Paul’s Style and Message in Galatians

I did a project in college where I had to design an art museum for an artist of my choice. I picked Hans Hofmann. The design of the museum was supposed to start a dialogue with the visitor about the artist whose work was displayed. The question was: is a museum supposed to be a mute background, an unobtrusive presence that simply houses the art, or is the museum supposed to be a piece of art itself, an equal, a dialogue partner, worth coming to see on its own merits? I chose the latter, and so my museum design was supposed to convey something about Hofmann’s art. As I researched Hofmann and his art, I came across a quote by him that I’ve always remembered: “Simplicity should mean pureness, not poorness.”[1]

Hofmann’s statement can be applied to the Gospel of John, which is simple but profound.[2] The language John uses is simple. Crossway rated the Gospel of John at a 5th grade reading level, the easiest of the New Testament books. But the depth of meaning this simplicity hides is profound. Augustine noted this characteristic of Scripture when he said, “What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing.”[3] A fifth grader could certainly read the English of John’s Gospel, but most certainly not understand the theological depths he’s traversing—like a kid peering over the railing of a ship at the ocean, he has no idea what’s down there. John’s simplicity is not poorness, it is pureness.

The Style of Paul’s Writing

Paul is of a different breed. If John is simple but profound, Paul is complex and profound. His writing is rigorous, dense, full, incisive, winding, cascading, spontaneous, impassioned, energetic, ironic. Et cetera. Et cetera. Descriptions of his writing style are fun to read.

Erasmus says:

Such is his versatility, that you would hardly think one and the same man was speaking. At one time he wells up gently like some limpid spring; by and by he thunders down like a torrent with a mighty crash, carrying every thing with him by the way; now he flows placidly and smoothly, now spreads out far and wide, as if expanded into a lake. Then again in places he disappears, and suddenly reappears in some different place, and with wonderful meanders washes now one bank, now the other, and sometimes digressing to a distance, by a backward winding returns upon himself.[4]

Alexander MacLaren says:

One of the most obvious peculiarities of his style is his habit of ‘going off at a word.’ Each thought is, as it were, barbed all around, and catches and draws into sight a multitude of others, but slightly related to the main purpose in hand. And this characteristic gives at first sight an appearance of confusion to his writings. But it is not confusion, it is richness.[5]

Paul is certainly profound. But unlike John, his rhetoric makes him hard to follow in places, even at the surface. Peter himself says that Paul is hard to understand sometimes (2 Pet. 3:16). Even a book as early on in Paul’s written ministry as Galatians can pose a challenge.

Two Challenges with Galatians

Galatians, like all books, presents at least two main challenges for readers, related to the medium and the message.

1) The flow and logic of Paul’s argument

The first is certainly the easier to tackle, but it still can be tricky in places. This is partly because the background has to be pieced together from hints and also because certain transitions in the text aren’t that clear. Some tricky places include 1:10, 2:6, 15-18, 3:20, 5:4-5, 11, 15, 6:2-5. In some of these places it’s hard to understand why Paul even says what he says. This is mainly related to Paul’s writing style. More on that in the next post.

2) The theological significance and meaning of the whole

The second reason is even more difficult and I would guess that, while most readers eventually grasp the basic argument of Galatians, most miss the forest for the trees. Galatians doesn’t just reveal law vs faith as the means of justification, but something very profound related to the focus of God’s economy.

If the first challenge is understanding the context and argument, the second is getting past the context and argument. This is all the more difficult because Paul introduces a number of crucial points in the midst of a fast-paced, personally-charged argument and never pauses to develop them much. Galatians 1:16, 2:20, and 4:19 are three of the most crucial verses in the whole book, but they are all somewhat obliquely mentioned—in a subordinate clause, at the tail end of a lengthy biographical account, and as what seems to be a metaphor. If the ESV study Bible can be used to sample Evangelical thought, then it’s telling that there is almost no commentary on these crucial phrases in the notes on these verses.

  • To reveal His Son in me—1:16
  • It is Christ who lives in me—2:20
  • Until Christ is formed in you—4:19

Other major revelations that Paul presents but are easily glossed over include—the present evil age (1:4), the organic union (2:20), the promised Spirit as the reality of the good land (3:14), sonship (4:5), the New Jerusalem being our mother (4:26), the two kinds of walk by the Spirit (5:16, 25), the new creation (6:15), and the Israel of God (6:16).

It’s easy to miss the theological import of these heavy hitting terms because Paul drops them like bombs and then keeps flying in his dogfight against the law. But if we miss these points, if we can’t explain them, and if we can’t see how they fit together to form a composite whole, then we don’t know the book of Galatians.

Justification by faith is certainly a major revelation in Galatians, but Paul goes on to show what it’s for—God’s desire to work Christ into our being for His corporate expression through many sons. This is the focal point of the Bible and the focal point of the book of Galatians.

 


 

1. Frederick S Wight, Hans Hofmann. [Illustr.], p. 24. The rest of the quotes goes: “‘People try to go simple but go empty. The essence of my school: I insist all the time on depth’….Hofmann demands of the surface of his paintings that ominous, kinetic sense of depth that underlies an ocean of cloud seen from a plane in flight.”
2. Witness Lee, Life-Study of John, p. 14
3. Augustine, Confessions 12.14.17
4. Erasmus, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 43: Paraphrases on the Epistles to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Quoted in Henry Alford, New Testament for English Readers, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 29
5. Alexander MacLaren, “Transformation by Beholding”, Expositions of Holy Scripture: Romans and Corinthians

2 thoughts on “Paul’s Style and Message in Galatians

  1. I’m in complete agreement with the complexity you’ve assigned to Paul’s writings. I felt like I read each chapter of Galatians 5 times just to somewhat wrap my mind around it and get a clear picture! And then, when I finally finished, I started Ephesians… We all know how that goes. But I also really like how you pointed out the importance of some of these dense phrases like “reveals his son in me” and “until Christ is formed in you,” because I always used to just gloss over such phrase and credit them to Paul’s tendency to use flowery, dramatic language rather than seek the deep, spiritual truth hidden within.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Kyle. I appreciate that list at the end of what to look for in reading Galatians–not just to catch the argument of faith verses law, but to see a deeper revelation in-line with Paul’s vision of God’s economy.

    Like

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