Galatians: A Case Study on the Importance of Critical Thinking

14 Oct

Galatians: A Case Study on the Importance of Critical Thinking

Lets learn from the early church to live a life more consistent with the Word of God!

“Does not the ear test words, as the palate tastes its food?” (Job 12:11)

A Common Problem in the Early Church

The enemy’s most effective weapon is deception, while our most powerful weapon is Truth. The early churches struggled mightily against the deception filled attacks of the enemy. In the midst of many of these battles, we find the Apostle Paul. His calling was to take the Truth of the Gospel to the gentile nations and God used him powerfully. However, the churches that he established with the new converts in the various regions were vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks. It takes time, diligent study, and solid teaching for a congregation of new believers to grow in knowledge.  Hence we have Paul continuously following up with the churches he founded via personal visits and letters.

Paul was an ardent advocate of critical thinking.  His constant references to the mind and the need to use it and renew it are evidence of the abundance of ignorance and the vulnerability that characterized the early church.   This is the idea behind Paul’s warning to the Christians at Colossae.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (Col. 2:8, KJV.)

Their vulnerability appeared to be driven by a lack of critical thinking.  Paul feared they would be “spoiled” by empty and deceptive ideas based on human traditions. His exhortation to the Colossians was that they “Beware” not to be enslaved. The Greek verb blepo is used as an imperative that means “beware!” or “look out!” Apparently the church at Colossae was under an ideological attack and Paul was concerned that they might be deceived. Paul exhortation was for the Colossians to be critical thinkers. If the ideas were indeed hollow and deceptive, a critical consideration would uncover the deception and would have revealed the truth.  Paul makes a similar exhortation to the church at Ephesus as we discussed in our previous article, “A Biblical Foundation for Critical Thinking.”

The Ideological Instability of the Galatians

Throughout this short letter, Paul continues to express his amazement at how easily the Galatians were persuaded to abandon the Truth of the Gospel.  Four times he expresses his frustration as follows:

  • “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel,” (1:6)
  • “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth,” (3:1)
  • “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?” (4:9)
  • “You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (5:7)

Much of Paul’s frustration seems to stem from the fact that they had been warned to be careful. From the very beginning of the letter he claims to have told them not to be persuaded. No matter who brings a different gospel, they were to reject it. In 1:9 he states, “As we have said before, so now I say again.” While we cannot be certain as to the details of the previous warning, it is very likely that after the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, Paul warned his churches to be careful lest the Judaizers come with a different gospel. At the very least, they had been taught to be careful of false teachers and false doctrines, but they had easily fallen prey.

Critical Thinking in Action

Paul’s response to the situation is rich in apologetics, theology, and critical thinking. Paul presents a solid defense of the Gospel, but implements a strategy of argumentation that also challenged the Galatians to think critically and evaluate the wisdom of their choices. It is not my intention to analyze Paul’s line of argumentation, nor his apologetics of the Gospel. I want to highlight some examples of how Paul uses and teaches critical thinking throughout the letter.

The first application of critical thinking in the letter addresses the Question of Authority. Paul had been clear in his instructions—the gospel of justification by grace through faith that he taught was the gospel of Christ, and nobody had greater authority that He did (not even angels from heaven). Paul wants the Galatians to think! When comparing what they had been taught by Paul with what they were being taught by the Judaizers—the Galatians should not have abandoned the teachings of God himself, for those of mere humans. It may be that the false teachers had questioned Paul’s authority, insinuating that his teachings were his personal ideas and therefore lacked any real authority.  Thus, Paul is clear to remind the Galatians that he simply passed on to them what he received directly from God.

“But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me IS NOT according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1:11-12; emphasis added)

It is important to note, regarding authority, that when comparing the ideas of different people, the question of authority is a handy tool, but it is not sufficient to determine what truth is. It is not uncommon for an authority on a subject to be wrong and vice-versa. But when comparing the ideas of men with those of Christ, the question of authority settles the issue; it is the deciding factor.

Paul’s message and his authority had been challenged before. Thus, in Chapter 2, Paul presented an argument that established his authority above that of the Judaizers that had arrived from Jerusalem.  Paul argued that in the Council of Jerusalem he and Barnabas had received authorization from the heads of the Church to continue to preach the gospel of justification by grace through faith.   Therefore, those that came demanding legalism from the Galatians did so without any human or divine authority. The Galatians should have known better.

One of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of a critical thinker is the Test of Correspondence. The test of correspondence is applied to truth claims by attempting to physically verify the claim. The key to adopting or rejecting the teachings of the Judaizers was to test the veracity of their claims that justification before God was based on the fulfilment of the works of the law. Did this claim correspond with the message of the Old Testament as the Judaizers would have argued? In a key portion of the letter (3:10-12), Paul quotes three different Old Testament passages to establish that these new ideas did not correspond with God’s Word.

10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”[Deut.27:26]  11 But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.”[Habakkuk 2:4] 12 Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.”[Lev. 18:5]

Paul shows the Galatians that what they have been taught by Judaizers does not correspond with the teachings of the God’s Word. First, those who attempt to achieve justification by the works of the law is cursed! Second, God’s Word clearly teaches that justification results from living by faith. Finally, the two (by faith & by the works of the law) are irreconcilable!

Another important tool in critical thinking is the Test of Coherence in which a proposition’s truth is evaluated in terms of how well it coheres with all other relevant information available to us. The main objective is to discover any inconsistencies or contradictions that may be present in a truth claim. In Chapter 3 Paul engages the Galatians in a comparison of ideas to highlight the inconsistencies in their newly adopted beliefs. He wants the Galatians to think about how the two conflicting views differ.  They had abandoned the gospel of justification by grace through faith for a “gospel” of justification by the works of the law, which really isn’t a gospel at all.  Paul then proceeds to ask a series of questions that are meant to highlight the inconsistencies that resulted from adopting the different “gospel.”  Three questions proceed as follows:

[Q.1]This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? [Q.2] Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? [Q.3]Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (3:2-3, 5)

The obvious answer to all three questions was that everything God had done among the    Galatians was by grace in response to their faith and not because of their adherence to the works of the law.   Prior to the arrival of the Judaizers, the Galatians were clueless as to the works of the law—after all they were Gentiles.  Yet, being Gentiles and ignorant of the works of the laws, they believed in Jesus Christ and it was all they needed. Question 1 highlights the inconsistency of adopting a different “gospel” when the original Gospel had resulted in them receiving the Spirit, something the works of the law could never do. Similarly, question 2 highlights the inconsistency of abandoning the gospel that had begun do produce significant and coveted  changes in them for the works of the law that were powerless to produce any changes. Finally, question 3 highlights the inconsistency of abandoning the gospel that had moved God’s miraculous hand in their favor for a “gospel” that could not elicit anything but the wrath of God.

Had the Galatians considered these inconsistencies they would have never abandoned the truth. That’s why Paul addresses them as acting foolishly.

Paul concludes the later chapters of the letter applying the Test of Pragmatism. The Test of Pragmatism is yet another test that can be used to seek the veracity of a particular claim. This test bases the “truthfulness” of a claim on whether it works or not.  Paul’s primary focus is on “the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” Through a discussion of sons and heirs followed by a discussion on the two covenants, Paul establishes that a believer cannot truly live in freedom if he is under the works of the law. The exhortation is to “Stand fast, therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made you free, and do not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (5:1). The truthfulness of the claims could be tested in the laboratory of life—the ultimate test of pragmatism. If one is justified before God, one will manifest the fruit of the Spirit and conversely, if one is not justified before God, the works of the flesh will be evident. (5:19-26). The Galatians had manifest the fruit of the Spirit, thus the new teachings of the Judaizers failed the test of pragmatism.

Conclusion: The Galatian Syndrome Today

Sadly, the troubles that plagued the early church continue to plague the church today. Many congregations are vulnerable to the false teachings of modern day Judaizers and other misguided individuals. Just as it was with the Ephesians, many today are tossed to and fro. Just as it was with the Colossians, many today are taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophies based on human traditions rather than on Christ. Just as with the Galatians, many today have foolishly abandoned the Truth for cleverly devised lies.  Finally, just as Paul, we also must equip the Church with the necessary tools and skills to be able to critically evaluate any idea that comes its way and not be lead astray so foolishly.


Juan Valdes

Dr. Juan Valdes is a bi-lingual speaker for Reasons for Hope (English and Spanish) and the senior pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation in Miami, Florida. He has taught Theology, Bible and Apologetics at the seminary level in both English and Spanish and speaks regularly across the country and internationally at Pastor’s Conferences, Youth Conferences, Apologetics Conferences and local church events. Juan, his wife Daisy and their children, Juan Elias and Jessica serve in multiple areas of ministry in Miami, Florida.