Sometimes, I must do a great deal of thinking to get to something that’ll preach.  This is a collection of other’s ideas and my own musings on this VERY provocative pericope from Galatians, chapter 2, verses 15-21.

Paul’s rejection of the law as the source of righteousness before God (Gal. 2:11-21) and the story of the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s house (Luke 7:36-50) have often been taken by Christians as evidence of a Jewish legalism, which has been replaced by the superior Christian gospel of grace. Yet the same people who applaud Christianity’s break with the law may be found demanding tougher laws, more rigorous enforcement and longer prison terms to deal with the social evils of our own day. We want to clean up our society. We expect the laws, courts and law-enforcement officers to be the agents of such social purification. Are we not Pharisees at heart?

I think so.  But when read carefully, the apostle Paul offers an alternative position for us that need not compromise our commitment to faith.  Consider the conflict between Peter and Paul reported in Galatians 2:11-15.

As we read this text, we must remember that Paul, the narrator, is a biased party in the dispute and that he uses the event to bolster his argument against persons in Galatia who would like gentile converts to adopt such Jewish customs as circumcision, religious holidays and dietary restrictions. As far as we can tell from Galatians 2:1 – 10, Peter, James and other Jerusalem leaders had agreed that the gentile converts of Paul’s churches did not have to join the covenant of Abraham through circumcision and adoption of a Jewish lifestyle to be saved by faith in Christ. This agreement did not change the status of Jewish Christians, who presumably continued to adhere to their traditional religious practices. Nor did it address the problem of Christians in a church like that in Antioch, which included both Jewish and gentile Christians. Paul describes the agreement in terms that presuppose a separation of mission, though we cannot tell what that division meant in practice.

Paul writes that Peter, Barnabas and other Jewish Christians had been willing to break the boundaries that separated Jew and gentile and share table fellowship with gentile Christians. But the arrival of Christians associated with James, who apparently insisted that the “Jewishness” of Jewish Christians forbade such association, led these prominent men to separate from the fellowship with gentile believers. Paul calls such behavior hypocritical.

If you have ever sat down and read a book like Galatians or 2 Corinthians, you know that Paul does not have a problem with calling things as he sees them.  Nor does he ‘suffer fools easily.’  Still, hypocrisy is a strong word.  Hypocrisy is the act of persistently pretending to hold beliefs, opinions, virtues, feelings, qualities, or standards that one does not actually hold.  In this case, Paul is asserting that it is ‘faith’ itself which James and the others have distorted.  Paul wonders how you can assert your faith in Christ and at the same time insist upon a ‘something more.’  The something more means a requirement to engage in specific practices, that without which the faith may be null and void.

The key, hermeneutical and otherwise, to this text is, I believe, verses fifteen and sixteen.  See Paul’s argument hinges on this phrase, “me dia pistewz Insou Cristou” or, “but through faith of Jesus Christ.”

Now much ink has been spilled on the objective and subjective genitive of pistis Christou (faith of Christ). As an objective genitive, the phrase would mean human faith in Jesus; that is, Jesus would be the object of our faith. As a subjective genitive, the phrase would mean Jesus’ own faith that he displayed; that is, Jesus would be the subject of the faith. So, the agency lies either in us or in Jesus. Either we effect justification by believing in Jesus or Jesus effects justification by his own righteous obedience.

Richard Hays argued in his book, The Faith of Jesus Christ, for the subjective genitive. Many have agreed with his position; that is, they put their money on Jesus. Certainly the early translations (Coptic, Syriac, and Latin) support this view. Furthermore, if justification rests upon human belief, then faith becomes a work and no longer faith. Also, it assigns Jesus an entirely passive role.

This week I was at one of my favorite conferences, the annual meeting of the Mercersburg Society.  This is a meeting of church geeks.  For those of you who were unable to discern it, for at least the last 28 years, our worship here at Hain’s has been seeped in this particular view of the faith called Mercersburg Theology.  Anyway, at the conference we listened to the current systematic theology professor at Lancaster, Reverend Dr. Lee Barrett.  Dr. Barrett rattled some cages during his presentation.  There was no discomfort when he noted that Mercersburg emphasizes the Incarnation.  There is no argument among that crowd that the Incarnation affirms our human union through Christ’s humanity.  We are all ‘for’ reconciliation.  What stirred up the troops was his illustration that the gospel, when properly understood, emphasizes the love of God before all else and that this love, and our present state of reconciliation with God, means that the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon are unnecessary.

Now, even a group of pastors and teachers know themselves well enough to know that a good confession is always needed.  Do we not all fall short of the glory of God?  A boisterous argument ensued.  It was not helped along by Dr. Barrett’s assertion that perhaps the assurance of pardon should precede the prayer of confession, let me tell you.  I overheard my professor of Church History (now retired), no slouch on Mercersburg, muttering something about the Confession being prominent in the Reformed worship service that was created by the same Mercersburg professors in the 19th century.  Our various traditions teach us, assist us in our faith.  And, as we all know, when embracing a particular tradition it may become difficult to understand how other’s traditions are acceptable.  That is the problem in Galatia.

For instance: This passage in Galatians finds Paul in the middle of a rant against Peter and others who would not accept the Gentiles as full-fledged Christians and that Paul used his response to a disagreement that took place in Antioch (Galatians 2:11) to teach tolerance to the Galatians’ church. 

The point of the text, this subjective genitive ‘faith of Jesus,’ allows us to accept various expressions of allegiance to this same Jesus, without fear that those people who insist on certain practices, and those who do not, have somehow gotten it wrong.  It is Jesus as subject of faith that makes the difference. 

This is not simply a textual argument, reserved for biblical scholars and ‘church geeks.’

If I have put you to sleep by what seems to be a purely academic argument, let me say this another way.  When speaking about Christianity, at least, I am all for diversity.  Pluralism, not so much. 

Diversity is the very fabric of our religious landscape in these United States today (and dare I say, nearly from the beginning).  To celebrate diversity, requires some knowledge of our differences. There is no question that tolerance is important, but tolerance by itself may be a deceptive virtue. Sometimes an attitude of tolerance may stand in the way of engagement. Tolerance does not require people to know anything at all about one another. As a result, tolerance can let us harbor all the stereotypes and half-truths that we want to believe about our neighbors. Tolerance does little to remove our ignorance of one another. Tolerance is definitely important, but it is probably too thin a foundation for a society as religiously diverse and complex as that of America.  I can only celebrate diversity as I learn something about my religious ‘neighbor’ and respect their tradition.

Pluralism, on the other hand, is the supermarket approach to Christianity.  I’ll go over there and pick up this and over there I’ll pick up that.  Pluralism is no respecter of definitive religious commitment.  Pluralism allows the relaxation of one’s own religious tradition.  Pluralism allows the ‘least common denominator’ to rule the day. 

Elsewhere Paul uses the phrase, “in Christ…when a person is in Christ.”  You will note there a tone of union.  This is the basic assertion of the Incarnation, that Christ’s human nature has transformed our human nature, as we are ‘in Him.’   Of course I believe that my own very Mercersburg way of thinking about this is the best way to this train to arrive at the station.  But to insist that it is the only way is at its best naive and at its worst hypocritical.   Still, in terms of helping us understand the radical blessing of the Incarnation, I simply don’t think that pluralism helps anyone get there.

I do not have to imagine Paul telling others that learning and embracing their Christian tradition as best they can is the pathway to a fulfilling and robust faith.  I do not have to imagine Paul reminding everyone that it is not that tradition, it is not those practices, but it is Christ that is the subject of our faith.  I think that Paul states this quite clearly here in Galatians.  Living a Christian life, worship in a particular and perhaps peculiar way, serving others, and being generous do not save us.  They strengthen our relationship with the One who does.

There.  I think that’ll preach.