Sunday, August 19, 2007

Review of Don Garlington: An Exposition of Galatians

An Exposition of Galatians,
A Reading from the New Perspective
Third Edition
By Don Garlington
Available from Wipf and Stock

This commentary is a very useful study on Paul's letter to the Galatians, useful in the sense that it has an excellent introduction, the comments are succint and clear, and it represents a very good distillation and interface with several recent dissertations on Paul and Galatians too (e.g. Steve Cummins, Roy Ciampa, Brian Dodd, Stephen Finlan, etc.). Garlington is up-to-date on research and is not merely commenting on other commentaries.

The introduction covers lots of ground including: ocassion and purpose of the letter, the message of Paul's opponents and Paul's reply, the new perspective on Paul, what time is it?, Galatians and Anatolian folk belief, Galatians and Pauline rhetoric, and offers an outline of the letter. In sum, Garlington dates Galatians pre-Jerusalem council, Paul's opponents were Jewish Christians arguing for a covenantal nomism, he is unconvinced about structuring Galatians along the lines of a rhetorical handbook, and he regards the letter as an "epistolary sermon".

On the New Perspective, Garlington is certainly an insider as he accepts E.P. Sanders' view of Judaism as covenantal nomism, though he is probably closer to Dunn than to Wright on several aspects of Pauline interpretation. Garlington states: "the ensuing commentary assumes a modified form of the 'New Perspective' and seeks to expound Galatians within its framework" (p. 25). Still, Garlington rejects several overstatements made by proponents of the New Perspective, esp. those made by N.T. Wright. Against N.T. Wright, he says: "Wright has constructed a seemingly false dichotomy between the identity of the people of God and salvation. It is closer to the mark to say that Galatians does have to do with entrance into the body of the saved, meaning that to belong to the new covenant is to belong tot he community [of] the saved. Therefore, justification does indeed tell us how to be saved, in that it depicts God's method of saving sinners - by faith in Christ, not from works ofthe law - and place them in covenant standing with himself. If justification is by faith, then in point of fact a method of salvation is prescribed: one enters into the realm of salvation by faith" (pp. 9-10). What is more, and much like Wright and Dunn as well, he categorically rejects that salvation is of works and he maintains that Paul clearly repudiates a works based religion. Garlington writes: "In this regard, the Reformers were correct that if justification is not by Jewish tradition, then it is not by church tradition either. Salvation is not by 'religion', however conceived. This is the hermeneutical 'significance' or application of the historical issue at stake: only Christ can save, not religion or tradition. Christ must be, in the familiar phrase, a 'personal saviour'. When Paul became a Christian, he left 'religion' and came to Christ" (p. 25). I include this aside because Don Garlington has been sadly misunderstood and misrepresented by many of his harsher critics (see Sam Waldron's essay here as a good example). I disagree with Garlington on several points, not the least of which is his perseverance/apostasy reading of Romans 2, but I would hardly characterize him as an "enemy of sola fide" as someone once maliciously said about him on some site that I read on the internet. Others, such as Thomas Schreiner, James Dunn, and myself have found it worthwhile to cite and to interact with his work on "faith" and "obedience" at several points. While Garlington is clearly "of the New Perspective" it is inappropriate and inaccurate to pin criticisms of Dunn and Wright onto him, he has his own unique take on justification and obedience and boundary markers, and he needs to be tackled in his own right and not on the coat-tails of others.

The commentary itself summarizes the arguments of each verse and each chapter ends with more detailed section notes that expound finer details of exegesis (somewhat like the Anchor Bible commentaries). I'll mention now a few conclusions that Garlington makes:

A. Gal. 1.12: He understands "zeal for the law" to be "an implacable nationalism that was prepared to deal harshly with even an apparent usurpration of power over the law and the temple."
B. Gal. 2.11-14: Peter withdrew from fellowship with Gentiles because of pressure from certain men sent by James, and they objected to meals that treated Gentiles as complete equals in Christian fellowship, without Gentiles becoming equal via proselytism.
C. Gal. 2.16: Garlington takes the pistis christou as an objective genitive.
D. Gal. 3.12: He argues for a redemptive-historical reading of Paul's rejection of Lev. 18.5. Garlington asserts: "Therefore, the resolution of the problem must be sought along the lines of the historical character of Paul's argument. His is not a topical discussion of faith and works but an epochal delinaeation of the respective places of law and faith in salvation history."
E. Gal. 6.16: The "Israel of God" includes Jews and Christians, in his words: "The assembly of Christ consists of Jew and Greek alike with no distinction betweem them: their identity is no longer derived from the Torah but from Christ and the Spirit."

The only disappointing thing about this commentary was the typographical error in the opening dedication which is not a good way to start, a lack of theological and pastoral reflection, and the absence of indices. Otherwise, a fine commentary that is worth having.


John said...

Dear Michael

I was interested in the following comment in this blog:

"Still, Garlington rejects several overstatements made by proponents of the New Perspective, esp. those made by N.T. Wright. He categorically rejects that salvation is of works and he maintains that Paul clearly repudiates a works based religion:"

The way in which the above paragraph reads to me is that N T Wright subscribes to a "works based religion?" Is this what you mean and if so please will you point me to the reference.



Michael F. Bird said...


To answer your question, "No!" I don't think that he NTW teaches a "works based religon" (see his commentary on Titus 3.5. The thoughts were two separate ones: (1) Garlington disagrees with Wright on some things; (2) Garlington is not a legalist in his conception of justification.

I should change it to avoid such a misunderstanding, thanks for pointing this out.