I recently completed a sermon series on Galatians. Several times in talking with other pastors I was asked, “So are you reading Galatians with a New Perspective or a traditional view?”
Nothing like an either-or question to enliven discussion! Here’s my answer.
First, to define the positions. The traditional view is that Paul is defending the individual justification of each believer by faith alone, apart from works-based, legalistic righteousness. The New Perspective is that Paul is arguing against circumcision being the boundary marker that excludes some from table fellowship for God’s people.
Evaluation: when we compare these views calmly, we should realize that there need be no fight, here. Both positions can be held in ways that do not reject the other. Holding both fills out the picture nicely. Galatians isn’t about corporate Israel’s boundary markers, OR an individual’s ground of his justification. Both are involved.
The hyper-ventilators in this debate assume that to hold to the traditional view, one must diminish to the point of irrelevance the immediate context of table fellowship (see Galatians 2:11-14). Or that to hold to the New Perspective, you have to say, “Paul is not talking about an individual’s justification, here.” There are plenty mistakes like this on both sides. Reading Luther’s commentary on Galatians, I finally had to put it down after a while. He is compelling on theology of justification and assurance, but he really stretches the exegesis to talk about only that throughout Galatians. Many anti-New Perspective folks do the same thing today. And New Perspective zealots can take obviously theological passages and try to turn the discussion to “table fellowship,” or “Jewish-Gentile relations.”
The key to resolving this is to realize that theology plays out in very practical ways, something the evangelical church has always had a hard time with. Now the church’s academia seems stuck here, too. The real theological underpinnings of justification by faith alone work their way out in how the church lives together. Galatians is really addressing the instrument of personal justification before God being faith and not works. And Paul is moving the Galatian church to fellowship with each other, over the boundary of circumcision, because they are all justified by the work of Christ.
So preaching Galatians is both theological and practical. Justification by faith is the foundation. Receiving people who differ from us but who believe in Christ is the fruit this doctrine is to bear in our lives.