Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
If anyone has any doubts about the worth of this epistle of Paul, let him consider that Martin Luther, the great reformer of Wittenburg, considered hisBondage of the Will and hisCommentary on Galatians to be the only two books out of the many he wrote that were worth saving. He called Paul’s epistle to the Galatians “my epistle,” and spoke of it in the fondest terms as “my Katherine” with whom I live in holy wedlock.
Luther’s reasons for his love affair with this epistle of Paul are obvious. The great battle cry of the Reformation was “Justification by faith alone, without the works of the law.” No other book, with the exception of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, so clearly and forcibly sets forth this doctrine. Galatians, along with Romans, has been the fortress of the church in the defense of the truth of salvation by grace alone.
Yet, part of the book is a personal confession of the apostle who wrote it. Who can read Paul’s own personal doxology of praise to God, prompted by his commitment to justification by faith alone, without a thrill of joy? “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). It resounds in the heart of every child of God.
The wonder of the divine inspiration of sacred Scripture makes this epistle especially intriguing, not so much because it contains proof texts for inspiration, such as II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:21, but because the book demonstrates the relative unimportance of matters involving so-called secondary authorship. This becomes clear when we consider two questions that have arisen with respect to this epistle.
Over the centuries, lengthy debates have been carried on in a fruitless attempt to determine who it was to whom Paul addressed this epistle.* Some argue that the epistle was written to churches in the north central part of Asia Minor—churches unmentioned in the book of Acts. Others argue heatedly that the epistle was written to churches more to the center of Asia Minor, churches that were established by the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey: Antioch, Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium. While I rather think the latter is correct, Scripture does not decisively settle the matter.
Another question that has been the subject of endless wrangling has to do with the time of writing. Some argue that the epistle was written before the meeting of the council in Jerusalem concerning the question of the circumcision of the Gentiles, an important event in the history of the New Testament church (Acts 15:6-30). Others argue with equal intensity that the epistle had to have been written after the meeting of this council. Obviously, the whole question has to do with the interpretation of Galatians 2:1, in which passage Paul discusses what transpired during a trip he took to Jerusalem. Was this trip the one Paul made with Barnabas to bring collections to the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30), or was it the trip Paul made at the time the council of Jerusalem met to determine whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised? Cogent arguments are made on both sides of the question. But the matter cannot be settled. I leave a consideration of the question to our explanation of chapter 2:1.
The point, as far as inspiration is concerned, is this. While these questions are considered of vital importance by most commentaries, and while many are certain that the questions need to be settled before the correct meaning of this epistle can be ascertained, the fact is that they are of no determinative significance in our understanding of the book. It is true, and the church has for centuries believed it, that grammatical-historical exegesis means that every passage must be interpreted in the light of the historical context in which it was written. There can be no question about it that an understanding of the historical context sheds light on the passage. But it is not decisive for an understanding of the book.
The inability to settle such a question points us to the fact that the Holy Spirit of Christ is the Author of the whole of Scripture. He is the sole Author. To speak of secondary authors immediately leads us into paths where questions arise and uncertainties abound. Further, the Holy Spirit wrote the Scriptures for the church of all ages, though He used men chosen by God for the task. Not only were the Scriptures written for the church that lived at the time a given book was written, but the Holy Spirit was writing to us, saints of the twenty-first century, as well. He wrote in such a way that all the saints, great and small, educated and uneducated, could understand what he wrote. He gives in each book the necessary information that each saint needs in order to understand it. If the information is not necessary, He will not waste His time and work on giving it. The issues, though perhaps interesting, are relatively unimportant. If they cannot take up the Spirit’s time when He inspired the epistle, they ought not to take up ours. The unsolved problems of Galatians are not necessary to understand the book. Every child of God may be sure of that.
What I have just said is not to be interpreted as meaning that no historical information at all is given us in the book of Galatians. We know that serious errors, destructive of the church of Christ, were introduced by evil men in the churches in Galatia. We know what these errors were. We know what effect they had on the churches in Galatia and why Paul had to combat them for the sake of the gospel. These things and much more we know. The Holy Spirit tells us. These are our concern. We will not be tempted into fruitless speculation on unanswerable questions, as if the interpretation of the book depended on them.
Another characteristic of the book that sheds some light on the great miracle of its divine inspiration is its autobiographical nature. In no other of his epistles does the apostle reveal more concerning himself. He not only tells us of an important part of his life before and after his conversion, but he, as it were, lays bare his soul in as passionate a defense of the gospel of grace as one will find anywhere. I want to say a bit more about this presently, but for the moment I call attention to the fact that inspiration is a miracle that astounds us. The Holy Spirit, not Paul, is the Author of Galatians. Paul cannot in any proper sense of the word be called an author. But he did write the book. And he wrote it, not at the dictation of the Holy Spirit, so that he functioned as nothing more than a secretary, only half conscious of what was being dictated to him, but he wrote it as if it were his own, with all the inner emotions of his heart spread out on its pages.
This, I say, is the wonder of inspiration. The Holy Spirit so worked that He alone is the Author of the work; but He works miraculously so that Paul, the Spirit’s secretary, is present in every detail of the book. He is there raging against false doctrine. He is there slashing at the enemies of the gospel with a sharp sword. He is there in his sorrow, his disappointment at the unexpected suddenness of the apostasy among the Galatians, his urgency born out of concern for their salvation, his gentle and comforting words to those who are wind-tossed on the stormy seas of wicked theology. The Holy Spirit used Paul as a living, thinking, passionate instrument, and the power of the epistle lies in this miracle of the Spirit.
The miracle is not unlike the work of faith in the hearts of God’s people. And the relation between the work of the Spirit in Scripture’s inspiration and the work of the Spirit in our hearts is obvious to one who thinks about it. We believe, and faith is without doubt our activity—so much so that my faith is in quality and strength different from yours, as different as Paul’s writings are from those of Isaiah. But Christ, through His Spirit, is nevertheless the “Author and Finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).
* The same has been the case with the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews. Although our “Confession of Faith” ascribes the authorship to Paul, almost from the beginning of the second century controversy arose concerning who actually was used by God to write it. Many names have been suggested, but no conclusion has ever been reached. The author is, in the opinion of the Holy Spirit, unimportant—except for the fact that He Himself wrote it.