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Paul's Gospel Curse in Galatians 1:8-9

Timothy George


The following is taken from Galatians: The New American Commentary published by Broadman and Holman. This new commentary, due to be released in July 1994, will be a great aid in preparation for the SBC January Bible Study of 1995.

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
Galatians 1:8-9

In these verses Paul intensified the antithesis between himself and his Galatian opponents by pronouncing a solemn curse upon anyone who proclaimed a counterfeit gospel. The fact that Paul issued this condemnation in the strongest words possible and then repeated it for emphasis makes this one of the harshest statements in the entire New Testament. It does not set well on modern ears accustomed to tolerance at any price and a doctrine of God devoid of the notions of judgment and wrath. Yet here it stands, stubbornly and ominously, at the forefront of Paul's concern. How are we to understand this anathema?

In the first place, it is important to see that, hypothetically at least, Paul brought himself under his own curse. "But even if we . . . should preach a gospel other than." Here Paul showed once and for all that the issue at stake in Galatia was not the messenger but the message. Later in the history of the church, during the time of Augustine, a great dispute arose concerning the sacraments, such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, and ordination. The question was whether these religious rites were valid and effective when performed by a minister who was morally impure. One party in the dispute, the Donatists, argued that they were not. Their efficacy was tied to the spiritual and moral condition of the presiding minister. Augustine and the majority of others in the church took the opposite view. The sacraments, they said, were ex opere operato , that is, they were effective by virtue of the power invested in them by Christ himself and the promise of his Word. At the time of the Reformation, both of these views were subjected to a fresh biblical critique, but the essential point of the Augustinian position was recognized as valid: the true touchstone of doctrinal and spiritual authenticity is God himself, what he has irrevocably done in Christ and infallibly vouchsafed to us in Holy Scripture, and not the qualifications, charisma, or even theology of any human leader.[1]

Of course, how our message is received is directly related to the way we live. Paul elsewhere recognized the importance of high moral standards and a good reputation for those who assume leadership posts in the church (1 Tim. 3:1-13). His point in Galatians was that none of these traits, significant as they are, can ever compete with the gospel itself as the ultimate criterion for both sound doctrine and holy living. Paul did not ask the Galatians to be loyal to him but rather to the unchanging message of Christ, Christ alone, that he had preached to them.

In the second place, Paul brought even the angels within the purview of his anathema. As Luther quaintly put it: "Here Paul is breathing fire. His zeal is so fervent that he almost begins to curse the angels themselves."[2] This is the first of three references to angels in Galatians. In 3:19 Paul referred to the belief that the law was ordained through the mediation of angels, and in 4:14 he reminded the Galatians that they initially welcomed him as an angel of God, perhaps a reference to the incident at Lystra recorded in Acts 14. But why did Paul raise the specter of an angel preaching an apostate gospel? If we identify the Galatian error with what Paul confronted at Colosse, then we may assume that the kind of angelic adulation that prevailed in that setting was also a part of the "higher spirituality" brought to Galatia by the anti-Pauline missionaries (cf. Col. 2:16-18).[3]

Paul's opponents also may have cited the role of the angels in the giving of the law (Gal. 3:19) to give a supernatural enhancement to their own proclamation of a law-observant gospel. In that case, Paul wanted to make clear that even if an angel, even an exalted angel such as Gabriel or Michael, were to preach a different gospel, the curse of God would be upon him. Early Christian preaching was aware of just such an angelic apostasy when the angels who rebelled with Satan "abandoned their own home" (Jude 6) for the change of darkness and eventual condemnation on the day of judgment. Moreover, Paul was aware that Satan himself could masquerade as an angel of light. Indeed, by this cunning he had led astray many sincere believers by their pure devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 11:3-15).

What is the fate of one who thus perverts the gospel of Christ, be it Paul, any other human teacher, or even a messenger straight from heaven itself? The answer is given in two words: anathema esto , "let him be accursed!" Originally the word anathema , which literally means "something that is placed up," referred to any object set aside for divine purposes, whether an offering in the temple set aside for divine blessing or the captured booty of Achan reserved for divine cursing (Josh. 7:11-12). In time the negative sense of the word prevailed, and anathema became synonymous with anything or anyone under the "ban" (Hebrew, herem ) and hence delivered over to God's wrath for the final judgment. Later in church history anathema sit! became the standard postscript pronounced by the church on a notorious heretic. This is a derivative use of the word since, at best, the church's decision can only be a ratification of the pronouncement of God's own excluding wrath.

To be anathematized then means far more than to be excommunicated.[4] If means nothing less than to suffer the eternal retribution and judgment of God. The GNB comes close to capturing the essence of Paul's tone in this passage, "Let him be condemned to hell!" We can gauge something of what this curse must have meant to Paul's readers by looking at a curse in one of the documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here it is said that the

"Levites shall curse all the men of the lot of Satan saying: `Be cursed because of all your guilty wickedness! May He deliver you up for torture at the hands of the vengeful Avengers! May He visit you with destruction by the hands of all the Wreakers of Revenge! Be cursed without mercy because of the darkness of your deeds! Be damned in the shadowy place of everlasting fire! May God not heed when you call on him, nor pardon you by blotting out your sin! May he raise his angry face toward you for vengeance!'"[5]
Paul did not pronounce this tremendous condemnation lightly. But neither did he hesitate to unleash the full fury of his righteous indignation when he was convinced that the integrity of the gospel was at stake.

Why did Paul repeat the apostolic curse in 1:9, introducing the second version with the words, "As we have already said, so now I say again"? It is possible that Paul was referring here to his utterance of the original anathema during his recent preaching mission in Galatia. Perhaps he anticipated the problems his opponents would bring and tried in this way to forewarn the Galatians against heeding their erroneous teaching (thus Schmithals, Ebeling, Longenecker). Most commentators, however, believe that Paul repeated the anathema in order to emphasize its severity and further impress upon the Galatians the utter folly of their flirtation with false doctrine (thus Bruce, Fung, Lightfoot). There is one important stylistic difference between vv. 8 and 9. Although the expression, "Let him be eternally condemned!," is identical in both, the if-clauses are given in two different moods. In v. 8 the if-clause is followed by a subjective verb, "should preach," because what is being contemplated is a highly improbable, though not impossible, situation. However, in v. 9, the if-clause is followed by the indicative mood, "is preaching," indicating the ongoing crisis unfolding in Galatia even as Paul wrote. Also in v. 9, Paul reminds the Galatians that they had in fact embraced the true gospel when he had preached it to them. A solid foundation had been laid in the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas. Paul now reminds them, as later he would warn the Corinthians as well, that "no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11). In the first ten verses of Galatians, Paul telegraphed in advance the major themes he would deal with throughout the letter. It is a turbulent overture presaging the stormy weather to come. Paul began by asserting his apostolic authority, which evidently had come under attack in Galatia. He anchored his vocation in a confessional affirmation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. His doxology is followed immediately by a statement of astonishment and rebuke. He attributed the confusion to his adversaries, whose agitation among the churches of Galatia amounted to nothing less than the perversion of the gospel of Christ. The state of affairs calls for the strongest condemnation possible, a curse or imprecation to damnation for anyone--Paul, angels, whomever--who preached a false gospel.

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