For my Galatians exegesis course, I had to write a paper on Gal 2.15-3.5. Here it is, if you ever wanted to know what I have to say about that passage:
Luther appreciated that Paul’s message of δικαιοσύνη ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἔργα νόμου is essential to the Christian religion. Paul himself is willing to curse and anathematize any who would insist on preaching another message (Gal 1.8-9). But the interpretation of these various phrases is very controversial, as different scholars offer a number of competing renderings. What does Paul mean by δικαιοσύνη—legal standing before God, or an upright character, or something else? And is it won through our faith in Christ, or through Christ’s own faithfulness? Further, does Paul envision that no human activity whatsoever contributes to δικαιοσύνη, or does he mean only specific aspects of the Mosaic Law? Answers to these questions are held with sufficient fervor on some sides that disagreements over their interpretation call for schism. My proposed interpretation aims to be sufficiently ecumenical so as to be appreciable by a number of different theological frameworks. The three cruces interpretum to be discussed in order are: first, δικαιοσύνη and the related δικαιόω; second, πίστις Χριστοῦ; and third, ἔργα νόμου.
The received Protestant interpretation of Galatians (and Paul’s theology more generally) understands δικαιοσύνη “in forensic terms” (Moo 2013, 155), understanding it as a sort of legal standing before God. For Westerholm writes that “when Paul uses the verb ‘justify’ [δικαιόω], he means (what the word always meant) ‘to find innocent,’ ‘declare righteous’” (2013, 66). These traditional Reformed theologians often argue from anthropological and theological assumptions purportedly found elsewhere in Paul: human beings are all utterly sinful and incapable of living up to the standards of God’s righteousness; consequently they can find innocence by faith in Christ, as opposed to doing any works, whether of Torah or otherwise. But there are problems with this greater theological system. Douglas Campbell persuasively argues that this systematic picture of God as unyielding judge in the face of an impotent humanity is incoherent and unjust (2009a, 45). The fact of humanity’s moral impotence does not by itself necessitate neither the guiding metaphor of God as cosmic judge, nor the conclusion that δικαιοσύνη is essentially a forensic standing before God. What Paul has in mind is far broader and more universal, encompassing all facets of a person’s being.
Δικαιοσύνη per BDAG typically refers to the quality of a person’s character as upright, righteous, just, and so on. It typically translates צדק, which in the Old Testament refers to the same thing (Westerholm 2013, 58-61). Likewise, δικαιόω most broadly refers to practicing δικαιοσύνη, which may mean acquitting or condemning a person in the court of law. But these are abstract definitions; oftentimes the word can gain a specialized meaning when used in particular contexts. For example, in Ps 98.2 (97.2 LXX), δικαιοσύνη is put in parallel with σωτήριον to refer not so much to God’s character but an event of salvation brought about by God in his righteousness: “The LORD has made known his salvation [τὸ σωτήριον αὐτοῦ], he has revealed his righteousness [τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ] before the nations.” Δικαιοσύνη is similarly used in parallel with σωτήριον at Is 51.5, 6, and 8: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance [δικαιοσύνη] will never be ended” (v. 6 NRSV). In both of these passages, themes of great importance to Paul are present: in Ps 98, the revelation of God’s righteousness and salvation before the nations in remembrance of his promises to Israel (cf. Rom 1.16-7); in Is 51, the pursuit of righteousness, the figures of Abraham and Sarah, and the putting away of the wrath of God. To my mind, it is eminently plausible that Paul’s use of δικαιοσύνη [θεοῦ] draws from these sources and must be interpreted in their light. No other interpreters I consulted even consider both these passages in their discussions (though Campbell considers Ps 98).
For Paul, then, δικαιοσύνη refers to salvation or deliverance, not merely or even mainly a forensic or legal standing before God. Two further things must be said. First, the precise moral norms which inform an author’s use of δικαιοσύνη will oftentimes be elaborated in context. This ought to correct our assumptions what about genuine righteousness means. Rather than supposing that God’s righteousness demands that he punish sinners, for example, there is good reason to think the opposite is the case. In Ps 143, the psalmist prays to God: “Answer me in your righteousness [δικαιοσύνῃ σου], and do not enter into judgment with your slave, because all who live will not be found righteous [δικαιωθήσεται] in your sight” (vv. 1-2). Here God’s righteousness means his treating undeserving sinners with grace and mercy, rather than punishing them or visiting punitive justice upon them. Martyn (1997, 266) catalogues parallels to this notion from Qumran. Paul knows that God showed his love for us in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5.8). As Campbell appreciates, “Paul’s root metaphor of God, then, is benevolent, or merciful. There is no retributive character to the God revealed to Paul by Christ” (2009a, 706; emphasis original).
Second, δικαιοσύνη evidently refers to a deliverance or salvation that affects many different aspects of a person’s existence. There is no doubt that forgiveness by God is partly what is included in Paul’s usage of this phrase. However, it is clear from Paul’s writing that δικαιοσύνη entails an ontological transformation of a human person’s mode of existence. Paul opens his letter with the declaration that Christ Jesus “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1.4). What is envisioned here is a transfer from one αἰών to another, from one contingent arrangement of the world to another. This furthermore involves the indwelling of God in the human person through the Holy Spirit, which is made evident through Paul’s seamless transition from his discussion of δικαιοσύνη to a question about the reception of the Holy Spirit (3.2-3, 5). He likewise later speaks of life and δικαιοσύνη in parallel with reference to the Law’s inability to provide either (3.21), which suggests again that δικαιοσύνη refers to a salvific change of the whole of a person’s existence. We might say that it means a person’s theopoiesis, as a person becomes deified and brought to life through the presence of God within her.
Now Paul uses both the noun δικαιοσύνη and the verb δικαιόω in close parallel one with the other through 2.15-21. He speaks simultaneously of “being justified” [δικαιωθῶμεν] (v. 16) and receiving δικαιοσύνη (v. 21). In light of our proposed interpretation of δικαιοσύνη referring generally to salvation or deliverance on multiple levels, it is a happy coincidence that δικαιόω per BDAG can also mean “to cause someone to be released from personal or institutional claims that are no longer considered pertinent or valid, make free/pure.” This is the meaning of the term as it appears in Rom 6.7: “the one who died is freed [δεδικαίωται] from sin”; and at Acts 13.39: “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free [δικαιοῦται].” Indeed, the most general interpretation of δικαιόω is “to practice δικαιοσύνη.” Consequently, if δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ refers to deliverance or salvation, then δικαιόω can likewise be translated as “deliver” or “save.”
We have seen, then, that Paul’s gospel affirms that a person is delivered or saved ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. The interpretation of this second phrase is even more vexed than that of the former. On the one hand, Moo considers a number of arguments for the subjective genitive construal and rejects them (2013, 45-7), as does deSilva (2011, 124ff.). Westerholm claims that Paul never makes Christ the subject of the verb πιστεύω (2013, 17, n. 15), though Campbell (2009a) offers an argument that it is implicit in 2 Cor 4.13. The former likewise argues that if works of the Law are presented as one human means by which δικαιοσύνη may be attained, it makes sense to interpret πίστις Χριστοῦ along the same lines as referring to human faith in Christ. On the other hand, Martyn (1997, 265) argues that δικαιοσύνη in Old Testament theology is an act of God. Consequently it makes sense to contrast works of the Law as human with the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ as the divinely ordered means to salvation. Likewise Campbell argues that a “pessimistic anthropology [such as Paul’s] dictates an unconditional solution” to the problem of human sin (2009b, 65), which is better accommodated by the subjective genitive reading. So there are powerful arguments on both sides!
My tendency is to go back and forth on this matter, but one argument from deSilva impresses me in particular: “Christians closer to Paul in terms of linguistic and cultural context—church fathers like Origen and Chrysostom—read the relevant passages as speaking about ‘trust in Christ,’ not as speaking about ‘Christ’s faith’ or ‘Christ’s faithfulness’” (deSilva 2011, 126). Because I always try to be faithful to the pillars of the ancient Christian tradition, consequently I must opt for an objective genitive reading. However additional arguments in its favor may also be given. David Brondos (2006) has done much good work in attempting to interpret Paul’s unique theological language in keeping with the themes of the gospels. There we find that faith in Christ—which meant obedience to him, accepting his claims and teachings, as well as trusting approach of him in supplication—is the means by which people found God’s deliverance, be it through physical healing or forgiveness of sins or empowerment through the Spirit or new understanding through teachings. This implies Christ’s own faithfulness to his mission, of course, as none who come to him will be cast away (John 6.37). But I think that this is precisely what Paul means, too: those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved (cf. Rom 10.13). Though grammatical considerations will not yield definitive answers in either direction (Campbell 2009b, 644-5), I think that a strong argument can be made in favor of the objective genitive reading. This is further confirmed by Paul’s implicit affirmation that the Galatians received the Spirit—a part of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ—when they believed (3.2, 5).
So I understand, then, that God’s deliverance and salvation is won through trusting and calling upon Jesus Christ in faith, and not ἔξ ἔργα νόμου. But what sense can be made of this final phrase? To my mind, Paul does not mean by this that nothing humans do whatsoever contributes to their deliverance or salvation by God. I think that this is a myopic reading of Paul which introduces a hard distinction between justification and sanctification nowhere to be found in the apostle’s theology. Paul insists towards the end of the epistle that Christians “work for the good fall, and especially for those of the family of faith,” because “If you sow to the flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you reap eternal life from the Spirit” (6.10, 8). Likewise he strongly warns his audience that those who practice the vices listed at 5.19-21 “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5.21). Consequently human behavior and ethics have a role to play in deliverance and salvation. This doesn’t mean that salvation is earned, as if human beings could make debtors out of God. But it does mean that we make a contribution of our own to our salvation through our obedience and efforts to live in the Spirit, with God’s help in everything through the Holy Spirit and forgiveness by Christ’s mediation.
For this reason I reject an interpretation of ἔργα νόμου that understands it to refer to all human ethical activity in attempt to win God’s favor or justification. Not only is δικαιοσύνη not a legal standing in God’s court, Paul seems to think humans have to respond to God’s favor shown in Christ and through the Holy Spirit through efforts of their own in order to inherit God’s kingdom. Rather, I think the context makes it clear that Paul is referring to the strictures of the Mosaic Law in particular. It is evident that Paul’s is concerned that the Gentiles not adopt circumcision, as well as holidays and festivals (4.10). These are specifics of the Mosaic Law, so Paul evidently means by ἔργα νόμου the demands and commandments of the Law given to Moses and the people of Israel. Paul does not mean by this phrase human ethical conduct in general, as I have already shown.
But why shouldn’t God’s salvation come through the works of the Mosaic Law? An interesting answer can be found in Jon Levenson’s analysis in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton University Press, 1988). He references a rabbinic tradition according to which the Torah as the Jews currently have it is not eternal simpliciter, but at least in part temporary. Some of the commands—for example, not to murder or to commit adultery—will carry over into the next world, but others will not. One rabbi wrote: “Whoever has not eaten meat from an improperly slaughtered animal in this world is earning the right to eat it in the world-to-come” (Levenson 1988, 35). Thus obedience to the Torah here serves a qualifier for participation in the next world, where Torah will in part have passed. Thus Levenson summarizes: “The commandments of Torah are neither valid in toto for all time nor dispensable in the currently unredeemed world” (ibid.). But now remember that for Paul, Christ came to redeem us from the present evil age (Gal 1.4). Christ accomplishes this through his obedience to and fulfillment of Torah (Mt 5.17), through his death in which all of humanity participated (2 Cor 5.14), and through his resurrection into the life of the next world (Rom 6.9-10). When a person believes the gospel of this redemption, she engages through baptism in an identification with Christ (Gal 3.27-8) who has died to the present world and lives to God in a sense in the future world, where Torah no longer applies. Thus Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ” (2.19); if he has been crucified with Christ, then Paul occupies the space of that next world, in which Torah is no longer entirely valid. Further evidence that Paul considered Torah to be a preparatory stage in human development is found in his likening the law to a παιδαγωγή (3.23-5). Just as an instructor is for children, so also the Law was for a particular period of human development. It must be outgrown, and in any case the lesson it attempted to teach the whole time was: love your neighbor (5.14), which the Spirit teaches us to do anyway.
In conclusion, then, I have argued that Paul’s gospel—δικαιοσύνη ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἔργα νόμου—means God’s deliverance or salvation, which includes forgiveness but also the deification of the human person as the temple of the Holy Spirit, through faith in Jesus Christ and not through the works of the Torah. My proposed reading is unique because it makes appeal to important yet crucially ignored possible OT source texts for Paul’s theology, which might have played an important role both in his own personal understanding as well as in his preaching. To my mind, however, it is also very important for the following reason: it interprets Paul’s language in sufficiently broad and general language so as to suggest a general Christian gospel message of deliverance through faith in Christ. It interprets nuances of Paul’s vision of salvation that any Christian group can appreciate. Insisting on an interpretation that goes further than this—for example, insisting upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, or whatever, as essential to the proper understanding of the gospel—goes beyond and contrary to what Paul explicitly and implicitly says, and in any case is systematically problematic, as Campbell (2009b) has argued. Theological differences between Christian groups have proven excessively divisive because fine details and speculative notions are made central when they shouldn’t. A more holistic and generalized interpretation of Paul’s gospel as salvation or deliverance by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ can help towards a process of reconciliation.
Brondos, David A. Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006.
Campbell, Douglas A. "2 Corinthians 4:13: Evidence in Paul that Christ Believes." Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 2 (2009): 337-356.
—. The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009.
deSilva, David A. A Sri Lankan Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.
Levenson, Jon D. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Moo, Douglas J. Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.
Westerholm, Stephen. Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013.