My Galatian Heresy

When I was a child I spake as a child; when I became a young man I kept that tradition alive. I enrolled in college eager to acquire for my professors a good education. Sadly, my college experience did not live up to the dream scenario for which I had hoped. This despite the fact that I gave it every opportunity by dutifully sleeping through most of the process. Had I been a Roman Catholic I would have insisted that I was inspired by Rip Van Winkle—the patron saint of underclassmen. There are those who might argue that I am the one to blame for my collegial  lugubriousness but I can scarcely see how I could have been the active culprit while simultaneously passively prostrate in my bunk.

When I finally awoke from my erratic slumbers I found myself in a strange land enrolled in one of Europe’s ancient universities. I thought that interaction with the professors in Scotland might prove difficult since we are peoples separated by a common language but maybe they would at least be more teachable. The nearly unfathomable depth of my ignorance was only matched by the soaring height of my arrogance. This, I soon learned, was a condition afflicting most freshly-minted graduate students. I blame it on the weather.

Being newly Reformed, partially informed, and breathing the rarefied air of academia for the first time, I set out to write a tome based on my expansive knowledge of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. Counting acknowledgements, endnotes, introductory and concluding essays, and bibliography that massive volume weighed in at a whopping eight ounces.  It totaled one hundred and twenty-three pages. Melted down, it would’ve almost filled a tea cup. Burned up, it wouldn’t have warmed a gnat’s feet but it’s fiery end would have at least ended the chilly prospect for anyone slated to read the dreadful thing. To have called it a modest contribution to the field of Pauline studies would have been a drastic overstatment of it’s value and a considerable understatment of my estimation of it. To my knowledge I have the only surviving copy of that book. I keep it for the same reason that some patients keep their extracted gall stones.

More than a decade on, I have been making my way back through that letter to the Galatians again. It perplexes me now in ways that it never did then. Now I know how to ask questions, then I only knew how to give answers. From time to time I would like to share a few things that I have learned (or am learning), just as I am doing with Leviticus.

One Seed: A Plural Singular

One of the themes central to understanding the letter to the Galatians (and further, the message of the entire NT) is the significance of God’s promise to Abraham. While I won’t explore the nature of that promises and all of the consequences of its fulfillment here, I do want to raise one argument in response to the claims of my younger self.

Galatians 3:16 is a famous passage wherein Paul evokes the patriarchal promise in order to highlight one of the chief blessings of God’s covenant faithfulness in Jesus: 

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 

When I came to this passage many moons ago I argued that Paul was speaking of Christ, as Christ, and only as Christ. This seemed straightforward. But on further reflection I think that it only seemed straightforward. I do not think this reading bears up under the pressure of more rigorous exegetical scrutiny.

At this point I tend to side with NT Wright who argued in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, that the “one seed” who is Christ actually refers to the corporate identity of the single family of Abraham who are collectively called Christ. Wright points out that “seed” in Genesis is a collective term. He argues that Paul is seeking to emphasize that God, from the beginning, always intended to have one, unified family, rather than a two-tier Jew/Gentile family.

I tend to think that Wright is right here, but it can seem like a strained reading. However, when the rest of the chapter is taken into consideration much of that exegetical tension is released and the strain disappears. It seems as though Paul employs the same kind of plural-singular in the final verse of the chapter: “If you all (plural) of Christ, then you all (plural) are Abraham’s seed (singular), according to the gospel heirs” (v. 29). The many Galatians, whether they be Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free (v. 28) are made a single seed of Abraham. For Paul, this plurality is closed into unity, and that precisely because they are “of Christ.”

If we apply this logic and read verse 29 back into verse 16 we get this: The promise of inheritance is not made to “seeds” but to “one seed,” the one seed made up of those many who are of Christ.

This seems to me to be a much more satisfactory reading than my earlier conclusion.


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