Reformation Perspectives on Galatians 2:16

A recent article by Stephen Chester sheds some interesting light on the New Perspective on Paul in relation to the “New Perspective” that was implemented by the Reformers.

Stephen Chester, “When the Old Was New: Reformation Perspectives on Galatians 2:16.” Expository Times. 119:7 (2008): 320-329.

In this article Chester looks at three facets of the new perspective on Paul and interacts with them in relation to the Reformers view of Galatians 2:16. These three facets are Paul’s view on rejecting the “works of the law,” the use of the verb “to justify” relation to the question of Gentile/Jew inclusion in the people of God, and the translation of pistis Christou as the “faith in Christ” or the “faithfulness of Christ.”

He begins his endeavour, not with the Reformers, but with Erasmus, whose Paraphrase on Galatians was published in 1519. He shows how Erasmus broke with the traditional pattern regarding Galatians and paved the way for what followed. Much of what the Reformers wrote relates to whether or not “works of the law” includes just the ceremonies of the Roman church or the Law of Moses. He concludes that “Along with all other early Protestant interpreters he [Peter Martyr Vermigli] is convinced that Paul intends universal antitheses between the entire law and faith, not restricted ones between ceremonies and faith” (325).

Furthermore, although with regard to salvation by faith they differ, “In one respect, however, all are agreed, which is that 2:16 demonstrates that justification is by faith alone” (325). This opposes the Roman position which was that there is some merit attained through good works in response to divine grace. By the time of William Perkins (second half of the 16th Century) a Christian doing “works” is seen as an obligation in response to God’s grace. Chester labels this “a significant development” (327).

With regard to the last contemporary concern over whether the genitive should be translated as Christ’s faithfulness or our faith in Christ the Reformers and their Catholic opponents both accept that Paul meant our faith in Christ. Chester suggests due to their position that faith itself is a gift from God they felt no need to be cautious about the possibility that our role in placing our faith in Christ would be seen in opposition to God’s faithful actions.

The article is worth reading because as Chester says at the end, “The Reformers reach similar theological destinations to those sought by recent interpreters but travel by different routes” (329). Seeing the roots they took and their relationship to the Roman view can inform us today about the relationship our exegetical decisions have with contemporary events and scholarship.

One note regarding page 327, I would suggest the word “as” needs to be added: “Yet the other side of this exchange, so vital to Luther, of the believer’s receipt of Christ’s righteousness, is simply passed over [as] if it is not recognized in Galatians 2:20.” When I cut and paste the sentence there is an extra space between ‘if’ and ‘it’ so I’m not sure what happened in the editing.

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