Yes, yes, tell me about the heresy. Tell me what made Paul boiling mad in the book of Galatians? So mad that he says, “Ah, go have yourselves castrated.” Galatians 5:12. What made him that angry? In chapter 1 he says, “If you preach some other gospel than the one I preached to you—God curse you.” What drove him to talk like that?
(Gail O’ Day wouldn’t like that kind of speech. It is fierce and hardly gentlemanly but maybe it’s a measure of the vast difference between Paul’s grasp of the gospel of God and ours; its significance for an entire world and ours. Maybe it’s a measure of how spellbinding he found it that he raced all over creation shouting it, defending it, bending grammar and the social rules of politeness with eyes blazing while we engage in politically correct religious lecturing. But we should only tolerate his kind of talk when there is a lot at stake. We hear speech almost as savage as his coming from some mouths about issues that are barely worth talking about. A pox on that kind of thing. Walk away!)
What infuriated him was that damning, soul destroying heresy. Yes, that’s true but why did the heresy make him mad?
Because it would destroy and/or blind people to the cosmic beauty, the cosmic power, the cosmic shift and uplift, the cosmic transformation that has taken place in the incarnation and redemptive work of God in and through Jesus of Nazareth who is now the Lord Jesus.
That’s what drives Paul close to unbridled emotion. It’s not the heresy that’s driving him there—end of story—it’s the gospel that’s being plundered and distorted. If there’s nothing at stake who cares about divergent opinions and philosophies and much less who’s going to be filled with rage?
Paul is enraged because, he says, “If you’re right then Christ died for nothing!” Galatians 2.21. He found that simply unbearable. Tell him to calm down and prepare for an earful of fierce speech that will strip you to the bone!
But to major in exposing real or alleged heresies and minor in proclaiming and unpacking the gospel of God if it isn’t a crime in preachers/teachers it’s at least a profound blunder!
We learn things from the biblical witness about the nature and content of truth by following Paul in his treatment of the heresy but that isn’t the same as getting the richness of the gospel that comes from the immediate and intentional unpacking of that gospel. Merely to outline and show how Paul’s argument works against the 2,000 year old heresy and repeat that again and again and again is not the same as unpacking the gospel in the 21st century.
The same truth holds when we approach the prophets. We learn important truth about the OT gospel of God by paying careful attention to the prophetic denunciation of apostasy and wickedness and what these imply. We must listen to what the prophets actually say but we mustn’t leave it there. We must seek the underlying truths on which the prophet bases his sometimes thundering denunciations and his often wooing appeals.
One of the dangers in our studying is not that we’re too serious but that in our seriousness we spend more time getting to know the ancient heresy now a long time dead than we do to come to know and sometimes marvel at the glory and majesty of the ever-living gospel that the heresy would destroy if it could/would if we ignored it. And even in our day when one heresy or another is alive and well we need to remember that it’s only the glory of the gospel that makes the heresy worth talking about.
I think what I’m saying here is true and helpful but it isn’t gospeling. It talks about what we should do and don’t do what I believe we should consistently do—unpack the gospel.
I think what I’m saying is important because it is part of how we get to what is the source of eternal life—the gospel of God (Romans 1:1). I don’t wish to minimize the importance of that but I want to make the point that it’s the gospel we’re after and that all our digging and our research is supposed to help us to hear the God of the gospel speak to us!
There are some scholars who can do this marvelously well. They dive deep and don’t come up until they surface with treasure that enriches us all. We’re not all capable that way and so we need such people to be God’s instrument of blessing but though we ourselves can’t dive that deep we can often tell the difference between junk or the barely interesting and the thrilling, the enriching and the sustaining proclamation of the Lord of the gospel. And if we do we need to hold our teachers accountable. I don’t mean “hold them accountable” in that hard and flinty way the phrase often suggests. There’s more than one way to call one another “upward”—up to more effort, to more focus. We ought to pray to the Holy Father to bless our teachers but prayer was never meant to be a substitute for our speaking gently but plainly to one another when the need arises.
I do recognize that this can be difficult and sometimes even painful and that, sometimes, I might even have to find courage to engage in it. It’s worth it—sometimes our teachers aren’t aware that we need more than they’re offering. Communication requires at least two and the listener has as much to contribute as the speaker so while we who listen might feel we have something to say to the speaker to help him or her “speak up” I’m sure Someone from time to time will be saying to us listeners “listen up!” At this moment I’m in need of those who teach me to go deeper in the right places and come up with some serious treasure.
(Holy Father, help us we pray. Deliver us from the religious and moral lecturing that so often is offered as a substitute for gospeling. We ask this because we feel the need of it. Do be generous still to your People that we, as your Holy Nation, might have that treasure in clay jars to make known to our world. This prayer in Jesus our Lord.)