Saturday, March 21, 2020

Galatians: For Real Freedom Everywhere

Christopher Columbus and Leif Ericson we have heard of. We are less likely to hear of St. Brendan, the sixth-century Irish abbot, who some scholars today grant may have been the European discoverer of America long before Columbus or Ericson. In 1976–77, British author and explorer Timothy Severin sailed with four others from Ireland to Newfoundland in a leather boat made according to specifications from the medieval manuscript Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot, proving it could be done (National Geographic, Dec. 1977). Rock carvings found in West Virginia carry Christian messages in ogham, an Irish alphabet used from about the fifth to the tenth centuries A.D. (The Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 1984).

But what, you ask, does this have to do with Paul’s epistle to the Galatians? In answer, one need only turn to J.B. Lightfoot’s classic nineteenth-century commentary, which begins by identifying the Galatians as Celts and telling how they came to Galatia, which he calls the Gaul of Asia Minor. This traditional North Galatian theory has been assailed by some later scholars who argue for the South Galatian theory. If they are correct—the dispute is not yet resolved—then Paul was not writing directly to the Celts, who were in North Galatia. But as John T. McNeill points out in his standard The Celtic Churches, “We may be sure that the Celtic-founded provincial capital, Ankara, came within the Christian mission area during Paul’s lifetime.”

There is a good deal of mystery about the rapid spread westward of the early church. K.S. Latourette suggested that much of it was due to personal witness incidental to the day’s work. Some have suggested it moved this way as on a “Celtic conveyer belt,” the Celtic influence stretching from Galatia through the Balkans and Gaul all the way to Britain and Ireland. At any rate, the southeastern part of Gaul was evangelized quite early, and apparently from Asia Minor. The churches of Vienne and Lyons in the Rhône valley, which were the victims of a savage outbreak of mob violence in 177, had close links with Asia Minor, and it was from there that they received their bishop, Irenaeus, who took the place of the aged bishop who met his death in the persecution. 

Irenaeus, while bishop of Lyons, had oversight over all the churches of Gaul; and while Greek was his own language, as it was that of the churches of Vienne and Lyons, he found it necessary to learn the Celtic vernacular of Gaul in order to carry out his duties properly. We know, therefore, that Irenaeus was preaching in a Celtic tongue in Gaul in the second century. (He had studied in Smyrna under Polycarp, who had in turn been a pupil of the apostle John.) The direction will be reversed in later centuries with Celtic missionaries from Ireland, very much independent of Rome, carrying the Gospel through barbarian lands eastward to places like Nuremberg, Vienna, and all the way to Kiev in the Ukraine. They were the first missionaries to work in Moravia with enduring success. From the sixth to the eleventh centuries, this singular invasion of the Continent continued. One of the most arresting facts of European history is what McNeill calls “this early influence of Ireland upon the continent.” He quotes approvingly James Westfall Thompson:
The weight of Irish influence on the continent is incalculable. It penetrated the still unchristianized regions of central Europe.… The light of Ireland flamed, shedding its rays upon Scotland, England, and the continent, until the darkness of the Norse invasions.
Paul’s great epistle to the Galatians relates to the spread of the Gospel in other ways quite apart from the Celtic connection. Merrill Tenney has said in his commentary, Galatians: The Charter of Christian Liberty, that few books have had a more profound influence upon history. 

“Christianity,” he says, “might have been just one more Jewish sect, and the thought of the Western world might have been entirely pagan had it never been written.” For Galatians set forth the teaching on Christian freedom which separated Christian liberty from Jewish legalism. It is no wonder that the second-century Ebionite heresy, which attempted to impose the Jewish law on every Christian, rejected all of Paul’s writings and dismissed him as an apostate. It is recorded from the same period that Irenaeus quoted no fewer than twenty-five verses from the letter. 

Centuries later, Luther’s Commentary on Galatians cut through another legalistic system. For the book of Galatians became a vital part of the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, its teaching of justification by faith exploded the medieval fiction of a treasury of merits which underlay the practice of indulgences. Speaking of Luther’s commentary, Puritan John Bunyan would later write: “I do prefer this book … before all the books that ever I have seen as most fit for a wounded conscience.”

More important for America than whether Brendan got here is that through the Puritans and others, the Galatian teaching of freedom got here and formed an important part of the heritage of Colonial America. For Galatians has rightly been called “the Magna Charta of spiritual emancipation.”