The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Bernardin de Piconio’s Commentary on Galatians 3:15-22

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 20, 2012

15. Brethren (I speak according to man), yet the settled covenant of man, no one sets at nought or supersedes.
16. To Abraham were the promises given, and to his seed; he says not to seeds, as to many, but as in one, and to thy seed, who is Christ.
17. And I say this: the covenant confirmed by God; the law which came after four hundred and thirty years does not render invalid to the abolition of the promise.
18. For if the inheritance of law, now not of promise; but to Abraham God gave it by promise.

This is another argument to prove the same thesis—namely, that the justification of man is to be obtained by faith in Christ, not by the Mosaic law. God’s promise was anterior to the law, and could not be aftected by it. The Syriac has: My brethren, I speak as among men. He has just called them fools (Gal 3:1), and senseless (Gal 3:3), but he used that language affectionately, for he now says, my brethren. And while one time he chides, and at another consoles, he does all for their salvation. An agreement between man and man, duly authenticated, registered, and accepted, cannot be set aside as worthless, as long as it exists and is in force; neither can it be changed, or anything added to it or taken from it. Much more the solemn promise of Almighty God stands immutable and irrefragable, like himself. The promise of God was given to Abraham, and extended to his posterity, in thee Gen 12:3, in thy seed, Gen 22:18, shall all nations be blessed. In the singular not the plural, as limiting this promise to the children of Isaac, to the exclusion of those of Ismael, because from Isaac, not from Ismael, Christ was to descend, in whom the promise is fulfilled. This promise, the salvation of the nations through faith in Jesus Christ, cannot be abrogated or rendered void, changed or altered, anything added to it or taken from it, by the giving of the law four centuries later. But it would be abrogated, if justification and salvation were given by circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic institutes, instead of faith in Christ and baptism. The giving of the law on Mount Sinai took place B.C. 1491, and the computation of the Apostle would place the date of the promise to Abraham in B.C. 1921, the year usually assigned for the original call of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees, which is the date St. Paul probably had in his mind. If the inheritance, or hereditary and traditional promise of benediction, justification, eternal salvation, were afterwards made dependent in its fulfilment upon obedience to the law of Moses, the promise would not have been made good. This cannot be the case; God gave it to Abraham by promise, and the promise was that the nations were to obtain salvation by faith in Christ. Needless to say that few scholars today would attempt to assign exact years to the giving of the Law and the promises to Abraham.

In deferring the execution of this promise to a later period of the world’s history, the Almighty did not act inconsistently with his own love and affection for the lost race of man, afterwards so conspicuously displayed in the incarnation and death of Christ, because from the beginning he promised it, and confirmed his promise with an oath. By the promise, as by its subsequent fulfilment, he earned beforehand a title to the adoration and gratitude of mankind. The faith, confidence, and affection of  mankind are therefore due to him. Faith and obedience are the attitude of the soul, due from the creature to the Creator. And if we are not likely to be called upon to shed our blood for our faith, we can at least shed our faith over all we do.

19. What then is the law? It was enacted on account of transgressions; until the seed came, to whom he had promised, and ordained by angels, in the hand of a mediator.
20. And a mediator is not of one; but God is one.

This is an anticipation of the objection that if the law does not affect in any way the promise made to Abraham, or invest the fulfilment of that promise with any conditions, why was it given? To what purpose does it serve? is it worthless and useless? And in reply to this question the Apostle takes occasion to notice incidentally, though in reality it is the more important aspect of what he has to say, four particulars in which this grand, eternal, universal promise is more excellent than the law which followed it. The law, he says, was given, the Greek has added or appointed in addition, on account of transgressions; to restrain and curb the vicious and irregular inclinations and propensities of the people of Israel, consequent on their long residence in Egypt, until the coming of Christ. For otherwise they might have sunk into the same degeneracy as the nations round them, and the fulfilment of the promise, which depended on the birth of Christ of an Immaculate Virgin, sprung from a holy race, might have been gravely imperilled, if not frustrated and prevented. St. Augustine interprets the words on account of transgressions to mean in order to multiply transgressions, that having been its effect, as St. Paul shows in the Epistle of the Romans. But this signification of the words, though verbally different from the former, amounts to very much the same thing in the end; for any law which revealed the sanctity of God, and the nature of the obedience he required, must have the double effect, on the one hand, of acting in a large degree as a restraint on the faults and vices of the nation to whom it was given, while on the other hand it would reveal to their apprehension much evil which they had not known or suspected to be such, or would soon have forgotten or become indifferent to, under the influence of bad examples around them, and would therefore probably multiply cases of conscious transgression of the divine law.

Saint Paul has, therefore, so far, established two particulars in which the promise to Abraham is shown to be an infinitely grander and nobler thing than the law of Moses. First, the law is occasional and accidental, introduced only for the furtherance of the fulfilment of the promise, to which it is subsidiary and subservient; while the promise is original, universal, the dispensation of God’s great purpose for the redemption of the world from the beginning of its history. Secondly, the law is temporary, to last only until the coming of Christ, which it was designed to facilitate and prepare the way for; but the promise is unlimited and eternal, and the blessing it foretold is to constitute the happiness and well-being of the whole human race to the end of the world, and onward to eternity. He now adds two others. The law was ordained by angels. This was well known by tradition to the Jewish people, and St. Stephen said, you received the law by the ordinances of angels, and have not kept it. An angel was the representative of the Almighty on Mount Sinai,but he was doubtless not alone. The Lord came with tens of thousands of holy ones (Deut 3:2). But the promise was given to Abraham directly from the mouth of God, or by an internal voice speaking to the heart of the patriarch, and there is no mention made of the intervention of any angel, Gen 12:3. In the repetition of the promise, and extension of it to the seed of Abraham, Gen 22:15, it is indeed said that the angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven the second time. The first time was shortly before, when he stopped him in the act of slaying his son. But even here the angel did not directly represent the Almighty, as on Mount Sinai; he only delivered the message, with the words. By myself I have sworn, saith the Lord. The communication thus made could not be said to be made by the ordinance of angels, nor could an angel promise Christ. The promise came, as before, from the mouth of God, though it was delivered by angelic ministry.

Lastly, Saint Paul points out, as the great and crowning difference and super excellence which distinguishes the Promise and the Law, that the law was given in the hands of a mediator, namely Moses. The promise was given by God directly to Abraham, without any mediator whatever. And this, as the Apostle proceeds to point out in verse 20, marks a radical difference and distinction in the character of the two dispensations respectively. For a mediator is not of one; that is, he is a negotiator between two parties. The result of his mediation or negotiation is a covenant or agreement between those two parties. And one of them, at least, must be human, and subject, therefore, to the imperfections and conditions of mortality. God may be one party to the covenant, but man must be the other, and man is constitutionally changeable, irresolute, not to be depended on. Every agreement or covenant to which man is a party must always contain some elements of uncertainity, instability, or change. The Jews received the law by the ordinance of angels, and stood to the covenant and accepted it. But, as St. Stephen says, they did not keep it. But the promise to Abraham was not in any sense a covenant between two parties. The patriarch had nothing to do with it, except to receive it and transmit it to the tradition of the ages that followed. God’s oath requires nothing to support or to endorse it. It is like himself, one, eternal, unchanging, unchangeable. What God says is, what God foretels will be, what God promises, he will do. His promise is one with its fulfilment. There is one God who made the world, one promise which sustained its hope and expectation of redemption, one Saviour who redeemed it. The Lord of the Lord shall stand for ever.

The argument in these two verses may be summed up in this way. In reply to the question, What is the law? the Apostle says that the law was given, 1. occasionaliter, on account- of transgessions ; 2. for a time, until Christ came; 3. by the ministry of angels; 4. by the ministry of a human mediator, Moses. He replies that the Promise Avas given, 1. principaliter; 2. without limit as to time; 3. immediately, from the mouth of God; 4. absolutely, without stipulation, condition, or contingency. It follows the Promise is beyond all comparison a greater thing than the law. The promise is immutable and eternal, like its Author, the law transitory and dependent on the circumstances which occasioned it. The promise was fulfilled when Christ came, to realise it; the law was then abolished, as having fulfilled its object. It no longer binds the Jews, much less the Gentiles. Why, then, Galatians, do you seek justification in the law, when you have found this justification, and all the infinite benedictions which accompany and follow it, by faith of Jesus Christ?

The above is, undoubtedly, the general sense of the argument the Apostle endeavours to express in these two verses. The economy of words in which he conveys it, is probably absolutely without parallel. It is fair to observe, since he addresses the Christians of Galatia as senseless, or mindless, that he certainly credits them in this passage, and in the general tenor of the Epistle he addressed to them, with a considerable share of that quick intelligence and dialectical acuteness which was a characteristic of the Greek people, and the nations who were brought under their influence.

21. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid. For if a law was given which could give life, truly by the law would be justice.
22. But the Scripture concluded all things under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to believers.

This (verse 21) is another objection. The law might be represented as the rival of, or seeking to take the place of the Promise, in that by pointing out the evil of sin, it sought to effect the regeneration or restoration of mankind, and so against the promises of God. St. Chrysostom, however, thinks the objection arises from what was said in verse 10, that the law inflicted a curse, from which curse Christ redeemed us. Is the law, then, in opposition to the promise? St. Ambrose refers it to the statement in verse 18, If the inheritance is of the law, it is not of the promise. Is there, then, an opposition of contrariety of nature between the law and the promise? Lastly, and this is probably the most simple explanation, the objection may be taken generally against the whole argument of the Apostle, that the law is only preparatory to the fulfilment of the Promise, and was only enacted, on account of transgressions, until Christ should come, and then would cease, .as no longer required. Are the law and the promise, when fulfilled, contrary to one another, as if they did proceed from the same God, that they cannot co-exist, and one must cease when the other is realised?

The answer is, that so far from there being any contrariety or opposition between the law and the fulfilment of the promise, both have, in intention and effort, the same object in view, that is to give justice, or impart to man remission of sin, the grace of God, and holiness of life. This it was in the intention of the law to further, but not within the power of the law to accomplish. No law can give life. The Greek has: if a law had been given, which could give life; meaning, if it had been possible to enact such a law. Had it been possible, God would have granted justification by the law. This was not possible, by any law. But by the revelation it made of the real evil of sin, and the holiness of God, the Scripture, that is the written law, convinced or convicted all mankind, of all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike, of sin, and concluded them all under the sentence of condemnation which the infinite justice of God must pronounce upon the guilty race of man. Thus it brought men to repentance, and by forcing upon them the recognition of their lost condition, and absolute dependence upon the free mercy of Almighty God, prepared them to accept the justification, or remission of sins, which he offered them through Christ. When Christ came, mankind, taught by the law, had nothing left to do but to believe in him. Thus the law so far from being in opposition to God’s great promise of redemption, prepared the way for its accomplishment.

The same thing might be said, though the Apostle does not expressly refer to it in this place, of the moral law of natural conscience which existed in the people of the pagan world. Such a law could not, any more than the law given to Moses, give life, or obtain remission of sin. Rather, it aggravated sin, by bringing it into contrast with the light of conscience. Yet it pointed it out, and
concluded all things, included the whole race of Adam, under the sentence of guilt, self-conscious and self-pronounced, and thus prepared the Gentile world, as the law of Moses prepared the Hebrew world, to look for pardon, reconciliation with their Creator, deliverance from their apprehensions of futurity, and the satisfaction of the unfulfilled aspirations of the human soul, in the grace and mercy of a Redeemer to come. Of the promise of his coming, they also had a vague tradition. In him they were prepared to believe, and to those who believed, were given, in all their completeness, the promises which, by God’s appointment, were to be obtained by faith 0f Jesus Christ.

As pride is the beginning of all sin, so is humility, or humiliation, the beginning of all recovery from sin. So necessary was humiliation for fallen men, that God permitted the greatest of all possible evils, namely sin, that the sinner being humbled might have recourse to his only redemption, and his only Redeemer.

One Response to “Bernardin de Piconio’s Commentary on Galatians 3:15-22”

  1. […] Bernardin de Piconio’s Commentary on Galatians 3:16-22. […]

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