A few days ago, I suggested in passing that N.T. Wright misses the connection of the Spirit and the Abrahamic promise in Galatians 3. I was wrong. I just hadn’t gotten far enough in his book, and he addresses that very point in his exegesis of Galatians 3 ( Paul and the Faithfulness of God , 971-974).

Wright writes: “The opening flourish in [Galatians] 3.1-5 focuses on the Galatians’ receiving of the spirit. At first sight, to modern eyes . . . this is basically ‘an appeal to experience.’ They ‘received the spirit,’ presumably with powerful manifestations (verse 5), without any need for circumcision, so why would they need it now.”

Such an interpretation not only imports modern conceptions of religious experience that may not apply but also “ignores the strong link between the spirit, as received initially in Galatia, and the promise to Abraham.”

From 3:14, it’s clear that “the spirit is the foretaste and guarantee of the ‘inheritance,’ one of the main themes of Genesis 15, the chapter Paul expounds through the rest of Galatians 3.” Paul’s point is not about their experience; instead, he says, in effect, “You already received the guarantee of your Abrahamic inheritance without getting circumcised, so why would you need a different kind of guarantee now?” As he rightly says, the link between the Spirit and the promise to Abraham is “indicated by the kathos in 3.6.”

How does this work? The original promise to Abraham was inheritance of the land, but in Romans this is expanded into a promise that the seed of Abraham will inherit the world. The reference to the spirit indicates that Paul is redefining the notion of Abrahamic covenant and election by redefining the inheritance to be received. In Paul’s argument, the gift of the spirit is a “foretaste of ‘inheriting the world’” (fn. 557). In a footnote (550), he endorses James Dunn’s view that “receiving the Spirit” and “being reckoned righteous” are equivalent, but wants to translate that equation “into covenantal language.”

In Galatians 3, the gospel announced to Abraham is not just about his own inheritance of the land but about the blessing he will bring to Gentiles, and this too is linked to the Spirit: “God promised to bless the nations through Abraham, which Paul elsewhere interprets in terms of his ‘inheriting the world’: now, with the ‘blessing’ flowing out at last, the ‘promise’ is being proleptically fulfilled in the gift of the spirit to believers of all nationalities” (974).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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