In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lambasts the Galatians for their flirtation with a group of teachers suggesting the importance of circumcision and obedience to the works of the Torah. Traditionally within Protestant circles, this has been taken as the contrast between being forgiven by simply trusting God or by our own efforts, as if these teachers were seeking to sully the pure Gospel with a works-based righteousness. And so, we interpret Paul’s powerful rhetoric as being simply confrontational.
But what if, however, Paul’s rebuke was rooted in trying to grab the Galatians’ attention because he saw the way their attention was beginning to stray? After all, Paul’s first order of correction is to tell people to not be caught given credence to someone whose teaching diverts from what they had already heard. Paul doesn’t start off by correcting their theology; he starts off by trying to tell them who not to pay attention to. Then, once we begin to see Paul gets into his exegetical-theological argument in Galatians 3, we see Paul asking the following questions about the Spirit: how did they receive the Spirit and how God works among the people? The two contrasting answers he provides is not the antithesis of “works of the Torah” and “the faith(fulnness) of Christ,” but between “works of the Torah” and the “hearing of/with/from faith.” AS Paul goes back to the very beginning of the Galatians journey in Christ and how it continues, he doesn’t talk about the faith that Christ possess, but about the way they hear and listen. We can construe the genitive πίστεως that describes ἀκοῆς as defining the way the people hear; they hear with faith in mind.
IF we step back from the text and take a step into the psychology of attention, it is pretty intuitive to us that all hearing and listening is not the same. We are aware of those people who seem to barely listen to anything we are saying from those whose attention is focused on what you are said. But there is another way attention differs from people and situations: what people are listening for?
For instance, when I served as a pastor, I could be making small talk with my parishioners, my attention would not be heavily invested but I was focused on simply what was interesting and could continue the conversation. However, if I was engaged in a theological conversation, I would pay close attention to what ideas they were proposing or questioning and the Biblical and theological rationale behind the proposition or question. But, if I was meeting someone going through an emotional or spiritual crisis, I would listen more for what expressed their hearts in faith and life. In those pastoral counseling moments, there might be some small talk or discussions might be broached about theology as it impinges on their experience, but I was not listening to small talk and theological discussion to the same degree that I would in other conversations. I would pay attention to how their small talk or their theological questions related to their own spiritual and emotional struggles. So, if a hypothetical conversation1 were to occur over the loss of a loved one via suicide, they might ask a question about whether that person goes to hell. While I would certainly try to comfort them that nothing in the Bible or what we know about God’s character would suggest such a result, I would not be focused on their theological reasoning; I would be focused on the emotional content.
The way we listen has a dramatic impact on what we think we hear someone else saying. The attitude and expectations we have going into a conversation will determine what sense of we make of it.
So, bring this back to Paul, I would suggest it is important to see that is what Paul is referring to here. Paul is trying to encourage the Galatians to go back to their initial attitude of faith when they came to Christ, which impacted how they heard and what they took from it. This gets demonstrated in 3:6-14, as Paul goes through a brief foray into various sayings from the Old Testament Scriptures. His argument is that faith was always primary, with it starting in story of Abraham and being expressed later in the prophet Habakkuk. Meanwhile, the instructions from Mosaic instruction are interpreted through the lens of faith: Deuteronomy 27:26 is understood through the lens of faith, as its similar wording about living by obedience to the words of Torah is contrasted with the righteous living by faith; then, Paul speaks of Christ as receiving curse in being put upon a tree in line with Deuteronomy 21:23, which redeems people under the curse of Deuteronomy 27:26. In short, the way Paul understands the Mosaic instruction is through the lens of faith. The attitude with which Paul listens impacts the interpretation and understanding one garners from the (Old Testament) Scriptures.
In other words, for Paul, the important thing is that faith is the hermeneutical key to make sense of the Torah, and the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures. If that is the case, then the conflict between the “works of Torah” and the “faith(fulness) of Christ” isn’t necessarily about believing vs. performance/merit as the traditional Protestant paradigm has made it. Rather, the question is shifted to something different: what is the most fundamental thing to which people submit themselves to in order to be righteous? Is their focus and attention on the specific works one should perform and then setting one’s life in conformity to that, or is the work of God realized in people’s lives through the way they hear and listen to God with faith?
The concern then is about what or who people are paying attention to and how they are paying attention to them. One’s relationship to God and the character that becomes realized within us, which is justification and righteousness, is realized through listening to God Himself with faith. The major error of the Judaizer’s in Paul’s eyes was to misdirect people’s attention and focus from what was primary and most central. They were focused on what must be done rather than on what God was doing in fulfilling the promise.
While we can’t be exactly sure how Paul’s opponent construed the significance of Christ in their own teaching, Paul’s emphatic statement in 2:21, where concludes his statement on the justification with saying justification by Torah may Christ’s death purposeless, may suggest that the Judaizer’s did not give an appropriate focus on and understanding of Christ’s own faith(fulness) in going to the cross. Rather, if the rebuke about listening to angels with a different message is suggestive, Paul’s opponents may have been focused on providing further apocalyptic revelations and understandings that they purportedly received from angels to implore obedience to Torah, in which case the did not see God’s decisive and defining action occuring in Christ. While this is speculative and may risk mirror reading, it is plausible to suggest that Paul’s opponents were not in Paul’s eyes appropriately focusing and understanding righteousness through the lens of Christ faith(fulness) to the cross. If correct, they would have seen everything through the lens of the Torah, including the significance of Christ and further revelations that supplement the Torah, rather than on Christ.
Hence, in the end, Paul’s dramatic rebuke to start the letter wasn’t simply the statement of an angry person; he was certainly hurt in 2 Corinthians but he didn’t engage in such a strong rebuke. Rather, the harsh tone of Paul was perhaps done in service of getting the Galatians to rightly direct their attention so that they get back to listening to the way they used to. IT is like someone yelling at us when we are zoned up; the intense expression opens our eyes and ears to redirect our attention.