The best commentary on Galatians today
The church in 2011 is blessed with many excellent New Testament commentaries on the market. Until recently, the letter to the Galatians may not have been numbered among them. A rigorous, faithful, and accessible commentary on the letter has been surprisingly hard to come by, but Schreiner’s recent commentary on Galatians in the ECNT series is quickly closing that gap. His commentary is strong in academic rigor, refreshing in its faithfulness to evangelical commitments, and excels far above its peers in accessibility.
The format of Zondervan’s newly launched “Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament,” of which Schreiner’s work is one of the first, certainly puts a premium on accessibility. Each textual portion of Paul’s letter is covered in several sections: literary context, main idea, translation, structure, exegetical outline, explanation of the text (i.e., running commentary), and “theology in application.” This format bends over backwards to make sure readers get the message. The ‘literary context” helps situate each exegetical portion within the greater argument and flow of the letter. This section goes a long way in mitigating the typical failure of commentaries for showing readers the forest for the trees. The “main idea” follows, providing a simple, single-sentence (or two) proposition that summarizes the point of the text. Welcome by anyone, the “main idea” will certainly benefit ministry practitioners looking for that elusive, preachable statement that captures the thrust of the text.
The “translation,” as the editor of the series notes, provides far more information than a mere translation of the text. The passage has been broken down into a syntactical outline that bolds main thoughts, indents subordinating clauses and phrases, and labels each section with its corresponding syntactical function. It practically does all the work for the reader in breaking down the logical flow of the text. Building off of this syntactical outline comes the “Structure” section, which offers virtually the same content only in prose form. Here, Schreiner explains the syntactical and rhetorical connections that knit Paul’s argument together.
Capping this introductory matter is the “exegetical outline” which has a parallel with the “literary context” that opens each chapter. Like the ‘literary setting,” it places the text within the structure of the whole book but here in outline form. In point of fact, there is an identical outline placed after the “literary context” section at the beginning of the chapter. This is only slightly redundant since when we come to the official “exegetical outline” Schreiner further subdivides the outline for the text under consideration.
We then reach the main bulk of the commentary, the “explanation of the text.” The commentary, like the rest, is helpfully arranged. As Schreiner moves through the text, his translation of each main thought is placed in bold followed by the Greek original. Schreiner’s use of the Greek is neither too much nor too little, but just right. Significant text critical issues are relegated to footnotes, and those least familiar with Greek will not be overwhelmed. Peppered throughout are sections that deal with particularly controversial interpretive issues such as the meaning of “works of the law” or “the Israel of God.” Schreiner demonstrates again and again his competence and grace when interacting with views he disagrees with.
Schreiner’s exegesis is rich, not simply in terms of helpful comments on the content of the letter but also in terms of integrating Galatians with Paul’s whole theology and, indeed, the grand movements of redemptive history. Where many commentaries restrict themselves exclusively to the text in front of them, Schreiner is unafraid to accept what Paul evidently understood, namely, that the gospel implies a whole Bible theology. Schreiner does all this with remarkable simplicity and brevity. Schreiner’s own theological commitments, of course, make these kind of connections not only plausible but necessary. For those wishing to see how exegesis and interpretation can be done in a way that honors both the individual text of Scripture and its grand story, Schreiner’s commentary is an excellent place to start. This is biblical theology for the 21st century.
To give readers of this review a flavor of Schreiner’s interpretive orientations, I will survey two snapshots from the commentary that touch on issues particularly relevant for today’s debates. The first of these is Gal. 2.15-21 and 3.6-9. Here, Schreiner deals with two controversies that have been loosely associated with the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), namely, what Paul means by “justification,” and “the works of the law.” Schreiner deals with each of these issues in break-out “in-depth” sections while treating Gal. 2.15-21. However, he also returns to them in the course of his commentary through the crucial section, Gal. 3.6-9. How Schreiner argues for the traditional, Reformational definitions of these concepts is exemplary on many levels. On both issues, Schreiner demonstrates a respect for differing views, noting first their strengths before revealing their weaknesses.
On “justification” Schreiner straightforwardly argues for the forensic setting which defines it as a declaration of righteousness as opposed to a declaration that “transforms us or ‘makes us’ righteous” (156). He builds this case from overwhelming Old Testament usage, its association with the forgiveness of present sins, and the terminology that accompanies it such as “to be counted” from logízomai. All of these points come to a head when Schreiner treats the term in the context of Abraham’s faith in Galatians 3:6 where such a forensic context is explicit.
On “works of the law,” Schreiner distinguishes three possible definitions of the phrase: legalism, “social boundary markers of the law,” and “the deeds commanded by the law” (159). These distinctions undoubtedly signal the helpful corrective the New Perspective on Paul has provided for evangelical theology. Rather than quibbling over whether Judaism consistently taught a merit theology, Paul argued purely from the God-ward focus of the law, namely, mankind’s failure to obey God truly and wholeheartedly through the commands of the law. As Schreiner states: “It is hardly credible to claim that the Jews were condemned for their bad attitude of excluding Gentiles. They were liable to judgment because they had not kept the entirety of the law” (161). Furthermore, Schreiner demonstrate from Galatians 3:6-9 that mainstream Judaism accented Abraham’s obedience over his faith which, either way, contradicts the conclusions of the New Perspective on Paul and Paul’s own interpretation of faith’s role in the Genesis narrative.
The next snapshot from Galatians 4:21-5:1 focuses on an area that is of particular interest to students of evangelical biblical theology. In many ways, this section is a bone of contention for anyone attempting to demonstrate the New Testament author’s warrant for interpreting the Old Testament in light of Christ. Schreiner grapples with the difficulties here and ends up defining Paul’s argument as “typological allegory” (293). Schreiner takes a ‘both/and’ approach: “On the one hand, it is difficult to see how Hagar in any historical sense anticipates the covenant at Sinai, and hence Paul exploits the Hagar narrative allegorically” (293). One reason why this is ‘difficult’ is because, in Schreiner’s view, the Exodus event is associated with “liberation” and clearly not with “slavery.” As he puts it, “The fundamental reason for seeing the text as having an allegorical component is the identification of Hagar with the Sinai covenant. Such a move does not comport with typology, where there is historical connection between the type and its fulfillment. It is difficult to see how Hagar functions as a historical type of the Sinai covenant” (300).
On the other hand, Schreiner does not think this entails out-right ‘allegory’ in the worst sense, i.e., the imposition of a foreign narrative or interpretive schema onto the text of Scripture. It is not, in his words, an “arbitrary” allegory for two reasons: 1) the Genesis text itself highlights Abraham’s faithless attempt to scion a child through the slave woman, Hagar (293), and 2) the rest of the Pentateuch suggests that the giving of the law did constitute a form of slavery in that it commanded what could not be obeyed (301).
A tension in Schreiner’s interpretation is clearly evident. It appears to this reviewer that Schreiner has already answered his own misgivings about the text. If we accept the fact that the author of Genesis was also the author of Exodus and Deuteronomy, we cannot easily separate the latter’s emphasis on the condemnation of the law from Abraham’s failed attempt at self-justification. Furthermore, in an SBTS journal article on just this passage (Fall 2010), A.B. Caneday, Schreiner’s erstwhile collaborator, argues vigorously that the allegory is in the text itself (v. 4.24, “these things are written allegorically” vs. “interpreted allegorically”). He suggests that Paul’s triangulation of the narrative of Genesis with Isaiah 54 is nearly identical to what the author of Hebrews does with Melchizedek. As such, Caneday argues that these characters are understood within the narrative itself to be “larger than life” personages that represent epochs that transcend the simple human stories unfolding. Yet by assuming Schreiner’s position, we would be hard pressed not to conclude that Hebrew’s appeal to the Melchizedek pericope in Genesis 14 is not a similar case of a NT author proving a little too much from the original text. For evangelicals with Reformed convictions about Scripture, Caneday’s argument will ultimately be more satisfying.
Closing each chapter is Schreiner’s “theology in application.” The title of this section is itself illuminating. The reader is not treated to application points that spin-off from the exegesis. Instead, Schreiner makes a conscientious attempt to build his application point from the theology of the text. Schreiner works diligently drive home the implications of Paul’s gospel to his readers. Schreiner is thus evangelical in the best sense, the Pauline sense. We do not encounter denuded “principles for living,” but concrete ways Paul’s gospel should transform our sense of self, our relationships, and out activities in life.
Tim Keller, drawing on Vern Poythress, breaks down application in terms of three categories: doctrinal (what I should believe), pietistic (how I should live), and culture transformational (how we live together). Under this rubric, Schreiner excels in making both doctrinal and pietistic (i.e., gospel-centered) application. He’s not stuck on just one type of application and this will be of immense practical use to the ministry practitioner. Keller’s “cultural transformationist” is not as prominent in Schreiner’s commentary, but that is to be expected. Unlike Ephesians or 1 Peter, for instance, Galatians is unquestionably a book that zeros in on doctrinal foundations and how they inform a Christian’s identity in Christ.
When a pastor-friend discovered I was doing a review of Schreiner’s commentary, he immediately began to relate how thankful he was for having this book in hand while preaching through Galatians. He expressed just what I have related here: how thoughtful, gospel-centered, and accessible Schreiner managed to make it. In a ministry context where the gospel is assumed but very little understood, Schreiner’s commentary has been an immense help to this brother. Schreiner states that his commentary was written primarily for “pastors and students.” If this anecdote is any indication, I would say he has achieved that which he intended and much more. It will not only aid students and pastors but equip them for a gospel ministry that glorifies God’s grace and nourishes the church now and, Lord willing, long into the future.
Matthew Claridge holds an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Th.M. in systematic theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and they have two children, Alec and Nora. Matthew is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.
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