In the fullness of time, the Abrahamic lineage has brought forth the Messiah, who has fulfilled the Torah by rendering a definitive interpretation of it as the new Moses (cf. Mat 5:17–48) and perfectly obeying it himself, giving the example for his people. Moreover, on the cross, he has made a once-and-for-all sacrifice for the forgiveness of the sins previously committed by the people of Israel, to remove their guilt.
Excursus 1: Temple — The Teachers’ view toward the Temple service is unclear; presumably, they suppose that Christ’s sacrifice is accessible for the Gentiles, whereas the Jews have always had and still have access to atonement through the Temple (so Martyn, and the New Perspective, correctly); however, the destruction of Jerusalem would change that (see Matthew’s gospel).
Excursus 2: Christology — As can be noted along the way, in this model Christ is defined by the pre-existent Law and not the other way around; Christ is secondary, the Law primary. This suggests a low(er) Christology, for example regarding Christ’s divine status, pre-existence, role in creation, etc. He is first and foremost the human agent of God — that is, Messiah — sent on the kingdom mission for Israel.
Christ is defined by the Law and not the other way around.
Accordingly, the Law-observant Messiah-believing church of Jerusalem, built on the pillars of the apostles (cf. Gal 2:1–10), has authorized missionaries to reach out to the ‘law-less’ Gentiles (cf. Rom 2:12, 14), including those in churches founded by Paul. They are to teach the Torah to these ‘Gentile sinners’ (Gal 2:15) and thus bestow them with the blessing of Abraham, that is, the Spirit, which is distributed through the proclamation of Torah (cf. Gal 3:1–5).
After all, the Law is the cosmic Law intended for the whole world. Initially, this Law-gospel presents its Gentile audience with a fearful future. All of them could have derived the existence, power and demands of the God of Israel from nature, but instead, they have turned to serve man-made idols! Because of natural revelation, the Gentiles are accountable for this wilful rejection of God, and deserving of the death penalty (Rom 1:18–32). One day the wrath of God will come down upon all evil-doers (largely Gentiles of course; cf. Rom 2:6–11). They have not obeyed the Torah and are therefore under the curse of the Torah (cf. Gal 3:10). Just believing in Christ but meanwhile living lawless lives (cf. Rom 3:8; 6:1), as that Paul seems to proclaim, is not going to save them.
However, it is not too late, for they still have the opportunity to become a part of the seed of Abraham, that is, transfer into the righteous people of God, by repenting and fulfilling the necessary condition: doing the ‘works of the Law’, starting with circumcision. (Other notable practices are the purity, food, and Sabbath regulations.)
Abraham provides the model for proselyte conversion: he turned away from idolatry to serve the living God, faithfully obeying God’s commands (especially circumcision) and therefore being ‘declared righteous’.
Abraham provides the model for this type of proselyte conversion: he turned away from idolatry to serve the living God, faithfully obeying God’s commands (especially circumcision) and therefore being ‘declared righteous’. In the same way, Gentiles can be grafted into the historical and ethnic lineage of the seed of Abraham. Accordingly, through observance of the Torah, they become recipients of the Abrahamic promise, the Spirit (cf. Gal 3). (Thus not only Christ but also the Spirit is secondary to and contingent on the Law.)
In fact, the Torah provides the only effective antidote against the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh (cf. Gal 5); it effects a circumcision of the heart (cf. Rom 2:25–29) and ‘cuts away’ the evil desires, allowing the Gentiles to live righteously, thus leading to a positive judgment on the final day.
Key terms (salvation-history): seed of Abraham, blessing of Abraham, promises of Abraham, people of Israel, covenantal nomism, Torah-observance, fulfilment of the Torah, sacrifice, atonement, forgiveness of sins, guilt, gospel-mission to the Gentiles, transference, circumcision, Impulsive Desire of the Flesh,
2. Core Structure: Conditionalism
At the heart of the Teachers’ ‘gospel’ is a condition: “If you do this, then God will save you.” Divine action is made conditional upon human action. Therefore, this model is distinctly individualistic and anthropocentric. The decisive factor in salvation lies on the human side.
Moreover, this conditionalism stems from an essentially legal, contractual relationship between humans and God, centered around the Torah (‘the Law’). Accordingly, the root metaphor of this salvific model is that of the courtroom, with the foundational concept being retributive justice: God is first and foremost king, law-giver and judge; humans are citizens, and their relationship with God is ethically regulated by the divine Law, conceived of contractually. In essence, due to its focus on human ethical action, this soteriological system is legalistic: doing the Law is what gets you saved on the day of judgment.
“If you do this, then God will save you.”
Lastly, because of its conditional and contractual nature, it makes a fundamental distinction between two groups of people, namely those who fulfil the condition and those who don’t. Correspondingly, there are Two Ways: a way of life and of death, of blessing and of curse, and what distinguishes the two is the observance of Torah or not: “the one who does these things will live” — and therefore anyone who does not fulfill this condition is condemned and shut out from the community. So, exclusivism and otherism are embedded in the basic grammar of this ‘gospel’.
Key terms: conditionalism, individualism, anthropocentrism, ethical contractualism, legalism, retributive justice, Two Ways, exclusivism, otherism
a) Protasis: If A, …
The Teachers’ system is based on the premise that all humans can actually fulfil the necessary soteriological conditions, because they are fundamentally capable and have free will, in modern terms. The Teachers are, therefore, in a sense, optimistic about humans. The gospel is a human possibility; it all depends on their decision (which is quite voluntaristic). And who, hearing the gospel of the Teachers, would not choose to repent? Everyone in their right mind would fear God’s wrath and want to escape his pending judgment! In this way, the Teachers draw on the self-interested rationality and the fears of their audience.
Key terms (anthropology): free will, human decision, human possibility, human optimism, rationalism, voluntarism, self-interestedness, fear
b) Apodosis: …, then B.
The Teachers’ gospel is eschatologically oriented toward God’s future judgment ‘according to works’. God is fundamentally in a legal relationship with all humans (see above), and one day he will hold everyone accountable for their ethical deeds. This will be a scrutinous and impartial examination, since God expects perfect obedience from those who are not forgiven. On this day, God will retribute all based on an evaluation of their individual deeds, that is, their merit or desert.
There are two possible outcomes of this judgment, separating humanity into two groups: God either declares someone righteous or condemns them; he gives them the reward of eternal life or punishes them with eternal torment; he acquits them or pours out his wrath on them (Rom 2:6–11). Accordingly, the good-doers will receive praise and have reason to boast about their deeds, whereas the evil-doers will be shamed forever (and thus the otherism).
Key terms (eschatology): accountability, forensic retribution, judgment according to works, merit, desert, perfectionism, separation, justification-condemnation, reward-punishment, acquittal-wrath, boast-shame
3. Metastructure: Foundationalism
From a bird’s eye view, this soteriological system is foundational, that is to say, the starting premises — the basic beliefs about God and humanity — are assumed apart from Christ, a priori, and they are non-negotiable, especially the retributively contractual conception of the Torah. This starting point is determinative for whatever follows. So, starting with the Torah, the Teachers ‘think forward’ from plight to solution, making the model prospective in relation to Christ. That is to say, he must fit within their pre-existent theological framework (as described above).
The Teachers ‘think forward’ from plight to solution.
Shockingly for Paul, their foundational starting point is therefore not the revelation of Christ and the Spirit; rather, the Law takes center stage, both in plight and (therefore) in solution. Accordingly, Christ’s death is explained in terms of a sacrifice. However, for Paul himself, the cross has revealed a much darker reality: Christ was crucified by the powers of this age which oppressed humanity, including the Law (e.g., Rom 7:1–6; Gal 3:22–25)! But more on that later.
Key terms: foundationalism, prospective, a priori, thinking forward, from plight to solution
Postscript: Exegetical Basis
One might ask, what are the historical grounds for the above sketch of the Teachers’ ‘gospel’?
First of all, as mentioned in the introduction, the content of this gospel can be derived from Paul’s polemic and, more broadly, the New Testament and Second Temple Judaism:
- Through ‘mirror-reading’ Paul: Galatians; Romans 1–4 (esp. 1:18–32, 2:6–11), 9–10; Philippians 3, using the works of Martyn, de Boer, and, above all, Douglas Campbell; also Barclay (see below).
- Outside of Paul: the Gospel of Matthew, the Epistles of James and 1 Peter, and the Apocalypse of John (cf. Epistle of Peter to James, Ascents of James); these build on a certain reading of the Old Testament not uncommon in Second Temple Judaism.
- Outside of the New Testament: Wisdom of Solomon, Joseph and Asenath, and the writings of Philo, Josephus, and Aristobulus.
In current scholarship, the authors of the ‘apocalyptic Paul’ school of thought are right on the mark when it comes to Paul’s opponents. The project of Campbell, working on the basis of Martyn, is especially noteworthy, as well as the framework of ‘forensic’ (Teachers) versus ‘cosmological’ (Paul) apocalyptic eschatology developed by de Boer:
- J. Louis Martyn, Galatians; Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, (esp. ch. 1, ‘A Law Observant Mission to Gentiles’ [p. 7–24], including a creatively reconstructed sermon of the Teachers).
- Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.
- Martinus C. de Boer, Galatians; ‘Paul and Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology’, in: Soards and Marcus (eds.), Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in honor of J. Louis Martyn.
- Cf. John M.G. Barclay, ‘Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case’.