How to Read Galatians Theologically
Reading Scripture through the lens of biblical theology is a necessary hermeneutic to grasp the meaning of Scripture. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an apt illustration of this point, for in Galatians Paul not only assumed the existence of the biblical storyline but also engaged with and commented on it in his defense of the gospel. Specifically, central to the debate between Paul and his opponents at Galatia was the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant, the giving of the law at Sinai, and the coming of Christ. Paul’s biblical-theological response to the situation at Galatia illustrates the necessity of reading Scripture biblically-theologically in order to grasp the overall unity of Scripture, the function of the law of Moses, and the nature of the gospel of Christ.
The Unity of Scripture
Reading Galatians biblically-theologically is necessary to grasp the overall unity and consistency of the storyline of Scripture. A failure to do so might lead the reader to conclude that the Bible has contradictions or inconsistencies. For instance, in Genesis 17 God commanded that Abraham circumcise all the males in his household as a sign of the covenant God made with Abraham and his family. Failure to obey would render the uncircumcised male “cut off” from God’s people, a point that Moses would later memorably discover (cf. Exodus 4:24-26). But in Galatians, Paul twice avers that outward circumcision does not matter or count for anything (5:6; 6:15), and he expressly argues against a return to circumcision and life under the law (5:2-3). This seeming contradiction is easily reconciled, though, when the reader grasps that Paul was reading the Abraham narrative and the giving of the law redemptive-historically, such that outward circumcision no longer mattered now that Christ has come and inaugurated the new creation.
Another example is the way in which Paul speaks of the nature of the law of Moses and the question of obedience to that law. In Galatians 3:10, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26—a text that enjoins obedience to all that Moses commanded lest one be cursed—in order to support his point that reliance on law-obedience will inevitably bring God’s curse! Paul reads Deuteronomy redemptive-historically here. Although God has always required perfect obedience to his commands, the law of Moses contained a provision for forgiveness by means of animal sacrifices (see Leviticus 1-7). However, now that Christ has come and brought to an end the old covenant along with its animal sacrifices, a return to life under the law would be tantamount to a death sentence, for perfect obedience would still be required and yet there would no longer be any provision for forgiveness.
A third example comes from 4:21-5:1, where Paul somewhat shockingly links the giving of the law at Mount Sinai with slavery (4:24-25). In Exodus, the giving of the law represents God’s good and gracious word to his people that he had just redeemed out of slavery. So how can Paul view the law of Moses as tied to slavery? As we have seen, this reading of Exodus only makes sense in light of the coming of Christ and the new covenant. Now that Christ has come and inaugurated the new covenant, which is characterized by freedom from sin’s penalty and power and the life-giving power of the Spirit, a return to life under the law of Moses would be tantamount to rejecting Christ and all of his benefits for us.
Hence, we must read Galatians biblically-theologically in order to grasp how it clarifies and coheres with the Bible’s overall message.
The Function of the Law of Moses
Second, we must read Galatians biblically-theologically in order to discern the proper function of the law of Moses, in its relation both to the Abrahamic covenant and to the new covenant. Galatians teaches that the Abrahamic covenant was foundational in redemptive history, for in it Abraham was promised a Seed who would bring God’s blessing of righteousness to the Gentiles (3:8, 14, 19). The promise to Abraham preceded the giving of the law by 430 years, which means the law didn’t overturn, nullify, or add to the promise (3:17). Rather, the law was meant to increase transgression (3:19) and to serve as an interim, “guardian” covenant prior to the coming of the Seed and the new covenant (3:23-25; 4:1-3).
In relation to the new covenant, it is clear from Galatians that the law of Moses was always intended to be temporal and provisional. This is evident from the temporal phrases and clauses in 3:19-4:7:
3:19 The law was added for the sake of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come
3:23 Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, until the coming faith was revealed
3:24 The law, then, was our guardian until Christ
3:25 But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian
4:2 A child is under guardians and trustees until the time set by his father
4:4 When the time came to completion, God sent his Son . . .
4:7 So you are no longer a slave but a son
The temporal and provisional nature of the old covenant is also evident in 4:21-5:1. Paul figuratively depicts two eras as two women, Hagar and Sarah, who represent two covenants and two cities. The slave woman, Hagar, represents the flesh, the old covenant, slavery, and the “present Jerusalem.” On the other hand, the free woman, Sarah, represents the promise, the new covenant, freedom, and the “Jerusalem above.” Paul’s point in contrasting these women is to contrast the eras of the old and new covenants, or the present evil age and the age to come. Therefore, a failure to read Galatians biblically-theologically holds the potential to misunderstand the temporal and provisional function of the law of Moses in the metanarrative of Scripture. Click To Tweet
Therefore, a failure to read Galatians biblically-theologically holds the potential to misunderstand the temporal and provisional function of the law of Moses in the metanarrative of Scripture.
The Nature of the Gospel of Christ
A third reason we must read Galatians biblically-theologically is so that we can grasp and believe the gospel of Christ. Given the prominence of the Abraham narrative in Paul’s defense of the gospel (see 3:6-5:1), it is likely that Paul’s opponents in Galatia were supporting their so-called “gospel” by advocating another reading of the Abraham narrative. Probably they were contending that outward circumcision continued to be the necessary sign that marked out the true children of Abraham, and which led to a life under the law. Therefore, a right redemptive-historical reading of the Abraham narrative and the law of Moses was necessary in order to grasp the gospel. The danger of getting this wrong is, of course, clear from 1:6-10, where Paul contended that the opponents were preaching another gospel, which was not a gospel at all but only led to eschatological curse. Paul wondered whether his labors towards the Galatians were in vain (2:2; 3:4; 4:11), for they were in danger of being cut off from Christ and the grace of God (5:2-4). A return to life under the law would bring only curse (3:10) and slavery to sin (4:9; 5:1). Due to this danger, when at Antioch Peter failed to live in accord with the ramifications of the gospel, Paul immediately opposed him publicly so as to clarify for all the nature of the gospel (2:11-14).
Paul’s response to the opposition at Galatia was to magnify the person and work of Christ as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and the abolition of the law of Moses. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled only in the person of Christ, who is the singular Seed of Abraham (3:16, 19), such that all who belong to Christ by faith are Abraham’s seed and therefore heirs of Abraham’s promises (3:26-29; 4:7). Specifically, the promises to Abraham included the blessing of righteousness being granted to the Gentiles (cf. Genesis 12:3). Yet only when Christ came and inaugurated the new covenant at the climactic moment in redemptive history (4:4) could the blessing of Abraham come to Gentiles (3:8-9, 14, 28).
Furthermore, through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ inaugurated the new covenant and abolished the old law-covenant of Moses. The law of Moses was impotent to overcome human sin in that it could not bring righteousness (2:16, 21; 3:11, 21), life (2:19), the Spirit (3:2-5), or Abraham’s inheritance (3:18). Paul’s phrase “under the law” is descriptive of the era of the old covenant, which was dominated by sin and the flesh (3:23; 4:4, 21; 5:18). On the other hand, Christ redeemed us from the law on the basis of his righteous life under the law on our behalf (4:4-5). Moreover, on the cross Jesus became a curse for us and therefore redeemed us from the curse of the law (3:13). Christ’s self-giving death for us was the only mechanism by which we could obtain righteousness and life (2:20-21) and by which we could be delivered from the present evil age (1:4) and brought into the new creation (6:15). Therefore, given the impotence of the law and the life-giving power of the cross of Christ, it is fitting that we boast only in the cross and not in the flesh (6:13-14).
The situation at Galatia arose because of a failure to read Scripture biblically-theologically. Paul’s opponents misread the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and the law of Moses, as well as the relationship between the law of Moses and the coming of Christ. His response, therefore, was biblical-theological and aptly illustrates for us the significance of reading Galatians and all of Scripture biblically-theologically. A failure to do so will misconstrue the overall unity of Scripture and the temporal and provisional function of the law of Moses. Moreover, misrepresenting Christ’s relationship to the Abrahamic covenant and the law of Moses will distort the gospel and diminish the all-sufficiency of Christ’s saving work for us.