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Justification Revisited: A Review of deSilva’s New Commentary on Galatians

The book of Galatians, just like virtually every book of the Bible, boasts a staggering number of commentaries. David A. deSilva, however, has added to this number with The Letter to the Galatians. DeSilva, who holds the position of Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary, is an accomplished scholar, and his most recent project is a non-negotiable for an academic study of Galatians. Nevertheless, pastors will certainly wonder what separates The Letter to the Galatians from the many available options.

As an installment in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, deSilva’s work has all the fine characteristics its readers have come to expect—erudition, interaction with recent scholarship, and close attention to primary materials.DeSilva distinguishes himself, however, by his particularly close attention to socio-historical contexts. References to Greco-Roman and early Jewish literature pepper his commentary, which evidences his mastery of them. Along the way, readers are introduced to helpful comparisons between Galatians and 4 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Seneca, and many other ancient documents. To read The Letter to the Galatians is to taste the flavor of the ancient world, which makes it a valuable tool for in-depth study.

Overall, deSilva’s prose is lucid and streamlined. For one, he largely avoids tangling with Greek grammar in the body of his work (for readers interested in those questions, deSilva has produced another work—Galatians: A Handbook on the Greek Text in The Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament—which can be consulted). Also, while he extensively interacts with other scholars, he generally relegates those conversations to the footnotes. By doing so, he focuses the body of his work on the actual explanation and interpretation of Galatians and maximizes readability.

The Application of Galatians

Furthermore, deSilva frequently reflects on the application of Galatians today. For example, he identifies the prosperity gospel as a false gospel after commenting on Galatians 1:6–10 (134–35), calls Christians to suffer after explaining Galatians 2:20–21 (253–54), and reminds readers of the importance of experiential Christianity after navigating Galatians 3:16 (278). Clearly, deSilva believes Galatians has something to say to Christians today, and this conviction preserves deSilva’s work from becoming dry. Pastors, of course, will find a catalyst for thinking through application in these reflections.

Several excurses punctuate The Letter to the Galatians and are one of the most valuable aspects of the work. Their topics range from “James, the Brother of the Lord” to “Indicative and Imperative in Paul” to “Pronouns, People Groups, and the Plan of God in Galatians 3–4.” Due to these focused discussions, readers will never have to search for deSilva’s position on perennial issues like the definition of justification or works of the law in Galatians. An early highlight is the excursus “Paul, Rhetoric, and Letter-Writing in Antiquity,” which is an accessible introduction to a technical topic (62–91). DeSilva distinguishes himself by his particularly close attention to socio-historical contexts. Click To Tweet

While The Letter to the Galatians is a scholarly achievement, confessional Baptists will find it wanting at several points. For one, deSilva questions the historical reliability of Galatians and Acts. When describing their historicity, he writes, “Neither one presents a spotless mirror of actual events” (34). Instead, he suggests the two documents are “generally reliable” (34). DeSilva’s position on this question does not invalidate his project; however, it colors his treatment of the heavily historical section Galatians 1:11–2:21.

Furthermore, deSilva sharply criticizes the Reformation dicta “faith alone” and “grace alone.” In particular, he suggests an emphasis on faith alone marginalizes the transformative work of the Holy Spirit and the necessity of works of love. As deSilva acknowledges, however, a significant portion of his quarrel resides with the often misunderstood import of these statements (428–31).

Although deSilva’s reflections on application are welcome, some of them are unwarranted. DeSilva claims, for example, that Paul’s retelling of his confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2:11–14 mandates open communion. Similarly, deSilva identifies a complementarian position as chauvinistic and associated with the stoicheia based on Galatians 3:23–29 (342, 442). While deSilva generally prizes an ancient perspective, it is difficult to see how the implications he draws regarding gender could arise from anything other than a modern one.

Over the course of his commentary, deSilva makes hundreds of exegetical judgments and interpretive decisions. Overall, they are helpful and illuminating. At a few points, however, they are troublesome. To take one, deSilva interprets justification in Galatians as referring to ethical transformation which results in acquittal at the final judgment (216). As deSilva comments on Galatians 2:17, “When Paul speaks of being acquitted ‘on the basis of trusting Christ,’ he understands that basis to involve not just an initial act of belief but the process of being transformed into a righteous person that Christ opens up for the one who trusts” (243–44). In part, deSilva’s position is motivated by a desire to allow Galatians to speak for itself, rather than to read Romans into it. Therefore, while deSilva acknowledges that Paul seems to refer to justification as a definitive past event in Romans, he claims that the timing of justification is vaguer in Galatians. In response, however, while deSilva rightly strives to understand Galatians as an independent voice, he misses the opportunity to add Romans to the chorus. DeSilva himself observes that Galatians and Romans share the same author, are closely related, and share a “similar constellation of topics” (271). For those reasons alone, Romans should have a rightful place in nuancing the teaching of Galatians when certain details are left unspecified.

For the Baptist pastor aiming to select one commentary on Galatians to own, The Letter to the Galatians may not be it. At significant points, deSilva challenges widely held Protestant convictions which affects the overall usefulness of his work. Instead, Galatians by Thomas R. Schreiner or Galatians by Douglas J. Moo remain the best choices. For in-depth study, however, deSilva’s lucid explanations, sensitivity to socio-historical contexts, and challenging interpretations demand attention. Many students of Scripture, therefore, will rightly find The Letter to the Galatians a helpful and illuminating work with which to critically dialogue.

Coye Still

Coye Still is the Minister of Youth at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, a PhD student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and most importantly, married to Emily.

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