And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to do the whole law. (Gal. 5:3)
I use to think that in this verse Paul was invoking some kind of abstract theological axiom, a first principle, a kind of self-evident theological duh. It wasn’t until last week that I realized just how intensely practical Paul was being. I was reading parts of John Chrysostom’s homilies on Galatians (following the classic advice of C. S. Lewis to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books”) and came across this great explanation:
The parts of the Law are linked one to the other. As he who from being free has enrolled himself as a slave, no longer does what he pleases, but is bound by all the laws of slavery, so in the case of the Law, if you take upon you a small portion of it, and submit to the yoke, you draw down upon yourself its whole domination….And this occurs in the Law, not only in the way I have mentioned, but in another also, for Legal observances are linked together. For example; Circumcision has sacrifice connected with it, and the observance of days; sacrifice again has the observance both of day and of place; place has the details of endless purifications; purifications involve a perfect swarm of manifold observances. For it is unlawful for the unclean to sacrifice, to enter the holy shrines, to do any other such act. Thus the Law introduces many things even by the one commandment. If then thou art circumcised, but not on the eighth day, or on the eighth day, but no sacrifice is offered, or a sacrifice is offered, but not in the prescribed place, or in the prescribed place, but not the accustomed objects, or if the accustomed objects, but thou be unclean, or if clean yet not purified by proper rules, everything is frustrated. Wherefore he says, “that he is a debtor to the whole Law.” Fulfill not a part, but the whole, if the Law is of force; but if it be not of force, not even a part.
One prescript of Moses is dangled before the Galatians as bait and then the whole net of the law is brought down on them unawares. Paul sees through their special pleading and lays bare the reality of the situation. A little leaven (circumcision) leavens the whole lump (Christianity).
1. C. S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation
2. John Chrysostom, Homily 5 on Galatians