Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches is his most biting because he has to defend the core message of his ministry so soon after having brought them the good news. That core message is that requiring obedience to the outward ceremonies of Mosaic law denies the very heart of the Gospel of faith.
One of the things that I think will be interesting to see over the next month or so, as we look at the early church, Paul’s journeys, and his expository letters to the growing Christian community, is just how much of an influence Paul had in shaping our conception of Who God is and what the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection ultimately mean.
One of the things to keep in mind as we read the epistles sprinkled amongst the narrative of Acts is that the epistles were mainly written before the gospels and Acts. If I recall correctly, our understanding of when Paul died lines up about with the time that Mark was compiling the earliest remaining account of the life of Jesus.
Thematically, it would make sense that the letters explaining what the story of Jesus means would come after the accounts of the story itself. But in the early years of the church, most of that generation were contemporaries of Jesus and could hear first-hand accounts of His life, death, and resurrection from those that witnessed it. It wasn’t until this generation started to give way to the next that the church saw fit to record the narrative itself.
The epistles, Paul’s and others’, are essentially follow-ups to ministry trips. Paul or some other apostle would visit the far flung areas of the empire and win hearts for Jesus, establishing churches among the Jews and/or Gentiles. Then either that apostle or another one would correspond with the budding churches to guide them from afar in doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes that arose. These advice letters to either a single church or a group of churches were then passed around and copied so that multiple congregations could benefit from the apostolic guidance.
So it’s important to remember that most of these letters are not complete presentations and defenses of the Gospel story. They are meant as clarifying missives to maturing congregations on issues as they arose. I doubt very much that Paul set out at the beginning of his ministry with plans to write definitive essays on works (Galatians), joy (Philippians), the end times (Thessalonians), or slavery (Philemon), as it were. It’s a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit that the surviving literature covers such a broad range of topics.
Unfamiliar readers may find this frustrating, since the holy text of a religion should presumably contain a systematic statement of doctrine and an extensive list of guidelines serving as a how-to for believers. It takes an adjustment to acknowledge that the Bible is not such a text. God, in His infinite wisdom, has not chosen to reveal Himself in that manner.
Okay, wow. That went longer than I anticipated, but I laid out my (assuredly faulty and/or incomplete) understanding of the formation of New Testament canon to raise this question: how much of our understanding of the Gospel, particularly the roles of grace, faith, and works, is due to the discernment, understanding, analysis, insight, creativity (?), vocabulary of Paul?*
MacCulloch cites the immeasurable Pauline influence to suggest that the doctrine of Christianity as we know it may not be all that rooted in the teachings and works of Christ. I think that he’s mistaken, but it’s an interesting question to explore. We obviously know that God has often chosen to work through man to reveal Himself, but I tend to exclude the core doctrines of the faith from this, as if they were handed down on high in the form we know them today. It’s interesting to think of the gospel message as the product of human intellect and rhetoric.
Either way, Paul strongly emphasizes that holiness is not attainable through any effort of our own, only through freely accepting the grace of God through faith in Jesus. He is, if not solely, at least primarily responsible for the fact that Jewish rituals and ceremonies are not a part of the modern Christian worship experience. There are many possible explanations for this: Paul’s conversion experience away from Pharisee-ism; the direct intent of Jesus’ ministry; institutional and factional struggles between Jerusalem Jews, diasporic Jews, and Gentiles; etc. How you prioritize these drivers and/or imagine the doctrinal result as a synthesis of them will depend on how you understand the Holy Spirit to be at work in the formation of both canon and scripture.
I was going to go on and discuss the value of rituals, but I think I’ve covered that before, and this post is growing far too long. Rather, I will leave you with two of the more popular memory verses from this book:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
* Speaking of which, Paul’s Roman citizenship is often cited as a sign of God’s serendipitous work in choosing him as an apostle, considering the access and influence that citizenship gives Paul. It just occurred to me that his formal training as a Pharisee is a similar sign. One of the beauties of the New Testament is how Jesus took working men, like Peter, and fashioned them into leaders and great orators. But it’s hard to imagine Peter or another fisherman being able to tap into a familiarity with philosophical and legal terminology as freely as Paul does. Consequently, it’s harder to imagine some of the original 11 disciples being as precise and nuanced in shaping doctrine as Paul’s gifts enabled him to be.