A Review of The Letter to the Galatians. By David deSilva.

Eerdmans, 2018.

What a difference a generation makes. When it comes to buying new commentaries, some might ask: Why bother? Are not the older ones sufficient? Well, yes and no. Older commentaries are still vital in any careful study of the biblical text, but there are newer developments that need to be addressed.

These can include new manuscript discoveries, and new findings in historical, cultural and archaeological areas. And new theological directions also need to be taken into account. So in a sense there is always a place for new commentaries.

The latest commentary on Galatians in the distinguished New International Commentary on the New Testament series is a clear case in point. This is a replacement volume of a replacement volume! The first volume was penned way back in 1953 by Herman Ridderbos. It ran to some 240 pages.

This was replaced in 1988 by Ronald Fung. It was and still is a very good volume indeed, running to 340 pages. The newest volume, coming thirty years later, is 540 pages, and contains matters that Fung and Ridderbos did not even address.

One of the most obvious differences that has occurred over the past six decades is how the so-called New Perspective on Paul now flavours everything – certainly in terms of how we are to understand one of Paul’s most important epistles. To learn more about what the NPP is all about, see my introductory bibliographic essay here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/01/08/wright-new-perspective/

While the earliest proponents on the NPP, including Stendahl and Sanders, get some fleeting mentions in Fung, the chief populariser and proponent of the NPP, N. T. Wright is nowhere to be found in his 1988 work. And fair enough, since the first major work of Wright on this topic, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, did not appear until 1991.

So needless to say, the new commentary by deSilva features plenty of references to and interaction with Wright and the NPP. I say all this by way of introduction. Any time NICNT comes out with a new volume it is well worth getting. Sure, they grow ever larger, longer and more expensive, but they are still very much worth it.

Previous heavyweight academic and scholarly commentaries on Galatians from the past few decades from a conservative and evangelical perspective have included: F. F. Bruce (NIGTC, 1982); Richard Longenecker (WBC, 1990); Thomas Schreiner (ZECNT, 2010); and Douglas Moo (BECNT, 2013). This new volume is a welcome addition.

The first hundred pages of his work involve introductory matters. Let me speak to just one of the matters dealt with there. Concerning the rather drawn-out debate as to whether Paul was writing to the churches of North Galatia or South Galatia, deSilva opts for the southern thesis, but says that the “evidence is inconclusive on either side”. And he argues that this is likely his earliest epistle.

As to the text itself, a careful verse by verse exegesis and exposition is engaged in. While interacting – as one must – with other authors and commentators, he keeps most of that discussion limited to the footnotes, so that interaction with the biblical text itself is foremost on each page. Let me highlight just a few key areas of Paul’s thought as discussed in this commentary.

A crucial part of Paul’s letter is Gal. 2:15-21. DeSilva spends 50 pages on these seven verses, and he includes four excurses therein: what Paul means by justification, works of the law, faith, and grace. As he says about 2:16, this verse “is perhaps the most dense and most debated in all of Pauline literature.” There is no question about that.

Interpretative, grammatical and theological challenges abound. On the famous debate about understanding “the faith of Christ/Jesus” as either an objective genitive or a subjective genitive, deSilva opts for the “traditional understanding” of “trust in Christ” after looking in depth at the pros and cons. But he argues that the discussion is “fraught with theological significance” as his own theological position (Methodist) makes clear.

The question of justification, which is “central to Christian theology, and Paul’s letters (esp. Galatians and Romans)” is of course a major point of discussion and debate with the NPP. DeSilva therefore frequently cites or interacts with Dunn, Wright and others, presenting himself as more or less sympathetic to the position.

He both agrees and differs with them on various matters, and also takes a similar stance regarding traditional Reformed thinking on these issues. Both his Methodism and his openness to aspects of the NPP accounts for his stance of course.

Thus he argues that a major battle in Galatians is not that of faith versus works, but the faith of Christ over against the works of the law. After explaining this in some detail, he then says this: “The principal problem with the Torah was that its term had expired and that what was its strength prior to Christ was now its greatest flaw – the maintenance of the boundary between Jew and gentile on the pretense that the former retained ‘favored nation’ status before God.”

Justification is, according to Paul (at least as deSilva reads him) not just some “particular transactional moment” as he sees those of the Reformed tradition guilty of affirming, but something “dynamic and relational”. Says deSilva:

We are not reading Galatians with Paul when we are thinking that he is most concerned with establishing “faith” or “grace” as “the valid ‘external’ soteriological basis of justification.” He is most concerned with moving Christ-followers forward in the process of transformation that Jesus has opened up for us by God’s fresh supply of God’s Holy Spirit, and not allowing us to be turned back from the direction in which Jesus has invited us….

He takes this stance throughout. In his comments on Gal. 5:1-6, for example, he says that this passage “raises questions about the adequacy of the prominent Reformation-era expression ‘justification by faith alone’.… In Paul’s economy, faith is important because this faith has led to the Galatian’s reception of the Spirit (3:2-5, 13-14)…. The slogan ‘justification by faith alone’ draws a sharp line between ‘faith’ and the very thing that faith was awakened to obtain, namely, the Spirit.”

He is impatient with arguments over monergism (the work of God alone) and synergism (the joint work of God and man) when it comes to issues of justification, righteousness, and the like: “Paul’s robust sense of the Holy Spirit at work within the Christ-follower makes it impossible truly to distinguish a precise division of labor, such that neither foreign, theological categories of synergism nor monergism suffice to capture Paul’s understanding.”

Image of The Letter to the Galatians (New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT))
The Letter to the Galatians (New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT)) by deSilva, David A. (Author) Amazon logo

Those of the Reformed and Puritan persuasion would argue that this is to conflate and confuse justification with sanctification. While these are two distinct things, they also can never be separated. The once-off initial work of Christ in our lives (monergistic justification) is always to be followed up by our life-long transformational growth in holiness in cooperation with the Holy Spirit (synergistic sanctification).

But deSilva does go on to say that while there can be no salvation without a changed life (God’s goal is not just to get Christians off the hook come judgment day, but to make them new creatures), it is indeed God who is at work in the life of the believer via the Holy Spirit, and “thus in and behind all the Christian’s ‘working’.”

Theology is not only covered in this commentary: practical matters of course are also necessarily covered. Paul always follows up his doctrinal concerns with behaviour concerns, and so should all good commentators. And that deSilva does. For example, after looking at Paul’s first ten introductory verses, deSilva reminds us of contemporary relevance of all this.

Paul’s insistence on one gospel does not mean, as deSilva reminds us, that Christians cannot disagree on various matters, but there are nonetheless certain theological boundaries which we dare not transgress:

Paul is especially attuned to the danger of compromising the terms of God’s invitation and the fulness of God’s vision for the sake of making the same more appealing or palatable to those with whom we have to do. In Paul’s mind, the problem arises not from pleasing human beings but from making this an aim that competes with pleasing God. There is no virtue in being overtly displeasing to people, and Paul is elsewhere quite finely attuned to the importance of not putting any unnecessary obstacles in the way of people (2 Cor. 6:3). He is aware, however, that there are necessary obstacles (e.g., see Gal. 5:11b).

Or as he remarks on Gal. 6:7: “Christian freedom carries with it substantial responsibility to use that freedom as God intended and as God, through the Spirit, directs and empowers. The absence of law does not mean the absence of consequences or accountability before the One who searches our inmost intentions and thoughts.”

Obviously much more can be said about this work. Those who dislike the NPP or non-Reformed treatments may find themselves demurring too often here. But if you are able to live with some theological differences, while enjoying reading the work of a world-class New Testament scholar, this volume should not disappoint.

If you insist on commentaries from a much more Reformed perspective, then stick with volumes by Moo, Schreiner and others. But this helpful work will stand the test of time, even if it invites robust discussion and debate at various places.

(Available in Australia at Koorong: https://www.koorong.com/search/product/the-letter-to-the-galatians-new-international-commentary/9780802830555.jhtml )

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12 Replies to “A Review of The Letter to the Galatians. By David deSilva.”

  1. Hahaha, thank you Bill,

    Just read Galatians 5:11b referred to by deSilva and the following verse again, which made me laugh, that reminded me of the wonderful study on Galatians, albeit short, we finished yesterday. The matter arose surrounding modern Bible translations in particular which substitute “him” and “himself” with “them” and “themselves” for instance in the NIV 2011, reason being that the Greek supposedly does not carry on from the Hebrew OT, when in fact ESV which is true to the Greek NT text to this day, records the former. It almost seems that modern day Bible translators, for the sake of their readers as was said, are a lot like those still under the Law of Moses rather than being freed and may even be better off doing that which Paul suggests, especially when their intention could be to prevent the Gospel of Jesus being understood by the gender neuter-al crowd who have decided in their hearts not to love the Lord Jesus, who by the grace of God, gave his life for all mankind! Such people have their reward in this life, have been given over to their sinful desires, have condemned themselves already. Now it seems as though this below, recorded in Acts 4 is what’s going on and confusing many inside as well as outside the church, maybe for good reason as Paul writes and those who change the Gospel message to please themselves are perverting God’s Word. Maybe to empty Christ’s Church so that it can be filled…

    25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

    “‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
    26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers were gathered together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

    27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,

    Carson & Moo’s Intro. to the New Testament, the newest commentary on Galatians held here in this house records that Paul’s lively letter to the Galatians has become a classic expression of the meaning of justification by faith in Christ alone. The difference to deSilva’s International Commentary is not certain but two things that have had special meaning at present, are the way Paul goes back to Abraham in Genesis to give reasons for the Gospel of Jesus to authenticate his letter. This to demonstrate what God is doing to redeem His people and the whole of Creation from the fall of man in the very beginning of HIStory, showing how we fit into His great plan of salvation from sin. It’s God’s choice that really matters contrary to what doctrines like pelagianism teaches for instance, the doctrine taught by Pelagius and his followers, which is the denial of the doctrines of original sin and predestination, plus the defense of innate human goodness and free will.

    Thank goodness for good doctrine and those who teach it firstly, for God did not leave salvation up to us because we are neither good nor can we save ourselves, salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone, for our redemption. Seems as though the church is the “Disappearing Church” from Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience is a happening thing. The other part of the book of Galatians that’s special of course is the fruits of the Spirit…righteousness, characteristics of Jesus which Christians are known by that produces real lasting fruit not traditions of self service which are what most of us occupy ourselves with as we potter about doing our own thing because it’s what we’ve always done instead of always looking to Christ Jesus who frees us, who is doing a new thing by the work of his Holy Spirit. Please pray for us and thank you again for this, may God bless you brother

  2. Excellent overview.

    Of course judgement is mindblowingly complex if every word we speak is to be considered (Mat 12:36) and even Jesus did not want to touch the issue of judgement before the appointed time and plainly points out that God’s Words are the only thing to do the judgement and they will not do it until the appointed “Day of Judgement”, definitely not before (John 12:48). This is part of why the only judgement we can do is in the form of warnings, which we are actually required to give and is what Paul and the other Apostles repeatedly did.

    Of course the Galatians were being foolish (Gal 3:1-5) in attempting to become Jewish effectively via the back door, with no authority through the Jewish priesthood yet trying to instigate things like circumcision for adult, non-Jewish males and the Jewish feasts and these could even have led to animal sacrifices which are now an obvious insult to God’s own provision of sacrifice. Paul clearly knew that circumcision was a big issue in expanding the church otherwise he would not have entered into an open discussion with Peter and have traveled back to Jerusalem specifically to get a ruling on the matter. ( Acts 7:8, 10:45, 11:2, 15:1-29, 21:21, John 7:22-23)

    Nowhere, however, does Paul, nor any of the Apostles suggest that the morality aspects of the law (including the hugely prevalent modern sexual immorality) are not in force but rather that fulfillment of these aspects of the law comes via access to the Holy Spirit. We are called children of Abraham because God wants us to naturally (through the work of the Holy Spirit) fulfill the morality laws, not the Jewish state laws which came after Abraham and were a specific requirement for the Jews. We are not called the sons of Jacob nor Levy nor Moses. We fulfill the Ten Commandments, not because they are law, but because we love God and others. We don’t extort or lie or involve ourselves in adultery or drunken carousing etc. because we love and trust God and love ourselves and others.

    Rom_2:14 For when the nations, who do not have the Law, do by nature the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law unto themselves…


    The New Testament idea is that we will naturally not break the law because we have and are expressing God’s love through His Holy Spirit. If we don’t embrace this ability God has placed in us, however, the fallback position is to again be judged under the law (Heb 10:26-27).

  3. Bill, FB is doing more than just banning you. I tried posting this article there and they threw up a number of oddball roadblocks. I’m a total Luddite when it comes to internet goings-on, but I’ve never seen this kind of thing on FB before. I finally jumped through umpteen hoops and managed to go around them and get it posted there, but I thought you’d want to know.

    Anyway, thanks for another great and instructive article.

  4. You are very welcome, Bill, and very missed. I do believe FB has it in for you. Along the way of trying to post that article, they kept sending me some form note asking if it was spam or did I really post it. Good grief, it didn’t seem like a dangerous, politically-incorrect article to me. Apparently, you are one scary dude, brother.

  5. I was expecting a bit more interaction with Moo and Hays but I was surprised that they are very few, especially with the former. Any explanation for this?

    On justification I agree with McKnight’s perspective against deSilva that it is first and foremost Christological and not transformative.

    But anyway, I am yet to read the commentary in full.
    Thanks Bill

  6. Greetings, Chita. The explanation is simple: my primary goal was to do justice to unpacking Galatians, not interact with every other scholar to the extent that every reader would think appropriate. The latter path is the way never to get to the text itself — and probably never get to writing the commentary itself.

    It is true, of course, that the index of modern authors reveals the most important conversation partners (whether I found those partners’ thoughts most formative and constructive, or most problematic). As for Hays, I love his work on ethics, but I’m not as taken with his work on Galatians. In particular, I think he has helped to throw the conversation about “the faith of Jesus Christ” entirely off track. I am as interest in intertextuality as he is (thinking of his “Echoes of Scripture”), but I came at that all in my own way rather than through his work.

    I wonder if your take on justification (i.e., whether it is still in agreement “with McKnight’s perspective against deSilva”) will be different AFTER you’ve read the commentary in full. Bear in mind that I’m not trying to redefine the Reformed concept of “justification.” I’m trying to understand Paul’s language (and I do think that systematic theology has divided asunder what Paul considered one great work of God within us and in our midst).

  7. Hi David,

    Thanks for responding, much appreciated.

    I did not mean to say that your duty was engage every commentator on Galatians, but I mentioned those two because of their influence. I especially mentioned Moo (since Hays’ commentary is not as common) because most evangelical pastors thinking of preaching through Galatians will think of having his commentary and therefore a thorough engagement with him would help them compare and pour over the text very well (just my perspective).

    I am aware that at the Scholarly level one has to interact with Martyn, Betz, De Boer and the like but these are not the kind of commentaries a preacher would read for a sermon, unless your intention was only to write for academicians -which I suppose was not.

    Concerning Hays’ reading of “the faith of Jesus Christ” and its effects, I agree with you but again EVERY Scholar/theologian (including yourself) has some heresy as long as they are on this side of eternity. Again I mentioned him because despite his error, he is still a very brilliant thinker and his commentary, though not among your favorites, was very helpful (at the level of theological exegesis and practical application) when I taught Galatians.

    I come from the Baptist reformed camp but I try as much as possible not read Paul with these lenses always or those of systematic theology. Therefore, I didn’t mean to say you are trying to redefine the reformed concept of justification or not. My concern is the same as yours, whether you have read Paul closely within Galatians and his other letters -for coherence.

  8. A brief reply concerning what appears to be a fallacy in yours: whom I consult is not an indicator of for whom I write. As with the entire NICNT, my goal was to write first for the pastor/preacher (and the series editor kept me on track where he felt I was getting too academic). What commentaries I read reflects more my own process (what will most help me understand Galatians) than my purpose (whom I might help by writing on Galatians). I think, however, that I referred to the splendid commentary by Andrew Das more frequently than any other commentator (I don’t have the book with me at the moment to check), and his commentary was certainly written with a view to the pastor as well.

    And a P.S. I don’t think of Hays’s reading of pistis Christou so much as “heresy” (your term) as error. What he says about our dependence upon Jesus and about the fidelity Jesus showed is theologically quite sound; how he gets there is what is exegetically questionable.

  9. Thanks David for responding, I really appreciate you taking time to respond. And I have no doubt that whatever write is for the benefit of Christ’s church -like your sweet commentary on Hebrews.

    Wish you the Lord’s help on your next project(s).

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