Freedom or Anarchy?
In order to understand Paul, surely one of the key texts is Galatians 5:14. Paul's rhetoric in this passage is apparently confusing and has led interpreters to directly opposing conclusions. In verse 14—“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’”—he seems to be upholding the Law. But just a few verses later, in verse 19 he seems to speak of the Law as irrelevant: “But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.” Some have seen here (in verse 14) an apparent contradiction to his view that the Law is abrogated; after all, he cites the Law here and ordains that it be kept in some sense or other, while others with equal justice see this passage as the center of Paul's “attack” on the Law. Some of these interpreters have gone so far as to regard 5:14 as “ironic.” A third view sees Paul as contradicting himself within the space of three verses. E. P. Sanders contributed a searching discussion of these passages in Paul. He has well demonstrated the inadequacy of all earlier interpretations (1983, 93–105; Thielman 1989, 50–54). He shows that Hans Hübner's distinction between “the whole law” (5:3) as the Jewish Law and “all the Law” (5:14) as a Law which has nothing to do with the Jewish Torah is impossible (Sanders 1983, 96). He moreover shows that the notion that Paul distinguishes between the Law perverted (by Jews) and the Law as it was intended does not hold because Paul never refers to Jewish practice of the Law as perverted. There is, moreover, as Sanders demonstrates, little in Paul to commend the view of Bultmann and his followers that Paul condemns the Law pursued for salvation, while he upholds the (same) Law pursued for the fulfilling of God's will, that it is the inner disposition of the person that counts (85–86). On the other hand, as in other cases, I find Sanders's objections to the current interpretations stronger than his own exegetical suggestions—his analysis of the plight is better than his solution. In this case, I think he starts off very well by observing that for Paul the observance of loving one's neighbor (Galatians 5:14) (and particularly in its concrete manifestation of bearing her burdens [6:2]) constitutes “the real way to fulfill the law” (97). Moreover, even though Pharisaic/rabbinic teachers also cite Leviticus 19:18 as a summary of the Law, none other than Paul (or such as Philo's extreme allegorizers) advocated that its observance replaced circumcision and the rest of the concrete Law. Sanders's summary of the problem is exemplary: “There is, then, appreciable tension between the view that Christians are not under the law at all—they have died to the law, not just to part of it and not just to the law as perverted by pride, but to the law as such—and the view that those in Christ fulfill the law—not just aspects of it, and not just the law when pursued in the right spirit” (99). Sanders, however, comes to the conclusion “that both positions cannot be maintained in detail.” Obviously an interpretation which makes sense of both of Paul's statements would be superior to one that cannot. I think that Galatians 5:14 (and its associated texts) can be strongly read in the context of the general interpretation of Pauline thought that this book proposes.
To be sure, Paul does not propose a distinction between the Law pursued in the right spirit and the Law perverted. In this, as I have said, Sanders completely convinces me. But Sanders's parallel denial that there is no distinction in Paul between the letter and the spirit of the Law does not convince. On the one hand, Sanders precisely distinguishes between two interpretations of the Pauline antinomy: (1) you are not under the Law, but nevertheless you are under a law, the Law of Christ, which commands love of the neighbor; and (2) you are not under the Law, but nevertheless you should fulfill it, not by being circumcised, but by loving your neighbor; that is real fulfillment.
He argues that the second is “by far the more likely meaning” (98). On the other hand, he is unable in my opinion to explain what it means to fulfill the Law without being circumcised. Sanders is effectively throwing up his exegetical hands when he writes with regard to 1 Corinthians 9:19–21, “Christians both stand in a right relationship to God and live in accordance with his will, but [this] is no more thought through in a systematic way than Gal. 5:14 and Rom. 8:4” (100). To bridge this gap, I submit that only a hermeneutic approach will do, one that understands that the Law is one—“But the readers would not understand that Paul intends by ‘law’ in 5:14 and 6:2 a law which is entirely distinct from the other one” (98)—but at the same time finds a way to relate systematically between that which is being affirmed and that which is being denied about the Law in Paul. My claim is that there is ample evidence throughout the corpus that what is being affirmed is the spiritual sense—the universal Law of Christ, of love, of faith—and what is being denied is the literal, carnal sense—the Jewish Law of circumcision, kashruth, and the Sabbath. This solution is explicitly denied by Sanders, who claims that Paul “does not define Christian behavior as keeping the ‘spirit’ of the law as distinct from observing it literally” (101). But Paul does—as Sanders himself admits—draw such a distinction at several prominent places. Why should Romans 2:29, which I have interpreted in detail in the previous chapter, not be understood as proposing precisely this distinction, whereby “true” circumcision is a matter of the heart and the spirit and not of the penis? The Jew who is one inwardly and not outwardly would be precisely the one who is characterized by loving his neighbor as himself and not by watching what he eats. Paul's references to “circumcision not made with hands” also strongly support precisely this interpretation, that Paul distinguishes between the physical and the spiritual interpretations of the Law and affirms the latter while denying the significance of the former. Once more, the physical observances correspond to difference, to the particular, while the spiritual interpretations are understood by Paul to correspond to sameness, to the universal.
Indeed, “The law, for Paul, is not only the will of God, it is the will of God as revealed in Jewish Scripture,” but only, as Sanders notes by implication, after the veil has been removed. This veil is the carnal veil that occludes precisely the spiritual, inner meaning. In this way, we understand Paul's excision from the Law of precisely that which was particularly Jewish and thereby problematic for his project of the new universal Israel, without necessitating an assumption of either inconsistency or, worse, expediency, as Sanders is forced to by his insistence that “Paul himself offered no theoretical basis for the de facto reduction of the law” (102–03). The same point has been made in somewhat different terms by Westerholm. Sanders argues that Paul's point in Romans 10:5–8 is that “Moses was incorrect” (41). Westerholm is absolutely accurate in asserting, “But Moses could not be ‘incorrect’ for Paul” (1988, 145n.16). Therefore, there must be a rationally explicable theoretical basis for his approach to the Law. I hold that he did offer such a basis and did so, moreover, over and over again in his dyads of spirit/ flesh, spirit/ letter, inner/outer. Sanders agrees that 1 Corinthians 7:19—“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God”—is “one of the most amazing sentences that he ever wrote” (1983, 103). But he seems to think that it is possible to interpret Paul without accounting for that amazing sentence: “He seems to have ‘held together’ his native view that the law is one and given by God and his new conviction that Gentiles and Jews stand on equal footing, which requires the deletion of some of the law, by asserting them both without theoretical explanation” (103). I will not propose that everything in Paul must hang together or that different circumstances may not ever have provoked somewhat different and partially contradictory responses, but I believe that here we can supply a theoretical explanation that precisely eliminates such a gross contradiction.
The point that Paul wishes to make here is that Christian freedom must not be interpreted as permission to do everything and anything. Paul already anticipates the sort of “misunderstanding” of his gospel with which he would have to deal in 1 Corinthians. It would have been easy to misunderstand Paul's railing against the Law as a claim that there is no Law at all, but this is not what Paul ever meant. What he meant is that there is an outer aspect to the Law, the “doing” of the Law, which was special to the Jewish People alone and which has been abrogated in Christ, and an inner, spiritual aspect of the Law which is for everyone and which has been fulfilled in Christ and is thus entirely appropriately styled as “the Law of Christ” (6:2). The “Law of Christ” is the allegorical, spiritual fulfillment of the letter of the Law of Moses, the Law according to the flesh (Hays 1987). “Flesh” has two seemingly opposite but paradoxically coordinated meanings for Paul; it is commitment to the literal, outward doing of the Law on the one hand, and it is sinning through the flesh on the other. These two are not, of course, identical, but they are related. Both of them are opposed in some sense to the spirit which alone provides assurance of fulfilling the Law (that is the spiritual referent of the Law, which is love). The apparent contradictions in Paul remarked by various commentators are, on this interpretation, entirely illusory (Barclay 1991, 140 and n.113). Paul's expression here is thus no more contradictory of itself or of anything else in Paul than “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Paul has in effect taken common sentiments of Judaism to the effect that the purpose of the whole Torah and its Laws can be summed up in one ethical/spiritual principle and drawn the logical conclusion suggested by his allegorical scheme, namely, that the spiritual signified can replace its literal signifier completely. This, then, counts for him as fulfilling the Law while the outward observances are the doing of the Law also referred to as being “under the Law.”
Galatians 5:14 and 19 are thus in perfect consequence. The Christians are not ἄνομος, without Law, nor ὑπο νόμον, under the Law. Instead, they are ἔννομος Χριστοῦ, in the Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:20–21), which also proves that ὑπο νόμον is in opposition to ἔννομος Χριστοῦ) (Barclay 1991, 126–27). They are not lawless, nor under the Law (Galatians 5:19), but subject to the Law of Christ, which alone counts as fulfilling the Law (Galatians 5:14). This perspective helps us solve, as well, another outstanding problem in Pauline interpretation, the nature of the “Law of Christ.” Is the Law of Christ a reference to Jesus’ actual teachings or not (Barclay 1991, 126–35; Hays 1987)? Does νόμος here mean “law” at all, or perhaps only “principle”? In my view, these questions are obviated, because the Law of Christ refers to the Law according to the spirit, the Law of faith working through love, which enjoins those practices of agape which Jesus has also in his person taught. The Law of Christ is thus the Law transformed by Christ's crucifixion and exemplified by his behavior. Faith and love without “doing” are fulfillment, while doing without faith and love is nothing. Paul is thus completely consistent. It is thus that Paul can say: “Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision is anything but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Rabbinic Jews, understandably, reacted quite negatively to such sentiments. In the next chapter I will continue close reading of Galatians with a view to answering the question of whether Paul's discourse on the so-called “curse of the Law” is as anti-Judaic as it has often been claimed to be by both Jewish and Christian readers.