When we read, we need tools to understand what we are reading. If I pick up a newspaper, I already have certain expectations in mind—it should contain news; the news will be based on verifiable and observable facts (e.g. “City Council met and discuss the budget.”). If, instead, I start reading Nikolai Berdyaev’s Slavery and Freedom, I know that it is philosophy and will be about the nature of freedom and existence. I also know that very few people will be interested in Berdyaev, not because he is uninteresting, but because the subject matter and language assume a specialist audience. In both cases, I use the form as a tool to create a preunderstanding before I start reading. Knowing the form makes it possible to choose appropriate reading material for different situations. Novels and magazines are generally better vacation reading than scholarly journals.
The same dilemma occurs when we read scripture. If we open the Bible and assume some noble truth will leap from the page, we will be disappointed. Biblical scholars call the tools we use with scripture criticism. There are different critical methods for reading the Bible (i.e. historical-critical, textual, and source criticism). Today, I want to focus on form criticism.
According to Rudolf Bultmann, the purpose of form criticism is to study the tradition behind scripture. Joshua T. James writes, “By helping the reader recognize the numerous (and not always obvious) types of literature within the Bible, form criticism attempts to recover the underlying oral form of the biblical text as well as its original social setting (where it was used) and function (why it was used).” So, what is the form of Galatians? Letter. Is there an underlying oral tradition preceding the biblical text? Not likely. What is the original social setting?
The last question is the most interesting. Paul had likely preached in Galatia a few times before sending the letter. According to Raymond Brown, “After Paul left Galatia, Christians of Jewish origin (6:13) had come, probably from Jerusalem, preaching another gospel (1:7), i.e., an understanding of what God had done in Christ different from Paul’s.” When we read Galatians today, we see Paul responding to something. We cannot see what it is; we can only surmise its content from the mirror image reflecting in Paul’s refutation. Through understanding (or acknowledging) the existence of some different, non-Pauline gospel, we can appreciate Paul’s passion in Galatians.
We hold the Bible to be sacred, yet why do we assume these preachers who preached something different from Paul were wrong? In some ways, their approach to faith was plausible. Giving preferential treatment to Paul makes sense. He’s Paul! (for crying out loud). These other preachers emphasized works over faith. They sound different than James’ connection between faith and works (James 2:17). Unlike James, Paul’s nemeses attribute works as a means of salvation. Be circumcised. Observe feasts. Etc. For them, if a person does these things, that person will have a relationship with God. These Pauline opponents sound like Pelagians, the ones who believe that humanity can choose good or evil and are not tainted by original sin. In 2:15-21, Paul responds to these opponents, contrasts his gospel with theirs. His key point is the justification by faith in Christ, not by observing the Law. Christians live by faith.
Situating the passage in its form, as well as its historical context, helps contemporary readers apply it to their lives. Paul might not be responding to a contemporary question, but Pelagians still exist. A popular worship song says, “Grace, it’s a choice you have to make.” Is it? Or, is grace not a free gift from God? To me, and my understanding of Galatians, we live by faith and accept grace as a free gift, not as something we must earn.