“Having begun in the spirit, are you now finishing up in the flesh?”
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ crucified was so vividly portrayed. This only do I want to learn from you: did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the spirit, are you now finishing up in the flesh? Have you experienced such things in vain? If so, it really was in vain. Does he, therefore, who supplies the Spirit to you and who works miracles in you [do so] by works of the Law or by the hearing of faith?
Paul is arguing here that the Galatians have partaken of exactly the same sort of transformative experience that Paul himself underwent, and now, in contrast to him, they wish to nullify it. He “does not deny the grace of God. For if justification came through Law Christ has died in vain” (2:21), but they, by their desire to accept the Law, do deny the grace of God and show that Christ has died in vain.
I suggest that this “before your eyes” suggests a platonic “eyes of the mind,” in which visions are seen. Paul's depiction here is the implementation of enargeia. In any case, the analogy between Paul's own vision of the crucified Christ and that of the Galatians is enhanced by the use of ἐν ὑμῖν, “in you,” which echoes the ἐν ἑμοί by which Paul describes his own experience. The “hearing of faith” has been much discussed (Hays 1983, 143–45). Does this refer to God's act of proclamation (which the Greek allows) or the human act of hearing? I think that it is both, understood as a single act. Paul exploits the very ambiguity of the Greek in order to make an extraordinarily rich and multivalent claim. This “hearing,” because it is “of faith,” I would suggest is a hearing with the ears of the soul—like the seeing with the eyes of the mind. God declares, and the humans hear, in one soteriological (and mystical) moment of Paul's preaching and the Galatians' baptismal response. This double motion of God's faith and human faith will connect the rest of the chapter as well. In Abraham we find both the promise, which will be fulfilled through the coming of Christ into the world, and the faith in the promise, which is fulfilled by people entering into Christ faithfully. The beginning and the end of Galatians 3 hold together perfectly, as Hays has already argued, albeit on somewhat different grounds (1983, 193–214). Because the spirit is given through faith and not by works of the Law, therefore, “There is no Jew or Greek in Christ,” ἐν Χριστῷ, which I take to be virtually equal in force to “in the spirit,” ἐν πνεύματι.
The ratio, spirit is to flesh as faith is to law, is here made absolutely explicit, thus establishing the dualist movement of Paul's thought. “Spirit” here is functioning in two very closely related senses, which contribute enormously to the effectiveness of the argument. On the one hand, obviously, Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit which manifests itself as a gift in the life of the Galatian community, but, on the other hand, he coordinates with it spirit as one of the poles of the dyad: flesh / spirit. We then get another one of the analogical equations that Paul, following common Hellenistic usage, finds so useful—and so obvious that they often do not need to be explicitly drawn. Cosgrove remarks that “The Spirit/ flesh antithesis is put to a wide variety of uses by the apostle; it is not simply another way of expressing the polarity between faith and works of the law” (1988, 46). True enough, but at the same time, I would argue that whenever Paul uses a dichotomy of this sort—and spirit/flesh is one of the most powerful for him—all of its associated, analogical dichotomies are being called into play at the same time. Since “flesh” means literal observance (works) and especially circumcision in the flesh, “spirit” means faith, so it is absurd in Paul's view, almost a contradiction in terms, to expect manifestations of the Spirit to be the product of works. They belong on opposite sides of the dualist hermeneutical structure. I think we do better to listen closely to the rich overtones of Pauline language, the way its polysemy increases its power, rather than trying to resolve the ambiguities at every moment.
The final two sentences, which have been the occasion of much exegesis, make perfect sense on my reading, for as I have argued, Paul's concern is that any notion of the obligatory nature of physical observances makes nonsense of the completion of the meaning of such observances in the spiritual signifieds. So if the Galatians now accede to the notion that they must be perfected “in the flesh,” they would render the gifts of the spirit “in vain.” “If so” then means, “If you do this thing and have yourselves circumcised.” Since the Galatians have not yet done so, it is simply a conditional. If they do not make this grave error, then it will not have been in vain. I would tentatively suggest that Paul's opponents here had been promoting a doctrine that vision in the Holy Spirit is only available to the circumcised.