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The Letter to The Galatians: ‘The Truth of the Gospel’

Giancarlo Pani SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Aug 3rd 2020

1The Letter to the Galatians is an exceptional New Testament document. It was written by Paul at a time of great anguish, because a fervent community that the Apostle had worked hard to establish and to which he remained closely attached, found itself being misled by Judaizers. These had come from the People of Israel and had accepted faith in Christ Jesus, but had not abandoned the observance of the Law, Jewish traditions and circumcision as indispensable conditions of salvation. For them, it is the Law that saves, not Christ. They considered him a marginal agent in the economy of salvation.

For the first time, the Letter to the Galatians addressed this new and very delicate situation, which was a matter of life or death for the nascent Church. The Judaizers forced Paul to reflect on an essential issue: Do we have to become Jews to be Christians? The Apostle gradually came to a sharpened awareness that culminates in Chapter 3 of the Letter. This will be fundamental to the Gospel proclamation: “All of you who were baptized in 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.”[1]

It is also, in absolute terms, the first reflection on the value of faith for salvation. The Gospels came later and were written following the pioneering work done by the Apostle. Hence the passionate character of the Letter,, its dense and, to a degree, violent exposition . Certainly, from a theological point of view, it is an expansion and an explanation of Paul’s thought, which matured through years of apostolic mission. For this reason the doctrinal treatment is emotional, frantic and nervous. It lacks the detachment associated with  a measured discourse, although such a “fiery” way of approaching the themes guarantees interest, concreteness and an immediate relationship with the reader.

The Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Romans

After the foundation of the community of the Galatians some time before, events in the community had stirred the Apostle and caused him to intervene. On the one hand, it was a time of rediscovery and inner reflection, in which he re-lived his vocation; on the other, Paul found himself challenged precisely in his mission as Apostle. This could not but lead to his witness of faith, which united writer and addressees, and which included, in addition to strictly spiritual guidance, the biblical tradition of the Old Testament. Its final conclusion was that Christian life, in its most essential aspects, is freedom in peace, in communion, in harmonious growth.

Compared to the Letter to the Romans, written shortly afterward, here we have only a first rough outline, but the theme is the same as that which is treated in that Letter in a measured manner, addressed to readers whom Paul does not know personally, amongst whom there is no particular situation of conflict. So the tone there is calm and serene, and serves to guarantee the veracity of the exposition, but again it is not a clear and limpid discourse because the Letter to the Romans is far from easy to understand.

This is the point. In the existential crisis created by the Judaizers, the Letter to the Galatians wants to speak of “the essential,” to clarify in what the salvation given by Christ consists and to focus on the essentials that define the Christian and the qualities of Christian life. The Letter is therefore fundamental for us too, for Christians of every generation and of all times. It presents us with the essential, at the risk of overshadowing other important issues but with an enormous advantage, which is that of understanding what counts, what is the foundation, and also what is secondary and can therefore follow a different and marginal development.

Pope Francis and the Letter to the Galatians

During the 2019 Synod for the Amazon, Pope Francis intervened several times in the discussions, drawing significantly from the Letter to the Galatians, though without expressly mentioning it. He spoke of the Amazonian conflict that concerned the assembly and the difficulty of finding solutions. Then Francis made two reflections on the “overflowing” or “spilling over” – in Spanish desborde – of God’s mercy, and referred to two fundamental facts of salvation history.

The first is the “overflowing” of redemption: “It was not enough for God to regulate things by means of the Law; he had to resort to Grace, which is an overflow; it is that ‘more abundantly’ in the action of God.”[2] This is the underlying theme of the Letter to the Galatians: the overcoming of the Mosaic Law through faith in the Lord Jesus.

The Judaizers considered the Law an incontrovertible reality, because it came from God and was His gift to the Chosen People. There was also a very authoritative precedent that confirmed this doctrine: the life and work of Jesus who fully observed the prescriptions of the Law. He was part of the Jewish people: he was circumcised, prayed the Psalms, kept the ritual prescriptions, the Sabbath (with a few exceptions, carefully motivated). Therefore, even converts from paganism were obliged to observe the Law in order to be saved. Grace was grafted on to observance of the Law, which served as  its foundation.

The second reflection concerns the assembly in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15), called to clarify the relationship between the Mosaic Law and its prescriptions for those who came from paganism. This is what “happened in the Church in the face of the conflict between Jewish and pagan traditions. In that case the questions were not resolved by ‘disciplining’ the pagans, but the Church made a ‘qualitative leap,’ a leap of overflow, opening itself to the action of the Spirit.”[3] In that assembly the Spirit determined the unity of the Church through the recognition of the “truth of the Gospel” of Paul (Gal 2:5.14) against those who distorted it. Thus Paul’s Gospel proclamation is the same as that of the apostles, and, as a result, Peter and Paul divided their fields of mission – one for the Jews and the other for the Gentiles – with the commitment of a collection for the Mother Church of Jerusalem. If Jewish traditions had been adopted as a foundation, the Church would have become a “ghetto.” In this way the Christian community was built by the Spirit as the universal, “Catholic” Church.

In his address to the Synod, Francis grasped two aspects of the central point of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,  its power in the order of salvation, and pointed them out as examples of listening to the Spirit to resolve conflicts.    

The Letter to the Galatians and the story of Heinrich Schlier

In order to grasp the strength of Galatians and the impact it can have on the conscience of a believer, one can remember an event that marked the life of an extraordinary exegete of the Pauline letter, Heinrich Schlier. He lived in the last century (1900-78) and taught New Testament and History of the Ancient Church at the Theological University of Bonn. In 1949, he wrote a commentary on the Letter to the Galatians for the prestigious Protestant series Meyers Kommentar, of which it was the seventh volume. The coomentary was a great success and numerous editions appeared (1951, 1962, 1965, 1971) until the 1970s, when – in a very unusual turn of events – it was no longer published.

Something unexpected had happened, a sign of God’s activity. Professor Schlier, a Protestant evangelical, had begun to comment on the Letter to the Galatians, allowing himself to be deeply involved in Paul’s drama and, once his work of interpretation had been completed, he discovered that he had become Catholic. The exegete, confronted with such intense and dramatic pages that were so true and provocative, had radically questioned himself, had suffered in his own person the passion of Paul, and at the end of that effort he found himself to be no longer as he was before. His faith in Christ was also the faith of the apostolic Church. Schlier had discovered the value and importance of the tradition of the great Church, a disconcerting condition for the Protestant mentality. The volume in which he recounts his own spiritual story is surprising.[4]

Schlier then began commenting on the Letter to the Romans, which Paul had written immediately after the Letter to the Galatians, almost as if to continue and follow the Apostle’s spiritual journey in its entirety. But when the work was finished, the text was not accepted in the Protestant series. It was the Catholic publisher Herder who welcomed it, in 1977, in the biblical commentaries series, Theologische Kommentare.[5]

History usually teaches the opposite. Luther became a “reformer” after commenting on the Letter to the Romans in 1515-16 and then the Letter to the Galatians in 1516-17. The origins of Protestantism are precisely here. Luther followed Paul’s original itinerary in the opposite direction. After having taught the Letter to the Romans in Wittenberg, he commented on the Letter to the Galatians, that is, he moved from the serene, calm and objective exposition to the fiery, frantic and violent text. Throughout his life Luther retained the impetus that would make him a reformer. He commented several times on the Letter to the Galatians, published at least three editions (1519, 1531, 1535) with dozens of reprints, and found in the Apostle’s texts the solution to the greatest problem that grips human conscience, What is salvation? Is it the work of human endeavor? And who is the protagonist of salvation? Luther never hid his passion and love for the Letter to the Galatians. On the contrary, after having studied it for almost all of his life, he even said what can only be said about the person you love the most: the Letter to the Galatians is “my bride,” “mein Keth von Bor.”[6]

The structure of the Letter to the Galatians

The structure of the Letter follows a rhetorical scheme: after a prologue (1:1-10), there is a narrative part where the vocation of Paul on the road to Damascus is recalled (1:11-2:16) The narrative then passes (2:17-21) to an argumentative development that has as its theme faith and justification, with a demonstration according to Scripture and the living faith of Abraham, and with the comparison between the two economies of salvation based on the Old Covenant (3:1-4:31). The conclusions follow: Christ freed us to be free, hence the exercise of faith working in love (5:1-6:10). The Letter ends with an affectionate farewell in which Paul calls the Galatians “brothers” (6:11-18).

The text, consciously or not, follows the path of a legal oration in defense. However, there is no literary development. Paul is an apostle before he is a writer, and he is a writer only in the function of his ministry as an apostle. Again, he is an apostle with that history and that vocation and with an inability to look from outside that vocation, in a detached way, at his own life. In his vocation and mission he is alone; he is not just any Jew who has become a Christian; he is a believer who has gone through the Jewish experience to the end. He has tested its illusions of completeness, before committing himself to the Lord. Moreover, he is a theologian, and therefore the cases of the apostolic ministry are not only solved in a far-sighted pastoral perspective (which can be Peter’s role), but he explores them to their roots.  He grasps them in the light of possible consequences, as well as in the possible premises and implications, in the salvific structure that since the beginning of time refers to them. This is the existential situation that underlies the Letter to the Galatians.

The Gospel and the Old Testament

Paul’s aim in his Letter to the Galatians is to define what is essential and inalienable for the believer, faith in the Risen Lord and his grace. Such an aim, even without explicitly wanting to do so, can have a paradoxical consequence. It may lead to abandoning everything else, that is, to erasing the continuity of history in order to untie the crucial knot, the moment of faith. A rejection of the Old Testament may even emerge, or at least one might think that in this way it is overcome.

At times it has been said that the Gospel is complete in itself, is sufficient in itself, and is an absolute beginning. Thus it was believed that the Old Testament could be set aside, and therefore there was the danger of losing the feeling of that beginning, in a continuity within which it detaches itself in relation to the historical development that precedes it. In this way that absolute origin has been relativized. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Old Testament is the seed of the New: salvation history has in it that “beginning” (Gen 1:1) which is the very mystery of God.

The thesis of the Letter

The Letter to the Galatians demonstrates a thesis: the equating of Paul’s mission with that of the Twelve and at the same time an independence in communion (chap. 1-2). The argument involves questions of principle, but is based on historical data. The facts are recalled to the extent that they serve the thesis, and the rest remains outside. Consequently, it is impossible to reconstruct the entire sequence of events, even if we use the Acts of the Apostles, a theologically conditioned historical document that can be compared with Galatians. Though unilateral, the Letter remains a first-hand document.

The autobiographical content is remotely inspired by the accusation made against Paul of preaching a “gospel” that has been adapted to please men.[7]

The long exposition that follows aims to respond to this accusation – which has a personal character – giving proofs of this insinuation based on Paul’s life, as it was known to others. It is precisely a question of showing how not only was Paul a persecutor rather than a disciple of the Church, but that his Christian journey consisted in abandoning an obedience to God, which was a natural way of reacting for people imbued with a sense of profound fidelity to what they viewed as God’s authentic revelation. On the road to Damascus, in the turning to obedience in faith, he receives the immediate guidance of the Spirit of God. Hence the continual recourse to expressions that take up allusions to human interests, supported – according to his adversaries – by Paul in his preaching, which instead effectively conforms to the spirit of Judaism and the needs of his adversaries.

The fact is that Paul – and he alone, not really the others, much less his adversaries – had to pay the price of human loneliness and poverty in the biblical sense, and all the paradoxes that God imposed on him whom he reserved for himself from his mother’s womb and whom he called freely (1:15).

It is certain that “the gospel according to man” (1:11) indicates the symbiosis of parental affection, nationalism, cultural patriotism, but also obedience to the divine will which is fulfilled in Israel, where obedience to Law takes place, a Law that is, yes, the word of God, but is also the text that defines civil coexistence and the institutions of the people; and where the authentic encounter with God who manifests himself has as its foundation not the cross of Jesus Christ, but the belonging to a consenting community. In the Israelite there has always been – before Christ, in the time of Paul (and also in our day) – a pride in being a member of the chosen people, a pride that has a foundation in faith, and yet it can also exist on its own, regardless of faith and even denying it. (Note the Israelite who defines himself as an “atheist” and who rightly considers himself a “Jew”).

Solidarity, at least moral solidarity, with the history of one’s own nation is a spontaneous human feeling, which is ordinarily completely interwoven – in personal memories, culture and language – with that historical heritage.

Moreover, one has to consider the way in which Peter himself and the Twelve welcomed the Gospel proclamation. In fact, they received it in a communion of life with the Lord Jesus, in the condition of friends, of those who eat and talk together, live side by side on a daily basis, who were direct witnesses of his words. This is the natural path for an meaningful discipleship, where the most difficult knots are untied in conversation with the Master; instead, the personal confrontation of the Lord with Paul took place, and still takes place, in exceptional circumstances, as a lightning strike, as revelation,[8] but never with the familiarity of a serene dialogue between people conversing on the same level. A human experience of living with the Lord: this is the way of accessing the Gospel that was granted to the Twelve (therefore they are called “pillars,” 2:9), but was not experienced by Paul.

The true point is that even those who have known Christ according to the flesh (cf. 2 Cor 5:16) must now, like Paul, live out a purely spiritual relationship with him. He is now the Lord, the Κyrios, and involves his people in a communion of Spirit and no longer of daily life. Hence Paul’s condition, precisely in its solitary singularity, has become, so to speak, normative for every believer.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 07 art. 9, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0720.9

[1].    Gal 3:27-28; cf. 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11; see also Phlm 16.

[2].    D. Fares, “The heart of ‘Querida Amazonia’: ‘Overflowing en route’” Civ. Catt. En. May, 2020,

[3].    Ibid.

[4].    See H. Schlier, Kurze Rechenschaft, in K. Hard (ed.), Bekenntnis zur katholischen Kirche mit Beiträgen von M. Giessner, G. Klünder, H. Schlier, R. Goethe, Würzburg, Echter, 1955, 169-192.

[5].    H. Schlier, Der Römerbrief, Freiburg i. Br. – Basel – Vienna, Herder, 1977.

[6].    See M. Luther, Tischreden 1 (Weimarer Ausgabe), Weimar, H. Böhlaus, 1912, No. 146, 69, 18-19.

[7].    See Gal 1:10. The accusation is so insistent that in this verse “men” are mentioned three times.

[8].    Gal 1:12; 1 Cor 15:8; 2 Cor 12:2-9.

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