Early Christian Interpretation of Galatians, Apostolic Fathers to Augustine
While Galatians has become somewhat of a staple in theological interpretation since the Reformation, thanks in large part to Martin Luther’s anchoring to it his challenge to Roman Catholic theology, its use in the early church was minimal when compared to Paul’s other epistles. In this section, I will examine how patristic authors used and interpreted Galatians. I will limit the time period from the apostolic age to the time of Augustine, roughly 400 years. I will explore the patristic use of Galatians in three parts. In the first part, I will examine its usage by three apologists active from the end of the second until the beginning of the third century; while they did not leave us with commentaries on the whole epistle, their use of the epistle is important in understanding its place within the early Christian apologetic framework. Second, I will explore the commentaries of two late fourth century theologians, Marius Victorinus and Augustine. Third, I will draw attention to the use, interpretation, and citation of Galatians 3.13 by a wide variety of Christian apologists and theologians. Given the use of this particular passage to the overall thesis of this current study, the exploration of how patristic sources read and used it, separate from the rest of Galatians, remains quite important.
Galatians as Theological Support
Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202) made slight use of Galatians to combat Marcion of Sinope, first in repealing the offensive dualism proposed by the church’s first heretic, and second, as a subset of this first strategy, in building certain thematic doctrines (such as his Mariology in Adv. Haer. 5.21.1) that showed the canon to contraindicate Marcion’s teachings. He was the first early writer to explicitly use portions of Galatians in his works, even though, as stated earlier, neither he nor other ante-Nicene writers provided commentary to the whole of the epistle. Using Galatians 4.4–5, Irenaeus built a significant bulwark against Marcion. Also, he employed Galatians 1.1 to secure the validity of Church Tradition via apostolic succession (Adv. Haer. 3.13.2). This was similar to the argument Irenaeus employed in Adv. Haer. 3.13.3 when he used Paul’s story in Galatians 2, a story which told of a heterodoxy that arose among the Apostles so that no one Apostle could treat themselves as sole arbiter of the Gospel’s meaning. Along these same lines, Irenaeus utilized Paul’s illustration of Abraham (Galatians 3.5–6; Adv Haer. 4.21.1; 5.32.2) to state that the Christian faith was a direct continuation of Abraham’s faith. In another place (Adv. Haer. 5.12.5; 15.3), he used Galatians 1.15 to fight against the dualistic treatment of flesh and spirit, which treated spirit as the only godly and useful part of humanity, at the expense of treating the flesh as evil or worldly. Also, the writer used Galatians 5.19–21 to rail against his opponents (Adv. Haer. 5.11.1, for one example). Ultimately, however, Irenaeus did not attempt to use Galatians in any singular, systematic purpose. Rather, he used it in a prooftexting fashion, placing verses as they suited his purposes next to other sources in order to make the claim that the tradition of apostolic succession surpassed any new revelation, including Marcion’s.
Like Irenaeus, Tertullian (160–220) did not provide a commentary, instead making use of Galatians in polemical discussions. Unlike Irenaeus, however, Tertullian, utilized his knowledge of Latin rhetoric and oratory to more skillfully craft his polemic. Simultaneously, he afforded us the insight into a type of interpretation not yet covered in this study. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian heavily relied on Paul to combat Marcion’s forced division between the God of Paul and the God of the Jews. He accomplished this first by showing that Paul was a Jew, and second, by showing that Paul was an Apostle, even if a lesser Apostle.
The former of Paul’s identities required the Roman lawyer use the Abrahamic imagery in Galatians 3.6–9 to show that the Christian message was a direct descendant to the faith of the Jewish patriarch. Likewise, this allowed Tertullian to claim a singular cosmological reality for the Judeo-Christian tradition (Adv. Marc. 5.2.7), unlike Marcion’s staged system. Tertullian appeared to use De praescriptione 33 as a sort of Pauline prophecy against the Ebonites while simultaneously maintaining, opposite Marcion and others, that Paul did have the full knowledge of the Gospel and nothing else was needed to enter into faith. Finally, Tertullian was able to use Galatians as a way to introduce his hermeneutic framework. In Adv. Marc. 3.5, he countered Marcion by using Paul’s allegory of the two sons of Abraham (Galatians 4.22–24), among other examples, to instruct others as to how to properly interpret Scripture. Tertullian acceded to the heresiarch an almost correct view of Galatians. He allowed Marcion a great amount of interpretive room with Galatians. Indeed, Marcion, like Tertullian, viewed Galatians as polemical. Even with this allowance, however, Tertullian utilized his talents in logic and oratory in order to tightly define key terms and concepts of Galatians. He then furthered his argument by recasting several scenes in the epistle in order to produce an interpretation of Paul and his epistle that maintained a strong connection to the Jerusalem church, and thus to normative Christianity and Abraham, even while holding a supercessionist tension with Judaism.
Europe had Irenaeus and Northern Africa had Tertullian. Contemporary with these two men, yet dealing with different issues and living in a different region, Clement of Alexandria provided the land of Egypt with some excellent theological insights that incorporated Paul’s epistle. For example, it is likely Clement used Galatians 3.23 as the impetus of his Paedogogus, as the first chapter of that work seems to indicate. The theme of Galatians 3.23 also wove itself through Stromata 1.26, a segment in which the Alexandrian theologian, utilizing Galatians 3:19-23, built a case for seeing a connection between Abraham’s faith and the Christian faith in the Law of Moses. In the words of Romans, another letter in which Paul makes connections between Abraham’s faith and Christianity, this constituted a connection “from faith to faith”.
Clement’s usual employment of Galatians generally fell between two frameworks, with some exceptions. The first framework used Paul’s statements on ethics as the basis for Clement’s ethical exhortations. In this category, I would also include his views on sexual intercourse, which he considered ethical, especially in contrast to the writings of his detractor, Julius Casinos (See Strom. 3.13, where Clement uses Galatians 3.28). In Strom 3.18, he used Galatians 2.19–20 not only to call for the faithful to engage ethical behavior but also to give the purpose for this ethical engagement.
For example, in Stromata 3.5, Clement explained, utilizing Galatians 5.13, that even though believers have been given the ultimate liberty by Christ, ethical living and a life in the context of self-control was the ideal use of the liberty that Christ has given us. The same applied to Strom. 4, in which Clement used Galatians 5.16–17 in much the same way as throughout chapter 5 to teach what the expected ethical behavior was, a quality he termed “manliness.” Of course, ethical behavior, from his perspective was connected to correct repentance, a critical quality that believers need to possess in order to avoid reaping what we have sown (e.g. the use of Galatians 6.7 in Quis. Div. 4).
Clement’s second framework used Paul’s statements on the law both to connect Christianity to Abraham and Judaism, while showing (Greek) philosophy’s “schoolmaster” role. Accordingly, law and philosophy will only bear fruit to the extent that they ground themselves in Christ. In an exception that does not easily fit into either of the above two categories so easily, but remains germane, Clement did use Galatians 6.9–10 as self-justification for writing a number of other works and for validating the rightness of martyrdom.
For a discussion on Greek and Latin commentaries during this time, see Joseph Barber Lightfoot, ed., St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. A Revised Text with Introduction, Notes, and Dissertations. (4th ed.; Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament; London: Macmillan and Co., 1874), 227–36. Lightfoot lists more than I will examine, but gives a good overview of the commentary’s context. See also, Alexander Souter, Earliest Latin Commentaries On the Epistles of St Paul. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Maurice F. Wiles, The Divine Apostle: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles in the Early Church, First Edition. (Cambridge University Press, 1967); and C.H. Turner, “Greek Patristic Commentaries on the Pauline Epistles” in James Hastings (ed.), A Dictionary of the Bible (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1904), Extra Volume, pp. 484-532. For various citations of Galatians among early Christian writers, see Mark J. Edwards, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2nd edition. (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2005). Two unpublished dissertations help to highlight Galatians in the early church. See W.B. West, Jr., “Ante-Nicene Exegesis of Romans and Galatians,” Th.D., University of Southern California, 1942 and Daniel Rodney Bechtel, “The Exegesis of Galatians 2.14–21 by the Early Greek Fathers and the Major Recent Commentators,” Ph.D, UMI, 1986.
See, Richard A. Norris, “Irenaeus’ Use of Paul in His Polemic Against the Gnostics,” in Paul and the Legacies of Paul (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1990), 79–98; M. C. Steenberg, “The Role of Mary as Co-Recapitulator in St Irenaeus of Lyons,” Vigiliae Christianae 58, no. 2(May 1, 2004): 117–137, 119; and Tyson Guthrie’s paper, “Irenaeus’s Use of Galatians 4:4-5”, presented at the Society of Biblical Literature “History of Interpretation” session (2014).
For Paul in the second century, with a contribution focusing on Tertullian, see: Michael F. Bird and Joseph R. Dodson, Paul and the Second Century, 1st edition. (London; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011). For an anthology examining Tertullian’s use of Paul, see Todd D. Still and David Wilhite, eds., Tertullian and Paul (New York, NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013).
It should come as no surprise that Galatians was Marcion’s primary tool in attempting to wedge Paul away from the Apostles, and thus Jesus away from Judaism. See Adv. Marc. 4.3.2–4 and 5.2.1 for Tertullian’s admission and reasoning as to why. See also, Ulrich Schmid, Marcion und sein Apostolos (Berlin; New York: De Gruyter, 1995), 282–83; 294–96. Tertullian, like Marcion, was a supercessionist; however, unlike Marcion, Tertullian would see the continuity between Israel and the church.
For the former premise, see McGowan, “God in Christ,” in Still (ed), Tertullian and Paul, 5. For the latter, see Adv. Marc. 1.20.2 and De praescriptione 23 as well as below. In De praescriptione 23, Tertullian enforces the interpretation that Paul’s rebuke of Peter was not a matter of doctrine, but one of how the doctrine should be carried out. Paul’s reliance upon apostolic doctrine and his connection to the Apostles is maintained, even if Paul’s status is muted somewhat.
This does not prevent Tertullian from acknowledging Marcion’s claim regarding the anti-Judaism theme of Galatians (Adv. Marc. 5.2.1). See Adv. Marc. 5.3.2, one of Tertullian’s longest continued use of Galatians, providing an interpretation for the Sitz im Leben, that of the Galatians returning, or turning to, the Law of Moses rather than the Gospel. Tertullian maintains that the Law was over, but it is over because the Creator sent Christ and in doing so, ended the law himself.
It is open to debate as to exactly what Marcion’s cosmology was. See Andrew McGowan, “Marcion’s Love of Creation,” in Journal of Early Christian Studies 9:3, 295–311 for a balancing view of Marcion’s cosmology as well as Judith M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
See David M. Scholer, “Sed enim Marcion nactus epistulam Pauli ad Galatus: Tertullian and Marcion on Galatians,” a paper delivered by the late Dr. Scholer at the Thirteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies in Oxford, 16-21 August 1999.
See the note at Paed, 1.1 in Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (vol. 2; The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885).
Clement’s concern with validating the flesh against Marcion, Valentinus and others appears in Strom 3.17 when he uses Galatians 3.3 to offer direct proof against Marcion that the dichotomy the gnostic had created was patently false.
See Clement’s use of Galatians 3.6–7 in Paed 1.11 and Strom. 2.28 where he strives to show that law and faith are both united under the one God, because where as the law had led people to God, only faith (in Christ) can impart proper knowledge. He is resourceful in using Galatians 3.25 to support Galatians 3.12 and 3.19 demonstrating that it is indeed the law, the very law despised by Marcion and other gnostics as well as the law cherished by the Jews, that leads to and ends in Christ. See Paed.1.6, 11 and Strom. 1.26, 2.7–10. The apologist goes further, however, and places Greco-Roman philosophy on the same level of the Mosaic law, allowing that it acted for the Greeks the same way the law acted for the Jews. See his use of Galatians 4.1–3, 9 in Strom. 1.11 and Prot. 5 and 11.