Book Review: Galatians Backstory/Christory by Phillip A. Ross

Because of my blog, I occasionally get requests from independent authors to review their books. As an aspiring independent author myself (I have a book in the works right now) I want to support others. Also, free books! The latest book is Galatians – Backstory/Christory by Phillip A Ross. Thanks for the book, Phil. Here’s my review.

Summary

Galatians – Backstory/Christory is a commentary of sorts on the book of Galatians though it differs from a traditional commentary in several key respects. The first chapter of the book is about what Ross calls “The Backstory,” or the metanarrative of Scripture that lies behind the major themes in Galatians. Ross’s goal in sharing this backstory is for us to have the right lens to read Galatians. This chapter is by far the longest and sets the foundation for the rest of the book. The rest of the book walks through Galatians section by section, applying components from the backstory as it goes. You get an interesting mix of Systematic theology and biblical exposition, where the backstory functions as Ross’s systematic theology, the lens by which he performs his biblical exposition on Galatians. In another blog post he refers to this process as “biblical discernment.”

The Backstory: Ross begins by re-telling the story of the Old and New Testaments. The principle theme here is of God bringing people and culture to a greater level of maturity and conformity to God’s law. To do this God adopts the symbols of fallen humanity to seek perfect obedience. For instance, he adopts the symbol of child-sacrifice in order to test Abraham’s faith. He adopts the symbols of sacrifice for Israel’s sacrificial system to reveal His nature to them.

On the one side, then we have God teaching humanity by using symbols and language they can understand. On the other side you have humanity confusing symbol for reality and gradually moving away from God. So, for Ross, first the Tabernacle, then the Kingdom, and then the Temple were departures from God’s original plan. Even though God worked in each of these, they represent a failure on Israel’s part to fully follow God.

There’s a similar movement with the law: The 10 commandments represent the purity of God’s speech, the standard of obedience. The Deuteronomic code represents the work of Israel’s elders – still sanctioned by God but only for a specific time and place. The Torah, which Ross describes as both the biblical material and extra-biblical material developed by the Pharisees, is yet another application. We need to apply God’s law to specific situations, but we have a problem when we attempt to apply that single application to every time and place. What we need is a fresh understanding of the law and a fresh application of it. The “calcification” of the law leads to slavery. A reformation to the original purity of God’s will leads to freedom.

This is the lens through which Ross reads Jesus’s ministry, particularly seen in his cleansing of the Temple. Jesus sees how the symbols of religion have been confused with a true relationship with God and he sees how the law has become a burden. Both are characteristics of the Temple Establishment, the religious leaders who held sway over the Temple and Israel’s religion. In clearing the Temple, Jesus was calling for prophetic reform. He was calling people past the symbolism of religion to the reality of God. In condensing God’s commandments into two: Loving God and loving neighbor he was doing something similar with the law.

The Backstory in Galatians: The primary enemy Paul faces in Galatians, then, is the Temple establishment, which stressed the importance of religious ritual and obedience to the whole of the Torah, including extrabiblical laws. Paul argues instead that that what we need is not more laws, but a new heart. We get that new heart through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. It is that same regenerating work of the Spirit which enables us to repent and believe in Jesus. That is not to say that Galatians is opposed to the law. Instead, Paul affirms that faith is what leads us to obey the law of Christ. But we’re not called to obey the Old Testament laws, but to hear Christ’s call to the original code: Love God and love your neighbor, and then figure out how to apply it (through the Spirit) to our current age.

We principally apply the law of Christ by being characterized by the virtues outlined in the fruit of the Spirit. Ross takes a unique approach in interpreting the fruit – at least one I had not heard before – where he describes the fruit as the “food for the seed.” That is, the Spirit is planted and grows where the virtues of love, joy, peace, etc. are present. So, the regenerating work of the Spirit gives us new hearts, and out of those new hearts we provide fertile ground for the Spirit to continue to grow.

How does all this relate to freedom? Ross summarizes as follows: “Paul’s point was that the laws and customs of Moses were being trumped by the laws and customs of Christ… Paul was not trying to institutionalize [the law of Christ], but to contrast the freedom in Christ to interpret and apply the Ten Commandments for a new age. They had freedom from the inherited laws and customs of Moses and the errant Second Temple establishment – not the freedom to do whatever they wanted, but the freedom to do what God originally wanted humanity to so…” (207, emphasis added) Again, “the freedom that Paul was talking about was the freedom to abandon the Second Temple in order to build the Temple of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (209)

Galatians and culture: This book is thick and covers a lot of topics and many of them can’t be covered in this review. However, I wanted to make a note on Ross’s description of culture. Culture is often seen as something that is maturing. It starts out very immature, and God had to condescend to speak a language it could understand. But culture has matured and is maturing. This maturation process primarily happens through the work of Christ in the world. Like the yeast that leavens the whole bread or like the mustard seed that grows into a large tree, so will Christ’s work be in the world. The end times are not a moment, but a process worked by the Spirit. We participate in the work by understanding God’s word for our time and providing that “fruit” for the Spirit to work: the virtues of Christ in us.

Again, quoting Ross: “God’s purpose is to put an end to sin, to reduce the destructiveness of sin, one person at a time. God’s purpose is the regeneration of humanity, and the establishment of shalom by creating a great harvest of the fruits of the Spirit… And the success of this grand plan requires planting Christ’s seed – the grace of Jesus Christ – in every culture, in every individual.” (290) Indeed, Ross insists God has made gradual but meaningful progress: “Humanity today is not the same as humanity was during previous eras… The establishment of Christian culture is a central feature of Christ’s mission.” (297)

It’s difficult to summarize such a long and multi-faceted work. Ross dealt with a wide range of topics. But the main points I pulled out of the book are these: (1) The primary lens we should view Galatians from is the conflict between the Temple establishment and the work of the Holy Spirit. (2) Old Testament laws need to be re-understood and re-applied in the light of Christ. (3) The Holy Spirit regenerates believers. (4) The work of Christ, through the Spirit, is the redemption of all human culture, a gradual but sure process.

Analysis

It is clear that Ross has spent a lot of time studying and interacting with Scripture. I really appreciate his emphasis on the metanarrative and on attempting to understand Galatians in the light of the whole story of the Bible. He weaves together Old Testament stories, passages from Galatians, and the life and work of Christ into a single work. I also appreciate his desire to be faithful to what he refers to as the “veracity” of Scripture. He holds it in high regard. On that and many other points in the book we agree.

We do, however, have a different systematic theology. My purpose in this post isn’t to argue which is right, but to highlight the consequences of those differences.

First: What is the primary conflict in Galatians? And what, then, is freedom? For Ross the enemies are those who say that you must follow the Second Temple law. Freedom is the power, through the Spirit, to re-interpret and re-apply those laws in the light of Christ. I would agree that this is a component of the conversation, but my perspective is that the real conflict goes to the question: How can we be saved? Is it by obeying the law (any law) or by grace through faith alone. Paul’s opponents argued that circumcision – a work – was necessary. Paul argued it was all grace. This question, how can one be made right with God, is at the heart of Galatians. Freedom from the law, then, is freedom from the law as a means of salvation. We’re now free to obey God from a position of gratitude.

Second: What’s happening to culture and what is the Christian’s response to culture? For Ross, the formation of culture through the Christian witness is central to Christianity. Indeed, it’s one of God’s ultimate goals. I’m not sure I agree, at least not in this age. In this age, God’s goal is the salvation and formation of a particular people: the Church. The church’s relationship with the culture is complex. Some parts of culture can be affirmed. Some should be critiqued and rejected. We should be a witness to the culture. We invite people to follow Christ. But the formation of culture isn’t our primary task.

Third: What does The End look like? My perspective on the mission of the Church and the task of Christianity is closely related to my view of the end of the world. I see in Scripture a sudden event, a time which constitutes Christ’s return, the Day of the Lord, the day of ultimate salvation and judgment. Before that time culture will get better and worse. It will show both improvement and corruption. Culture cannot be “fixed” until that point. But on that day God will make all things new and evil will be swept away in judgment. Goodness will be firmly and irrevocably established. The task of the church is to prepare people for that day, or for their own day, the day of their death when they face the judgment seat of Christ. We still try to be salt and light in our culture, of course, because we love our neighbors. For their sake we want a world with less poverty, less violence, less oppression, less greed, less hatred, etc. But our first task is declaring the good news, not just that God brings about improvement, but that He brings about rescue.

Postscript: Galatians and Christian Reconstructionism: In an email exchange with the author I learned that he was interacting specifically with what is called Christian Reconstructionism. Christian reconstructionism advocates a theonomy (not to be confused with ecclesiocracy): “A Christian form of government in which society is ruled by Divine Law” (via Wikipedia). Most atheists I come across believe that most Christians want a theonomy, even though this is actually a minority position. This is not a movement I know a lot about, but it was behind much of Ross’s thought.

Ross interacts with the Christian Reconstructionist movement on several key points. First, he shares the view of a gradual improvement and Christianization of society and he sees that as something Christians should work towards as a primary aim.

Second, though, he disagrees with many in the movement who believe that Old Testament law applies to our world today. Instead, he would say that we’re free from that law, that we should instead look to the law of Christ: love God and love neighbor, and then through the aid of the Spirit, discern how it applies to our modern world.

Third, he seems to argue for a bottom-up instead of top-down approach. The Christianization of culture/society/government happens not with a coercive approach, but through the personal regeneration of the Holy Spirit, the spreading of the seed of the gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit manifest in the lives of believers. While I’d still disagree that the Christianization of culture is a primary task of the church, I appreciate critique of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.

* For a test case in how I see the interaction between the church and one aspect of culture – particularly political engagement – see this post on refugees and immigration.

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