“Is the law then against the promises of God?”
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not. For if a law had been given which could make alive, then justification would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned everything under sin, in order that the promise, by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Before the faith came, we were kept in custody under the Law, confined until the coming faith was to be revealed. Therefore, the Law has been our guardian until Christ, in order that we might be justified by faith. But since the faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Paul begins this argument with another logical proof. If the Law, as he has just said, is given for the purpose of preventing sin, does it not annul the promise—in other words, does it not substitute itself for the promise and obviate the promise? This seems to me a strong argument against the interpretation of the previous verses that the Law was given to increase sin, in order that the grace of the promise would be necessary, for if that were the case then the question of the Law being against the promise would not arise! Only if the Law is accorded the positive role of confining sin would it be possible even to imagine that it somehow cancels the promise of a “free gift of grace.” Verse 23, “But the scripture,” seems difficult for my interpretation, however. It seems strongly to promote a reading that the Law itself produces, and thus confines everyone under, sin. However, this problem is illusory. Note that Paul switches here from “The Law” to “Scripture” as the subject of the sentence, and this shift must be significant. He is not speaking here of “The Law” at all, but of the text. The action of the text is linguistic, so “consigns/confines everyone under sin” must be understood as “predicates of all humanity that they are sinful.” To understand this point, the following linguistic parallel may be helpful. In his book on Paul, John Barclay has written the following sentence: “The peculiar pessimism about ‘mankind’ and ‘flesh’ in the Dead Sea Scrolls arises from an apocalyptic and sectarian perspective which consigns everyone to doom unless they experience the grace of God within the elect community” (1991, 205). Just as Barclay does not mean to say here that the sectarian perspective caused (performative) everyone to be doomed but only that it declared (constative) everyone doomed, so also could we understand Paul's Scripture as “confining” everyone under sin, in other words, declaring that all are sinful. This interpretation also obviates the difficult conclusion that Paul is equating “under sin” in this verse with “under the Law” in the next; therefore, the Law = sin (Longenecker 1990, 181–82). For ὑπὸ ἁμαρτιὰν in the sense of “sinful,” see Romans 3:9. It may be that Paul holds, as indeed he seems to, that the Law cannot redeem from sin (Romans 6:14), but this still does not mean that he holds that the Law produces, increases, or causes sin. Thielman offers an attractive alternative interpretation, that Scripture (which he takes as equal to the Law here) confines everyone who is sinful and does not allow them to escape the consequences of their sin.
In either case, however, the function of the Law is not to give life. The answer to the question about the Law being against the promises, then, is No, of course it is not. Now comes Paul's proof: If there were a law which could make alive (= justify), then indeed justification would come from the Law and the promise would be nullified. The function of the Law, however, is not to give life. All it does is confine all under sin, or by reason of sin, so that they may continue until the promise is given to those who believe. Therefore, the original premise is proven wrong: The Law does not annul the promise. Paul then explains the positive function of the Law as a pedagogue who makes it possible for people to be justified by faith, and now that this function has been fulfilled is no longer required.
Accordingly, we need not see the παιδαγωγός in a negative light, as Betz implies (177), in order to follow Paul's argument. If the pedagogue is a guide and baby-sitter appropriate for the small child, then we understand Paul's mashal perfectly. In the infancy of humanity the pedagogue was necessary because of sin (not to produce sin, a bizarre and near Marcionite notion, which Lutheran theologians refer to as “God's strange work”!), but now with the maturity of the coming of Christ the pedagogue is no longer necessary. If we do not accept the essentially Lutheranizing interpretation of Paul's Law doctrine to the effect that it has never been a way of achieving virtue, then we do not need to render Paul's notion of the Law as a pedagogue so discontinuous with the topos of Law as educator which as Betz remarks was common from Plato on. On the other hand, there may be no doubt that Betz is correct that it is wrong to see here an argument that the Law prepared for the coming of Christ by educating people in that direction (Betz 1979, 177–78). The mashal in the beginning of chapter 4 completely disables such an interpretation. The pedagogue is not a teacher in the sense of one who prepares the child for adulthood but a guardian in the sense of one who keeps him or her out of trouble while waiting for adulthood. This does not, however, translate into such terms as “ugly” or “demonic” that Betz uses, nor to a notion that the pedagogue was sent to increase transgression!