160. To What Do Believers Conform — the meaning of kanōn in Galatians 6:16.

In his conclusion to the letter to the churches of Galatia Paul prays that God’s peace and mercy would be experienced by “as many as conform to this kanoni (rule, standard, formula for rendering service).” The term kanōn only occurs in the New Testament in Paul’s writings (Galatians 6.16; 2 Corinthians 10.13, 15, 16; possibly Philippians 3.16(variant reading)). Paul’s use of this term in Galatians 6.16 usually is interpreted as a description of people who “conform to this rule or standard.” What exactly he means by “this rule” is debated, because the context does not make the referent very clear.

The usage in 2 Corinthians 10 has long puzzled scholars because no clear lexical analogy could be found to explain its sense. However, a bi-lingual (Latin-Greek) edict  published by the governor of Galatia, Sotidus, around 18-19 A.D., uses this term in the sense of “criteria/schedule for providing services” related to transport in support of the Roman officials and military officers (E. A. Judge, “9. The regional kanon for requisitioned transport,” in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 1 (1981), 36-45). This new information leads M. Thrall (2 Corinthians II. ICC, 2000, 645-47) to accept the sense for kanōn in 10.13,15,16 as “criterion” which consists in “a territorially-defined schedule of duties” allotted by God or Paul as apostolic.

Although it would seem that Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches was written a number of years before 2 Corinthians, the contents of 2 Corinthians 10:12ff and Galatians 6:11-16 share several similar motifs.

  1. Boasting:  in 2 Corinthians 10.13 Paul acknowledges that boasting as a servant of God is appropriate providing it does not go “beyond proper limits” and “is confined to the sphere of service (kanōn) God himself has assigned to us,…” This motif continues in verses 14-18, summarized with a quotation from Jeremiah 9.24 “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” Similarly Paul declares in Galatians 6.14 “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,…” This contrasts with those who want to “boast about your circumcision in the flesh” (Galatians 6.13). So he differentiates between appropriate and inappropriate boasting. Only what pertains to God’s actions and purposes forms a legitimate basis for boasting, because only God is the proper reason for any human boasting.
  2. Apostolic Mandate: Paul defends his apostolic mandate in 2 Corinthians 10:12-18 against the claims of some “super-apostles” who deny the legitimacy of his apostolic commission. Throughout Galatians Paul has engaged similarly in a defense of his apostolic role, which he summarizes in Galatians 2:9-10. He returns to this theme in Galatians 6.17 when he pleads “from now on, let no one cause me trouble,…”
  3. Gospel Mission: Paul argues that in his gospel ministry “we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.14). Similarly in Galatians Paul affirms that he was God’s agent who brought the gospel to the various cities of Galatia (Galatians 4.8-20) with much difficulty. As he says in Galatians 6.17 he bears in his body “the marks of Jesus,” which he experienced because of his commitment to his gospel mission.
  4. New Creation:  Paul discusses the “new creation” motif in 2 Corinthians 5.17 which is the central point in the message of reconciliation. In Galatians 6.15 Paul affirms that “what counts is the new creation.”
  5. kanōn: In both contexts Paul uses the term kanōn to describe the divine standard/criterion that people need to acknowledge.

Most scholars argue that Paul uses the term kanōn in these two contexts in two different ways. They indicate that in Galatians 6.16 the emphasis is upon the sense “rule, standard” and refers to the gospel message of justification by grace and the presence of the Spirit as the foundation for life in Christ. This contrasts with those who argue that faith in Christ must be supplemented by law-keeping in order to participate in the Messiah’s covenant promises. However, in 2 Corinthians 10:12-18 kanōn describes the formal schedule expressed in territorial terms God has put in place to define Paul’s apostolic ministry. M. Thrall exemplifies this perspective when she says “whilst Paul does use κανών in Galatians in a sense different from that proposed here, it cannot here [2 Corinthians 10], in any case, primarily possess the meaning it has in Gal 6.16: on the contrary, its repetition, here, in vv. 15-16, especially in v. 16…,strongly suggest that it has some territorial connotation” (2 Corinthians, 646).

It is a primary principle in New Testament interpretation that context determines the meaning of terms. So we should be surprised if indeed Paul uses the term kanōn differently in various contexts. However, we should also take time to consider he used it with the same sense if we discern the use of similar motifs in the two passages.

We should note at this point that part of the challenge in interpreting the sense of kanōn in Galatians 6.16 is that it modifies the verb stoicheō, something that only occurs here in Greek literature prior to Galatians according to Thesaurus Lingua Graeca (TLG). The verb means “to be in line with a person or thing considered as a standard for one’s conduct, hold to, agree with, follow, conform” (BDAG, 946). Paul used it in Galatians 5.25 to command the Galatian believers “to keep in step with/follow the Spirit.” This seems to express the same essential idea as “walk by the Spirit” in Galatians 5.16 and “be led by the Spirit” in Galatians 5.19. The sense might be explicit in Romans 4.12 where Paul writes “those who follow in the footsteps of the faith that our faith Abraham had before he was circumcised” (see also Acts 21.24 and Philippians 3.16).

What is it then that Paul urges the Galatian believers to “be in line with, hold to, agree with, follow conform to”? Is it some gospel principle or standard that Paul concisely expresses in Galatians 6.15, i.e., something to do with the “new creation”? Or could it be that Paul here is urging believers to get in step with God’s program, expressed in the gospel with respect to the inclusion of the nations in his mission? Could Paul be requiring them to be in line with the official arrangements that God has put in place for the dissemination of the gospel and the acceptance of non-Jews as legitimate members of God’s people based upon faith in Christ? Just as Sotidus set out official arrangements and schedules to guide the provision of service by Galatians in support of official Roman business, so God has set out official arrangements and schedules for disseminating the gospel and the formation of his people which the followers of Jesus must follow if they are to provide legitimate service in support of God’s newly defined mission.

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