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If the book of Galatians were a collection of essays, the climactic conclusion of

chapter three would be a difficult act to follow. After briefly – yet pointedly – appealing to the

Galatians' actual experience of receiving the promised Spirit (3:1-5), Paul embarks on a densely

reasoned argument regarding the function of πίστις in mitigating the tension between the

apparent duality of the Mosaic Law (cf. 2:16ff) and Abrahamic sonship, which he introduces in

3:6-9.1 In 3:10-14, Paul attempts to head off the assumption that the Law and faith in the

Messiah are somehow compatible with each other by reminding the Galatians that all those who

are ἐκ νόµος are under a curse, and are thus cut off from receiving the blessings of the Abrahamic

inheritance, which we know from 3:1-5 includes, at least, the reception of the Spirit (cf. Joel

2:28-29). In 3:15-18, Paul asserts the complete and utter independence of the Abrahamic

promises with regard to the realm of the law, which has a completely different, although not

altogether unrelated, role and function (3:19-24). Paul dramatically wraps up this phase of his

argument by grounding everything he has just said about the relationship between the Law and

the Abrahamic promises in the Gentile believer's union without distinction in Christ, which

bestows upon them the actual status of Abrahamic sonship, and thus secures their inheritance of

God's promises (3:25-29).

When we arrive at 4:1, a brief look at the following verses tells us that Paul is not

finished arguing his point. Indeed, in the space of the next seven verses, Paul proceeds to re-

appropriate several components of his argument from the previous chapter. First, after making

an initial appeal to the Galatians’ experience of the Holy Spirit at the outset of his argument (3:2-

The mention of the Spirit in 3:1-5 has two purposes: it functions as Paul's first “proof” that “works of
the Law” are unnecessary, but even more importantly, it prefigures his discussion on ὑιοθεσία in 4:5ff.

5), in 4:6 Paul mentions the significance of the Spirit in relation to our adoption as sons. Second,

the preposition ὑπό figures prominently throughout chapter 3, as well as in 4:1-7 (κατάραν, 3:10;

ἁµαρτίαν, 3:22; νόµον, 3:23; 4:5; παιδαγωγόν, 3:25; στοιχεῖα, 4:32). All of these references to

being “under” something are construed by Paul as negative “authorities” or “realms” from which

people must be rescued. Furthermore (and related to the previous point), Paul uses the rare word

ἐξαγοράζω to refer in both 3:13 and 4:5 to God’s saving activity towards those enslaved ὑπὸ

νόµον. Fourth, Paul readdresses in 4:6-7 the concept of Abrahamic sonship and offspring that

was first mentioned in 3:7, 16, 19, 26, 29. And finally, the apocalyptic flavor of 4:4 (signaled by

the enigmatic phrase τὸ πλήρωµα τοῦ χρόνου and the divine action of sending the Son and the

Spirit) is prefigured both by the mention of the Spirit in 3:2-5, and by the reference to the coming

of faith in 3:23, 25.3 Each of these components is drawn together in this last phase of Paul's

argument as he attempts to regroup his thoughts before launching into a fresh appeal to the

Galatians in 4:12ff.4

In light of the compact confluence in 4:1-7 of every major theme (except ‘faith’)

from the previous chapter, it seems reasonable to conclude that this paragraph functions as a sort

of summary for what Paul has just argued. Indeed, most commentators agree that Paul pauses at

the beginning of ch. 4 to clarify the important, but nonetheless broad, point he has just made

The ESV and RSV obscure this last parallel by overtranslating the ὑπό as “enslaved by” or “enslaved
to” instead of retaining the pertinent notion of being under the enslaving authority.
This last point is reinforced by noting Paul’s reference in 4:8 to the contrast between the Galatians’
“former” (τότε) existence prior to knowing God, and their existence “now” (νῦν). Cf. Anthony C. Thiselton, The
Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 17-18.
Incidentally, the complete absence of any direct reference to “faith” or “believing” in 4:1-7 is
noticeable. Paul employs the πιστ- word-group a total of 17 times in chapter three, and in every major section
except for 3:15-18, in order to highlight the fact that familial resemblance within the people of God was always
Abrahamic faith, and not Mosaic obedience.

about the inheritance of the Abrahamic promises in 3:26-29.5 Syntactically, this is indicated by

the somewhat idiomatic phrase λέγω δέ (cf. 3:15, 17; 4:21; 5:2, 16).6 Lexically, in 4:1 Paul

repeats the word κληρονόµος from 3:29 in order to indicate that he has more to say on the subject

of inheritance.7 This is confirmed by the observation that 4:1-7 concludes with yet another

reference to the κληρονόµος (v. 7), and that Paul ends the first stage of his appeal with an Old

Testament quote that includes a final reference to the inheritance (4:30).8 Therefore, chapter four

seems to constitute a fine-tuned, multi-pronged appeal to the Galatians’ desire to partake of the

Abrahamic inheritance. From this perspective, the function of 4:1-7 within this larger context is

to prepare for the transitional paragraph of vv. 8-11, which flows directly into the introductory

stage of this appeal in 4:12ff.

In order for this transition to an appeal to be most effective, however, Paul must

capitalize on the urgency of the Galatians’ situation. The analogy he uses to accomplish this is

related to a theme he previously used in 3:23-25 (that of the παιδαγωγός.), and derived directly

from the theme with which he ended the previous section: the κληρονόµος. Moreover, if the

article in ὁ κληρονόµος (4:1) is anaphoric,9 then Paul is forging an organic connection between

the conclusion of 3:29 and his attempt to clarify it in 4:1 with the analogy from inheritance law.

E.g. Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 265.
Cf. BDAG, 590.
The concept of the inheritance was first introduced, however, in 3:18 when Paul insists that the
inheritance cannot come both by law and by promise at the same time.
The term δούλος, which Paul introduces in 4:1, is also repeated in v.7. The repetition of these two
terms in both v. 1 and v. 7 forms an inclusio which effectively sets this paragraph off as a single unit and highlights
the main point that will be discussed: the manner in which slaves become heirs.
So James M. Scott, Adoption as Sons of God: An Exegetical Investigation into the Background of
ΥΟΙΘΕΣΙΑ in the Pauline Corpus (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992), 128.

Taken together, these two metaphors provide both the context from which Paul will

begin his appeal to the Galatians, and the ground upon which Paul bases this subsequent appeal

to pursue their identity as Abrahamic sons who possess the Spirit, not as those who are enslaved

under the law (cf. 4:30-5:1). The rest of this paper will explore the manner in which this is

developed in 4:1-7. Specifically, I will argue the following thesis: Paul believes that people are

enslaved under the basic principles of the cosmic order, from which they must be rescued before

they can receive sonship and the Abrahamic inheritance.

The Analogy and its Application – The Experience of an Underage Heir (vv. 1-3)10
The basic point Paul makes in 4:1-2 is that the actual experience of an underage heir

is no different from that of a slave. One must keep in mind that Paul is surely not speaking in

absolute terms. No doubt the prospect of coming of age surely informed the young heir’s

general outlook on life in ways that cannot be said regarding the experience of a slave, but this is

not Paul’s point. Paul is scandalized at the thought that the Galatians were operating out of false

assumptions of what characterized life under the authority of the Law, and so he draws an

analogy from inheritance law to throw these mistaken assumptions into sharp relief.

Although many commentators suggest translating νήπιος as “minor,”11 it is probably

best to avoid an overly nuanced gloss in this context.12 First of all, Paul could easily have used

the well-known term ἀνενῆλιξ here, which unambiguously expresses the concept of legal

We will organize our discussion according to the progression of Paul’s argument, which in this case
is indicated by his placement of the conjunction δέ in this passage.
So J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AYB (New
Haven: Yale University, 1997), 386; Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, WBC (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990),
162; Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia:
Fortress, 1979), 203; i.e. the heir is an infant “in the legal sense” ( F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A
Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], 192).
So Ernest de Witt Burton, A Critical & Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1980), 212.

minority.13 Secondly, the context aptly provides the information needed to formally understand

the nature of the analogy without resorting to a more nuanced gloss for νήπιος. If the more

common gloss can make adequate sense of the point Paul is making, then one should not look for

a more nuanced gloss, especially when it adds nothing materially to the meaning of the analogy.

Finally, the more common gloss “child” most clearly preserves the central thrust of Paul’s

argument here, which is surely not ultimately legal in nature, but developmental.14

Such a child, Paul says, even though he is actually the owner of the entire estate15

(literally lord of all16) is no better off in the here and now than a mere slave. We might simplify

things even further by suggesting that another way of saying that one thing is no different from

another is to say that they are a same. Paul is, in effect, saying that the experience of a young

heir under the authority of guardians (ἐπιτρόπους) and managers (οἰκονόµους) is basically the

same as the experience of a slave.

There is quite a bit of discussion surrounding the exact legal practice to which Paul is

alluding in this verse. Specifically, is Paul referring to a Roman system of inheritance law, or is

it actually a Hellenistic system?17 Under Roman law, either the father or the court would

designate a tutor, or ἐπιτρόπος, to oversee the care of an underage heir until he turned 14. So far

this fits with the situation Paul seems to envision in his analogy. After the heir turns 14,

Moore-Crispin, “Galatians 4:1-9: The Use and Abuse of Parallels,” EQ vol. 60, 1989, 206.
By denying that Paul’s argument is legal in nature, I am not suggesting that legal categories play no
role at all in his understanding of the concept of justification in general. I am simply stating that these legal
categories are not operative in this particular phase of his argument.
In the memorable words of Burton, “The participle ὤν is, of course, concessive” (212).
See Scott, 131-134, for his discussion on the phrase κύριος πάντων as a regal title, which, roughly
translated, is similar to the common children’s concept of playing “king of the mountain.”
Many discussions on this topic occur in the context of the North/South Galatia debate. Those who
believe Paul to be writing to South Galatia feel constrained to make his analogy fit the Roman customs that would
have been prevalent there.

however, a curator is appointed to oversee the transition of the heir from adolescence to

adulthood. If Paul were drawing his analogy from Roman law, one would expect to find the

Greek term for curator, κουράτωρ, following ἐπιτρόπους, but instead one finds the unexpected

mention of the οἰκονόµους. Moreover, Roman law itself stipulated the precise time period during

which the underage heir would be under the tutor and curator, whereas Paul envisions a situation

in which the father sets the time period during which the underage heir is to be regarded as a


In light of these difficulties, it is at least equally likely that Paul is drawing from

Hellenistic legal customs.19 According to Greek custom, the father would appoint several

ἐπιτρόποι to oversee the care of his children in the event of his death. Furthermore, Greek legal

custom did not specify the date at which the heir would come of age.

In determining a solution for this problem, one must allow for the possibility that

Paul did not feel constrained to draw exclusively from either Roman or Hellenistic law in this

analogy.20 At least one factor points strongly in this direction. First, Paul’s reference to the

οἰκονόµος, a term which doesn’t properly belong to a legal discussion about inheritance customs,

indicates that he didn’t intend to force the details of the analogy at every possible level of

correspondence. In Paul’s day, the οἰκονόµος was the title of the individual who was responsible

for overseeing the day-to-day activities of a household. Most significant, however, is the fact

that the οἰκονόµος was typically a slave. By linking the unique authority of the ἐπιτρόπος with the

Although Linda Belleville (“‘Under Law’: Structural Analysis and the Pauline Concept of Law in
Galatians 3:21-4:11,” JSNT 26, 1986, 62) defends the Roman law view by citing two papyri in which the father sets
the time at which the heir would receive the inheritance.
So Ben Witherington, III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 282-283; Moore-Crispin, 206-207.
So Longenecker, 163-164; Schreiner, 266; Betz, 204.

relatively commonly encountered authority of the ὀικονόµος, Paul thus highlights the irony of the

young heir’s experience of slavery.

We have already mentioned the incongruence between the fixed time periods of the

tutor and curator in Roman law and Paul’s claim that the period of minority only lasts ἄχρι τῆς

προθεσµίας τοῦ πατρός. In this case, it seems clear that Paul has in mind the manner in which he

will apply this analogy to the Galatians’ situation, and is therefore allowing this knowledge to

shape the analogy itself. Likewise, the plural forms of ἐπιτρόπος and οἰκονόµος probably

foreshadow the plural στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου in the next verse, and thus do not conclusively

demonstrate a Hellenistic origin of Paul’s analogy from inheritance law.21

The matter-of-fact manner in which Paul indicates his intention to apply the

preceding illustration to the current situation belies the opaque complexity of what he actually

says in this verse. The connective οὕτως, together with the repetition of terms from vv. 1-2

(νήπιοι, ὑπό, and δεδουλωµένοι), clearly indicate that Paul intends to clarify some aspect of the

situation he is addressing with the illustration from inheritance law. Unfortunately, in v. 3 we

are also immediately confronted with one of the oldest exegetical ambiguities in the history of

Pauline studies: the meaning of the phrase στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου, which is variously translated as

“elemental spiritual forces of the world” (NIV), “elemental things of the world” (NASB),

“elementary principles of the world” (ESV), and “elemental spirits of the universe” (NRSV). To

make matters even more interesting, Paul mentions the στοιχεῖα again in 4.9, but omits the

modifier τοῦ κόσµου.

Martyn, 387-8.

The debate on the meaning of the στοιχεῖα in this phrase has been long-fought and is

far from over.22 In its most basic usage, στοιχεῖον refers to individual items arranged in a line, or

in order. In this sense, there is a great deal of conceptual overlap between the semantically

related word στοῖχος, which means simply “line” or “row.”23 Anything that could be “lined up,”

or put “in order” was comprised of στοιχεῖα, whether one was speaking of the letters of the

alphabet, the lines on a sundial, the stars in the sky (as in constellations), or mathematical and

philosophical principles. For our purposes, we will organize our discussion according to the

basic options listed in BDAG:24

1. Basic elements that comprise the material world (e.g. earth, fire, wind, water)
2. Heavenly bodies
3. Fundamental principles
4. Elemental spirits

The strength of the first option is that it is, statistically speaking, the most common

meaning of στοιχεῖα when it occurs by itself without any modifying phrase.25 Furthermore, in

extra-biblical literature whenever στοιχεῖα occurs with the qualifier τοῦ κόσµου, it always refers

to the basic elements that make up the physical world. In ancient Greek thought, these were

universally understood as earth, fire (or ether), wind, and water. This is, in fact, the seemingly

clear usage of στοιχεῖα in 2 Pet. 3:10, 12.

Though written almost a century ago, the extended discussion in Burton’s appendix remains relevant
(510-518). For extended discussions, see also Gerhard Delling, “στοιχεῖον,” TDNT, 7:670-683; Martyn, 393-406;
Burton, 510; cf. BDAG, 946.
BDAG, 946.
Martyn (394) cites the important lexicographical studies of J. Blinzler, “Lexikalisches zu dem
Terminus τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου bei Paulus,” SPCIC, vol. 2 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963), 429-43; and
D. Rusam, “Neue Belege zu dem stoicheia tou kosmou (Gal 4,3.9; Kol 2,8.20),” ZNW 83 (1992). See also Eduard
Schweizer, “Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal. 4:3, 9 and Col. 2:8, 20,” JBL 107, vol. 3 (1988),
p 455-468.

If one adopts this option, then Paul’s argument clearly relies on the notion that the

Galatians at one point worshipped the physical elements of the world. Of course, we see

something quite close to this in 4:8-9, where Paul questions why the Galatians, who come to

know God after being in bondage to things not being gods by nature, would want to return again

to the ἀσθενῆ καὶ πτωχὰ στοιχεῖα, to be enslaved by them all over again. The real problem with

this view, however, is that Paul emphatically states in 4:3 that we – including himself – were

enslaved under the στοιχεῖα. It is hard to see how Paul, as a Jewish Christian, was once enslaved

under the physical elements of the world. Furthermore, this view also has difficulty explaining

how Paul could understand the Galatians’ decision to adopt Law-observance as constituting a

return to στοιχεῖα-service, unless he understood the Law to be one of the στοιχεῖα (along with

earth, fire, wind, and water, etc.), as well.

The second and fourth options are linked conceptually by the common belief in

Paul’s day that the “astral powers” of the sky (i.e. the moon, stars, planets, etc.) exercised a

degree of control or influence over earthly affairs. To the extent that these “powers” were

personified, they were viewed as “spirits” who enslaved mankind under their wanton and

capricious ways.26 Regardless, whether or not they were personified as spirits, they were

nonetheless frequently objects of reverence, if not outright worship. Proponents of this view

point to the close proximity of explicit references to angelic beings in the text of Galatians

(3:19),27 as well as to the personal nature of the other parties in Paul’s illustration from 4:1-2 (i.e.

For representative accounts, see Betz, 204-205; Cousar, Galatians, Interpretation (Louisville: John
Knox Press, 1982), 92-93; F. F. Bruce, 204; Frank J. Matera (Galatians, SP, vol. 9 [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical
Press, 2007], 149) points out that the non-personalized, heavenly body view seemed to be the consensus view of the
early Church Fathers.
Bo Reicke, “The Law and This World According to Paul,” JBL 70 (1951), 262.

the επιτρόπους and the οἰκονόµους) and the manner in which Paul often personalizes inanimate

objects (such as ἡ γραφή in 3:22).

One major problem with options 2 and 4, however, is that there is absolutely zero

textual basis from the literature of Paul’s day for understanding στοιχεῖα as referring to anything

in the heavenly realm. There is evidence from the middle of the second century A.D. that would

provide warrant for option 2, but textual warrant for the fourth option doesn’t arise until the 4th

century A.D., at the earliest.28 Furthermore, the presence of personification in the surrounding

context does not warrant ascribing a personal nature to the στοιχεῖα. Paul personifies ἡ γραφή in

3:22 and ὁ νόµος in 3:23-24, but this does mean that he actually regards them as personal agents.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, it is commonly acknowledged that variations of options 2

and 4 are the majority view today.29

Unfortunately, the merits of the remaining third option are not immediately self-

evident. Although Aristotle and Plato often used στοιχεῖα simpliciter in this sense in their

philosophical treatises,30 we have already mentioned that there is no lexicographical evidence for

this meaning when it occurs with the phrase τοῦ κόσµου. Nevertheless, the possibility remains

that Paul coined a new usage of this phrase by adopting it from the surrounding culture and

This is still debated, of course. For helpful discussion, see Clinton Arnold, who responds with the
suggestion that we “frame the question more in terms of whether we can date any of the traditions that make use of
the term stoicheia as supernatural powers to the first century or before.” (“Returning to the Domain of the Powers:
Stoicheia as Evil Spirits in Galatians 4:3, 9,” NT 38, vol. 1: 57, emphasis his)
E.g. Belleville, 66: “Although this is the most common interpretation today, it is also the most
See Delling, 678-679; Belleville, 67

infusing it with his own meaning. According to this usage, the στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου comprise the

“ABC’s”, or first principles, of religion or morality.31

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the possibility of this option is Paul’s widespread

use of the term κόσµος in ethical contexts where he highlights the sinful and fallen character of

this current age.32 At the risk of simply assuming the conclusion of our argument, it nonetheless

seems that if Paul were searching for a phrase that would communicate the notion of “basic

principles of the world,” it would be entirely characteristic of him to employ the term κόσµος in

the resulting formulation.

Several other factors corroborate the hypothesis that Paul is coining a new usage of

this phrase. First, there are two instances within the book of Galatians of the verbal form of the

στοιχ- root, στοιχέω, both of which occur in clearly ethical contexts where Paul emphasizes the

necessity of ordering one’s life. In 5:25, Paul exhorts the Galatians to “order” their lives by the

spirit, and in 6:16, he pronounces a blessing on all those who “order” themselves according to

the canon (or rule) found in the previous verse, which said that being circumcised or

‘foreskinned’ was irrelevant, and that what mattered was the presence of a new creation.

Second, it is not insignificant that the phrase στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου occurs two more

times in the Pauline corpus. Specifically, in Col. 2:8 Paul employs it in the context of his

exhortation to the Colossians to watch out for people who would prey on them “through

philosophy (φιλοσοφίας) and empty deceit (κενῆς ἀπάτης), according to the traditions of mankind

(κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων), according to the basic principles of the world (κατὰ τὰ

So Thielman (Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach [Downers Grove: IVP, 1994], 279);
Belleville, 67; Burton, 216-7; Witherington, 286.
Hermann Sasse, “κόσµος,” TDNT, 3: 892- 894.

στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου).” The close association of the στοιχεῖα with ‘philosophy’ and the ‘traditions

of man’ strongly suggests that these concepts are categorized together in Paul’s thought.

Furthermore, in v. 20 of the same chapter, Paul returns to this theme when he asks,

“If you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world (ἀπὸ τῶν στοιχείων τοῦ κόσµου), why

are you, as though you were still living in the world (ἐν κόσµῳ), obligating yourselves to

regulations such as ‘Do not handle,’ ‘Do not taste,’ ‘Do not touch’?” The logic of Paul’s

rhetorical question only obtains if Paul is using κόσµος in the ethical sense in both occurrences of

this verse.

Any conclusions yielded by our brief exploration of the phrase στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου

can only be considered preliminary until we have determined the manner in which Paul uses this

phrase in his discussion on the role of the law. In this regard, there are several interconnected

issues that must be kept top-of-mind in adjudicating between various interpretive options. For

example, in what manner does existence ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα correspond with existence ὑπὸ νόµον

(cf. 3:23, but also here in 4:4-5)? What are the precise antecedents of Paul’s pronouns,

particularly the ἡµεῖς of v. 3? What is the relationship between the κληρονόµος of v. 1 and those

who receive the υἱοθεσία in v. 5? The answer to these questions will yield the answer to the

larger question: Is Paul equating captivity under the law with slavery under the στοιχεῖα?

Linda Belleville provides helpful clarity regarding these problems with her insight

that Paul’s various uses of ὑπό in these verses (esp. 3:21-4:11) are syntactically parallel, but not

logically parallel. She reconstructs the logical structure of the ὑπό clauses in Paul’s argument in

the following manner:


συνέκλεισεν ἡ γραφὴ τὰ πάντα ὑπὸ ἁµαρτίαν (principle thesis; 3:22)

a: ὑπὸ νόµον ἐφρουρούµεθα (past fact; 3:23)
b: ὑπὸ παιδαγωγόν (analogy; 3:24)
c: υἱοὶ θεοῦ (present state; 3:26-29)
b’: ὑπὸ ἐπιτρόπους (analogy; 4:2)
a’: ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου ἤµεθα δεδουλωµένοι (past fact and present danger; 4:3)33

According to Belleville’s analysis, Gal. 4:1-3 constitutes the final analogy and implication drawn

from the principle thesis statement in 3:22 (“the scripture confined everything under sin”). She

reminds us that this thesis statement is Paul’s positive answer to the question he raised in 3:21:

“Is the Law opposed, then, to the promises of God?” The first implication of Paul’s answer to

this question that he mentions is that we were “held in custody under the Law.” The analogy of

the παιδαγωγός is thus intended to illustrate this implication before further advancing the


Since the analogy of the παιδαγωγός is logically parallel to the analogy in our text of

the επιτρόπους and ὀικονόµους, we will explore Paul’s use of this metaphor before advancing our

own proposal for understanding the relationship between law-captivity and στοιχεῖα-service.34

Briefly, the most accurate rendering of the term παιδαγωγός is the modern-day concept of the

“nanny.” In Paul’s day, the παιδαγωγός was responsible for the general well-being of the

children in their care. The duties of the παιδαγωγός involved such general responsibilities as

discipline, education, and protection. Since the quality of the relationship between the

παιδαγωγός and his or her charges surely varied – quite likely depending on the same sorts of

variables that impact similar relationships in our day – Paul does not seem to be making a

directly positive or negative assessment of the law simply by comparing it to a παιδαγωγός.

Belleville, 54.
The following discussion draws heavily on the analysis of Young, “Paidagogos: The Social Setting
of a Pauline Metaphor,” NT 29 (1987): 150-176.

If this is an accurate reconstruction of the logic of Paul’s argument, the unavoidable

implication of this metaphor is that Paul is making a developmental distinction between the

period of immaturity under the law, and the period of maturity that is signaled by the arrival of

the Messiah. Only children, after all, experience the authority of the παιδαγωγός. The analogy

only works if Paul’s readers put themselves, so to speak, in the shoes of a child, as he himself

does explicitly and emphatically in 4:3: “when we were children.”

This developmental distinction, however, is only one side of the coin. Martyn’s

helpful reminder is worth quoting in full:

Throughout this passage Paul does not think of a gradual maturation, but rather of a
punctiliar liberation, enacted by God in his own sovereign time. Stepping on the
scene, that is to say, God has closed the enslaving parenthesis of the Law at the time
chosen by him alone.35

Paul’s larger point is that the developmentally immature period of the Law actually enslaved

those who lived within the realm of its authority. Paul alluded to this in 3:23 when he said that

“we were confined under the law” (ὑπὸ νόµον ἐφρουρούµεθα) and “kept under restraint”

(συγκλειόµενοι), but removes all doubt in 4:3 when he asserts that “we were enslaved under the

elementary things of the world” (ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσµου ἤµεθα δεδουλωµένοι36). Indeed, the

apocalypse of Christic faith (3:23-24) instigated a dramatic reversal of the state-of-affairs for

those who lived within the sphere of law-obedience.

Martyn, 389.
This periphrastic construction is the combination of an imperfect main verb, followed by a perfect
participle. The imperfect tense brings the on-going, stative aspect of the past experience of enslavement to the
foreground of the clause. The variant ἦµεν is found in several important manuscripts, but is most likely the result of
a scribal attempt to assimilate the Hellenistic ἤµεθα to the earlier classical form.

Of course, it is not entirely clear to whom exactly Paul is referring by his prominent

use of 1st person plural forms in 4:3-5.37 Specifically, is he speaking exclusively of Jews and

Jewish Christians (such as himself), or is he speaking inclusively of Jews and Gentiles? Most

commentators believe that Paul’s use of the 1st person plural ought to be understood in an

inclusive manner.38 In support of this position, Burton points out that Paul would not have said

οὐκέτι εἶ δοῦλος in 4:6 if he intended to exclude Gentile believers from his statement in 4:3.39

Those who argue for the exclusive interpretation usually point to Paul’s intentional

exclusion of Gentiles in 2:15, as well as to 3:13, 23, where he refers to Jewish existence under

the law.40 Indeed, many see the intentional distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the

trajectory-setting paragraph of 2:15-22 as programmatic for the rest of the book.41 In the case of

2:15, it certainly is impossible to deny that Paul’s worldview allows, at certain times and for

specific purposes, for some level of theoretical distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

Ultimately, however, the surrounding context must inform our decision of whether or

not Paul signals such a distinction through his use of pronouns in a particular text, as well as the

related issue of whether his choice of pronouns necessarily excludes one or the other party. In

2:15-16, for example, Paul’s purpose in highlighting his identity as a Jewish Christian is to make

the specific point that even believers who were Jews by birth understood that justification was

through faith, and not works of the law.

For extended discussions on Paul’s use of pronouns in these verses, see Martyn, 334-6; T. L.
Donaldson, “The ‘Curse of the Law’ and the Inclusion of the Gentiles: Galatians 3.13-14,” NTS, vol. 32, 1986, 95-8;
and Andrew Das, Paul and the Jews (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 17-29.
So Burton, 215; Betz, 204; Trevor J. Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline
Metaphor (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2006), 86.
Burton, 215.
So Bruce, 193; Longenecker, 164; Belleville, 70;
Cf. Donaldson, 97.

When we look at Gal. 3-4 as a whole, however, we find no clues that Paul

specifically intends to exclude Gentiles when he uses the 1st person plural. Indeed, if his

argument depended on such an intentional exclusion, then he simply would not have concluded it

in the manner in which he did: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile.” Instead, we find him working

in the opposite direction, erasing distinctions and unifying identities with the result that the

inheritance is given to those who are one (εἷς) in Christ (3:28), who is himself the one (ἑνός) seed


From this perspective, Paul’s 1st person pronouns simply reflect an identification

with, or a first-hand knowledge or experience of the events and situations he discusses, and not

an intentional exclusion of Gentiles. To the extent that such events or situations were

experienced as uniquely significant by Jews (e.g. 3:13, 23), his use of pronouns maintained (and

allowed for) this increased degree of interest, but they actually functioned as open-ended

invitations to Paul’s readers to follow his lead in finding their corporate identity in their union

with Christ, instead of in the Law.

When we reexamine the ἡµεῖς in 4:3 from this perspective, it seems almost jarring to

consider the possibility that Paul might be excluding Gentiles in this verse. Indeed, when we

link our discussion of Paul’s 1st person pronouns with our tentative conclusions regarding the

στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόµου, the overall picture becomes a bit clearer. After ending chapter three with a

sweeping conclusion regarding the manner in which the united-without-distinction children of

Abraham become heirs, Paul refocuses his attention on the general experience of one of these

heirs. Since the Jew/Gentile distinction does not obtain within the category of “heir,” Paul

broadens the scope of his discussion to the cosmic level and describes the universal experience

of slavery from that perspective.42

In this schema, the Law functions as one of the στοιχεῖα, as one of the ‘basic

principles of the cosmic order.’ Perhaps the best evidence for this schema is found in 4:8-11,

where Paul directly addresses the Galatians’ actual behavior. Specifically, in v. 9, Paul asks the

question, “How can you return again to the weak and beggarly principles of the cosmic order (τὰ

ἀσθενῆ καὶ πτωχὰ στοιχεῖα), and desire to be enslaved to them all over again?” The emphasis in

this verse is on the act of ‘returning,’ and this is indicated by the repeated use of πάλιν, as well

as the adverb ἄνωθεν. The clear implication is that Paul understands the Galatians’ impending

decision to adopt Law-observance as a return to the στοιχεῖα under which they were previously


The Gospel (vv. 4-5)

This problem of cosmic proportions can only be addressed through a cosmic

solution.43 After describing the universal condition of slavery under the basic principles of the

cosmic order, Paul posits the solution to this problem in the form of a polished and carefully

structured confession of faith that is introduced by the apocalyptic phrase, “In the fullness of

time.”44 Discussion has long centered on the origin and significance of vv. 4-5. Many believe

Contra Belleville, who takes στοιχεῖα as a reference to ‘basic principles,’ but relates them to the
Jewish experience of being under the law (68). According to her reading, Paul first establishes the sonship of the
Jews (4:1-5) before addressing the Gentile Galatians. As we have already argued, however, this step is outside the
flow of the text, in which the controlling theme is unity without distinction.
Martyn helpfully suggests that vv. 3-5 form “the theological center of the entire epistle, relating its
major motifs to one another in such a way as to state what we may call the good news of Paul’s letter to the
Galatians.” (406). We might only add that a reference to πίστις is conspicuously lacking from this theological
Betz notes that this phrase “is found only here in Paul, but belongs to the Jewish and Christian
eschatological language which Paul shared.” (206) In terms of the context of the analogy from inheritance law, it
corresponds to the προθεσµίας τοῦ πατρός in v. 2.

that Paul quotes a well-known creed or hymn in these verses,45 while others believe that the

evidence for this is inconclusive.46

Also of interest is the debate on whether or not Paul refers to the preexistence of

Christ in these verses. If so, it could only be an implication, since the notion of the preexistence

of Christ seems to be completely foreign to the subject matter of this text.47 For this reason,

Dunn cautions interpreters against “reading too much into such a brief phrase.”48 Similarly,

Martyn downplays the relevance of the question of preexistence in favor of the more context-

driven question, “From where did Christ come?”49

Our brief analysis of vv. 4-5 will follow Fee’s diagram, which is adapted from the

well-known observation of Lightfoot50 that these verses form a chiasm:

(A) ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ

(a) γενόµενον ἐκ γυναικός
(b) γενόµενον ὑπὸ νόµον
(b*) ἵνα τούς ὑπὸ νὸµον ἐξαγοράσῃ
(a*) ἵνα τὴν υἱοθεσίαν απολάβωµεν
(B*) ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸ πνεῦµα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ51

First of all, we should note the presence of two links with the thematically related

argument of 3:13-14. Semantically, Paul uses the word ἐξαγοράζω both here and in 3:13.

Martyn, 406; Longenecker, 166-167; Betz, 205.
Schreiner, 269;
See Schreiner (270), Gordan Fee, Galatians: A Pentacostal Commentary (Dorset, Great Britain:
Deo, 2007), 149; Matera (150), and Witherington (287-288) for representative discussions in favor of seeing a
reference to the preexistence of Christ.
James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 278.
Martyn, 407.
J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 10th ed. 1890 (London: Macmillan, 1986), 168.
Fee, 148.

Syntactically, the consecutive ἵνα clauses in 4:5 find precedent in the ἵνα clauses of 3:14. Both

texts constitute an attempt by Paul to demonstrate the implications of being redeemed by Christ,

particularly as they relate to the obtaining of the Abrahamic inheritance. The difference between

the texts lies in their individual position in relation to Paul’s larger argument. Specifically, 4:1-7

occurs after 3:26-29, in which Paul unites the people of God into the one Messiah, who alone is

the true seed of Abraham.

Second, we must note that Paul highlights the role of divine activity in this text.

Indeed, the Trinity itself figures prominently in this passage. Martyn reminds us that the change

in circumstances does not come about as a result of an inevitable process by which the heir

reaches maturity, but is the direct result of divine action.52

Third, the specific activity of “sending” is highlighted in these verses. Dunn sees a

parallel here with Mark 12:1-19, and this is likely an accurate observation.53 The rhetorical

effect of these instances of divine sending is that the divine solution for the cosmic problem

articulated in 4:3 comes from outside our current earthly existence.54 Salvation is the redemption

of the people of God from “this present evil age” (cf. 1:4), and it is the result of God sending

both the Son, as well as the Spirit of his Son.

Lastly, the individual components of these verses emphasize the humanity of Christ.

He identified himself with the human race in general (γενόµενον ἐκ γυναικός), and with the

covenant people of Israel in particular (γενόµενον ὑπὸ νόµον), in order to redeem Israel from the

Martyn, 389.
Dunn, 278; Cf. Longenecker, who cites other occurrences of similar “sending formulas” (166).
Martyn: “For Paul, to say that God sent his Son is to say that God invaded the cosmos in the person
of Christ (cf. 3:23, 25). The Son is unlike other human beings in that his becoming a human being was, in a
significant sense, God’s own advent.” (407)

law, so that we would no longer experience slavery, but would receive the sonship55 that is

rightfully ours by inheritance, by virtue of being known by God (cf. 4:9).

Resumptive Conclusion (vv. 6-7)

At first glance, a number of things seem strange in this verse. For example, if the

grammar of English translations of this verse seems awkward, it is (at least in this case) because

the grammar of the Greek text is awkward. MHT note that of the 409 times in which ὅτι

introduces a causal clause in the NT, only in 12 cases does the causal clause actually precede the

main clause. The ὅτι that introduces v. 6 is one of these cases.56

Theologically, the chronology of the events Paul relates in this verse seems directly

at odds with the direction of his argument in the previous chapter. As Longenecker points out,

Paul argued in chapter three from the Galatians’ actual experience of the Holy Spirit (3:2-5, 14)

to their status of sonship (3:26),57 whereas in 4:6 he seems to say the exact opposite: “since you

are sons, God sent the Spirit.”

Lexically, many have noted the strange juxtaposition of the 2nd person plural verb

ἐστε and the 1st person plural pronoun ἡµῶν. Why would Paul switch from 1st person plural

forms in vv. 3-5 to a 2nd person plural form at the beginning of v. 6, only to switch back to a 1st

Cousar helpfully points out that Paul introduces a new metaphor with his use of the term υἱοθεσία in
v. 5: “In the terms of the former analogy, Christ changes minors (who are no different from slaves) into adults; in the
latter, he changes orphans into legally adopted children” (Charles B. Cousar, Galatians: A Commentary for
Teaching and Preaching [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1982], 93). See Burke, 83-89, for an extended
discussion of adoption in this passage. See also the discussion of Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of
the Reformation? – The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology,” in Jesus, Paul, and
the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 254-257,
where he explores the relationship between adoption and justification.
MHT, vol. 3, 345.
Longenecker, 173.

person plural form at the end of v. 6?58 To make matters even more interesting, Paul switches to

2nd person singular in v. 7, before returning to his direct address to the Galatians via the normal

2nd person plural in v. 8.

A closer look at the surrounding context will bring greater clarity to the minor

difficulties presented by these issues. We have seen in 4:1-7 that Paul is clarifying his claim in

3:26-29 that sonship leads to the inheritance by pointing out that even heirs go through a period

of slavery, and are thus in need of rescue and redemption. The journey from sonship to the

inheritance involves a layover in the state of slavery under the στοιχεῖα, which, for the Jews,

entailed Law-observance. In the fullness of time, however, God sent his Son to redeem all

people out of this slavery in order that they might receive adoption.

After adding this clarification in 4:1-5 about the intermediary state of enslavement

under the στοιχεῖα, Paul resumes the point he began to make in 3:26-29 about the Galatians’

status as sons. Indeed, both 3:26 and 4:6 function as parallel transitions to a broad concluding

statement. Paul tightens the thread, so to speak, of his argument by directly addressing the

Galatians’ sonship through the use of 2nd person plural forms in both of these passages in order to

demonstrate how sonship leads to the inheritance. In 3:27-29, Paul concludes that union with

Christ makes one a son of Abraham, and thus an heir to the promise. In 4:7, Paul concludes that

adoption as sons results in freedom from slavery, which gives one direct access to the inheritance

through the Spirit.

At the end of chapter three, the Gentile path from sonship to inheritance appeared

straight and uneventful. Paul had taken great pains to demonstrate the role of faith in uniting

The manuscripts reflect the various elements of perceived disarray in this verse. In P46, τοῦ υἱοῦ is
omitted, presumably in an effort to lessen the element of apparent contradiction. Several manuscripts (including D
E K L Ψ) substitute ὑµῶν for the ἡµῶν in an attempt to bring greater consistency to the pronouns in the verse.

believers to Christ, who, as the seed of Abraham, was the sole beneficiary of God’s promises.

But at the end of the chapter, he decides to tell the same story again, but from a cosmic

perspective. He takes as his starting point a representative heir from the last verse of the

previous chapter and describes the process of development whereby that individual obtains the

inheritance. It is a process in which the heir is little more than a hapless slave in a world of

conflicting authorities. At the time set by the Father, however, God invaded this world with his

Presence and turned it upside down from within. He imputed the status of sonship to the slave-

heir and sent the Spirit of his Son as a down-payment for the rest of the inheritance. And that is

how God turns slaves into heirs.