Sunday, November 03, 2013

What the studies of Galatians tell us

Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to remind the people that controversies in general -- and their current controversy over the law in particular -- should not take their focus away from Christ. Paul managed a rare thing: he re-focused the people on what was important, without losing focus himself. In order, the top ten most common words in Galatians are:
  1. Christ 
  2. law 
  3. God 
  4. faith 
  5. spirit 
  6. Jesus (2-way tie between "Jesus" and "son")
  7. son (2-way tie between "Jesus" and "son")
  8. brothers (3-way tie of "brothers", "gospel", and "woman")
  9. gospel  (3-way tie of "brothers", "gospel", and "woman")
  10. woman (3-way tie of "brothers", "gospel", and "woman")
The controversy about the law, even as it was being corrected, took a second place to Christ.

The commentaries on that letter do not quite manage to follow that lead. Instead we see how easily our controversies draw us off track, even commentaries on a book that was written to explain how we shouldn't allow things to draw us off track.

The Top Three Spots in the Commentaries

When we limit our view to the top three most common words, our commentators do keep the same top three words as Paul. But not one of them keeps the relative emphasis correct, and so the Bible study becomes to some degree a distortion of the book. (Others would argue it is not a distortion so much as a contextualization inside the larger framework of the Bible and theology. We'll leave most of that question for another day.)
  • Luther's top three: Law, Christ, and God. It's particularly ironic for Luther, whose career is known for returning focus to Christ, to make that particular mistake about this particular book by focusing more on the law than on Christ. Did he realize that his enthusiasm to correct overemphasis on "works of the law" had led him to focus more on the law than on Christ? I expect that Luther would have seen this as a distortion, even if it was caused by what he considered legitimate enthusiasm to correct an error. In correcting it, he fell into a similar mistake. It is a fair warning for anyone who corrects an error not to be drawn off-message by it.
  • Calvin's top three: God, Christ, and law. I don't think that Calvin would have minded that God ended up emphasized over Christ, or that his priorities there were different than Paul's. That overpowering emphasis on God the Father is the deliberate hallmark of Calvin's theology. Still, it remains out of step with the focus of Paul's letter to the Galatians. Where a Lutheran would see this as a distortion to take the focus away from Christ, I expect that Calvin would have seen his emphasis as a contextualization, and supported it as putting things in their right place in the big picture of the whole Bible.
  • Wesley's top three: law, God, and Christ. Wesley is the only one of these major Protestant writers to put Christ -- Paul's top priority -- down to third place. Again, I'm not completely sure that Wesley would have minded that. The writings I've read of Wesley's have a conscious move toward focus on the father, rather than Christ. Again, I expect that Wesley would have seen his change of emphasis as a contextualization, and supported it.
Odd things added or omitted

The word clouds show that some words were emphasized more in the Bible studies than in the original. But some discernment is necessary as to whether these are problems. In a Bible study, it is not too unusual for words like "chapter" or "verse" to have a prominent place in the Bible study but not in the original. This does not by itself mean that the authors are changing emphasis; it means that they are referencing an original. So differences of that kind are not a problem by this reckoning. Likewise "Paul" gets more mention in these commentaries than they do in Paul's writings, because in his own writings he doesn't refer to himself by name. These types of variations are expected in a book written about an original work.

But some variations are more unexpected.
  • Luther's other questionable moves: Of Paul's top ten words, Luther gives so little attention to "brothers" or "woman" that they are not in his top 100. Luther also adds an emphasis on "sin" and the "devil" that is out of proportion to Paul. This last is typical of Luther's writings, as many Lutherans would recognize. Luther repeatedly speaks about "sin, death, and the devil" in a way that has more to do with Luther than the Bible.
  • Calvin's other questionable moves: Of Paul's most prominent words, Calvin repeats Luther's lack of recognition of "brothers" or "woman", and adds another to the neglected words list: "Jesus". The prominence given in the book of Galatians to "Jesus" -- recognized as a distinct word from "Christ" -- is found in Paul, and Luther, and Wesley -- but is absent from the top 100 words list in Calvin's commentary. This underscores Calvin's intentional and systematic approach to de-emphasizing the role of Jesus Christ. Beyond that, the shift away from "Jesus" (historical, personal, relatable) to only "Christ" (theological) is something we have seen before in other word clouds, where it has been a useful indicator of how far someone is removed from interest in the actual Jesus of history, when they drop the personal name "Jesus" and focus only on the theological title "Christ". Beyond this, Calvin also adds several words at high-emphasis that a study of Galatians doesn't necessarily call for: "doctrine", "Romans", and "power". That refers us straight to themes we have discussed before on this blog, about whether "doctrine" has been put in the place of Christ as what saves you, whether "Romans" as a book is the best touchstone for Christian theology, and whether "power" is over-emphasized in Calvinist circles relative to what is warranted by the Bible. The only minor surprise is not seeing "sovereign" or "sovereignty" in Calvin's list of frequently-used words; it leads me to wonder when exactly that became the identifying badge of Calvinist writings as it is today.
  • Wesley's other questionable moves: Of Paul's most prominent words, compliments to Wesley on not dropping the priority of "brothers" as Luther and Calvin did; Wesley has it as "brethren" which looks like it matches the Bible translation he was using. The only one of Paul's top ten words that Wesley drops from his top 100 is "woman". Wesley, like the others, emphasizes several words that the book of Galatians itself does not call for. In Wesley's case, some noteworthy insertions are: "dispensation", "power", "doctrine", and "glory". We touched on "power" and "doctrine" when looking at Calvin. I am in no position to comment on Wesley's involvement with, or later reference by, theologians who promote a dispensational view, or the prosperity gospel with its focus on glory. The focus on "power" is less in keeping with their general reputation. (Wesley also brings in "Genesis" often enough to register, or its abbreviation "Gen.". But this happens in his notes on what Paul said about Abraham, so isn't out of place.)

The point

I'd like to close with two main thoughts:
  1. People writing commentaries generally insert their own concerns and viewpoints into the commentaries, as we have seen with Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. I should mention: if we keep in mind that this happens when someone writes a commentary, we would almost want each author to insert his own concerns and viewpoints into his commentaries. It's part of why we read them, after all. The problem comes when we take them as "what the Bible really means" instead of "what it meant to this man at this time and place, that may have insight for us too". Unless we recognize the risks and take preventive measures, our sectarian Bible studies may lead us farther apart from each other -- and from the Bible.

    Even if the authors have no intent to be misleading, the final effect can still be the same. If someone would say that changing the emphasis simply brings it into the context of their theology as a whole, that begs the question of exactly how sound is their theology as a whole. Our Bible studies teach more than just the Bible; they teach the preconceptions of those who wrote them. That was the reason for those tedious word clouds; I hope the readers can pardon the brief rounds of tedium in exchange for the undistorted view we got of each author. The authors were allowed to pick their own priorities, and I did not invent an emphasis where none existed, instead taking an objective measure. The biggest potential flaws here are the translators and, in Luther's case, the abridger since apparently his original was so long that it was not translated in full.
  2. On a hopeful note, there is substantial agreement on some important things. The first point of agreement is that we should be studying the Bible. All of these authors thought it well worth their while to study such a book in detail, and centuries later we still think the same. It seems that we are in agreement that studying the Bible can advance insight, wisdom, and knowledge of the truth. It seems that we also agree that we should be faithful to the message given us in the Bible, diligent about seeking exactly what the original writer was trying to tell us, open to growth and insight, willing to correct our own views if needed. We all desire to understand the fullness of God's word. It seems that achieving such an understanding would necessarily unite us.

    One question is whether we can be united now, while we still see in a glass, darkly. Another question is how much our current sectarian system causes the glass to be darker. But if unity can be reached, it will be because we are all still earnestly to this day listening to the words of Peter and Paul and John and all the apostles, and most of all to Jesus Christ.

No comments: