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

So far we have seen that there is something in the contention that the Apostle Paul does have in mind the covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; promises which include the land given to the nation of Israel, in his theology of the Seed (singular) in Galatians 3.  But what is that “something”?  Gunn, along with supercessionists generally, believes that because the Genesis passages cited or alluded to by Paul include the land-promise, that the Church – the “New Israel,” gets that promise.  Although what they get is not the land of Canaan but Heaven (other writers like Anthony Hoekema would run off to Romans 4:13 to prove that Paul was speaking about the new Earth), still the idea is that the promises of the land to Israel in the covenants of the OT have been transformed in the hand of the Apostle to mean “not this land but that” and “not this people but that people.”  This is thought to be clinched by Paul’s argument in Galatians 3.  Gunn writes:

As we have seen, the dispensational position also stresses that the spiritual seed of Abraham as defined in Galatians 3 have no claim to the national land promise of the Abrahamic covenant. Paul’s teaching on the Christian and the Abrahamic covenant will not allow such a conclusion. Paul argues in Galatians 3 that God intentionally used seed as a collective noun that has both a singular and plural reference so that the singular reference could refer to Christ and the plural reference could refer to those who are in Christ. Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29). In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10 And in both of these Old Testament passages, that which is promised to Abraham’s seed is the land promise.11 Beyond this, every time in the book of Genesis where the phrase “to your seed” is used in the context of a divine promise to give something to somebody, the reference is to the Abrahamic land promise.12 When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise, the one promise that dispensationalists argue that Paul could not have been referring to.

I am sure that Gunn’s assertion about the Septuagint is unsustainable.  But what about his main assertion – that the land promise in the Abrahamic covenant “belongs to the Christian”?

My answer is that  Gunn is again wrong, but he is wrong not because, as per his point about the use of the Septuagint, his opinion cannot be substantiated, but because he has not conceived of the fulfillments of the covenants in the same way Paul conceived of them.  In Gunn’s theology, the OT must be interpreted by the NT, and when that is done, the OT promises are seen as shadows and types of the eventual realities to which they point.  What needs to happen is for there to be a hermeneutical change to accommodate this shadow-promise/fulfillment pattern.  The New Testament is thought to provide it, especially the theology of Christ and the Church.  The question of whether anyone but an inspired Apostle knew about this and what this does to the reliability of God’s promises for non-apostolic persons before they read Paul is sidestepped.  We are living, are we not? in the light of the realities!

But I do not think this is Paul’s view at all.  Neither do I think it at all wise to suppose that the NT reinterprets the Old in this way.  As adverted in Part Two of this article, we should take into consideration the fact that the biblical covenants such as the Abrahamic, Priestly and Davidic, do not contain the means for their own eschatological culmination in salvation, but instead depend upon the New covenant that was to be brought about by and in Jesus Christ.  This is what provides Paul with the means whereby he can take up OT passages that plainly refer to a plurality of persons and also the promised land, and route them all through the single Seed in Galatians 3:16.  In so doing he does not have to leave behind the plural meaning of “seed” (i.e. “descendents”).  But he also does not have to forge OT Israel into a “New Israel” which is the NT Church.  Furthermore, he has no need to set aside or transform the promised land either.  The original referents remain intact.  God’s covenants are at least as fixed and immutable as any covenant of men (Gal. 3:15, 17).

My time is ebbing and I must conclude here for today.  Lord willing, I shall finish this subject off next time.

Part Four

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