Thursday, May 28, 2015

The instability of identity in the Bible

Tuesday evening in my Galatians exegesis course, we discussed this rather harsh verse from Paul:

You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (5.4).

This seemed problematically harsh to some of us, because it apparently left no hope for those Galatians who might have been circumcised. This however appeared to us unreasonably strict.

Suppose you were a Galatian Christian. The Teachers come along a short while after Paul leaves, and with compelling arguments from the Old Testament scriptures, not to mention anecdotes and claims about the statements of the other apostles in Jerusalem, they convince you that you ought to be circumcised and begin obeying the Mosaic Law in order to be a proper recipient of God's favor. So you are circumcised and try your best to do as the Law teaches. Then, after two weeks, Paul's letter arrives.

Is there no hope for you? Are you cut off from Christ forever? Can the stakes be so extreme, in light of the precarious and vulnerable position of the Galatian Christians?

My own take on it is as follows.

God speaks to Ezekiel in ch. 33 and tells him the following. If a righteous person turns from righteousness and begins to live in sin, doing this and that and the other, I will not remember his previous righteousness but will punish him. On the other hand, if I tell a wicked person 'Surely you will die!' but he repents, and no longer engages in the same sinful activity for which I had previously condemned him, I will forget all his wickedness and I won't punish him; rather, he will live.

What follows from this is a picture of humanity and a picture of God. Starting with the former, we can say that human identity as righteous or unrighteous is not stable or determined. The righteous person is called in the scriptures to persevere, which implies that she may fall; the wicked person is called to repent, which implies that her wickedness is not definitive or essential to her. As for the latter, we can say that ultimately what God wants is that human beings be upright and live in the divine likeness: he calls the righteous to remain in righteousness, and he threatens the wicked, not because he wants to punish them but because he wants to get them to turn from their evil. God can even use unambiguous, certain language of judgment -- Surely you will die! (Ezek 33.14) -- and yet if the wicked person repents, no punishment will come upon her. Like Isaac the Syrian has said: For God wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us (Second Part 40, 12).

So also in the present case. Paul uses harsh, indeed unforgiving language, but not because the Galatians who accepted circumcision are hopeless. They are indeed hopeless so long as they persist in seeking salvation through the Law of Moses as opposed to Christ, but there is no necessity in their remaining thus. They can repent and turn back to the LORD. Indeed, Paul elsewhere makes exactly the same point about the mass of Israel which has rejected the messiah God sent to them (Rom 11.23).

This is the secret: there is always the condition of repentance.