Conversion, and Reversion

So: Galatians 1-2 is pretty interesting. Especially if you read Paul's anastrophe in 1:13 as intentionally parallel with the metastrophe being attempted by the proselytizers in Galatia in 1:7. What we're talking about here, in the mid-first-century, is conversion in Judaism. Conversion, and reversion.

This is what Paul's conversion story is doing in 1:13-24, as well as the resulting confirmation by the "pillars" in 2:1-10 and the subsequent diatribe with Cephas in 2:11-21: authenticating Paul's way of life, and the freedom of the gentiles in Christ, and demonstrating that Torah, while it remains a valid option, is only an option—not a necessity. Christ is the necessity. The Galatians, like Paul, have made a valid conversion and become faithful people of God. They should not now revert to any other position—they should return to their right faith. (The language Paul uses, in another context—like Romans 2:4—will be metanoia: returning to a proper sensibility. Paul, in his prosecutorial zeal, was just as anöētos, or insensible, as he will chide the Galatians for being in 3:1.)

This is the kind of conversion Paul is talking about. Once we get it out of our heads that Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity (there being no such thing), and we get our minds around the plurality of Judaisms (much like our contemporary plurality of Christianities), a better analogy presents itself. Paul is a convert from fundamentalism. He even uses the right word: hyparchē, fundamentals. Someone's idea of basic, underlying principles. So-called "foundational Judaism." The same kind that's being pushed on his audience.


Now, it is occasionally remarked how caustic the opening of Galatians is—how Paul breaks, uncharacteristically, right straight into criticizing his audience. David Rhoads routinely performs it that way, with the wounded irascibility of the apostle fighting for his own. And it's a brilliant reading! It definitely has power to bring out nuance from the text. But as I read that text again in the Greek, I'm not so sure it has to carry that kind of force.

Now, I won't even try to argue against the idea that this address to the Galatians is a scolding. Certainly it is! This is a bus ride and several blocks' walk away from the heavy rhetoric of praise that 1 Thessalonians opens with. And knowing what I do about the rhetoric of the diatribe in Romans, and Paul's tactics in Rom 1:18-3:20, I'm not at all surprised to see him jump right into pushing buttons with his audience here. He follows a very similar arc to Romans, following along the basic need to restore unity to a divided audience. But this audience, unlike the one in Rome, has a pre-existing basis for unity: this is an assembly with a shared ethnicity and history, now being polarized into division by an outside force. And so Paul doesn't have to forge a new unity across internal division here. He just has to work the existing ground for unity back around to agreement with him.

And that's reflected in the rhetoric. Paul's character is introduced in terms of direct divine service, and supported by not just many, but all of his missionary brothers and sisters. This grand unity addresses the assembly in Galatia, and the I-you rhetoric immediately shifts to an inclusive language of "our sins," and "us," and "our God and Father." These are Paul's brothers and sisters, too, and they confess as much. They have the same hope of redemption from the world, the same faith in the same God. Such brevity here, by comparison to Romans. This touchstone stands in for their common faith, Paul's and the Galatians'—which we may also assume, from the brevity of the appeal, is not in contest here.

So what direction does the tempo shift in 1:6? It's wondering, literally, and Paul stands an implicit question: "So: having all this in common with us, how did you come to change your tune, then?" Not that they're really saying anything substantially different, of course, which is the plain sense of ho ouk estin allo—they've just gotten things out of order. Someone's been reversing (metastrephō) their priorities. But Paul knows this answer already.

There's a little shame here for the Galatians, but it's more on the level of embarrassed chagrin. Just enough to motivate. They're not on the hook, but Paul does expect them to learn from the experience. We know this because Paul doesn't curse them or berate them—he chides them. He begins with curiosity, that verb thaumazō that starts 1:6. And yes, he does accuse them of changing sides—a claim that is immediately retracted. It's not their fault; there are others, agitators, using the same material for a different purpose. And now the attention is wholly on those people. The audience's shame has a resolution in rejecting falsehood and affirming the truth, and Paul can now direct it. This is how diatribe works. And, unlike in Romans 1:18-3:20, there is no "gotcha" here. This is genuine, explicit I-you-we unity that Paul affirms and upholds. There is no need here for such severe rhetorical shaming as Paul has to employ with the Roman audience. Paul wants this judgment, even as he moves to define its basis and scope.

So, when Paul continues by asking direct questions, they know the answers. This is all said straight to the audience. "Am I persuading people, or God?" What is Paul's character? Paul obeys God. Paul takes orders directly. Paul argues with people. Alright, if Paul is arguing with people, what kind of persuasion is he using? "Am I seeking to be agreeable to people?" Is he trying to get on the "good side" of some authority, making an appeal from a subordinate position? Does Paul have to make anyone happy, anyone at all, to do his job? No. In fact, the audience is in this position, trying to appease authorities. And as we'll see, so is Cephas. Looking to be agreeable. Willing to change his tune. Cephas will model for the audience, and Paul will show us the consequences of such compromises.

The appeal here is to Paul's character, to his demonstration of the nature of service to Christ, and the uncompromising insistence on freedom in that service. Paul's character is the exemplar and guarantee of his proclamation. And not because Paul is anything, but simply because, as Kierkegaard explains, "purity of heart is to will one thing," and this man simply is what he does before God. This is the nature of Paul's proof, before he gets into argument. This is the reason he can be trusted. This is why the audience is willing to follow him, and to understand that there really is something off about the object of Paul's curiosity and objection.


If the faith itself, the shared faith to which Paul appeals so briefly and the audience assents to so readily, is not at issue, what is? The thematic here is change of direction. If the audience has not really "handed back the gospel and asked for something else," Paul still wants them to feel how much of a reversal, and even a betrayal, is implied by his opposition. How far their emphasis goes against what is really essential.

And it is about emphasis. Order matters. The cart must follow the horse. And the order here is Christ, then culture. This is true for secular cultures, certainly, but it is especially true for religious cultures. Anyone who tells you that it goes the other way 'round, that any specific form of culture is necessary to your life before God, is betraying the essence of the proclamation of Jesus Christ. That may sound harsh, but Paul isn't a man to compromise on essentials. Just everything else—and that's what threatens the fundamentalists.

Now, this isn't to say that Paul's opposition makes any claim so blatant as to put Torachic obedience before trust in God. They have it in the right order: Christ, then culture. But they take it to be a matter of logical consequence that culture must follow, that Torah is the culture of the people of this God, and that converts have therefore begun a process toward becoming Judean. Circumcision, catechism, discipleship. Pharisaism is a total system, an adaptation of the piety of holiness in the presence of God to every time and place in human life. It is the dominant Judean culture of the latter half of the Second Temple period. And, for most, that culture is the sine qua non of true commitment to God, and true belonging to the people of this God. (Sound familiar?)

Now, Paul once shared this zeal for the fundamentals and all that they imply. And that's the trick, really—all that they imply. Fundamentalisms are not big on "unity where necessary, diversity where questionable, and charity everywhere." The first category always grows at the expense of the second—and usually also the third. The trick is that total religious cultural systems aren't necessarily fundamentalisms, but it's much easier to develop a fundamentalism within one. Just increase the scope of what must be believed and practiced in order to attain legitimacy. Not all Pharisees are fundamentalist, just as not all Roman Catholics are fundamentalist—but it's easier to be rewarded for fundamentalism in such a total system of religious culture. To be zealous for everything, even the minor points, can be seen as a mark of true piety. It isn't necessarily wrong to believe and do the things such a fundamentalist advocates—but it isn't necessary to believe and do them all. As such fundamentalisms evolve their own interpretations, it may not even be necessary to follow any of their assertions—except when you're faced with the need to appease a fundamentalist authority. Think of Luther's rejection of monasticism. There's great good in a monastic life—if you desire one for yourself and have the gifts for it. There is, however, great harm in making monasticism the ideal form of Christian piety. And that harm can reach out and twist the entire nature of the faith.

When you mandate the non-essential—like marriage customs, gender roles, food practices—what is essential tends to get squeezed out, or at least conditioned by everything else. True faith becomes the full, robust version, with all of its cultural appurtenances. Culture and piety towards God tend towards fusion into an indistinguishable mass. To restore what is truly essential, one must sometimes break the whole thing apart, and appear to be discarding most of it. For the sake of cultural translation, one must sometimes discard exactly the things ones own culture values most highly—things that may be culturally essential, like circumcision and Torachic obedience, but which are not necessary to relationship with God.

How does Paul do it, here in Galatians? He begins with his own bona fides. He begins with the essentials, and frames his call to serve God in terms calculatedly opposed to his life as a fundamentalist. He doesn't say at any point that he has departed from being a Judean—in fact, he goes on to speak to Cephas on the basis of their common cultural basis. "Native Judeans, and not gentile sinners." Yes, gentiles are sinners. Gentiles do not have or follow Torah, and so offend against it constantly. We'll see Paul's argument in favor of gentile piety in Romans, but here it's not necessary to the point. The point is twofold: 1) Paul obediently serves God, directly, and consults with his fellow Judean missionaries as a secondary measure; and 2) those fellow Judean missionaries, notably the most authoritative and respected of them, have accepted him on that basis, validated his teaching individually, and entered into partnership with him because of that recognition. And that's an agreement that he has every right to hold them to—and has done, with Cephas in Antioch. If we say, together as the Judean and gentile missions, that these ways of life are acceptable, there is no basis for the judgment of the fundamentalists that one of them is wrong, and that a missionary living like a gentile is committing sin. There is no just ground for the opposition here in Galatia, that seeks to invalidate gentile freedom before God and "finish" converting them to full Judeans.

This doesn't mean there's anything wrong with Torah—for those whose culture and way of life it is voluntarily. As Paul will say elsewhere, Torah is good, and it does its job well within its context. And Paul will come to agree, later in Galatians, that the process does go Christ, then culture—but that culture will come from the Spirit, and does not require the pedagogy of historic Judean practices, any more than Paul or Cephas requires them to be accounted as just before God. We might say, differently, that ethics is never not necessary—but that no system of ethics on the basis of traditions can be validated as a universal.

And it is in this sense that we must hear Paul's speech-in-character to Cephas—and his audience who stand in a similar place before fundamentalist authorities.
"We are native Judeans, and not gentile sinners, but we know that no person is justified by deeds of Torah if they are not justified through the trust of Christ Jesus. And so we trusted in Christ Jesus, so that we should be justified by the trust of Christ and not by the deeds of Torah—because all flesh will not be justified by deeds of Torah. And if we are found to be sinners ourselves, in the process of seeking to be justified by Christ, does that make Christ a servant of sin? Not at all! Indeed, if I build up again exactly what I tore down, I prove myself a deviant. And indeed, because of Torah I died to Torah, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ! So it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by trust in the son of God who loved me and handed himself over in exchange for me. I am not displacing the grace of God—if justice comes through Torah, then Christ's death was gratuitous!"
By mandating culture as a criterion of faith, and not as a system of ethics that will be judged in its own right before God—who has given justification by grace in the event of the son of God crucified by the best of pious culture—we make a deep mistake. We displace the grace of God. It stands alone, above all culture and ethical deliberation, unconditioned, or we present a corrupted proclamation in which we have put something else alongside and even before it.

Note that Paul is never shy to talk about ethics in his addresses to his several audiences across the Hellenistic world. He is never shy to speak of culture and obligations. But he never confuses it with Christ. And he never permits it to divide his audience as they stand before God. What makes your life just in the world is not what makes you just before God. Instead, it is and must be the result of the only reason you stand before God at all: God's own grace. Your path in life will be judged—Paul makes this very clear in several letters. And the good that you build will survive and the evil will be destroyed, and you will be saved, though perhaps painfully for all your attachment to culture and its ways. Because you stand on no other foundation than the one that has been laid in Christ.

That's not just for the goyim, that's not something we say as apologetics—that's dogma. That's Paul in a nutshell. Obedience to God, and freedom for ethical life in the world. That is the apocalypse of all culture. Even if it is properly directed towards its end—whether or not your culture finally does its job as a system of ethics—it can do no more than be judged and come to an end, and you will stand before God on the basis of grace alone.

If you have made a good conversion, my friends, and if you know that you stand because of God's grace, then you may treat culture exactly as Paul does, with no fear. And if you find yourself caught up in the demands of culture, and it gets in the way of the gospel, remember that your only true moral necessity is to be who the gospel says you are, before God and your neighbors.


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