In the course of his writing the Apostle said, "After that ye have known God, or rather—." That is the point. The subject is Amended Expressions, self-correction in the use of language. Sometimes we are too fluent, and we are halfway through a sentence before it occurs to us that we are on the wrong track. We start sentences from the wrong end. However skilful we may be in the use of words, sometimes we are halfway through a sentence before we see that the sentence might have been much better if we had started it from the other end. The Apostle was a tumultuous speaker. The one thing he lacked was polish—a fatal lack in the estimation of pedants and of people who have nothing to do. Hear him:—"After that ye have known God, or rather are known of God"—which I ought to have said at first but did not. We have seen instances in which inspired writers have corrected themselves and have corrected public impression. Thus:—"It is Christ that died, yea rather." Why, that is the same Prayer of Manasseh, the same tone, the same word. Is he going to correct himself? He is going to correct himself by enlargement. "Yea rather, that is risen again,"—the greater including the less. This would seem then to be part of the Apostle"s habit of writing and talking, to begin in a small way and then, with almost startling abruptness, to put the same thought before us on the largest lines. "After that ye have known God"—no, no, no!—"rather are known of God": "It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again." This man always ascends; he never withdraws a great thought that he may replace it with a little one. He surprises himself into enlarged interpretations, into completer meanings. It is well therefore that the Apostle should always be allowed to finish his own sentences. Never interrupt a speaker of this sort, eccentric as he may appear to be in his mode of speaking; when he has launched out his expressions, then judge him, but not until then. It was very important to correct such an expression as is used in the text, considering the people to whom the Apostle was writing. They were a foolish people; they were Celts, Gauls, verily Gaulatians, a Frenchified and Hibernised people, French-Irish folks, who were most impulsive, taking up an idea before it was fully laid down before them. The Apostle knew them well, and adapted his ministry accordingly. The Gauls, east and west, have always been celebrated for this mobility of mind. Cæsar noticed it in the Western Gauls, hence we have his expression in speaking of them mobilitas et levitas animi. Such has been their character all through the ages and all over the world,—too quick, without reserve power; a flash, and they do not know what they have said, or done; and they may in one moment be sorry for the action in which they have taken part, and may humbly apologise. One moment they will give their very eyes to the Apostle; the Gauls were never inhospitable; when they were excited eyes went for nothing, and hands and tongues; and the next moment the evil eye had bewitched them, and they were going after all manner of frivolity and emptiness. O foolish Galatians! who hath cast the evil eye upon you? Having to deal with people of this kind, the Apostle swiftly corrected himself. He has said in his easy and generous manner, "ye have known God," and then suddenly he exclaimed.
"or rather": O ye volatile Galatians, or rather; O ye effervescing Celts, I must bind you down to the real sequence of things—"or rather are known of God."
The distinction is important. In the first instance taking the words "after that ye have known God," we might be led to suppose that the Galatians had discovered God. This indeed is not a Galatian sophism only; this is the sophism that underlies a great deal of orthodox thinking. It is difficult to get away from the notion that we have discovered God. We think we have something to do with our own theology; we suppose that intellect has been out early in the morning ere the dew had gone up from the meadows, and has actually come back with the discovery of God. Nothing of the kind. "The world by wisdom knew not God." A discovered God is an idol, a thing in which you have rights. You say there is a law of discovery upon the land, there is a law of flotsam and jetsam; there is a law of the rights of adventure:—we discovered this river and we claim it, we discovered this island and we plant our flag upon it. No man ever discovered God. The Apostle states the right sequence when he says, "or rather are known of God": God discovered you, God found you out; the true conception of God is the conception of revelation; if you think you had anything to do with the discovery of God, then you will have all manner of tricks in words and phrases; but if you begin to feel that God first loved you, discovered you, came after you, redeemed you, then you will give glory to God.
Even in so simple a change as this we have whole worlds of philosophy. Here is a true view of inspiration. The Apostle corrects himself. The Apostle does not correct the truth, but he corrects the way of putting the truth. Men should distinguish between these things, vitally. The key of reconciliation may be found in that distinction. Paul"s mind does not change, but quickly remembering the kind of mind to which he was writing, he set the same doctrine in another form or aspect, that there might be the less mistake made about it even by volatile critics, like the Galatians. We lose much by having a false idea of inspiration. We have often to maintain a forlorn cause, for the reason that we do not start our statement from the right point. The Apostle says, There is a better way of saying this, I will therefore withdraw the first expression and replace it by another; there has been no confusion in my mind, I have not misrepresented the Holy Spirit, but I have so used words that you may mistake them, therefore I do in effect withdraw these words, and put others in their places. Have I lost any part of my Bible by that concession? Nay, rather I have gained the Bible, more intelligently, more reverently, more trustfully. Here are writers who come after me and accommodate themselves as far as possible to my capacity and my intelligence and my temperament; they are so anxious that I should not mistake the Divine truth that they take my infirmities into consideration; they will work at the sentence until they get it right. Have confidence in writers and speakers who so treat their material. We may be right in our meaning yet not right in our first expression of it, but seeing that we are consciously right and that we are honest men we seize the very first words that come to us, always reserving the right to say, "or rather." Such liberty every teacher must claim; such liberty the Holy Ghost accorded in the case of the most illustrious Apostle.
Here also we see the distinction between Christianity and every other religion. What has every other religion been doing? Seeking God. What does Christianity do? It represents God seeking man. It required inspiration to state that truth; it never occurred, so far as we know, to unassisted human reason to represent God as seeking the sinner, the creature. All Pagan philosophies represent man as almost finding God. Some mythologies represent man as making up for one true God by a large number of imperfect deities; there shall be a deity of the sun and the moon and the stars, and the water and the woods and the seasons, yea, there shall be deities representing various mental moods; and surely when we totalise this pantheon we shall have God. The search is noble, the quest is to be spoken of with respect, and not with contempt even when its action is eccentric and fantastic; whenever the soul is seeking God it is to be encouraged in the pursuit, though that pursuit be marked by much stumbling, and by many mistakes every day. At that point the Gospel should be preached, namely, that man cannot find out the Almighty unto perfection, but that God has come to seek the creatures, the child, the sinner, the wanderer, and he will not return until he has found him. Behold your evangel, that is your charge, ordained and consecrated men of God.
We have not only a view of inspiration, and a distinction drawn between the religion of paganism and the religion of Christianity, but we have here established the right of the Church to seek out and represent the largest meaning of Divine words. This is the business of the true student. Here it is that criticism finds its function and its sanction. We do not want a new writing, we want a new reading. We want larger reading, more music in the soul, therefore more melody in the voice. There is an inspired reading. Lord God the Holy Ghost open our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of thy law; touch our tongues that thy words may fall from them like music from an appointed and skilfully played instrument, so that no tone may be lost, so that every syllable may be as the facet of a diamond throwing out the light of higher suns. When I find men who can read anything but the Bible I find men whose education has been neglected. They may call themselves ministers and teachers; I judge them by two things: first, how do they read? secondly, how do they pray? Their manuscripts I care nothing for, their elaborate mechanised discourses on subjects they cannot handle I despise: but when I hear my preacher read I know whether he has been closeted with the Master, when I hear him pray I know what length of time he has spent in the upper and inner sanctuary, where the light never dies down into eventide. We do not want a new Bible, we want a new reading of the old Bible. We must always take care that our meaning is the larger meaning. If ever we make the Bible say less, we are on the wrong track of exposition. When we confine the root to itself we are mistaking the purpose of the Creator of the root; when the Lord gave us the root he said, Put that under such and such conditions and relations, and out of it there shall come a colour, a beauty, that will shame the garniture of Solomon. Thus we may always know whether our criticism is true or not. If it be a large, grand criticism, filling all heaven with light, then it has been given to us of God; if it is a little criticism, powerfully sustaining "our sect" it is a lie.
We might take an example of what is meant by turning a sentence round and thus finding the larger meaning. Thus:—"But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you" ( Romans 6:17). Is that clear? Yes. Then if clear what does it mean? Why obviously it means that sundry persons were appointed to deliver sundry documents to the churches; they came like letter-carriers and in effect said, "We deliver the doctrine to you," and then they vanish: can anything be clearer? No: and hardly anything can be falser. How then? Why contrariwise, just as this same Apostle corrects himself in the text. The Revised Version gives the true reading:—"Ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered." The delivery took place at the other end. We are not critics, we are delivered men, we are handed over. Now we begin to see the meaning of religious inspiration and religious enthusiasm. What, forsooth! is this it? that the documents have been delivered to me, and I have to read them and pronounce an opinion upon them? Contrariwise, the documents are not delivered to me, I am delivered to the documents, bound hand and foot and head,—the slave of truth, the bondman of God. You thought the Bible was to be handled by you, whereas you have to be handled by the Bible. You thought you were called upon as respectable citizens to pronounce an opinion upon revelation! It is extremely humiliating, but the truth stands exactly in the other way. The Bible comes to judge us.
Or take an instance of the larger translation from this epistle. The Apostle, in a tumult of excitement, in what we might call a divine rage, says, "I would they were even cut off which trouble you." What does he mean? Why obviously an act of excision; he would have the knife drawn as between the Galatians and their tormentors, and he would cut off the tormentors and let them fall into any place that would receive them. That is clear? Yes, too clear; it has about it the clearness of shallowness. There is not one word of truth in it. The Apostle"s meaning is larger and more precise and more crushing in its practical application. These Galatians were not converted Jews, they were converted Pagans, and they or their ancestors were the worshippers of the earth-goddess Cybele, and that earth-goddess was served by priests who were self-mutilated, who had done some wild cutting upon themselves. These priests were always known by the Romans as Galli—almost Galatians you see again. The Apostle says, These men are not waiting to bring you to Judaism, which is a religion which was true, but they want to bring you back to your old paganism: I would God that they would be consistent, that they would carry out their own reasoning to its logical issues, and show you what kind of circumcision they want you to undergo; I wish they would be self-consistent and would come right down to the square end of their own logic and say, This is what we want to be at; then you would see their meaning and repulse it. But evil teachers often conceal their meaning; they are very clever in the use of ambiguity. The double entendre is their great weapon. When you believe them in their first meaning and go a mile or two after them and remind them of the acceptation you put upon their words, they say, Nothing of the kind; that is not what we meant; you have mistaken us; your interpretation is imperfect: what we really did mean to do with you was to thrust you into everlasting darkness. Beware of the awful avalanche; beware the awful subtlety and the insidiousness of the man who will lecture to you in an innocent way, simply asking you to follow the light of reason, lift up your head and be as sunny and trustful as you can, and go with him along the flowery road. When you are ten miles along that road he will tell you that he never meant what you thought he signified; when it is too late for you to return he will tell you his original meaning. Beware! resist the devil, and he will flee from you; be sober, be vigilant; for your adversary in many a form, lion and serpent and angel of light, goeth about seeking whom he may devour.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Galatians 4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday of Lent