Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.

The Epistle to the Galatians


By the churches of Galatia which Paul addresses (Gal 1:2) are most probably meant the churches in the Roman province of Galatia; those namely in Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, and Derbe; and not the Christians living in the Galatian district lying to the north and east of Lycaonia and Phrygia, which formed only a part of the Roman province, and the chief cities of which were Ancyra, Tavium, and Pessinus. The Roman province was formed by Augustus, 25 b.c., and included Lycaonia, Isauria, southeastern Phrygia, and a portion of Pisidia. The churches in this province were founded by Paul in his first missionary tour, the account of which is given Acts 13, 15.

The South Galatian hypothesis supplies a defect in the history of the Pauline churches, which, on the other, it is difficult to account for. On the North Galatian hypothesis, although the Galatian churches were the scene of a violent conflict between Paul and the Judaising Christians, and the recipients of one of Paul's most important letters, and are therefore entitled to an important place in the history of the apostolic churches, - no mention of their origin or foundation occurs in the Book of Acts, while the founding of the churches of Pisidia and Lycaonia, which are nowhere named by Paul, is expressly narrated. On the other hypothesis, we have in Acts 13, 15, a detailed account of the foundation of the Galatian churches.

From the notices in the Acts and in the Epistle, it appears that Paul's preaching in Galatia met with a favorable reception. See Act 13:42, Act 13:48, Act 13:49; Act 14:1; Gal 4:13. We do not know how long it was before the churches were invaded by Jewish emissaries, nor whence these came. They probably came from the Judaistic circles of the mother-church at Jerusalem, although it is held by some that they belonged to the Jewish Christian constituency of the churches in Galatia. They declared that Paul was not an apostle, but at most only a disciple of the apostles. He had had no personal knowledge of Christ: the contents of his gospel were derived from men, and therefore he was entitled to no authority. All questions should be referred to the mother-church in Jerusalem, especially to the great apostles of the circumcision, the pillars of the church, James, Peter, and John. Moreover, Paul's teaching that righteousness was based only upon faith in Christ and not upon circumcision and legal observance, contradicted the historical revelation of God, since God promised salvation to Abraham and to his seed on the ground of circumcision; and, in order to carry the promise into effect, made the covenant of the law forever with the people of Israel, who were to receive the divine blessing on condition of observing the divine commands. His teaching, moreover, encouraged moral license, and therefore contravened all moral principle (Gal 5:13). They further accused him of being a man-pleaser, seeking a following and adapting his preaching to the tastes of his hearers; preaching circumcision to those who were inclined to accept it, and uncircumcision to such as wished to refuse it (Gal 5:11).

These intruders were not proselytes, but born Jews, Jewish Christians, with a Pharisaic tendency like that of those who, in Antioch and Jerusalem, sought to impose circumcision and legal observance upon Gentile Christians (Act 15:1, Act 15:5; Gal 2:4). They demanded that the Gentile Christians should be incorporated by circumcision with the community of Israel, and should observe the leading requirements of the Mosaic law (Gal 5:2, Gal 5:11; Gal 6:12). They laid great stress on the observance of sacred seasons (Gal 4:10). “They prescribed a cultus with holy days and festivals, which contained a more seductive charm than the exposition of the word; for it offered compensation for the heathenism they had abandoned, and the old disposition once revived might easily have found in it a congenial home.” They did not emphasize the solemn duties which followed circumcision, and which Paul himself forcibly stated (Gal 5:3; comp. Gal 3:10); but they recommended circumcision as an easy way of attaining salvation through mere formal incorporation with the true people of God, and also as a protection against persecution (Gal 6:12; comp. Gal 5:11).

These efforts bore fruit among the Galatians. Having thrown off the corruptions of their heathen faith and worship, they again came into bondage to “the weak and beggarly elements” which they had outgrown (Gal 4:9). The slightest tendency to such a lapse was met and fostered by the daily appeal of the pagan cult amid which they lived, an elaborate and impressive system, fortified with a code of rules and administered by a powerful hierarchy, the whole presenting a striking external resemblance to the Jewish ceremonial system. As Professor Ramsay observes: “It is not until this is properly apprehended that Gal 4:3-11 becomes clear and natural. Paul in that passage implies that the Judaising movement of the Christian Galatians is a recurrence to their old heathen type.” Paul describes them as arrested in a course of obedience to the truth which they had been running well (Gal 5:7): as soon removed into a different gospel (Gal 1:6): as bewitched by an evil eye (Gal 3:1): as pervaded with an evil leaven (Gal 5:9). They were beginning, in part at least, to observe the Jewish ceremonial law: they were depending upon the law for justification: they were declining from a spiritual to a fleshly economy: they were beginning to regard as an enemy the friend and teacher whom, not so long ago, they had received as an angel of God, and for whom they would have plucked out their own eyes (Gal 4:14, Gal 4:15).

To what extent the Galatian Christians had been prevailed on to accept circumcision, we do not know. The writing of this letter, however, implies that Paul did not regard this evil as past arresting.

The letter itself is marked by unity of purpose, cohesion of thought, and force and picturesqueness of diction. Like 2nd Corinthians and Philippians it is intensely personal. Like the former of those Epistles it reveals the apostle's keen sensitiveness to the attitude of his readers toward himself. It is indignant and severe, with dashes of bitterness, yet it contains touches of affectionate reminiscence. It is pervaded and controlled by the one purpose of meeting and correcting the Galatian apostasy in its twofold form of repudiating his apostolic right and the doctrine of salvation by faith. The letter falls into three parts: chs. 1, 2, maintaining the independence and authority of his apostleship, and the divine origin of his gospel. Chapters 3, 4, defending the intrinsic truth of his gospel. Chapters 5, 6, exhibiting the moral consequences which legitimately and logically result from his gospel.

The relationship of the Epistle to the Roman letter is marked, yet it has its special characteristics as distinct from Romans. It bears the character of a letter more distinctly than Romans, which is a treatise. It lays a more distinct emphasis upon the person and apostolic authority of Paul, and its dominant conception is the freedom of the Christian, as in Romans the dominant conception is justification by faith. Romans is more positively doctrinal; Galatians more apologetic and polemic as against Judaism. Romans treats circumcision as a question of practice; Galatians as a question of law. As in Romans, faith is emphasized over against the works of the law as the ground of justification before God; but equally with Romans the divinity and sanctity of the law are recognised. The law is holy, and just and good. It is the expression of God's sovereign and righteous will. It reflects his character, and if one could keep it he would live by it (Gal 3:12); all this, while it remains true that “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal 2:16).

Accordingly the ethics of the Epistle are stern and uncompromising. The picture of the works of the flesh is perhaps not as powerful and lurid as that in the first chapter of Romans It is drawn in fewer lines, and is offset and enforced by a picture of the fruits of the Spirit. Yet the one is no less distinct and unmistakable than the other. In Romans the sins of the Gentile world are massed in a fearful catalogue; in Galatians single passages here and there afford glimpses of deeply-rooted evil tendencies in the life of the newly-converted Gentile, which show how hard it had been for him to divest himself of his pagan license, and which contain within themselves possibilities of future degeneracy. We see a conceit of higher knowledge and larger liberty which might readily seize upon “occasions to the flesh,” and run into what some one has aptly styled “the bigotry of illumination,” and the selfishness of fancied deeper insight (Gal 5:15; Gal 6:2-5). The same conceit appears in the weakness and inconstancy which readily succumb to the flattering overtures of pretentious Jewish emissaries (Gal 4:12 ff; Gal 5:26). Yet with rigid severity against such tendencies there is blended a tender compassion for the erring, a reasonable and kindly appreciation of the weakness of the new convert.

Professor Sabatier (l' Apôtre Paul) says of the Epistle: “The style does not sustain the thought; it is the thought which sustains the style, giving to it its force, its life, its beauty. Thought presses on, overcharged, breathless and hurried, dragging the words after it.... Unfinished phrases, daring omissions, parentheses which leave us out of sight and out of breath, rabbinical subtleties, audacious paradoxes, vehement apostrophes, - pour in like surging billows. Mere words in their ordinary meaning are insufficient to sustain this overwhelming plenitude of thought and feeling. Every phrase is obliged, so to speak, to bear a double and triple burden.”

The authenticity of the letter is generally conceded. 

Taken from: "Vincent's Word Studies" By Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

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