by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Methodist pastor, professor, and writer Daniel D. Whedon (1808-1885) was a strong advocate of the doctrines of Arminianism and freewill versus Calvinism and predestination. In his commentary on what Paul says here, in verse three, Whedon focuses on what is called the “elements of nature,” and how it influenced the development of both the Heathen and Hebrew religions. He points out that as nature is viewed in rows and orders,[1], so it came to signify the elements of nature, which were then accepted as earth, wind, fire, and water.

So it is, says Whedon, from the visible order of these elements, or from their orderly measurement of time, the term was applied to the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars. By the phrase “elements of the world,” as used here, most of the ancient interpreters understood the heavenly bodies, as visible objects of worship to the invisible God. But for Whedon, that does not fit the parallelism between the minor child being in bondage to a servant, or tutor, or governor, in verse one, as pertaining to those ancient heathens.

Whedon contends that the parallelism of these elements to the minor child and its tutors simply means that they adjusted to and learned from their tutors all the elements required in order to grow up educated to receive their inheritance. These elements are said to be “of the world,” meaning the world’s philosophy for living. This then puts them in opposition to the doctrines of the Christian Church. The same goes for Judaism’s Law of Moses in contrast to Gentilism’s Laws of Nature. Since Paul is using a figure of speech, we must understand that he is accusing the Galatians of going back to understanding God and His plan of Salvation through the Law instead of going forward through Jesus the Messiah. The Law, as a tutor, was getting them ready for the Messiah, but they chose to regress back to the old way instead of to the new way.[2]

August H. Strong notes that from eternity God determined to redeem humankind; the history of the human race from the time of Adam’s fall to the coming of the Messiah was wisely arranged to prepare the way for their redemption. The preparation was twofold: Initially, it shows the commonplace nature of sin and the depth of spiritual ignorance and of moral depravity to which the race, left to itself, has fallen. It also shows the powerlessness of human nature to preserve or regain an adequate knowledge of God, or to deliver itself from sin by philosophy or art.

So that raises the question, says Strong, why did Eve not become the mother of the Chosen Seed, as no doubt she probably thought she was? Did she not say, “With the help of the Lord, I have given birth to a man”?[3] Why was not the cross set up at the gates of Eden? Paul plainly tells us here in verse four that such preparation was necessary, – “For when the fullness of the time came, God sent down His Son.” But this was only one part of the preparation for the ultimate redemption. Of the two agencies God made use of, we leave behind what is called heathenism, the negative preparation. But it was not wholly negative; it was partly positive also.

Strong then points out that the Bible recognizes Job, Balaam, Melchizedek, as instances of the priesthood, or divine communication, outside the bounds of the chosen people. Heathen religions either were not religions, or God was not part of them. Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster were at least reformers raised up in God’s providence. That seems to be the crux of what Paul says here in verse three in which Judaism might be included as one of the “rudiments of the world,” and, as Paul told the Romans, “The law was brought in so that more people would sin the way Adam did.[4] So the Law came in along with other forces cooperating with human factors resulting in primitive religion based on naïve revelation.[5] All of this as preparatory for the next phase of redemption through Jesus the Messiah.

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) spoke of spermatikos Logos (“seeds of truth” or “seeds of reasoning”), as part of his view of the natural man and natural morality, among the heathen. He mentions that Moses is a more ancient source than all the Greek philosophers. So whatever both philosophers and poets said concerning the immortality of the soul, or punishments after death, or contemplation of things to come, or similar doctrines, they received such suggestions from their prophets, which enabled them to understand and interpret these things. Therefore, there seem to be seeds of truth among all humankind; but they are not accurately charged with understanding the real truth when they assert contradictory theories.

So, says Justin, what Christian apostles say about future events being foretold does not present it as if their revelations came about by some urgent necessity. Instead, we believe that God’s foreknowledge of all that will be done by all humankind and seeing that it is His decree, then the future actions of humanity, will be repaid according to what they deserve. Through the inspiration of His Holy Spirit, He foretells that He will award the proper gift according to the merit of the actions done. By doing so, He urges the human race to be productive and responsible, thereby showing that He cares and provides for His creation.

Justin points out that while they lacked in truth and revelation, they searched for nothing more except among themselves. But some did search and turned to well-known ancient writings such as the Oracles of Sybil in which we read: “But the dread serpent drew them off by guile to go away unto the fate of death and to gain knowledge of both good and evil. But the wife then the first traitress proved to God; She gave and urged the unknowing man to sin.”[6] He says that anyone among the heathens who read such things as this joined the devil in death. For not only did they fearlessly read them, but we bring them for your examination, knowing that their contents will be pleasing to all. And if we persuade even a few, our gain will be very great; for, as good husbandmen, we shall receive the reward from the Master.[7]

Bible scholar William Kelly, a northern Irish member of the Plymouth Brethren movement, asks why some think that anyone should desire to put the Gentiles under the Law when they were brought out from it themselves by the will of God, the work of the Anointed One, and the witness of the Holy Spirit? What a gross inconsistency! What a subversion, not only of the truth of God revealed in the Gospel, but also of redemption, which is its basis! For the Anointed One removed those Jews who remained under the Law, that Gentiles might receive the adoption of sons, bringing them by grace into a place of real salvation and intelligent joy in relationship with their God and Father, out of that bondage as underaged heirs which the Law reckoned them to be.[8] As Paul says here in verse five, God did this so that He could buy the freedom of those who were under the Law. God’s purpose was to make them His children.

William Ramsay (1851-1939) paints a stark picture of this young heir by saying that according to Paul’s explanation, here in verse three, this child was treated in practice the same way a slave would be treated. They were to take orders and ask no questions, even though, in theory, because of their status as an heir, they are the de-facto owner and master of the slaves with whom they live. But there is hope, the father declared in his will and testament that once they reached the age of eligibility to receive their inheritance, they would immediately be treated as the Master by everyone.[9]

Modern commentator Robert Gundry gives us some added thoughts to consider. He tells us that ancient civilizations spoke of the world as being made up of four elements – earth, wind, fire, and water – and idolized these elements. Furthermore, since such sacred elements were thought to govern the world, the elements were also identified with the rules and regulations under which human beings are ordered to live. For Jews, the Law consists of those rules and regulations. But Paul wants to compare Jewish believers’ having been held in custody under the Law prior to their conversion with Gentile believers subjected to the rules and regulations in pagan religion prior to their acceptance of the Messiah as their Savior.

So, he uses “the elements of the world” to include both the Law and pagan rules and regulations. That’s why when he says “we” in this verse, he’s referring to himself among the Jewish believers. And when it comes to the idea of enslavement, the shocking comparison of the Law with pagan rules and regulations should keep the Galatians from subjecting themselves to such enslavement – this time to the Law rather than to pagan rules and regulations. In any case, they are the elements of the material world, not the Spirit world.[10]

Current British theologian Nicholas T. Wright points out that although Paul is talking about Jews in verse three by saying “we,” what he says about these Jews who became Christians is designed to make their story as similar as possible to that of the Gentile Christians. His aim throughout this narrative is to make the Galatians – Gentile Christians themselves, realize that their pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity is matched, stride for stride by the Jewish pilgrimage from the “minor child” status under the Law, into the adulthood of the Christian faith. Of course, there are differences. The Jews already followed the same God who revealed Himself in Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, whereas the pagans followed idols. But the routes are parallel, and the destination is identical.[11]

[1]Rows and Orders” refer to the Table of Elements and their volume and value to the whole of nature’s ecosystem.

[2] Daniel D. Whedon: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 230-231, op. cit., loc. cit.

[3] Genesis 4:1

[4] Romans 5:20

[5] August H. Strong: Systematic Theology, op. cit., Vol. 2, Part 6, Ch. 1, Section 1, pp. 521-522

[6] The Sibylline Oracles translated from the Greek into English blank verse by Milton S. Terry, Eaton & Mains, New York, 1899, Bk. 1:50; These oracles are a collection of prophecies in which Jewish or Christian doctrines were allegedly confirmed by Sibyl, a legendary Greek prophetess. The prophecies were actually the work of certain Jewish and Christian writers from about BC 150 to 180 AD and are not to be confused with the Greek Sibylline Books of prophecy.

[7] The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Ch. 44, pp. 322-323

[8] William Kelly: Lectures Introductory to the Study of the Epistles of Paul the Apostle, W. H. Broom, Paternoster Row, London, 1869, p. 173

[9] William H. Ramsay: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 391

[10] Robert Gundry: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[11] Wright, Nicholas T., op. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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