Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Law and Gospel: Galatians - The allegory explained

Allegory of Law and Gospel

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.”

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (Gal. 4:21-31)

In this allegory, the Apostle Paul uses the Old Testament characters Hagar and Sarah to make a point about the relation between the Law and the Gospel, that perhaps through using this literary device he would be able to make the antithesis between Law and Gospel clearer. Having shown that the Law was unable to save, and Law and Gospel do not mix, Paul proceeded here to plead for the Galatian Christians to reject the Law as unto salvation, and instead follow the Gospel of Grace, so that they might truly be on the correct path of salvation.

Abraham is indeed the common father and originator of both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant as it were, for the former coming from the children of Abraham by natural descent, and the latter being the antitype of Abraham's true religion as required by God (cf Rom. 4:3). It is in such a setting that Paul starts his allegory, using Abraham's two sons as examples of the Old and New Covenant to make his point. Historically, Abraham had two main sons Ishmael and Isaac, the former conceived through natural means by a concubine Hagar while the latter was conceived through supernatural enablement (in old age) by his wife Sarah. Hagar furthermore was a slave woman, servant to Sarah.

This historical data was conveyed to the Galatian Christians in verses 22-23, stating only the major facts that Paul requires for his analogy. Two different sons were described, with the emphasis being on their circumstances of birth. The first one, Ishmael, came from a slave woman and was born naturally (according to the flesh), while the second one, Isaac, came from a free woman and was born according to the promise of God.

Having established the two sons as the basis for his allegory, Paul shows how each son relates to Christians and to the Law. Paul links Mount Sinai which symbolizes the Law with Hagar and the circumstance of her slavery in verse 24, and then follows through with his identification with the present day Jewish religion in verse 25, as if the reference to Sinai was not clear enough. It can thus be seen that Paul here equates following of the Law with being in a condition of slavery. Conversely, the New Covenant way is linked to the heavenly Jerusalem, where God lives and reigns (cf Rev. 21:1-4)

The relationships drawn up by Paul can be seen in the following table:

Old CovenantNew Covenant


- slavery- free
- according to the flesh - according to promise
Mount Sinai/ present Jerusalem Heavenly Jerusalem
- Law- faith

Quoting Is. 54:1 in Gal. 4:27, which begins the passage describing the New Covenant relationship, Paul uses this prophetic Old Testament text to prove to us that the true religion that God has planned is that of promise not via natural means, in an effort to refute the Judaizers. For how can the desolate one who has not physically bore any children have more children than those who are married, unless by supernatural means? And that is precisely the point that Paul makes in quoting this text from Is. 54, in order to show that the (Old Testament) prophet Isaiah have already prophesied this coming of a New Covenant which can be seen described in the rest of Is. 54, that is not according to the flesh but according to God who promises and fulfils it. So if the OT prophet has already prophesied that this would happen, why are the Galatian Christians therefore following the Judaizers, who most definitely cannot hold a candle to the prophet Isaiah?

Having made the clear identification of Christians as being those of the promise (Gal. 4:28), Paul used the historical narrative to push his allegory further. Just as Isaac was persecuted by Ishmael (mocked at cf Gen. 21:9), so also those who are according to the flesh (all adherents of works religions) would persecute those who follow the Spirit (Christians). In finishing the allegory, Paul states how the slave woman and her son was cast out after the heir of the free woman arrived on the scene (Gal. 4:30), and in so doing sets forth plainly the antithesis between works/Law and faith. When faith or the promise comes, there is no room for the Law or works, and these things are to be cast aside. There would thus be absolutely no mingling of the two unto salvation, as Paul had stated again and again various ways in this epistle of his in order to emphasize the seriousness of this issue to the Galatian Christians.

This allegory therefore teaches the exclusivity of Law and Gospel in salvation. Linking the Law and the earthly Jewish religion with Hagar was an insult to the unbelieving Jews, and yet such was indeed the case, for the Jews in rejecting their Messiah and trusting in themselves had became a stench to His nostrils, incurring God's wrath as seen in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.

As we look at the form of this allegory, let us consider two more things, namely: the Jewishness of the allegory, and the allegorical method itself.

The Jewishness of the allegory may not seem to be an issue until we realize that the Galatian Christians were almost all Gentiles who would not have read the Old Testaments before they were converted. Yet, Paul did not think it mean to refer to biblical characters such as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar. Notwithstanding the fact that there may be some Galatian Christians who may have read through the Old Testaments by then, the fact of the matter is that these figures would not be very familiar to them compared to the Jews who were brought up memorizing the Torah. This show us that content is more important than delivery, and although they may struggle to remember the history behind these people, Paul expects them to read up the Old Testament Scriptures if they do not know or cannot remember the narrative behind his allegory.

So in our time and age, it is more important for us to focus on getting the message that we want to convey right first before working on our delivery. Also, dumbing down the message to appeal to the crowd/ congregation is the wrong way to go. Rather, we should expect the congregation to rise up to the standard of the Scriptures as they are expounded on.

The allegorical method is a problem in itself, for this is by far the only allegory used by Paul, and in fact in Scripture. This allegorizing of narrative accounts in the Bible to teach biblical lessons seem to be what Paul is doing, and it has been suggested that such a method would be a legitimate method of reading, interpreting and teaching the Scriptures. However, all of them forget one major thing, which is that Paul's allegorizing is itself inspired, and not merely another allegorizing and therefore not all allegorizing is de facto ok simply because Paul did it in this passage.

More devastating to the promoters of the allegory method is the fact of how Paul allegorized the narrative of Abraham and his two sons. Paul did not simply take any narrative in Scripture and allegorized it, but one in which the situation does speak to the issue at hand. Although not directly relevant to the issue, the contrast between works and promise in the example of Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, dovetails neatly with the contrast between works-righteousness and grace through faith in Paul's controversy with the Judaizers. Similarly, as I have shown, both appeal to the same father in Abraham. Paul therefore uses Abraham as an example to show that although it is indeed true that the Law does come from Abraham, it is nonetheless obsolete now as it is tied in with his son through Hagar, Ishmael.

With similarities in subject matters and circumstances, plus the apologetic value against the Judaizers who are Jews by birth, Paul decided to use this narrative as an allegory. It is therefore seen that this allegory is carefully chosen by Paul more to make a point against the false "'gospel" proclaimed by the Judaizers (ie its apologetic value) and to make it very plain to the Galatian Christians both the proper relation between Law and Gospel if they haven't gotten it yet, and the OT anticipation of the New Covenant thus proving that the Judaizers were lying about the teachings of the OT Scriptures.

With this, therefore, there is no basis for promoting the allegorical method of Scripture interpretation. Certainly, this is not to say that certain Scriptures cannot be interpreted allegorically, but there are strict criteria to do so like subject matter alignment. Plus, it is to be used mainly for apologetic value, which makes such allegorical interpretations even rarer. It must be noted also that Paul did not deny the normal narrative reading and in fact it must be present before it can be interpreted allegorically otherwise the alignment is non-existent. This indeed undercuts all systems that promotes allegorical interpretations of Scripture, especially the liberal ones which deny the historicity of the text of Scripture. Neo-Orthodoxy similarly has no basis for the allegorical method as it is mean to be used, for not all that is in Scripture is without error according to them.

With this, let us conclude the series with a look at the practical implications for the true teachings with regards to the Law and the Gospel.

[to be continued]

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