Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Going beyond the Spirit

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law […] so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

(Galatians 3:13-14)

I am still reading Galatians quite a bit, and have come to conclusion that the importance of the Spirit to Paul is not mirrored by the importance given to it by scholars of the letter.1 I suspect this is partly due to the lack of instances of the word 'Spirit' itself. However, I think the above verses suggest that Paul was thinking of the Spirit, at least to some degree, whenever he thought about the blessings, inheritance, and promises Abraham received.

There a number of things to note before we go further. The first is how incredibly closely linked in the mind of Pau 'possession' of the Spirit and righteousness/justification are (You may think that everyone already has these two closely entwined but I believe that Paul has them closer than anyone I have read - I challenge you to look at that). The second thing to note is that in the verses above the Spirit and Abraham's blessing/inheritance (I think you can equate the two) seem to be the very very similar (although Eph 1:13 suggests not identical). This means that when we see the blessing/inheritance of Abraham mentioned, and so by implication mention of his sons we ought to think of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:2-5 is explicitly concerned with how the Galatians should see the Spirit, as it questions whether they received ‘the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?’ implying that the Spirit is what the goal of either faith or doing works of the law (whatever that means) should be. However, strangely v.3 sees the Galatians as moving beyond the Spirit, when in v.2 Paul seems to have assumed it is their goal. vv. 5-9 then return to the question of how the Spirit/righteousness is to be gained, affirming faith again as the answer.

Paul throughout the letter is constantly appealing to the Galatians experience of receiving the Spirit. He wants them to remember that they received the Spirit, and that it was by faith. However, it is hard to conceive that the Galatians forgot receiving the Spirit in the sense that it slipped their mind. Instead I think we must conclude that they needed reminding that they were already 'there'; both in the sense of being the covenant people (and so approved by God) by (or, in) its reception (cf. 6:16), and in the sense that there is nothing else to 'gain'.

This second sense, of gaining something else, should be taken in Galatians to have as its focus our relations with other people. The Galatians were receiving persecution along with the Spirit (6:12; 4:29) and moving beyond the Spirit (by being circumsised) would gain them peace and security in their lives. They would also receive, or so they thought, honour from others (4:17). Their security would no longer be 'only' in Christ and before God, nor would they 'only' receive honour from Paul, and so God (cf. 4:18), but also from the agitators. Needless to say this God+ (or Christ+, Spirit+) Christianity would not bring as much glory to God, so Paul was riled.

But moving beyond the Spirit would not 'only' lead to God being made less of, it would also ironically lead to the very thing the Galatians thought they were seeking to avoid – unrighteousness. Most of Galatians 5-6 has as its burden showing this. Adding to the Spirit is to be equated with following the desires of the flesh, which should not be seen as building upon the foundation of the Spirit, but as being contrary to it (much like past enslavement to other gods)2.

These thoughts are just half thought through, incomplete, and presented in a rather rushed fashion, but in that they are just reflections of my own thoughts at the moment. I hope you read them in a forgiving spirit.

They are quite challenging though when you think about them. They force you to ask yourself where and when you are moving beyond the Spirit in your life. I do not think that many Christians are tempted to do 'works of the law' (which must be thought of as something specific to the nation of Israel and the Torah), but we must have our equivalents. Love guided and created by the Spirit was not enough for the Galatians, and Twenty-first century Christians somethimes have the same problem too. The mark of these fleshly acts Galatians teaches us is, I think, when the ideal of the perfect Christian/church can be described in other ways than by love3. If I think of what I would be like if I was 'sorted', then although love (from the Spirit) would be part of the picture, so would middle-class material abitions, ideas of coolness, respect from others, and education. New Creation (though physical) is all tied to the gift of the Spirit (cf. Gal 6:15), and these other values have no home, at least in the way I hold them (because there are good things about them). I am reminded of how the illusion I held that I was not materially ambitious was shattered by God when I did so poorly in my degree.

I’m rambling, and I’m getting tired too, so I will stop, but first I must also add some explicit praise to God about this. The basis of Pauls thinking on moving beyond the Spirit is that God has already provided us with the Spirit which being the 'the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it' (Eph 1:14)is worth more than all the money and honour that this world has to offer. The Spirit is a wonderful gift, and moving beyond it is to deny that. Instead we must walk by the Spirit, so celebrating its presence. Agian I'm rambling. Let us simply praise God for his gift which we have already received, and which contains the guarantee of more of the same, but on a cosmic scale.

Footnotes in a blog!

1. This is not to say it is ignored (Jimmy Dunn, for instance, gives it much attention), nor to say that it is the most important theme of the letter.

2. I am reminded here of a comment I once heard by John Piper, that the cross (or here the Spirit) should not be just the foundation that we build upon as nobody can see the foundation, and so no honour is given to it.

3 All sorts of explaining comments should be made here, but stuff it!


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