Review: Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the NT)
March 22, 2011
Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 423 pp.
Ours is a commentary-writing age. It seems as though a new commentary series is released every week. A quick check of any major Christian book catalog yields a dizzying array of choices.
Commentaries are also growing in girth. Whereas some of the classic commentaries of the 1950s and 1960s ran only a few hundred pages or so in length (C.H. Dodd on Romans; C.K. Barrett on Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians; and most of F.F. Bruce's commentaries all come to mind), today's commentaries de rigueur are "super-sized" - often in excess of 1,000 pages.
This state of affairs poses a particular dilemma for the pastor. Time is precious and few pastors feel comfortable, or at least ought to feel comfortable, reading a single exegetical commentary in preparation for Sunday's sermon. But if a single modern commentary devotes, say, 50-75 pages of technical, exegetical discussion to a given passage, how can the minister absorb that much information under the pressures of time and of his other responsibilities? How can the minister hope even to consult, much less read, other commentaries on his passage? The temptation lying before the minister is that he will short circuit the necessary exegetical preparation for his weekly sermon.
Thomas R. Schreiner's Galatians is a valuable reminder that exegetical care and relative brevity are not necessarily incompatible in contemporary commentaries. But this is not the only void that Schreiner helps to fill. In large measure, Schreiner offers a reading of Galatians that is sympathetic to Reformation exegesis of this epistle. In so doing, Schreiner offers a welcome corrective to the diffidence, if not hostility, towards the Reformation that has arisen in some quarters of Pauline studies, particularly since the dawn of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) over thirty years ago. Schreiner is one of the few recent commentators on this epistle who is both self-consciously sympathetic to the Reformation project and concerned to respond constructively to non-Reformational readings of Galatians.
Some Points of Commendation
Several features of Schreiner's Galatians commend themselves to the pastor interested in a careful, exegetical treatment of the text of this epistle. Three in particular merit focused attention.
First, the format of this work - a format shared by each volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament - is both accessible and serviceable to the reader. Each section begins with a discussion of the "literary context" of the passage under review - how the passage relates particularly to the verses that precede it. Then Schreiner offers a statement of the section's "main idea" - surely essential to anyone interested in preparing and delivering an expository message of that section. After the "main idea" is a translation of the passage, a discussion of its structure, and an exegetical outline of the passage. The structural discussion, drawing from the insights of discourse analysis, is extremely useful. Propositions are not only identified as leading or subordinate, but their specific relations are identified and visually depicted. For example, Gal 4:1a is identified as an assertion of temporal quality. The subordinated clause at Gal 4:1b is marked as concessive. The main clause of Gal 4:2a is identified as in contrast to Gal 4:1a-b, and the subordinate clause of Gal 4:2b is identified both as temporal and in subordination to Gal 4:2b. The reader is able to see the whole passage charted in terms of its leading and subordinate propositions, and to have a brief synopsis of the structure of the passage and an exegetical outline that flows from the preceding. This portion of the commentary might have been even more helpful, however, had the editors opted to chart the propositional relations of each section in the Greek text rather than in translation. Even so, this feature of the commentary is most welcome, not least because many commentaries lack it, at least in such a clear and presentable format.
Following the exegetical outline is Schreiner's exegesis of the text in question. Within some sections are sidebar discussions of topics related to the passage in question. For instance, in his discussion of Gal 2:15-21 are "In Depth" boxes addressing "The Meaning of Justification in Paul," "The Meaning of 'Works of Law,'" and "What Does Paul Mean by the 'Faith of Jesus Christ?'" These boxes are helpful ways to offer topical treatments of verses from across Galatians and from across all Paul's epistles. Regrettably, they are not included in the Table of Contents, and so the reader may have a difficult time locating and accessing them.
Each section is concluded by "theology in application." Schreiner's applications are thoughtful and contemporary. His application of Gal 2:1-10 to "evangelical colleges and universities," and to the culture of celebrity in the evangelical church, for example, is well-reasoned and searching (132-4). In his reflections on Gal 2:15-21, Schreiner charitably but firmly reflects on a deficient definition of the gospel given by Rob Bell in a 2009 Christianity Today interview. Particularly helpful are Schreiner's applicatory reflections on the significance of the gospel for the Christian life. While not exhaustive, these reflections especially exemplify how careful exegesis is a necessary first step to textually faithful and pointed application.
A second strength of this work is its responses to recent scholarship in Galatians from a perspective of essential sympathy with the Reformation project (13, 21 et passim). Three examples will suffice. First, after a long treatment of the question of the identity of Paul's opponents in Galatia (31-5, 39-51), Schreiner concludes "that the traditional view that the opponents were Judaizers is still the most satisfying" (39). The Judaizers argued, Schreiner reasons, not only that "one must be circumcised to be included in the covenant community," but also that "circumcision was necessary for salvation" (51, 50). This conclusion supports the traditional understanding of Galatians as Paul's answer to the question, "how may a sinner be declared righteous before a holy God?" Whereas the Judaizers were urging believers' works as at least part of the basis of the believer's justification, Paul replies that the imputed righteousness of Christ alone justifies the sinner.
Second, what does Paul mean by the phrase "the works of the law" (see Gal 2:16)? Are "the works of the law," as some NPP proponents have insisted, the boundary marking devices of the Torah that serve, in the first instance, to demarcate Jew from non-Jew? Or do the "works of the law" denote the commands required by the law of God? How one answers these questions determines the shape of one's view of justification. If "works of the law" are primarily boundary-marking devices, then justification will fundamentally answer the question, "what identifies me as a member of God's people"? If "works of the law" are primarily deeds that the law requires of me, then justification will fundamentally answer the question, "how may I be declared righteous before God"? Schreiner judiciously and succinctly surveys the representative answers in the secondary literature to the question of the meaning of "the works of the law" (157-61), concluding that "the term 'works of the law' most likely refers to all the works prescribed by the Mosaic law" (161).
Third, Gal 2:11-14 offer some of the strongest prima facie support for NPP readings of Galatians. These verses precede Paul's declaration of justification by faith alone at Gal 2:15-21. In light of their position, Gal 2:11-14 undoubtedly shed light on what Paul means by "justification." The focus of these verses is Paul's rebuke of Peter upon Peter's withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile Christians at Antioch. Since, for Paul, this is a "gospel" matter (Gal 2:14), does justification therefore first and foremost refer to a person's inclusion in the people of God? Schreiner concludes in the negative. The reason that Paul sees the gospel at stake in Antioch is that "in effect Peter was requiring the Gentiles to observe the food laws to be saved. If Peter would only eat with Gentiles on the condition that they observed the food laws, he was saying in effect that they were not true believers unless they observed the purity laws" (146). Seen in this light, Paul's declaration in Gal 2:15-21 makes perfect sense - one is not justified before God by his own law-keeping, even the keeping of the dietary laws of the Torah.
A third strength of this work is its concise and fair treatment of some important exegetical questions in Galatians. We may briefly survey four such examples. First, Schreiner discusses whether the Greek phrase "pistis christou" should be translated "the [believer's] faith in Jesus Christ" (taking christou as an objective genitive) or "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" (taking christou as a subjective genitive) (163-6). After presenting seven arguments offered in support of christou as a subjective genitive, Schreiner offers seven arguments that, in his judgment (and mine), decisively settle the question in favor of the objective genitive.
Second, Schreiner also discusses the meaning of the difficult phrase "it was counted to him as righteousness" (Gal 3:6). Is Paul saying here, as some have argued, that Abraham was justified on the basis of an inwrought or infused righteousness? Or that Abraham's faith was his righteousness? In answer to the first question, Schreiner capably defends the exclusively "forensic meaning" of this phrase. In answer to the second question, Schreiner concludes that "faith is counted as righteousness because it unites believers to Christ, who is their righteousness" (192).
Third, how are we to relate the two purpose clauses of Gal 3:14 to the main thought expressed in Gal 3:13? In the course of four brief paragraphs, Schreiner surveys the syntactical options, weighing their strengths and deficits. He plausibly concludes that the two purpose clauses are "coordinate and both refer back to the main clause in 3:13" (219). In other words, "Abraham's blessing is to be identified with the promise of the Spirit" (ibid.). As Schreiner goes on to show, this reading not only brings to closure to the argument that Paul launched at Gal 3:1, but also demonstrates how Paul understood the Isaianic promise of the outpouring of the Spirit (see Isa 44:3) to be "at least part of the blessing promised to Abraham" (219n.105).
Fourth, a notorious difficulty in the exegesis of Galatians is the structure of the closing verses of Galatians 4. Schreiner admirably surveys the diversity of judgments that commentators have expressed concerning this question (294-5). Although Schreiner opts for a different structure of Gal 4:21f. than I would (specifically, I would not see Gal 5:1 as concluding this section but initiating the following section), I am grateful to have such a concise and fair survey of this question in my possession.
Some Points for Further Discussion
A couple of areas of Schreiner's Galatians raised questions for me. First, at certain points Schreiner's discussion concerning justification might have benefited from more precision. When Schreiner discusses "justification," he rightly identifies it as both a forensic and eschatological verdict (155). At a number of points he states that the substance or content of this verdict is that the sinner is "not guilty" (ibid.) or "righteous" (156; cf. 390-2). It is not altogether clear to me whether Schreiner understands "not guilty" to be synonymous with "righteous" or to be one component of what it means to be "righteous." On either reading, justification means that the sins of the sinner have been pardoned, and that the sinner is in this respect no longer objectionable to God. But does Schreiner also understand justification to mean that God positively accounts the sinner righteous? Is the justified sinner not only free from blame or guilt, but also positively acceptable before God?
A similar area of imprecision for me concerns the relationship between "righteousness" and "justification" in Schreiner's discussion. Schreiner is clear that "righteousness" in justification is "a gift ... given to human beings by God" (157, Schreiner's emphasis), and that the context of the believer's justification is his union with Christ. But how does the believer's "righteousness" relate to his justification and his union with Christ? Schreiner states that "believers are righteous because they are united to Christ in both his death and resurrection. Because they are in Christ, they now enjoy the same vindication that Jesus enjoyed when God raised him from the dead (1 Tim 3:16)" (ibid.; cf. 391). Is Schreiner identifying the believer's righteousness with his union with Christ? I am not sure that he is. A likelier reading of Schreiner's statement is that the believer's righteousness is to be identified with the (presumably imputed) vindication of Jesus at his resurrection. If this is what Schreiner is saying, then two further questions arise. First, how is such a state of affairs evident from the text of Galatians? Second, precisely what is it about Jesus' resurrection-vindication that, when imputed to the sinner, results in the sinner being declared not-guilty or righteous? Answers to such questions as these would go a long way to help the reader understand the way in which, for Schreiner, Galatians articulates the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
A second area for discussion concerns Schreiner's conclusions regarding tertius usus legis (the third use of the law). Schreiner correctly sees Paul mounting a redemptive historical critique of the Mosaic Covenant in Gal 3:15-4:11. In this portion of Galatians, Paul is concerned to show that the Mosaic Covenant was subservient to the Abrahamic Covenant; was never intended to displace the Abrahamic Covenant; was given for specific and for temporary purposes; and has expired with the Abrahamic promise's fulfillment in the person and work of Christ.
Schreiner, however, concludes from the expiration of the Mosaic administration that the laws of Moses are altogether abrogated to the believer (399). Rejecting the three-fold moral, civil, ceremonial distinction within the Mosaic Law, Schreiner argues that while the believer will observe certain commands that are similar to, say, those of the Decalogue, he ought never observe them because they are promulgated in the Decalogue (399, 400; cf. 337).
Indeed, Schreiner understands the believer to be bound necessarily to the commands given in the New Testament. He sees Paul's phrase at Gal 6:2, "the law of Christ," to summarize Christian obligation, and understands "Christ's law" to consist of "universal moral norms" (400). Even so, love, while not "ignor[ing moral] norms," "can never be exhausted by moral norms, for no moral rule book can comprehend the thousand decisions that must be made every day. Here love and the prompting of the Spirit constitute the guide for believers" (337).
What are we to make of Schreiner's understanding of the form and shape of Christian obligation? Two observations are in order. First, it does not necessarily follow that freedom from the Mosaic administration entails freedom from every Mosaic law. The reason that this is so is because Paul recognizes a distinction between the moral core of the Mosaic law (the Decalogue) and the remaining commandments of the Sinaitic legislation. This is evident from such passages as Eph 6:2, Rom 13:8-10, and Gal 5:13-14. Paul in these texts does not simply instruct believers to obey commands that happen to be found in the Decalogue of the Mosaic Law. He instructs believers to obey them in their Decalogue form.
Schreiner acknowledges these passages and feels the force of the argument of the preceding paragraph (cf. 399). He concludes, however, from Gal 5:14 ("For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'") that the kind of fulfillment that Paul envisions, especially in light of Gal 5:1, does not entail the New Covenant believer obeying the commands of the Decalogue. Rather, the fulfillment in view involves "continuity between many of the moral norms in the OT and the command to love one another" (337). But if this were the case, then why did Paul not only quote commands in their Decalogue form, but do so in such a way as to oblige the New Covenant believer to those commands in that form?
Second, I believe that Schreiner in Galatians at least tacitly acknowledges just the distinction in the law for which we have been pleading. In his exposition of Gal 3:13, Schreiner asks what group of people Paul has in mind when he affirms that Christ became a curse "for us." Was it Jewish Christians alone, or was it Jewish and Gentile Christians? Schreiner, correctly in my judgment, concludes that Paul has in mind both Jewish and Gentile Christians. But God did not promulgate the Mosaic Law to the Gentiles. How, then, could the Gentile Christians be under the law's curse? Schreiner, again correctly in my judgment, answers that question in this way: "it is ... clear from Romans that Paul considers the Gentiles as responsible to do God's will in so far as the law is written on the heart (Rom 2:14-15)" (215). I believe that Schreiner here must understand "God's will" at Rom 2:14-15 (and Gal 3:13) to be the equivalent of the moral commands of the Mosaic Law, since he cannot understand the Gentiles, as a class of persons, to have had access to the ceremonial or the judicial laws of the Torah. If so, then Schreiner acknowledges that Paul at least once distinguishes the moral core of the Mosaic legislation from the rest of that legislation. Why not, then, see Paul employing the same distinction in such passages as Gal 5:13-14, Rom 13:8-10, Eph 6:2? If we do employ this distinction in those passages, we will be able best to comprehend what Paul is communicating there - that believers must continue to observe the moral law, or the law of Christ (the Mosaic law as fulfilled in, transformed by, and given by the crucified and risen Christ in this era of redemptive history), as the abiding standard of their obedience to God.
As one who annually teaches at the seminary level a course in the exegesis of the Greek text of Galatians, I have publicly lamented before my students the absence of a readable, recent, post-NPP, exegetically-rigorous, Reformationally-theological commentary on the Greek text of Galatians. Many of the theologically solid commentaries are older or do not engage the Greek text. Many of the exegetically rigorous commentaries, even the recent ones, give me theological pause. Finally, I can tell my students that if they ever preach or teach Paul's epistle to the Galatians, then Schreiner's Galatians needs to have a place on their study shelf. This work has the double benefit not only of yielding much exegetical fruit from the Epistle to the Galatians, but also of modeling what an exegetical commentary in the service of the church can and should be. And in this, our commentary-writing age, I hope that others take note.