Schreiner’s Commentary on Galatians

The new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary volume by Thomas Schreiner has probably been hotly anticipated by many as he is a leading conservative NT scholar and a strong voice in the debate over the legitimacy of the New Perspective on Paul. This particular commentary on Galatians allows Schreiner to engage in major issues related to Paul’s theology and especially his doctrine of law and salvation.

On introductory issues, Schreiner maintains standard positions, such as a Southern Galatia approach and Jewish, Torah-centered opponents who also have faith in Christ. In terms of distinctives of the commentary itself, even the backcover of the book claims that Schreiner endorses a “Reformation reading of the text” which places justification by faith at the center of his soteriological message.

Let’s start with the good. I think Schreiner, throughout the commentary, consistently focuses on the importance of the cross as the work of God in loving sinners through Christ. Secondly, one of the major themes of Galatians that Schreiner rightly picks up on is eschatology – we cannot accept circumcision as necessary because Christ has inaugurated the new age. The Judaizers were “turning the clock back” (p. 75). I also think Schreiner is right to adhere to the objective genitive reading of pistis Christou – faith in Christ. Finally, Schreiner gives good space to drawing out the importance of the Holy Spirit. Finally, he underscores the hostility and defeat of the cosmic powers of sin and death.

On the other hand, I found a number of concerns with this commentary. There are several exegetical weaknesses:

Gal 1:15 – “to me” or “in me” – Schreiner goes for “to me” because of the Damascus road experience. But what about the idea that Paul displayed to them the crucifixion of Jesus? (Gal 3:1 – Schreiner dismisses this interpretation here as well).

Sonship = pre-existence – Schreiner makes this argument (Gal 1:15). While I am all for pre-existence, there is no absolute connection between sonship and pre-existence. David was covenantally the “son” and so was Israel. We can find pre-existence in a number of other places, so no need to forcefully defend it here, I think.

– “righteousness should not be defined as covenant faithfulness” (p. 156). Does anyone really define it as that, or do they make a strong association between the two? I think the latter, but I could be wrong. Anyway, Schreiner seems to deny the connection, but Wright (et al.) only makes that connection when the language of the “righteousness of God” is used, not righteousness/justification language in general. So also Kasemann, I think.

Looking at 3:22, Schreiner sees “a polarity here between the law versus faith, between doing versus believing” (p 245). He draws this idea into 6:14 as well. Truly a Lutheran reading! I am speechless! All I can say is that the “presenting issue” in Galatians is circumcision, as Schreiner himself concedes. How can circumcision be about boasting in “doing” when someone else “does” it to you? Is it not about covenantal membership? I simply do not see Schreiner’s interpretation as viable in this context.

Finally, I was disappointed in the key theme of unity missing from his reading of Galatians. I understand he doesn’t like the New Perspective, but it seems he has gone too far away from some NPP distinctives. How can the one-ness and unity motifs be simply brushed aside? The key themes he discusses are justification by faith, the full divinity of Christ, freedom from the power of sin through the death/resurrection of Jesus, and dependence on the Holy Spirit (so stated on the back cover of the book). No unity of God’s people? How could he have missed this?

My personal opinion is that Schreiner needed to write a commentary on Galatians, because the “Lutheran” reading needs a good strong post-NPP advocacy, but this seemed to me to be a rather weak attempt. While I am criticizing Schreiner, I am also saying I fully believe he is capable of writing a cogent and critically-engaging commentary. I think the Zondervan Exegetical format did not allow him the space and platform for this. I think he needed something like a two volume WBC update or something heftier than ZECNT. Also, I felt he did not follow through on the ZECNT expectations either. My favorite part of the ZECNT is the “Theology in Application” section at the end of every passage discussion. While Osborne’s ZEC on Matthew handled this section marvelously, Schreiner seemed to have given this section little thought. At one point he almost comes right out and says, I don’t have much to say here! (see pg 113).

Another concern is that Schreiner engages in a wide number of key exegetical cruxes and asserts his own viewpoint only superficially – the main text of the commentary gives basic concerns with alternative positions and the footnotes point to more detailed studies that defend his position. My problem is that this commentary almost turns into a reference work for a non-NPP reading. While that is not a problem in and of itself, it could hardly be labelled “exegetical.” When I think “exegetical,” I think “inductively studied and defended.” Schreiner’s commentary seems to me to be a deductive approach – he says it himself – a “Reformation” reading. OK, it is true that it is impossible to be without presupposition and also people like NT Wright come to the table with an agenda as well. My disappointment is when a commentary becomes predictable. In a good commentary, an exegetical commentary, I want to see more weighing of options, and once in a while a commenter says, “As ugly and complicated as it may seem, the text points to this idea.” While Schreiner “weighs” options sometimes (though I don’t feel like it is a real weighing), I can always predict where he is going to “land.” While it makes the reading systematically comprehensible, it also becomes a bit more suspicious.

I am still waiting for a strong defense of a Lutheran/Reformation reading of Galatians. Westerholm – take the challenge! Well, actually slated to write Galatians commentaries in the future are Don Carson (Pillar), Douglas Moo (Baker Exegetical) and Brian Vickers (New Covenant). Carson and Moo (because of space-allowances) are sure to be substantial contributions. I trust both to be fair, accurate, and critically-engaging.

On the other hand, it will be interesting to see the Galatians commentary (Two Horizons) by N.T. Wright and the NTL one by de Boer (coming this fall!). Also, I am looking forward to seeing where deSilva (NICNT) and Peter Oakes (Paideia) land on NPP/Reformation questions.

Last thing – I still think that the ZECNT has potential, as Osborne’s contribution was quite good and I am excited to read Clint Arnold’s Ephesians volume. More to come!

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