Last week, in my Galatians Bible study, we covered scripture that includes Galatians 3:16. Scholars call this a parenthetical aside on Paul’s part: while making the case that justification by faith alone was God’s plan from the beginning, Paul briefly argues that God’s promise to Abraham explicitly pointed to Christ:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
Here’s my question: Is there a problem with Paul’s argument?
Potentially, yes. The Greek word translated “offspring,” sperma, can function either as singular, meaning one, or as a collective singular, meaning more than one. Paul himself uses “offspring” in this plural sense in Romans 4:18. While many readers of Genesis might assume that the author intends it in the plural sense, Paul disagrees: in this case, “offspring” means one, and that one is Jesus.
What do we make of this?
Here’s my perspective: The word is ambiguous in Genesis 15:8 and 17:8. It could be plural or singular. But as soon as Paul, writing God’s inspired Word in Galatians, says that it is singular and it refers to Christ, the ambiguity is resolved. I feel the same, by the way, about arguments over the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14b: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” In Hebrew, the word for “virgin,” almah, can also mean “young woman.” (The translators of the Septuagint understood it as “virgin.”) But when Matthew uses the word “virgin” in Matthew 1:23, the ambiguity—again—is resolved.
That issue aside, I like this insight from the ESV Study Bible commentary on Galatians 3:16 (emphasis theirs):
And to your offspring Paul knows that the singular (Hb. zera‘) can be used a collective singular that has a plural sense (he interprets it in a plural sense in Rom. 4:18). But it also can have a singular meaning, and here Paul, knowing that only in Christ would the promised blessings come to the Gentiles, sees that the most true and ultimate fulfillment of these OT promises comes to one “offspring,” namely, Christ. Paul’s willingness to make an argument using a singular noun in distinction from its plural form (which occurs in other OT verses) indicates a high level of confidence in the trustworthiness of the small details of the OT text.[†]
A high level of confidence in the trustworthiness of the small details of the OT text. I like that!
Why don’t more of us let the apostle’s view of the authority of scripture shape our own?
I’m at Annual Conference this week in Athens, Georgia. This is a yearly meeting of United Methodists from the northern half of Georgia. In a sermon, one of my fellow pastors quoted a scholar who said, “God is a trustworthy maker of promises.” Of course that’s true. But given the convictions of the many progressive clergy who were in attendance, I wanted to say, “Yes, but how can God be a ‘trustworthy maker of promises’ if you don’t trust the only means by which those promises are revealed (i.e., the Bible)?”
How would progressives answer that question?
1. The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2250.