The Gospel Coalition

 

Thomas R. Schreiner. Galatians. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 423 pp. $34.99.



Teachers of seminary courses on Galatians are regularly frustrated by that basic question, "What book(s) should I buy?" While Galatians stands at the center of exegetical and theological discussions and has received attention in articles and monographs, it has until recently been somewhat overlooked by commentary writers. Schreiner thus offers a welcome resource.

He writes as a conservative evangelical pastor-scholar for those who will preach and teach Galatians. His clear writing combines well with a series format that puts the Greek in parentheses and focuses on expositing the author's English translation, allowing the student or pastor without extensive knowledge of Greek to follow the argument.

Following an introductory section that moves briskly and effectively through concerns such as date, recipients and their situation, structure, etc., each passage of Galatians is presented via seven steps: (1) The "Literary Context" places the portion within the flow of the book. (2) The "Main Idea" succinctly summarizes the passage, usually in a couple sentences. (3) The "Translation in Graphic Layout" breaks the passage into clauses and phrases with a label to show relationships. This is extraordinarily valuable as a tool to assess the unit, in particular to instantly identify levels of subordination and coordination. Because of discrepancies between Pauline sentence length and that found in most translations, the flow of thought is sometimes obscured, and expositors can major on minor points. This visual aid can serve as a valuable corrective. (5) A statement of "Structure" follows to express the logical flow within a given passage and also to explain the "Graphic Layout" where needed. (5) The "Exegetical Outline" presents the flow of the passage and helps visualize how the unit in question sits within the larger argumentative section. While this might seem like a lot of effort as a preliminary to exegesis, it presents the steps that the student of Scripture ought to work through, intuitively if not explicitly, in approaching any passage. As such, it serves as a powerful teaching and learning tool, and it was a constant point of reference for this reviewer. (6) Once these steps of placing the text in context are complete, Schreiner offers his "Explanation of the Text," i.e., the verse-by-verse exposition. (7) Finally (in terms of the main exposition), a "Theology in Application" discussion seeks to develop the theological, including pastoral-theological, implications of the text.

In addition to these seven steps, two elements are noteworthy: (1) Schreiner presents sharply focused excurses on major issues as they arise. They showcase Schreiner's ability to cut through thorny issues in few words (they tend to be a couple of pages). (2) The fifteen-page conclusion to the commentary, "Themes in Galatians," is a concise theology of Galatians that will surely serve as a point of reference for many.

Schreiner offers straightforward and sensible explanations of most difficulties. As expected in a commentary at this level, he doesn't defend every conclusion, though the footnotes regularly point to further discussion. Often, the semi-technical nature of Galatians means that readers will have to accept Schreiner's conclusions or do their own digging. This is true concerning both exegesis and academic engagement.

Concerning Paul's evaluation of the Jerusalem apostles, Schreiner finds that Paul agrees with the apostles in terms of gospel content, but must walk a fine line lest his own ministry be undermined by a cult of personality. Schreiner interacts, albeit with a light touch, with the New Perspective. That is to say, he upholds a traditional reading while pointing to flaws in NPP readings-without letting the critiques clutter his exposition of the text. He understands "the faith of Christ" as the Christian's faith in Christ. His view of the law conforms more to the "modified Lutheran view" than the traditional Reformed position.

Some format-related limitations are evident. The volume contains a Scripture index but catalogs neither Greek terms nor non-biblical ancient writers. Sometimes Galatians feels like it is addressed to the American church: illustrations and applications tend to relate to American life and institutions. With the globalization of academia, this comes as something of a surprise.

The "Theology in Application" sections are bound to be somewhat controversial. Though they are helpful, some arguably move too quickly to moral or universal truths. For example, having exegeted Paul's description of the events in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14), Schreiner mixes into a discussion of the gospel the suggestion that Christian leaders are vulnerable to sin, that this can impact others, that we therefore need to learn how appropriately to rebuke one another, and that we need to accept correction with humility. While all of this is true, is it really how Paul wanted the Galatians to respond to these words? Does it move too quickly to what we are meant to do, while Paul's purpose in these verses is to highlight what God has done in the gospel and how that has been threatened not by a "mere leader of the church," but by the Rock, by Cephas himself? In a discussion of apostles and pillars, Cephas plays a special role, but now he is floundering. The move to universal and existential issues must not detract from the particularity of this threat to the gospel. And our need to apply the text to contemporary life must not turn gospel foundations, with their particular historical and theological truths, into rules for living.

A second "Application" that left me with reservations relates to Gal 4:21-5:1 and is titled "Liberation from Sin." In this section, Schreiner speaks of the power of grace to set free, concluding with a paragraph on the unchanged person in which he suggests that such a person may be unconverted. He then names the problem of pornography and, citing a pastor who counsels in this area, suggests that the non-Christian can never overcome it and that the failure to overcome is "one of the signs to him that a person was not truly a believer" (p. 309). While Schreiner unmistakably points to the complexity of the issue of the believer's ongoing struggle with sin and while it is correct that the Spirit produces discernible and inevitable change, the question of assurance nevertheless requires special sensitivity: before reaching any conclusions about a person, a great many things-including personal and spiritual maturity-need to be taken into consideration. That is to say, the sharp edge of pastoral care may require more nuance than can be loaded into a single paragraph.

This is, to be sure, an isolated instance from one who writes with pastoral warmth. Schreiner is on the short list of books that I will recommend to those who ask about Galatians. I usually found myself agreeing with Schreiner's interpretation of Galatians, and where I didn't, it was often more a case of wanting to dig deeper than of rejection. Galatians, because it is timely, clearly written, persuasive, and pastorally rich, will serve the needs of both those enrolled in a course on the epistle and the pastor embarking on a preaching series.


Philip H. Kern
Moore Theological College
Newtown, New South Wales, Australia



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