Saturday, July 2, 2016

Proving the Pre-existence of the Son of God: Galatians 4:4-6

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.
As in my last post in this series, I will demonstrate that the 'biblical unitarian' denial of the personal pre-human existence of the Son of God is unbiblical. However, unlike my comments on Romans 8:3, I will provide a more in depth exegesis of the text.
οὕτως καὶ ἡμεῖς, ὅτε ἦμεν νήπιοι, ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου ἤμεθα δεδουλωμένοι· ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου, ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον,  ἵνα τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον ἐξαγοράσῃ, ἵνα τὴν υἱοθεσίαν ἀπολάβωμεν. (Gal 4:3-5, NA28)
Thus, while we were children we were enslaved under the world’s elemental spirits. But at precisely the right time, God sent out his Son- born of woman, born under the law, in order that he might redeem those under the law, in order that we might receive adoption. (Gal 4:3-5)
I. Prefatory Comments
The above pericope is the crest of an argument whereby the Apostle has used an analogy depicting the relational differences between a child (νήπιός) and a slave (Gal 4:1). The analogy is intended to communicate the benefit of being an heir (4:2). While a child is functionally “no different” than a slave since he too is “under guardians and managers,” he remains an heir and “the owner of everything” (4:1). When the time appointed (προθεσμίας) by the child’s father arrives,[1] there is no longer a need for such guardians.
            There is a tendency among modern commentators to find a primitive confession or hymn under every christological rock in the New Testament.[2] Longenecker,[3] Fung,[4] and several other interpreters see a confession underlying the chiastic form in Galatians 4:4-6. Because of the subject matter and the flowing syntax of the text, I agree.
II. Exegesis
            οὕτως καὶ ἡμεῖς - Paul reminds his reader that the antecedent is to be understood as an analogy. οὕτως serves as a marker of transition to the application of the analogy (hence, “thus”),[5] and coupled with the emphatic conjunction, both the reader and the Apostle are now drawn into its grasp. In retrospect, perhaps the phrase is better translated, “Thus we too.”
            ὅτε ἦμεν νήπιοι – Drawing back now, both the reader and the Apostle are identified as characters within the analogy. The pronoun must be defined contextually, and therefore it may refer only to those who are now heirs. That is, the redeemed (vs. 5).[6] The use of νήπιός instead of τέκνον is likely meant to emphasize the dependence of the subject upon those who are in authority.  
ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου ἤμεθα δεδουλωμένοι – Like the child, Paul identifies that he and his readers were enslaved, only this enslavement is to the “elemental spirits” of the world. στοιχεῖα is defined as the “transcendent powers that are in control over events in this world.”[7] To what Paul exactly refers is much argued among interpreters.[8]  If one takes the modifying phrase τοῦ κόσμου to be indicative of origin, then it could be that Paul here refers to the physical elements that compose the creation.[9] However, when στοιχεῖα occurs again in 4:9,[10] it is contextually evident that it refers to that which the reader sought to become “enslaved to once again.” It is unlikely that Paul is referring to physical elements, as these are never described this way in the text of Scripture. It is more likely that Paul is here trading on Stoic categories of thought which are well understood by his audience. τοῦ κόσμου is intended to be indicative of that which enslaves all- both Jew and Greek. The only thing that this writer can identify as being capable of bringing “heirs” (i.e., believers) into bondage again (ἄνωθεν) is sin.[11] Sin, intrinsic in the very nature of humanity (i.e., “the flesh”),[12] is that which enslaves men. Sin in all of its permutations constitutes the στοιχεῖα of a Genesis 3 world, and thus the natural estate of humankind is slavery.
Paul’s earlier contrast between beginning by the Spirit and being “perfected by the flesh” (3:3) points forward here as that which enslaves. Sin is lawlessness and is revealed by the law. The law therefore is closely identified with the sin it reveals, and hence there is the allusion to the law in Paul’s trademark preposition with the article (“under the”).[13] The law is that which serves to reveal sin and thus one is “held captive under the law” (3:23) as the law was our “guardian” (3:24; cf. 4:2).
ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου, ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ - Within the preceding analogy, when the child reached the time set by his father (4:2), he was released from being under guardians and managers. Similarly, at precisely the right time, God sent out his Son. The sending of the Son therefore is the means by which the Father intended to enact the release from enslavement, and hence the dual ἵνα clauses that comprise 4:5. The correlation between the verb προθεσμίας and the adjective πλήρωμα serve to emphasize that the sending of the Son and the redemption he procured was not a “plan B.” It was not an unexpected development by a reactionary God. Rather, the sending of the Son for the redemption of God’s people found its origin in the very decree of the Father himself.
The verb ἐξαπέστειλεν is of considerable debate, especially in light of the assertions of Dunn [14] and those who utilize his christology for their own purposes (e.g., 'biblical unitarians). BDAG defines the term “to send someone off to a locality or on a mission…for fulfillment of a mission in another place.”[15] Louw and Nida similarly define the term as ”to send out or away from, presumably for some purpose.”[16] The debate centers on whether or not Paul was indicating a christology wherein the Son was both pre-existent and personal prior to his birth. On the one hand, Dunn has argued that the verb does not necessitate preexistence. This however, requires Dunn to explain the relevance of the descriptive clause γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός. That is, if Paul is not referring to an incarnation in the orthodox sense, but rather a post-bethlehem sending of the Son, then “born of women” is an odd and unnecessary appendage. Dunn has answered such a characterization by suggesting that Paul was refuting the theory that Jesus was an angel “metamorphosed into or appearing as a human being.”[17] This assertion however, is devoid of a contextual warrant. Rather, the compound verb ξαπέστειλεν conjoined with the clause “born of women” indicates to the reader that the Son is preexistent and personally so. This is all the more evident when one considers vs. 6 wherein “God sent out the Spirit of his Son” ( ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ). Thus, while it is true that the verb does not necessarily require preexistence, the context of the verb and the parallel in 4:6 certainly does.[18]
 γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον, ἵνα τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον ἐξαγοράσῃ  – Being “born of woman” is the normative means of human existence. So too is being “born under law.” In as much as the incarnation was purposeful, the Son’s subsistence “under law” was purposeful. Because of the syntactical link between being born and the purpose for which the Son was born, it is unnecessary to atomize the text as its constitute parts, “being born…,” are for the express purpose of redemption. Here it is Son who is born of under the law. Being born under the law is that which renders man enslaved, and not merely Jews, but all men enslaved “under the world’s elemental spirits.” Ridderbos has succinctly summarized the work described here: “Christ…subjected himself to the law in order to redeem those enslaved by it: He removed the curse for them and made them ethically free.”[19] Hence, being “born of woman” and “born under law” were intentional acts of substitution. Both the incarnation and the life of Christ under law were for the redemption of those under the law, and consequently the substitutionary work of the Son began at Bethlehem.
The language of redemption also cited at 3:13, indicates the liberation secured by Jesus in his substitutionary work.[20] Those who were enslaved have been set free by means of the Son who was entirely obedient to the law,[21] “obedient even to the point of death.”[22]
            ἵνα τὴν υἱοθεσίαν ἀπολάβωμεν – In as much as the incarnation and life of the Son under the law were a means unto the redemption of those under the law, the redemption won was also a means. The Son was of woman under the law “in order that” (ἵνα) he might redeem, “in order that” (ἵνα) “we might receive adoption.” Here Paul demonstrates the importance of sonship in that he portrays the positive effort accomplished by God through his Son for the purposes of adoption. The first person plural pronoun underscores that Paul intends his readers to identify themselves within the antecedent analogy, as he has made application here. It is as if he is arguing, “You were a slave, having no inheritance. But, the Son became a slave, taking my place and yours, making us sons and heirs.” Fee has noted that τὴν υἱοθεσίαν “is a technical term, used especially in Roman culture, that refers to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir.”[23] Indeed the language of adoption fits perfect here, as one extends effort and selection in adoption, whereas one naturally born is already an heir.  
III. Closing Comments
Like Romans 8:3, 'biblical unitarians' and theological liberals like Dunn find themselves grasping at straws and denying the obvious. This reality becomes particularly salty in light of the theological rationalism that is Socinian christology. While unitarians approach the biblical text with a rationalistic bent, they abandon reason when they arrive at a text such as Galatians 4:4-6.

[1] See Boice’s discussion of the Greek and Roman “coming of age” practices and their import to Gal 4:1 and subsequently 4:4. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 471.
[2] E.g., John 1:1-3; Phil 2:5-11; 1 Tim 3:16; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-2.
[3] See Longenecker, Galatians, 166.
[4] See Fung, Galatians, 181-182.
[5] BDAG, 741.
[6] Here Fee affirms the emphatic conjunction in the sense of “even we (Jews)” (Galatians, 146). However, the particle identifies that the state being describe has past. Paul refers to ὅτε ἦμεν νήπιοι. The inclusion of the Gentile reader is required for the argument to work, and therefore he cannot be alluding to Jews. This is especially true since the enslavement is to the “world’s elemental spirits,” and not merely to those of the nation and the diaspora. See also Fung’s grammatical argument, Galatians, 181.
[7] BDAG, 946.
[8] See Eadie’s extensive survey in Galatians, 295-296.
[9] For a comprehensive study of this use of the term see TDNT, Vol. 7, 684.
[10] See also Col 2:8; 20.
[11] Cf. Rom 6:15-23; John 8:34-35.
[12] See Eph 2:1-3.
[13] E.g., 1 Cor 9:20; Rom 3:19; 6:15; Gal 3:23. Interestingly, the ESV and some other translations render the preposition ὑπὸ as “to,” easing the allusion to the law.    
[14] See Christology in the Making, 38-45.
[15] BDAG, 345-346.
[16] Louw, 15.68.
[17] Dunn, 43.
[18] See Fee, Galatians, 148-150.See also  Schreiner, Galatians, loc. 7379. This conclusion ought not to be surprising in light of 1 Cor 8:6; Phil 2:6-9; Col 1:15-16.
[19] Ridderbos, The Epistle, 156.
[20] Schreiner, Galatians, loc. 7405.
[21] See also 4:22-26; 5:1; 5:13.Cf.  John 8:31-36.
[22] Phil 2:8.
[23] Fee, Galatians, 150.

Aland, Kurt and Barbara. Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (NA28). 28th Ed. Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 2012. Print.
Bauer, W. F. W, Danker, W. F., Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich Eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). 3rd Ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.
Dunn, James D. G. Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. Print.
Eadie, John. A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979. Print. Fee, Gordon D. Pentecostal Commentary Series: Galatians. Blandford Forum: Deo, 2011. Print.
Fung, Ronald Y. K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. Print.
Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, Vol. 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976. Print.
Kittel, Gerhard, Ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 7. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964. Print.
Longenecker, Richard N. Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990. Print.
Louw, J. P., Nida, E. A. Eds. Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains, 2nd Ed. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996. Print.
Ridderbos, Herman. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974. Print.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. Kindle Ed.


  1. Ridderbos is way off when he says that Christ was born to make us "ethically" free. That would be antinomianism and lawlessness. No one is free from the duty to obey the moral law of God. Both believers and unbelievers have an obligation to obey God. The death of Christ relieves the elect believer from the covenant of works as a means of justification before God. Christ alone could satisfy the justice of God as our substitutionary atonement.

  2. I heard James D. G. Dunn lecture when I was a student at Asbury Seminary in the early 1990s. He was then pushing the New Perspective on Paul in regards to justification. I was troubled even then by Dunn's liberalism and his sloppy exegesis of the biblical texts. Thanks for your article. My only complaint is you used the plural for women on a couple of occasions in your article and the Greek is single. ". . .Born of a woman."