When it comes to the works of the Pauline corpus, no book has been more central in recent controversies in Pauline scholarship than the book of Galatians.
In this letter Paul chastises the Galatian church for submitting themselves to false teachers that have set themselves up against the gospel of grace. Traditionally, theologians writing in the wake of the Reformation have believed that Paul is writing against those who base their righteousness upon their works rather than the free grace found in Christ. However, since the 1970s, some scholars have stood upon the shoulders of E.P. Sanders, whose in depth study of Second Temple Judaism sought to prove that Paul’s critique was against the boundary markers of circumcision and dietary laws and not against doing good works per se.
One of the scholars seeking to better understand these critical issues surrounding Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the NT scholar Douglas Moo, the Kenneth T. Wessner Chair of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College and Chair of the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version (NIV). His recently released commentary on Galatians in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament is the fruit of his efforts to understand the crisis in Galatia and its implication for Paul’s thought on a variety of subjects, such as justification, the role of works, and the New Perspective on Paul. I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Moo a few questions regarding the book of Galatians, his thoughts on exegetical method, and what surprised him most about studying Galatians.
What would we be missing if the book of Galatians had never been written?
Much of the teaching of Galatians has parallels elsewhere in the letters of Paul–especially, of course, in Romans. But no other biblical book so clearly and passionately teaches the absolute centrality of Christ and his cross. Because Paul writes to believers about whom he has deep concern, he writes with “no holds barred.” The decision between Christ and his cross, on the one hand, and any other “religion” or way of seeking to relate to God is crystal clear. Controversially, Paul even goes so far as to set Judaism, with its OT roots, in contrast to the cross. Of course, he is equally clear about the way in which God himself has used the law and the OT period to prepare for the era of the Messiah. But in his effort to oppose the false teachers who are in danger of leading the Galatians astray, he bluntly argues that the system of the law is outmoded now that Christ has come: a choice has to be made.
Which do you consider to be the most influential commentaries on Galatians, and how did they influence your work?
While I would not want to minimize the contribution of the very early expositors of Galatians in the patristic period (Chrysostom is especially insightful), I would single out Luther, J. B. Lightfoot, and J. Louis Martyn as the three commentaries that contributed especially to my own work. In Luther’s exposition of the letter (he actually wrote two of them), we are brought to the very fountainhead of the Reformation, with its particular theological emphases. As a child of the Reformation myself, I am deeply influenced by the critical concern with “faith alone,” “grace alone,” and “Christ alone” that pervades Luther’s work. Lightfoot wrote at the height of the great golden era of careful historically based exegesis (the late 1800s). His concern to root the message of Galatians in its particular historical context continues to shape the way we read the letter. And his exposition is a model of concise penetrating comment on the Greek text. The modern era has seen a flood of excellent commentaries on Galatians: e.g., Mussner, Bruce, Longenecker, deBoer, Schreiner. But I single out Martyn’s commentary because of its very distinctive and thorough-going attempt to read Galatians from a particular theological angle. I think his “apocalyptic” reading is finally overdone, setting up barriers in the continuity of salvation history that create canonical problems. But his bold and fresh approach forces one to think about the text in a new way–even if one ends up disagreeing.
What have you you learned while working on your Galatians commentary that surprised you?
When I wrote a major commentary on Romans in the 1990s, I of course had to deal with the letter’s teaching on justification. I concluded that Paul in Romans presented justification as a “definitive” act associated with our initial coming to Christ. One was “justified” at the point of conversion, and then ultimately “saved” at the coming of Christ (e.g., Rom. 5:9). Shortly after I began work on Galatians, I decided to write a paper on the critical passage 5:5–6. Not long after I began this work, it became clear to me that Paul was here speaking of “righteousness” (“justification” by another name) as a future gift for the believer. This future focus on justification I then found elsewhere in the letter (of course, alongside an emphasis on the present experience of righteousness). A key doctrinal matter that I had thought rather neatly “solved” in my work on Romans now became a bit more complicated. In my Galatians commentary, I have taken a stab at integrating these present and future aspects of justification, but I am continuing to think about the matter and to seek better ways of expressing the doctrine.
Can you provide us with some right practices for interpreting the Epistle to the Galatians? In other words, what was your method for interpreting passages from Galatians while researching for your commentary?
There is no “one way” to do good biblical exegesis; and I would certainly not want my own approach to be held up as a model for everyone. But, unlike many of my colleagues, who do their own detailed work in the text first before turning to the scholarly literature, I like to save my detailed textual work for the last step. After familiarizing myself with the text, I immerse myself in the literature, taking copious notes. With all that mass of opinion in view, then, I turn back to the text, testing these various approaches against the text itself. I find it useful to have in my mind, as the last thing I do before I write, the text itself.
Another consideration especially important in interpreting and drawing theological conclusions from Galatians is to keep in view its occasional nature. Paul speaks very strongly about the law in this letter, and one could get the impression that he is rather consistently “anti-law.” Of course, Galatians must have its say, and what Paul says about the law is important. But the contested issues in Galatians force Paul to take an “unbalanced” approach, stressing the negative side of the law in order to correct an imbalance the other way. Our view of Paul’s teaching about the law must ultimately rest on a much broader interaction with Paul’s teaching on this matter.