Schreiner on Galatians

Schreiner on Galatians

A review of Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary).

This new series of commentaries from Zondervan has been specifically designed to be useful to pastors and Bible teachers. It uses Greek, but does not assume the user is an expert scholar. It gives a “main idea” or theme sentence for each section of text covered (a sort of medieval scholastic idea which has enjoyed a revival in recent years). It contains up-to-date analysis of scholarly debates but does not get bogged down in them. And best yet, it has visual, graphic displays of the flow of thought in each passage which (and I am trying not to feel patronised!) was considered helpful for pastors. There’s even a nice “computer-like” graphic to illustrate scrolling down the outline of the book.

Each section ends with “theology in application” which has some suggestions for applying the text in a congregational setting, and there is a useful overview of “themes in Galatians”, interestingly placed at the end of the commentary rather than the beginning. Here and there throughout the commentary there is the odd grey box excursus looking at issues such as the role of Empire in Galatians, the translation of pistis christou, and “the Law of Christ.”

Tom Schreiner, a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary in Kentucky, will be known to many for his faithful work on the theology of Paul, excellent commentaries on Romans and Peter’s epistles, and for solid topical books on the Law, so-called “believer’s baptism” (i.e. adult believer’s only baptism), perseverance, and the gender issue. He is a prolific and careful scholar whose attention to detail does not preclude an understanding of the bigger picture, and he is clearly Reformed in his theological convictions. All this makes for an edifying, rich, and very useful commentary for preachers.

I was a bit puzzled by Schreiner’s description of the covenant theology of Galatians. For example, he asserts that “there is no straight-line continuity between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Paul does not conceive of them as the same covenant.” He also says “Paul does not think the addition of the Mosaic covenant constitutes a clarification of the covenant with Abraham. They are fundamentally opposed.”  But Sinai is “subordinated” to the Abrahamic promise, and is a conditional law covenant. Yet there is a “fundamental incompatibility” between them. However, later he claims “This is not to say that the Mosaic covenant was not a covenant of grace” (the very term usually employed by Reformed theologians to speak of the “straight-line continuity” of God’s saving purposes) and indeed that the law and the promise “are not contradictory but complementary.” They are incompatible, but they fit together? I was confused at this point – is he saying that the Mosaic law is a conditionally gracious, fundamentally incompatible but subordinated, complementary covenant? I also found some of his comments (on not treating the Old Testament as “a flat entity” for example) helpful, but others seemed to be somewhat removed from the point Paul was making in Galatians and to push Paul’s illustrative language a little further doctrinally than may be warranted by the rest of the New Testament.

But these are controversial issues and there has always been a range of recognizably Reformed opinions on how the Mosaic Law fits in. Plus, Galatians itself is pretty complicated in places! I found Schreiner immensely stimulating when preparing to preach a series on it, but by no means the last or clearest word. All the same, this is a fine all-round piece of work which robustly defends Reformation insights into the gospel against detractors old and new (including the New Perspective on Paul), and answers many of the questions a preacher will have. I look forward to further volumes in this promising series, which is edited by Clinton Arnold and lists Richard Bewes and Paul Gardner as Consulting Editors.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

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