[This is yet another installment of a rough draft of my thesis. I thought I would start working on this chapter to put in writing the gist of what I want to say here. It needs to undergo a lot of revision and study still, but this is it in seed form. I hope it helps people understand the role of the Law and the gospel a bit better]
One of the passages that brings out the importance of the Priority Argument for purposes of understanding theology is Galatians 3:17. Paul’s argument here will contrast faith with the Law as the means by which one must acquire a right standing before God. This is an important question for Paul to discuss, simply because the question naturally arises, and did within Judaism, as to what role the Law plays, if any, in our salvation. Whereas Second Temple Judaism would argue that it is the means through which we must maintain our right standing before God, Paul argues that it is only the means for us to understand our wrong standing before Him in order that we might come to a right standing before Him through faith in Christ. The means to maintain a right standing before God, then, is faith, not works of the Law, since the Law does not have its origins in faith, but in works that are impossible for sinner and saint alike to perform.
It is important to see the context of his larger argument, so the entirety of the third chapter of Galatians has been reproduced below.
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed [as] crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit from the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain--if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, [saying], "All the nations will be blessed in you." So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them." Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "The righteous man shall live by faith." However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, "He who practices them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"-- in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is [only] a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as [referring] to many, but [rather] to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
In Paul’s use here of the PA, he argues that “works of the law” are not the basis of the Christian life because they are not the basis of justification. He pits the ajkohV pivstew" “obedience of faith” against the e[rga novmou “works of the law” by asking rhetorically, in vss. 3 and 5, whether the Galatian believers had received the Spirit of God through works or through faith. He further distinguishes the two by appealing to Abraham as he begins to employ his use of the PA.
One might ask how the appeal to something Abraham does constitutes a PA; but it is understood in Second Temple Judaism that Abraham is the “beginning” of the nation of Israel and therefore the covenant community of God. As such, arguments were made within Judaism that Abraham observed a proto-Sinaitic law that would be more fully given at Sinai to Moses. Paul argues that Abraham is the father of this community, not Moses. In this thinking, he is in perfect alignment with Second Temple Judaism. However, when he places faith in contrast to the law, he enters into an argument with it at this point, as Second Temple Jews believed that the Torah was given to Abraham in seed form.
Paul argues from the canonical text, however, that in chronological order, a declaration of righteousness that was given through faith preceded the righteousness to be found in the Torah, which was given many years later. Therefore, what Moses does may be of God, but it is not as superior as that which was done by God through Abraham, who is the human father with whom God’s salvific covenant was made. Hence, the means through which Abraham gained his relationship with God is superior to the means someone may relate to God later within a second covenant, since that second covenant cannot exist for the purposes of setting aside the first. In other words, Abraham, as the federal head of the covenant is the prototype of one’s relationship with God, and Paul argues, therefore, that since his relationship is made right with God through his faith, those who would become his children by way of adoption must also mimic the means through which righteousness is gained for their own salvation.
Paul, therefore, states that the Law, which came 430 years after Abraham, is not authoritative enough to do away with the precedence of the covenant between Abraham (the beginning of the covenant community) and God. Paul is clear to state that this does not mean that the Law is not good or that it has no authority at all, but that its role in defining the covenant community’s relationship to God cannot outweigh the first “definition” given to the community via its first father. Paul therefore states that the Law has a role to play, but that its role must be defined as subordinate to that of the superior covenant given to Israel at its very beginnings.
As Martyn states, “the Teachers will probably have considered the Law to be eternal. Paul, however, locates the law at a definite point in history, identifying it as an event considerably later than God’s covenant.”
Hence, the role of the Law is not that which gives blessings, but curses to both those who observe and do not observe it, since it cannot rectify sin. So, for instance, Martyn’s summary of Paul’s argument concerning the Law’s purpose seems appropriate here:
The Law does not have the power to bless. It is the Law’s business to pronounce a curse, and, by attending both to one of the Teacher’s major texts [i.e., Genesis 22] and to my exegesis of it, you will see that the Law’s curse falls on both those who are observant and on those who are not. By pronouncing a curse, the Law establishes a sphere of inimical power that is universal.
Paul’s argument then is that the Law was a tutor that taught us we were sinners. It was never meant to save us directly, but only to point us to the necessity of the first covenant promise given to our father, Abraham. As such, it is foolish to attempt to follow it for the purpose of being saved by it, as that was never its intention, and this we know, because the original covenant promise of righteousness and blessing was received by faith, not by the performing of the Torah, which, so Paul argues, was added because of transgressions, not as a vehicle through which one might obtain salvation.
Hence, as Martyn states:
In light of vv. 19–20 we can see, then, that the Law and its curse constitute an angelic parenthesis lodged between and differentiated from two punctiliar acts of God himself, the uttering of the promise to Abraham and to Abraham’s singular seed, and the sending of that seed, Christ. This again indicates that the Law does not stand in a redemptive-historical line between the promise and the coming of the seed. Precisely the opposite.
Hence, what this provides for the current study of PA’s is the understanding that what precedes that which is instituted at a later time, even if by God Himself, is superior in its ability to provide the proper guidelines in understanding God’s intentions with His people. The covenant that came before the Law is superior to the Law, and must define rather than be defined by it. Hence, we can see that in using a PA, an author is attempting to argue that what is established at the beginning of an institution has more authority to define the beliefs and practices of that institution than anything culturally, or even divinely, instituted later on.