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A New Commentary on Galatians

Zondervan has recently released a new series of commentaries titled the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.  This week Zondervan’s blog, Koinonia, is hosting a blog tour providing reviews of the commentaries on Matthew, Galatians and Ephesians.

Below is my contribution with a review of Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians.

I will begin with my comments about the new commentary series in general, and then to specific comments about Schreiner’s interpretation of Galatians.

Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

This new series is without question the most user-friendly biblical commentary on the market.  There is no competition.  Each biblical passage receives the same seven-fold treatment (you can see an example here):

  1. Literary Context.  The author shows how a biblical passage fits within the larger context of the book.  This includes both a verbal summary and a standard outline.
  2. Main Idea.  The main idea of the biblical passage is summarized in just a few sentences.
  3. Translation.  An English translation is provided in helpful and visual manner.  Every clause is labeled with a purpose (i.e., exclamation, contrast, rhetorical question, condition, inference).  It is also visually structured so that main clauses are bold-faced and left-justified, and dependent clauses indented underneath them.
  4. Structure.  A verbal summary of the flow of the passage.
  5. Exegetical Outline.  Another outline, this time much more detailed than the one provided in Literary Context.
  6. Explanation of the Text.  This is the commentary proper.  Each verse is discussed individually (English-translation and Greek provided for each verse).  Schreiner also includes a variety of “In-Depth” discussion boxes that interact with important biblical and theological issues.  Examples include (with Schreiner’s answers):
    • “Did the Galatian Opponents Believe Jesus Was the Christ?” (Introduction) – Yes.
    • “The Meaning of Justification in Paul” (2:15-21) – a forensic declaration “that those who trust in God stand in the right before God, that they are acquitted rather than guilty” (391)
    • “The Meaning of ‘Works of Law’” (2:15-21) – the Mosaic law
    • “What Does Paul Mean by the ‘Faith of Jesus Christ’? (2:15-21) – – Despite good arguments for “faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” it means “faith in Jesus Christ.”
    • “Israel of God” (6:11-18) – Believers in Christ are the true Israel.
  7. Theology in Application.  This is where the author interacts with practical issues facing the church today.  For example, Schreiner interacts with:
    • Open Theism (1:1-5)
    • Exclusivism versus pluralism and inclusivism (1:6-10)
    • The impact of sin and challenge to rebuke fellow believers (2:11-14)
    • Rob Bell on the gospel (2:15-21)
    • Sanctification (3:1-5)
    • One way of salvation in both Testaments (3:6-9)
    • Evangelical Feminism? (3:26-29)
    • The true purpose of the OT Law (5:13-15)

The intended audience for this series includes those who have “the equivalent of two years of Greek in college or seminary” (11).  This commentary is so easy to read that two years may be on the high end of what is required.  However, the intended audience does mean that it is not the go-to commentary series for many students and leaders of Sunday School classes and Small Groups.  For that I will recommend the Zondervan NIV Application Commentary or the For Everyone series by John Goldingay (OT) and N. T. Wright (NT).  But for many students and most pastors, this commentary series is pure gold.

Thomas Schreiner on Galatians

Let me state up front that I already think Thomas Schreiner is an excellent scholar.  I regularly refer to his Romans commentary, and I have his New Testament Theology on my shelves waiting to be read.  His commentary on Galatians continues this excellent scholarship.  It is “brief and lucid” (13) commentary as Schreiner intended, but contains more than enough meat for preaching and teaching.  I will probably use this commentary as a first resource for future preaching and teaching in Galatians.

Now to some specifics.

Galatians 2:15-21 and the New Perspective

Schreiner’s commentary is a strong defense for the traditional Reformed position on Paul.  He believes Galatians was written to answer a soteriological question: “how can a person stand before a holy God without being condemned?” (21).  This is consistent with Martin Luther’s understanding of Galatians.  Luther himself was battling people who taught that salvation could be earned through good works, and Luther thought Paul was battling the same kind of people.

In the last several decades this understanding has been challenged by the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).  Although there is no one standard NPP, most proponents deny that Paul is battling the same people as Luther.  In fact, most NPP proponents deny that Galatians was written to answer a soteriological question.  Rather, the NPP believes that Paul is answering a sociological question: “who belongs to Abraham’s family?”

While these two positions may appear mutually exclusive, I think Schreiner’s commentary hints at a resolution that is even closer than Schreiner explicitly acknowledges.

Schreiner agrees that the presenting issue in Galatia is sociological: “boundary markers were the presenting issue at Galatia” (161).  Specifically, Paul is battling people who claim to be Christian because they profess faith in Jesus as Messiah (51-52).  These people emphasize the need for Gentile Christians to accept the “boundary markers” (circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws) of Judaism: “They likely reasoned that if a Gentile wanted to be a “son of Abraham,” then he must receive the covenantal sign” (50).  Here already there is tremendous similarity with the NPP.

But what is most significant for me is how Schreiner treats 2:15-21.  He considers this “perhaps the most significant text in Galatians, in which Paul summarizes his gospel” (151).  He also believes that this section continues Paul’s speech to Peter (150).  This is significant for me because of the context of the speech: Peter is a Christian who certainly believes that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ.  Because of this, he willingly sets aside the traditional Jewish boundary markers and is even willing to eat unclean food with his Gentile-Christian brothers and sisters.  However, when “certain ones from James” came (Jewish-Christians who want to enforce the traditional Jewish boundary markers, 140), Peter begins to enforce them as well.  Again, the context is sociological.  Peter is NOT a legalist who is saying that the Galatians must earn their salvation via the Old Testament law.  Peter is a Christian who, by his actions, is “implying that Gentiles had to live like Jews to become part of the people of God” (147).  This sociological issue, of course, has tremendous soteriological ramifications.  The two are intimately related.  Therein lays the harmony, in my opinion, between the NPP and Reformed soteriology.

It seems that the presenting issue in Galatia is sociological and has to do with Jews requiring Gentile converts to submit to the traditional Jewish boundary markers.  In essence, they were requiring something in addition to faith in Jesus Christ to become a full-fledged son of Abraham.  Paul’s response to this sociological issue is to remind Peter and the Galatians of biblical soteriology.  Paul says that a person becomes a Christian and, therefore, a full-fledged son of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Schreiner’s commentary seems to implicitly encourage such a synthesis.  He admits the NPP presenting issue, but immediately realizes the soteriological implications of this sociological problem.  In this regard Schreiner says something similar to his former pastor, John Piper:

“the root of ethnic pride is the same root as legalism, namely, self-righteousness, and that this root can produce branches that boast in God’s grace…The issue was that the Jewish badge itself (circumcision, diet laws, etc) had become the trust of many Jews (like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus) and was thus a means of exalting self, not God and had therefore led to contempt for others, and was therefore a morally unrighteous form of legalism” (Future of Justification, 156ff)

Furthermore, Schreiner also reminds me of another exceptional NT scholar, Gordon Fee.  Consider Fee’s words on Philippians 3:

“This [boundary markers] is undoubtedly the driving concern of the Judaizers themselves, to bring Gentiles within the “blessings” of the Abrahamic covenant, which was predicated on their becoming circumcised.  On the other hand, Paul ultimately argues on a more theological plane, moving the issue to the “means of righteousness” itself, i.e., how one is rightly related to God.  At stake for him is whether one’s identity with God and his people is predicated on “faith” in God’s grace expressed in Christ’s death and resurrection, or on the “doing” of “Torah observance.”” (NICNT, fn 50, p. 297)

As for Pauline soteriology, I’m with Schreiner that Paul basically responds with Reformed soteriology.  Schreiner defines Paul’s key terms (“pistou Christou,” “justification,” “righteousness”) in traditional Reformed fashion.

The “Law”

“The word ‘law’ is used thirty-two times in Galatians” (396).  For this reason, Schreiner provides a lot of good thoughts about the law in this commentary.  For example, I like how he finds a balance between the discontinuity and the continuity of the law.  He says, “the law is both abolished and fulfilled in Christ” (337).

Another brief discussion I like is his comments on “the law of Christ” in 6:2: “The law, according to Paul, must be interpreted christocentrically, so that it comes to its intended completion and goal in Christ.  The “law of Christ” is equivalent to the law of love (5:13-14), so that when believers carry the burdens of others, they behave as Christ did and fulfill his law.  In this sense, Christ’s life and death also become the paradigm, exemplification, and explanation of love” (360).

Of course, the commentary is too brief to replace his more detailed The Law and Its Fulfillment, it provides a great summary.

Galatians 5:16-24

Schreiner does a nice job throughout this commentary discussing the important role of the Holy Spirit.  As with the law, he provides a nice balance between the lingering effects of sin with the victory that is possible through the Holy Spirit.  Here is his “Main Idea” for this portion of Galatians:

The desires of the flesh are not absent from believers but threaten them constantly.  Nevertheless, believers are now able to conquer the flesh and its desires through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Nor is it unclear whether one is yielding to the flesh or the Spirit, for one’s life demonstrates whether the flesh or Spirit reigns (340).

Conclusion

Tom Schreiner is a great New Testament scholar and this is a great commentary.  I highly recommend it to pastors and Bible students.  I suggest that you read it alongside a commentary from the New Perspective on Paul (such as Dunn, McKnight, or Fee), but this is a must-have for your library.

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