Galatians 3, the Land, and the Abrahamic Covenant: What Was Paul Thinking? (Pt.2)

I’m going out of town again for a few days, and, what with Christmas and everything, I don’t expect to be posting much till the New Year.  I wanted to finish this topic off with this post, but I’ve actually become a little engrossed in it, so expect at least one more effort.

Part One here

Grover Gunn is sure that Paul is quoting Genesis 13:15-17 and 17:8, 10 from the Septuagint to make his argument in Galatians 3:16.  There is no evidence that Paul is quoting the LXX.  As for which particular passages he is citing, one cannot be that exact.  I. Howard Marshall (New Testament Theology, 226) thinks Paul is citing Gen. 22:18 in Galatians 3:16.  Daniel P. Fuller thinks it’s Gen. 17:7 (The Unity of the Bible, 335-336).  I tend to think he has the Abrahamic narrative itself in mind.

But Paul is well aware of the ambiguity residing in the word “seed.”  So how can he relate it to Christ in Gal. 3:16 and yet preserve the collective meaning he knows is clearly there in the original contexts he is citing?  As Gal. 3:29 makes clear, Paul has not lost sight of the collective meaning of the word, but as was alluded to last time, and as I shall try to explain, the corporate is included by Paul in the One – Jesus Christ.  To Paul’s mind, fulfillment was always understood to require Christ the Fulfiller.  Once this is acknowledged one must choose between several hermeneutical options:

Option 1. Paul was employing some kind of semi-apocalyptic interpretation through which he could summon any OT passage to take on a new meaning in his argument.

This is the position of Richard B. Hays in e.g., The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture.  Since it posits a change of meaning under the influence of Paul’s supposed hermeneutic, it has not caught on with many conservative evangelicals.

Option 2. Though he never said it, Paul intended us to infer that the Genesis texts he referred to (whichever ones they were) had intended meanings beyond those found on the surface of the passages in their original setting.  Paul was only now declaring to us what God meant by those OT promises.

This would be Gunn’s position, along with all those who believe the NT is necessary to rightly interpret the Old.  A clear implication of this position is that there is hermeneutical, or at least linguistic discontinuity between the two Testaments.  The meaning of a particular term or phrase in the original context without recourse to the NT would procure a different sense than it would once the NT was consulted.  Another outcome of this approach would be to separate the original author’s intended meaning from that of the Holy Spirit.  While this possibility should not be ignored, the burden of proof for such a claim is on those who make it, whether they are aware of it or have to be made aware of it by others.

Option 3. Paul understood that “seed” could not be legitimately confined to a singular noun referring to Messiah, since the word is a collective noun and is used as such many times in the OT, and, indeed, by Paul himself (Gal. 3:29).  In which case the singular and the corporate must be closely related; the corporate fulfillment being predicated on the coming Messiah.

Only this view preserves the integrity of the OT contexts, not to mention the specificity of God’s covenant promises to Israel.  Promises which Paul elsewhere says are inviolable (Rom. 11:25-28).  Only on this view can we avoid the treacherous waters of hermeneutical and philosophical ambiguity upon which the first two views implicitly rely.  This third way would be our position.  To demonstrate it one must try to show that there is no need for an OT passage to be considered a “shadow” or “type” of a NT reality, but rather that the witness of both Testaments can be hermeneutically aligned to allow all the relevant verses to speak in their own words.

Paul’s Argument in Galatians 3:1-16

If we take a look at Galatians 3 we will find Paul reasoning about the role of faith in God’s saving economy.  We will not find him saying anything about God’s covenants with the people of Israel and the land grant God promised them.  Of course, Gunn realizes this.  His contention is that because the Apostle speaks of OT texts which not refer to Christ as the “Seed” (e.g. Gen 17:7), but also contain promises about the “land,” it only stands to reason that the word “Seed” in Genesis (and the rest of the OT?) is not in fact a reference to the nation of Israel (“descendents”), but only ever to Christ; and the “land” likewise is not Canaan (or the portion described in Gen. 15), but Heaven (some would say the whole land surface of Earth).  What the Apostle has done, so the thinking goes, is to offer an inspired interpretation of terminology only dimly understood before Paul wrote Galatians circa 50 A.D. (see Option 2 above). 

I want to show how one can understand Paul’s pedantic insistence on a single seed and yet not have to employ a tough verse to infer an altering of the original land grant to the corporate seed – Israel.  But first we shall examine Paul’s argument in Galatians 3.

Galatians 3:1-5

Paul is distressed that the churches in Galatia have been taken in by those who are emphasizing a justification and sanctification through law-works.  He therefore contrasts faith from the works of the law which certain Judaizers were insisting on.  The Holy Spirit, he reminds them, was received by faith [in Paul’s Gospel] and not at all by works (3:2).  And since the Spirit was received by faith it is unreasonable to think that one should not continue to walk in faith (3:3), especially since the Spirit is seen to work in response to faith (3:5).

Galatians 3:6-9

Now Abraham is introduced, together with the quotation of Genesis 15:6 to prove that justification is by faith alone (3:6).  And just as Abraham’s faith was declared sufficient for justification, so we too must exercise faith in God’s Word to us [in the Gospel] (3:7).  The next verse quotes from the promise of blessing to all nations through Abraham by faith (3:8).  This connects salvation to the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Rom.4).  The verse says the Scripture foresaw this salvation of the Gentiles.  Paul shows this by simply bringing Gen.15:6 and Gen. 12:3 together.  Righteousness is what man most needs, and that is what God imputed to Abraham in Gen. 15:6 upon his faith.  The Gentile nations will be blessed – which starts with imputed righteousness – by their faith-connection with Abraham via the covenant (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:9).  Thus, there is a corporate identity via a provision (Gen. 12:3) of the Abrahamic covenant (hereafter AC).

But there is no clear provision in the AC itself to provide the salvation needed for our entering into its blessings upon Gentiles.  This would mean the AC (and also the Davidic and Priestly covenants too), would require supplementing with a specific salvific promise to bring about their fulfillments.   That “supplement” is, as we are told elsewhere and to be brought out next time, the New covenant (NC) in Christ.

Galatians 3:13-16

I pass over verses 10-12 as they demonstrate the demanding requirements of the law as over against faith.  Christ is now introduced as the One who redeems us “from the curse of the law” (3:13) and connects us to Abraham and the reception of the Spirit “through faith” (3:14).

Verse 15 speaks to a mere covenant between men as binding and not open to annulment or the addition of a codicil changing the terms (i.e. “adds to it”).  There is no need here to enter into the ins-and-outs of ancient law, especially as the term employed by Paul was not used in Greco-Roman society (see F. F. Bruce).  The illustration of a man’s covenant is being used to show the incontrovertability of such covenants; something to be revisited in verse 17 (cf. Rom. 11:28-29) where the AC is the subject.

Now, in verse 16 the Apostle writes:

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He
does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to
your Seed,” who is Christ.

In order to connect Abraham and the AC to the promised salvation through faith Paul fastens on the Messianic implications of the “seed-promise” to Abraham in Genesis 12-22.  He is well aware of what he is doing.  The word “seed” in Hebrew and Greek, as in English, is a collective noun.  As we have already shown in part one, the collective sense is right there in the Genesis record.  So what is Paul doing?  How can he be so insistent on the singular meaning here?  We must straight away recall that he does not dispense with the collective sense, which he needs to ground his argument (see 3:29).

What he is doing here is including the collective within the singular (Christ).  It is through Christ that the promises – all the promises – of the AC will find their fulfillment and consummation.  Believers from Abraham to the end of the age are connected to the AC through the Seed, Jesus Christ, and this connection, I believe, is forged through the New covenant!

Though the New covenant is not explicitly mentioned in Galatians 3, I believe it is securely in Paul’s mind.  We Gentiles enter into the promised blessing of Genesis 12:3 through the New covenant in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:25-26).  The Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants all depend on the Mediation of Christ in the New covenant (cf. Heb.12:24).  Despite the rather embarrassing vacillation of many Dispensationalists over the NC, the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper prove that Christ has made the New covenant with the Church.  Whatismore, that is the only way the Church accesses the AC!  Every covenant blessing runs through Jesus Christ and the New covenant in Him.

The question of the relation of the New covenant with Israel’s promises in the covenants will be dealt with next time, as will further issues raised by Gunn’s article.

Part Three

1 thought on “Galatians 3, the Land, and the Abrahamic Covenant: What Was Paul Thinking? (Pt.2)”

  1. This is a very helpful analysis of this issue which has somewhat puzzled me. I’m looking forward to the next post as well. I hope the Christmas period is a blessed and restful one for you.

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