Heirs with Christ

Commentary on Galatians 3:6-29 from Vol. XI of The New Interpreter's Bible, available in the Ministry Matters Premium Library.


Although the argument from experience (3:1-5) might seem decisive on its own terms, Paul moves next into a much lengthier engagement with the interpretation of Scripture (3:6-29). His aim is to show (1) that the Galatians' spiritual experience is consonant with Scripture, rather than contradictory, and (2) that the rival Missionaries' interpretation of Scripture is incorrect—or, more precisely, inapplicable to the new eschatological situation created by Jesus' crucifixion. The unit is bracketed by references to God's promise to Abraham (vv. 6-9, 29).

The overall purpose of this complex argument is to demonstrate—against the urging of the Missionaries, who teach that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be children of Abraham—that God's original blessing of Abraham included Gentile believers (vv. 6-9) and that the Galatians, who are “in Christ” via their baptism, are already Abraham's rightful heirs (vv. 26-29). Since the Missionaries were extolling the glories of the Law, the question inevitably arises, Where does the Law fit into Paul's narration of the Gospel? Therefore, in order to make his case, Paul must develop an account of the relation between Law and faith (vv. 10-14), between Law and promise (vv. 15-18), and the role of the Law within God's design to bring rectification only through Christ (vv. 19-25).

Galatians 3:6-9, The Blessing of Abraham Included the Gentiles


3:6-7. The NRSV of these verses stays closer to the Greek syntax than does the NIV. The conjunction “just as” (kaqw;v kathos) creates a link between the Galatians' experience of the Spirit and the retelling of the Abraham story that Paul will now undertake.141 He wants them to see their experience prefigured in the story of Abraham; in both cases the blessing of God comes as sheer grace.

Paul begins his treatment of Abraham with a quotation of Gen 15:6, a thematic keynote for all that will follow (cf. Rom 4:3, where Paul introduces an even lengthier exposition of the significance of Abraham with the same quotation). The passage is crucial for Paul, not only because it links the verb “believed” and the noun “righteousness” but also because it focuses attention on a point in the story of Abraham prior to his circumcision where he is said to be accounted142 righteous—i.e., in right covenant relationship with God (cf. Rom 4:9-12).

For that reason, Gen 15:6 provides Paul with crucial hermeneutical leverage against the Missionaries, who have almost certainly drawn the attention of the Galatians to Genesis 17:1, in which Abraham receives and obeys the commandment to circumcise himself and all the males of his household. By zeroing in instead on Gen 15:6, Paul, in effect, says, “No, the story of Abraham is not fundamentally about circumcision and obeying the Law; it is about trusting God's promise.”

In v. 7, Paul offers a striking commentary on the passage he has just quoted. Genesis 15:6, of course, says nothing about Abraham's children or how their identity is to be determined (but see Gen 15:5). The inference lies readily at hand, therefore, that Paul is countering something the Missionaries have told the Galatians: that only those who are circumcised can be Abraham's true children. That is why Paul's rejoinder places particular emphasis on the demonstrative pronoun “these” (ou*toi houtoi), which is unfortunately left untranslated by most English versions. It is as though Paul is saying, “No, it is not the circumcised who are Abraham's children; rather, those whose identity is derived from faith, these are Abraham's children.”

These comments have followed Martyn's translation of oiJ ejk pi;stewv (hoi ek pisteos) as “those whose identity is derived from faith.”143 This is a helpful paraphrase of Paul's compact expression “the ones from faith.” It is not entirely satisfactory to translate this odd expression as “those who believe” (NIV, NRSV). Paul has probably formulated the term in conscious opposition to “the ones from circumcision” (oiJ ejk peritomh'v hoi ek peritomes), his description of the emissaries from James who precipitated the Antioch incident (2:12). In both cases, the preposition ek serves to suggest that the object of the preposition (“faith” or “circumcision”) is the source of being—or key identity marker—for the people in question. They are “faith people”144 or “circumcision people.”

3:8-9. Paul is not content, however, merely to argue for an analogy between Abraham's faith and the faith of those who now have placed their trust in Christ; instead, he goes on to quote another text from Genesis (actually a conflation of Gen 12:3 with Gen 18:18/22:18) that portrays Abraham as the conduit of blessing for the Gentile world: “All the Gentiles [e] will be blessed in you.” Remarkably, Paul treats this statement as something that Scripture said to Abraham. Scripture (hJ grafhv he graphe), personified here as a speaking character in Paul's retelling of the story, is said to have spoken prophetically, actually “foreseeing” long ago that God “is [now] justifying the Gentiles on the basis of faith” and therefore pre-preaching the gospel (proeuhggeli;sato proeuengelisato) to Abraham! Strikingly, the “gospel” that Scripture announced beforehand is focused on the promise that Gentiles will be blessed in Abraham. Paul says nothing yet about Jesus; instead, the meaning of “gospel” is articulated in terms of a blessing to Gentiles in or through Abraham. The blessing pronounced on Abraham filters down, or out, to the whole world.

The implication of all this is explained clearly in another exegetical comment by Paul in v. 9: “So, faith people [hoi ek pisteos] are blessed with the faithful [pistw/' pisto] Abraham.” It is noteworthy that Paul describes Abraham with the simple adjective “faithful.” Many English translations paraphrase to make the sentence conform more closely to preconceived notions about Pauline theology, as in the NRSV: “Abraham who believed.” Dunn rightly sees that Paul “saw no danger in speaking of Abraham's faithfulness,” but this accurate assessment undercuts his earlier claim that Paul is seeking to “drive a wedge between the two senses of pi;stiv (pistis; faith, faithfulness).”145 In fact, the Greek language will not permit such a wedge to be driven. The single noun pistis includes in its semantic range the meanings “trust,” “faithfulness,” “fidelity,” “faith.” Therefore, Paul can read the scriptural statement “Abraham believed [ejpi;steusen episteusen] God” and conclude that Abraham is rightly to be called faithful (pisto;v pistos). The root idea in both expressions is that Abraham placed his trust in God; that, for Paul, is the meaning of faithfulness. Thus Paul's summary remark in v. 9 links together the conclusions he has drawn from his citations of Genesis: The blessing of Abraham is ultimately intended for the whole world (not just for Jews), and Abraham's true children are those whose identity is rooted in trusting God's promise.


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