Galatians 3 is one of St. Paul’s finest expositions of the relationship between Christianity and the Mosaic Law. The chapter is part of an epistle written in opposition to a camp of early Christians in Galatia known as Judaizers, who held that Christian salvation required adherence to the entire Mosaic Law. In response to this, St. Paul condemns the Judaizers as “foolish” (Gal 3:1), and argued that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,” (Gal 3:13) while all “who rely on observing the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:10), noting that the Mosaic Law cursed anyone who violated its precepts (Deut 27:26). This famous condemnation of the Mosaic Law became of increasing importance with the dawn of the Reformation, with the Protestant Reformers arguing that the Catholic Church had created another cumbersome system of rules like the one Paul condemned.
But Paul’s description of the Law is not entirely negative. Almost immediately after describing “the curse of the law,” Paul says that the Law was a παιδαγωγός (paidagōgos, lit. “child leader”), intended to lead us to Christ. The term paidagōgos, the Greek root of pedagogue, is frequently translated as “schoolmaster,” “conductor,” or “instructor,” but in the Greco-Roman context meant something far more expansive. The Roman paidagōgos would have been a tutor for the sons of the wealthy, and two distinct facets of the paidagōgos-student relationship are distinguishable from modern teacher-student relationships. First, the boy would be in the constant company of the paidagōgos in public from the age of about six to sixteen. Second, the paidagōgos was a slave.
St. Paul’s point is fourfold:
- First, the law is a teacher. This point, while seemingly obvious, is vitally important. The Pauline understanding of the law is that it exists for a purpose. And what’s more, it is a teachable purpose. This two-fold recognition automatically places the law within a teleological framework, because if the law has a knowable purpose, this allows mercy in cases in which the violations of the law do not offend the underlying purpose. It also creates the possibility that the Law is only a temporary fixture, as it may possess extrinsic finality related to its purpose [in other words: the Law may fulfill its purpose].
- Second, Paul is recognizing that the Law, prior to Christ, was all-encompassing. It enveloped the daily existence of the faithful Jewish believer. The laws covered details so minute that none of the believers could claim to have never violated at least one. And as St. Paul noted above, by the Law’s terms, even minor violations bring upon the curse of the law.
- Third, the paidagōgos is only a temporary companion. A young man only had a paidagōgos from the ages of about six to sixteen. From a Pauline perspective, the Law served a similar purpose: it existed to remind everyone of their sinfulness and need for a Savior. Once that Savior arrived, the student of the Law, in effect, graduated, and no longer needed the Law. The “curse of the Law,” thus, was good, in that it was a diagnosis of an existing spiritual malady, and prepared the people for Jesus Christ. Elsewhere, Jesus said of Himself (Matthew 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Paul simply builds upon this teaching. The Law is no longer in effect, because its Christological purpose has been fulfilled; so like the paidagōgos, it becomes moot.
- Finally, the paidagōgos is a slave. Although the paidagōgos had a temporary authority over the boy, their true relationship was one of a slave and the son of a slavemaster. Later in life, it was quite possible that the paidagōgos could find himself as his former student’s slave. Again, Paul’s point in drawing upon such a vivid image is heavily rooted in Jesus’ statements about the Law. Just as Christ had said that the Sabbath was made for man, Paul explains that that all of the Law was made for man.
Immediately after this, I noted in a footnote that this didn’t mean that Paul was okay with consequentialism (doing evil so that some greater good could come about). He expressly condemns it in Romans 3:8.