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Monday, April 11, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 4a: Law, Mediation, and Promise

3. Law, Mediation, and Promise

With Romans 7 and the above interpretation of its importance in mind, it may now be slightly easier than otherwise to argue what I am about to argue about one of the more controversial and difficult passages in the Pauline corpus. While there are many texts that are important for fully understanding Paul’s redemptive-historical polemic that we are not going to focus on in this essay (2nd Cor. 3, touched on above; Rom. 10, mentioned in a later section), Galatians 3 proves one of the most important and programmatic texts, if a difficult one in ways. Verse 20 alone has been given—it has been said—no less than 250 differing interpretations by commentators. So I must start off by admitting the possibility, and indeed sheer statistical likelihood, of error.

Nevertheless after many hours (surely not the final ones) spent considering this section of the text, with the considerations about Romans 7 above in mind, with Romans 3:19 in mind, and with some other ideas about the “sons of God” biblical-theological theme of Scripture in mind (Adam as protological son, Israel as typological son, and Christ as eschatological Son), I think I have come to a reasonable position about vv. 19-20 that adds richness to Paul’s argument, yet which falls well within the flow of thought of the immediate context, and comports with the main idea of a very closely-related parallel passage.

Paul begins the third chapter of Galatians by upbraiding his audience for their foolishness in being deceived by the Judaizers, asking them to reconsider the obvious fact that their experience of the Spirit—their reception of the Spirit, and His working of miracles among them—had come through their faith in the gospel, and not by “works of the Law” (vv. 1-5). Then, as in Romans, Paul moves quickly to Abraham as the quintessential example of the blessed-by-faith. The Scripture itself, recording the words of God, foresaw the justification of the Gentiles by faith, and “preached the gospel” to Abraham, saying that all nations would be blessed in him. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (referring to Gen. 15:6). Here the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises is identified with the “gospel” and is cast in global and eschatological light. And faith is advanced as the sole instrument of eschatological blessing, as all of “those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer” (v. 9).

In vv. 10-14, to which we will return in more detail in the next section, Paul explains that those who are “of the works of the Law” are under a curse, but that Christ came to bear the curse away, by being cursed for us on the cross, “in order that in Christ Jesus the [eschatological] blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (v. 14, my bracket). There is much difficulty and richness in the details of this section, but for now we may simply observe that Paul is continuing to focus on faith in the Christ-purchased and Abrahamic-covenant-rooted promises of God as the sole instrument of eschatological blessing, for Jew as well as for Gentile. The Judaizers therefore have no right to impose the requirement of Mosaic distinctives on the Gentile Christians.

Then Paul turns to an obvious group of questions for any pious first-century Jew, in light of what he has been saying about the Law: Didn’t God give the Law? Then doesn’t it change or add some things to the promise previously given to Abraham? Why was the Law given? Is the Law contrary to the promise?

In attempting to relate the Law and the Abrahamic promise redemptive-historically for his audience, Paul begins in v. 15 as he sometimes does, by giving an analogy from ordinary human life. In essence, he says that even in human contracts or covenants, once the thing is ratified, no one can change or add to its conditions. The implication is: how much more permanent is a divine set of covenant conditions! Therefore, skipping over v. 16 for a moment, whatever the Law—the Mosaic covenant—came to do 430 years after the promise was spoken to Abraham, the promise stands and cannot be undone (v. 17). Because Paul is staking his polemic on the dynamics of the Abrahamic covenant (vv.1-14), he must also defend the priority and permanence of its principles even in the light of the coming of the Mosaic administration later on.

In v. 16 Paul argues that the promise to Abraham of an inheritance of people and a land was made not to “many seeds” but to one singular “seed,” namely Christ. Paul, an educated Jewish scholar, of course does not miss the point of collective singulars in the original text; rather, he is making a profound point with multiple layers, about the remnant theme in the OT, Christ as the embodiment of Israel and indeed Himself functioning as true Israel, and faith-union with Christ as the basis of Jewish and Gentile adoption and covenantal sonship, etc. But the importance of this verse does not return until v. 19.

V. 18, if I understand it correctly, begins forming the heart of the redemptive-historical contrast that undergirds Paul’s polemic in this chapter and throughout the whole letter. He explains, as a ground (note the gar) of the v. 17 principle that the Law could not have invalidated the prior promise, “For [gar] if the [Abrahamic/eschatological] inheritance is from law, it is no longer from promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise” (v. 18, my bracketed comments, emphases, and woodenly literal translation). This verse is fascinating for several reasons.

First, we have here a statement from Paul to the effect that whatever kind of “law” principle he is speaking about here, it must be seen as diametrically opposed to the “promise” principle he is trying to uphold as the foundation of eschatological blessing, yet already (and in subsequent verses) Paul is also laboring to show that the Law is in fact not opposed to the promise, nor does it ultimately nullify it! Second, Paul here omits the definite article before “Law” and so we must understand his statement here to be broader than saying that “the inheritance doesn’t come through the Mosaic covenant, and if it did, it wouldn’t come through the Abrahamic promise,” although that is of course his application here. There is something about “lawness” that would, if it were an operative principle in eschatological blessing, nullify the “promissory” character of eschatological blessing. Third, this verse is almost identical in its thought pattern to Romans 4:13-14 (we will consider all of vv. 13-16 when we answer some objections): “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified…”

Now immediately for any Reformed covenantalist the implication seems to be that I am forgetting that “the Law” is Paul’s way of referring to the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace, not to some kind of meritorious works-principle imagined for Israel’s relationship to God. I have not forgotten this, and I continue to affirm that the Mosaic covenant itself was a gracious covenant administration, offering its members justification by faith through its many types and shadows of Christ; indeed there is a sense in which the wilderness generation under Moses “ate” and “drank” of Christ Himself (1 Cor. 10:1-4)! Yet, as I hope to continue to prove, Paul looks at the history of Israel under this sub-eschatological, law-prominent covenant arrangement, under which Israel corporately failed in the duty of filial fideity to God, and in contrast with the unilateral fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises in the finished work of Christ, sees an ultimately impotent, bilateral, “law” dynamic at work. I am not referring to a dynamic where any autonomous, perfect, or merit-attaining obedience was required, of course, but simply a promise of eschatological blessing and inheritance on condition of corporate covenant faithfulness.

Now that Paul has drawn a deep contrast between the idea of Mosaic Law-based inheritance and that of Abrahamic-promise-based inheritance, he asks and answers a very logical next question: “Why the Law then?” (v. 19a). If the inheritance is not by the Law, but by the promise, and in fact the Law adds nothing to the promise, what was the point of it? Paul answers, “It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made” (v. 19bcd).

The best guess at the meaning of the phrase “because of transgressions” is probably the parallel statement in Rom. 5:20 to the effect that the Law came in, “…so that the transgression would increase,” in the manner we explored above as described in Romans 7. Under the Law, sin in all its ugliness is exacerbated and highlighted for what it is. The phrase “having been ordained through angels” reminds one of Stephen’s mention of angels in relation to the giving of the Law in his speech in Acts (Acts 7:53) and perhaps the mention of the Mosaic “word” spoken through angels in Hebrews 2:2 (although this could simply refer to the “messengers” of the “prophets” of Heb. 1:1). And the point seems to be simply a very heavy emphasis on the mediated nature of the Law covenant. The phrase, “by the agency of a mediator” transparently alludes to Moses’ role as the mediator of the old covenant. And the rest of the verse, speaking of the temporary nature of the Law, says it was to be in effect “…until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made,” (my emphasis) hearkening back to v. 16.

Paul seems to be doing a couple of different things at once here in this dense verse, in order to begin demonstrating the relative inferiority of the Law to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise: he declares its sub-eschatological purpose (that is, to increase/exacerbate/highlight sin); and he implies its temporally provisional character in his mention of the coming of the “seed,” Christ (notice the “until” [achri]). He also heavily emphasizes, as already noted, the mediated character of the Law, although he doesn’t make explicit in this verse how that adds to his redemptive-historical contrast of the Law with the fulfillment of promise.

V. 20 is not very helpful on its own, although in the context of some things we have already said hopefully it will become clearer. It continues the thought about mediation from v. 19: “Now a mediator is not for one; whereas God is one” (Gal. 3:20, literal translation). In my opinion, the most natural way to understand the contrast in this particular verse is to see it as continuing but developing the same contrast Paul has been drawing thus far in the whole section: the Law versus the promise, specifically the Mosaic covenant as contrasted with the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. On this reading, Paul is contrasting the mediated, and therefore relatively bilateral nature of the Mosaic arrangement, with the “immediate,” unilateral character of the operation of the promise. The need for deep theological qualifications abounds but must be postponed.

Because of the surface issue of Jew-Gentile relations evident in the book of Galatians, Paul’s words “God is one” here may strongly remind the reader of Romans 3:29-30. So one may be tempted, in interpreting Gal. 3:20, to focus merely on socio-religious or ethnic factors (“Paul is merely talking about how Gentiles have equal footing with Jews through the promise-faith-blessing dynamic, in an apologetic appeal to Jewish monotheism”). However, it seems better to me to focus on the flow of thought of the immediate context, and as we have already seen, Galatians 3 aims at much deeper structural issues than the sociological. In the preceding verse (v. 19), Paul brought up the heavily mediatorial character of the Mosaic covenant in direct connection with its provisional character (“until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made”). Then in v. 20, the statement “God is one” is explicitly contrasted with the concept of mediation between multiple parties (note the adversative “but” [de]). It seems inescapable that the “God is one” statement is closely connected with the idea of promise, suggesting an emphasis on the uniquely unilateral divine intervention associated with eschatological blessing in Christ. The rest of the context formed by subsequent verses should function to confirm or challenge this interpretation.

V. 21 begins, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God?” At this point we may expect a hearty “yes!” because Paul has been laboring to contrast a law-principle with a promise-principle, urging that the eschatological inheritance is based on promise, and received through faith. On the other hand, Paul has also urged that the Law covenant came in and did nothing to nullify the promise. So he continues, “May it never be!” and proceeds to give the theological rationale for all that has come before in this passage, finally helping us to see what is going on. “For [gar] if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed be from law. But the Scripture has shut up all under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ [or “by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”] might be given to those who believe” (vv. 21c, 22, literal translation).

Here the ground for Paul to say that the Law is not contrary to the promises of God, despite the fact that there are (limited but essential) ways in which the dynamics of the Law are inherently antithetical to those of the promise, is just this: the Mosaic economy (“the Law”) was never intended by God to bring about eschatological life or righteousness; rather its key redemptive-historical intent was to “shut up all under sin,” preparing the way for God Himself to eschatologically fulfill His promises to Abraham, in Christ. The (divinely decreed) effect of the Law on Israel as a whole, as we have already seen, was to exacerbate sin, and the result was ultimately curse and exile (to which Gal. 3:10 is probably closely related); and this becomes the dark backdrop for the glorious filial fidelity of God’s eschatological Son, Jesus Christ, and the blessing He secures for all believers.

To sum up the teaching of this section of Galatians, then, in a way faithful to Reformed biblical theology:

1) The Judaizers were wrong to require Mosaic distinctives because faith in Christ is the sole instrument of eschatological blessing (seen in justification and reception of the Spirit), in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, and through Christ’s cross-work.

2) The promise to Abraham and his seed (ultimately Christ) is unalterable.

3) “Law” and “promise” are antithetical principles on which eschatological inheritance could be based.

4) The Law was uniquely mediated and therefore relatively bilateral in character (implying by way of contrast the relatively “immediate” and unilateral character of the fulfillment of the promise).

5) The Law was not ultimately given to provide eschatological life and righteousness.

6) The Law was given to exacerbate, highlight, and formally indict sin, to make the need for Christ (in eschatological fulfillment of the promise) evident.

Let me add one more idea not discussed above, but which I think provides a small piece of confirmatory evidence to our discussion:

7) The very shorthand nomenclature of “Law” that Paul gives to the rich, layered concept of the whole Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace itself highlights its unique function as a “law covenant” in the grand scheme of redemptive history. If what we have said about Galatians 3 were not true, it would be impossible for Paul to use such a loaded, easily misinterpreted term to refer to the Mosaic covenant (it is misinterpreted enough as it is).

Next let us deal with a few possible objections to the exegesis proposed above.

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