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Thursday, January 4, 2018

It's a conspiracy! (Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians 6:11-18)

This is my last post (!) in an almost year-long series going through the book of Galatians and Martin Luther's classic commentary on the book. Along the way I have tried to always communicate the basic truths of the passages I read about, and also add a little "spice" by talking about something especially provocative or practical to our lives. So it is fitting that for this last post in the series, I have some summary quotes by Luther that capture the essence of the last passage in Galatians, and then after that I will launch into some interesting conspiracy theories...

But first things first.  The apostle Paul closes out this powerful letter with these words in Galatians 6:11-18:  "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen."

As any good writer does, Paul uses his conclusion to reiterate the main theme of his work, which in this case is justification by faith alone. He has been especially concerned that the Galatians not fall prey to the false teaching of the Judaizers, who said that circumcision was necessary for salvation. The crescendo of Paul's conclusion is therefore verse 15: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation." About that verse, Martin Luther writes,

Reason fails to understand this, "for the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God." (I Cor. 2:14.) It therefore seeks righteousness in externals. However, we learn from the Word of God that there is nothing under the sun that can make us righteous before God and a new creature except Christ Jesus. A new creature is one in whom the image of God has been renewed. Such a creature cannot be brought into life by good works, but by Christ alone. Good works may improve the outward appearance, but they cannot produce a new creature. A new creature is the work of the Holy Ghost, who imbues our hearts with faith, love, and other Christian virtues, grants us the strength to subdue the flesh and to reject the righteousness of the world.

The camaraderie, shared passions, and common sympathies between Paul and Luther, which we have seen throughout this series of posts, is evident in their last words as well. Paul concludes in verse 18, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen." And Luther concludes his commentary with the similar sentiments...

This is the Apostle's farewell. He ends his Epistle as he began it by wishing the Galatians the grace of God. We can hear him say: "I have presented Christ to you, I have pleaded with you, I have reproved you, I have overlooked nothing that I thought might be of benefit to you. All I can do now is to pray that our Lord Jesus Christ would bless my Epistle and grant you the guidance of the Holy Ghost." The Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, who gave me the strength and the grace to explain this Epistle and granted you the grace to hear it, preserve and strengthen us in faith unto the day of our redemption. To Him, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be glory, world without end. Amen.

So where did the "conspiracy theories" come in, you might ask? Well, I'm glad you did, so I can close my own series of writings with something I found interesting (if not very relevant, in the end)...

I noticed as I read through Luther's commentary that there was a glaring omission...he did not say anything about the end of Galatians 6:16 and the controversial phrase about "the Israel of God." Most pre-modern and Covenantal theologians understand this as a reference to the Church of Christ, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, and a not-so-subtle way for Paul to reiterate his general theme of inclusion and his specific teaching in chapter 3, where he said that the Gentiles were also "children of Abraham" through their faith.  Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists, on the other hand, take the phrase as a reference to ethnic Jews, because to allow that it may apply to the Church would contradict their foundational belief in the separation of the "two peoples of God" (Israel and the Church).

If you'd like to read an extensive exegetical discussion of the verse (and see what I think about it, as well as some opposing comments), click here. But the first conspiracy theory arose in my mind when I thought about why Luther's Galatians commentary did not even mention that part of the verse, when he seemed to comment on every other portion along the way. And I mused, "Hmm, maybe Luther thought it was supporting a pro-Jewish perspective, and he really was anti-semitic, so he just ignored it. Or worse, maybe he wanted to take it out of the Bible altogether, like the book of James." So I was thinking that maybe Luther himself was conspiring against this part of Scripture.

But then I did some research and found out that in the complete, unabridged version of Luther's commentary (which the Kindle one I've been reading is not), he does comment on "the Israel of God" and takes the traditional Covenantal view. Here's what he says:

When Paul adds "and upon the Israel of God," he touches the false apostles and the Jews who gloried and bragged that they were the people of God, that they had the law and the promises. So it is as if Paul said: They are the Israel of God, those with faithful Abraham who believe in the promises of God offered in Christ, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, and not they which are the begotten of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after the flesh. But this entire matter was handled before in the third chapter.

So it wasn't Luther who left that phrase out of his commentary, it was whoever edited it for my Kindle version! And that led me to a new conspiracy theory... Maybe it was a Dispensationalist or Christian Zionist who did the abridgment!  Or someone that was afraid of offending Jews...

Just kidding! I actually intended to parody anti-semitism there, in case you were wondering, and not to parrot it. We need to be careful on the one hand not to elevate ethnic Jews above non-Jews in any way, but we also need to make sure we don't view them in a negative light either. (Those are Paul's main two points in Romans 10:18-11:24, by the way.)

Thank you for joining me on my trek through Galatians and Luther's commentary... I'm looking forward to moving on to many new and interesting topics in the days to come!

Happy New Year!

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