In 2021 I devoted time to the study of Galatians. I tried to read several historical commentaries on Galatians along with what I think are the best recent commentaries.
Eric Plumer, Augustine’s Commentary on Galatians: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Notes. Oxford University Press, 2003.
The introduction to this commentary is very informative. The commentary itself was written early in Augustine’s career, and it is fairly unremarkable. If I were to choose again, I would have chosen to Jerome as a representative patristic commentary. I dipped into Jerome’s commentary and it seems to be a more significant treatment of the book. However in the debate over whether Paul truly rebuked Peter (Augustine) or whether Paul and Peter were playacting (Jerome), Augustine is correct.
Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Translated by F. R. Larcher. Albany, NY: Magi, 1966.
The recent appreciation of Thomas among the Reformed has included among its arguments the claim that Aquinas was not simply a philosophical theologian but a biblical exegete as well. However, this commentary shows that Thomas really did not grasp the book of Galatians. For instance, in summarizing Paul’s argument, Aquinas contrasts the rituals of the Old Testament with the grace conveyed by the New Testament sacraments: ” if grace is conferred in the sacraments of the New Testament, which have their efficacy from the passion of Christ, then it is superfluous to observe, along with the New Testament, the ritual of the Old Law in which grace is not conferred nor salvation acquired, because the Law has led no one to perfection” (8). Thomas excludes the moral law from Paul’s works of the Law, and he draws the contrast not as Paul does between the Mosaic Law as a whole and the new covenant entered into by faith alone but between the sacraments of the Old Law which cannot confer grace and the sacraments of the New Law, which can justify (54-55).
Aquinas does have to reckon with the language of Paul in Galatians, which is forceful in its assertion that no one can be justified by works. Here is an example of one of Aquinas’s comments on this matter: “For the works are not the cause making one to be just before God; rather they are the carrying out and manifestation of justice. For no one is made just before God by works but by the habit of faith, not acquired but infused. And therefore, as many as seek to be justified by works are under a curse, because sin is not removed nor anyone justified in the sight of God by them, but by the habit of faith vivified by charity” (80). Aquinas is correct in the first sentence: works are the manifestation, not the cause of justification. But Aquinas then goes on to speak of justification through and infused habit of faith vivified by charity. This is not faith as the Reformers conceived it, a hand receiving the free gift of justification, but is a conception of faith that involves divinely empowered works. Aquinas is reading Galatians through the lens of the medieval sacramental system for salvation rather than allowing Galatians to correct that system.
Also worth noting is Aquinas’s commentary is more oriented toward systematic theology than redemptive history. For instance, Aquinas spends most of his space on 4:4 verse refuting Christological heresies. He has no ear for redemptive-historical matters. The phrase “made under the law” is a conundrum for him because 5:18 says that “if you are led by the Spirit, you agree not under the law.” Instead of observing that 5:18 is a redemptive-historical assertion of the dawning of the new covenant made possible by Christ being under the law and fulfilling our, Aquinas opts to solve the discrepancy by making a scholastic distinction: “under the law” can mean “observance of the law” or it can mean “oppressed by fear of the law.” The former is the meaning in 4:4 and the latter in 5:18, according to Thomas.
Luther, Martin. Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4. Luther’s Works. Vol. 26. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann. Saint Louis: Concordia, 1999.
Luther, Martin. Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6. Luther’s Works, Vol. 27. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann. Saint Louis: Concordia, 1999.
Luther is often criticized for reading his sixteenth century context into Galatians rather than reading Galatians in its first century context. It is true that Luther moves quickly to applying the book to his own context, and there may be points here or there where this critique is justified. In general, however, Luther seems to be making valid application of the book to his own time. Coming to Luther’s commentary after reading Augustine’s and Aquinas’s commentaries, it is notable how much better a grasp Luther has of Paul’s argument and of redemptive history Luther has in comparison.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians. Translated by William Pringle. 1854; reprinted, Bellingham, WA: Logos, 2010.
Calvin’s lucid brevity is most welcome after reading Luther’s verbose exposition of Galatians. Calvin is a master commentator who gets to the nub of the exegetical or theological issue in a passage and renders a sensible conclusion. Calvin is essential reading on Galatians.
Machen, J. Gresham. Notes on Galatians. 1972; repr., Solid Ground Christian Books, 2006.
This work reprints articles on Galatians 1-3 that Machen wrote in the 1930s for the periodical Christianity Today (a different magazine from the current Christianity Today). It also includes various class resources, articles, and reviews by Machen. The most valuable of these is his review of E. D. Burton’s Commentary on Galatians. Machen expresses appreciation for Burton’s linguistic studies, but he argues that Burton reads Paul as a modern liberal rather than within his historical context. For instance, Burton reads Paul as critiquing aspects of Old Testament religion rather than adopting Paul’s view that a redemptive-historical shift has taken place. Burton claims that Paul was defending his right to proclaim the gospel of the uncircumcision but that he was tolerant of the other apostles preaching a different gospel of the circumcision. Furthermore, he understands Galatians to be primarily an argument for “Christian liberty and spiritual religion” (Burton’s words) in contrast to “ceremonialism and externality” (Machen’s words). These misunderstandings lead Burton, Machen says, to adopt errors equivalent to those held by the Judaizers Paul was opposing.
Ridderbos, Herman. The Epistle to the Galatians. New London Commentaries. London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1961.
Ridderbos’s commentary on Galatians was the first commentary on Galatians in the New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (my copy was printed in London under the New London Commentaries label, but the content is the same). Though Fung and DeSilva have subsequently replaced Ridderbos in the NICNT set and though Ridderbos’s contribution is much briefer than modern commentaries, Ridderbos is still worth getting and reading. I always find Ridderbos theologically insightful, and this remains true here.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Galatians. ZECNT. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians is one of the best recent commentaries on the book. I think that overall his understanding of the book is correct. Schreiner has a good understanding of biblical, Pauline, and systematic theology. He also writes with pastoral concern.
Moo, Douglas J. Galatians. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013.
If I were to have only one commentary on Galatians, it would be Moo’s. Moo and Schreiner are similar in their theological viewpoints and in their understanding of the book, though they diverge on various exegetical decisions. I didn’t always prefer Moo’s conclusions, but I often did. Moo was clearer about the role of the Law in biblical and Pauline theology.
Gordon, T David. Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2019.
Gordon gets a lot right in this book, which is note quite a commentary on Galatians, even though it works sequentially through the book. Gordon’s purpose is to argue for a third way between what he calls “the dominant Protestant approach” and the New Perspective(s) on Paul. On some points Gordon is, in my view, correct. I agree that νόμος in Galatians typically refers to the Sinai covenant. I agree that Paul’s reasoning in Galatians is covenant-historical; that is, it recongizes that different covenants are in force in different historical periods. I further agree that Promise, Law, and Faith in Galatians track with the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and new covenants, respectively. I agree that certain forms of covenant theology and the New Perspective both go wrong by teaching a mono-covenantalism. Gordon also has a helpful, lengthy excursus on δικαιοσύνη. On the other hand, I think Gordon leans too far in the direction of the New Perspective in prioritizing ethnic considerations of soteric. Gordon says that Paul is arguing from justification, not for it. On this score I think Moo is are surer guide. Gordon also writes with a wit that is sometimes acid and, in my opinion, less than edifying. I gained much from this volume, but I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly.
NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible
I continue to be impressed with the notes in the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible. I’ve tended to stay away from study Bible’s because I’ve found that they rarely provide the kind of information I’m looking for. I’ve tended to think that I’m better off with a brief commentary, such as a Tyndale Commentary or a Bible Speaks Today volume. But Simon Gathercole’s note on Galatians helpfully orients the reader and provides a helpful summary of Paul’s train of thought through the letter.
In general the NIV 2011 translation is a good translation. The major problem with the translation is its attempt to be gender neutral. Galatians 4:5-7 is a case in point. The NIV 2011 translation, “that we might receive adoption to sonship” (4:5), is better than the NRSV, and NASB 2020 which translate, respectively, “that we might receive adoption as children” and “that we might receive the adoption as sons and daughters.” However, in verse 7 the NIV 2011 switches from “sons” (4:6) to “child”—even though the same Greek word is used and the same context of sonship and inheritance is in place.
It is no more appropriate to change the male imagery of sons and sonship in Galatians 4 than it would be to change the female imagery of bride in Ephesians 5 to the neutral image of a spouse.
“As I explained in the introduction, the gender-specific ‘sons/sonship’ is used here and elsewhere in the commentary in order to preserve the first-century concept of inheritance (almost always involving male offspring) and the relationship between the ‘sons’ and the ‘Son’ (4:5-6). The term refers, of course, to male and female believers equally.”Moo, Galatians, BECNT, 196, n. 1.
Other Notable Galatians Commentaries:
Here are some other Galatians commentaries that I did not have a chance to read through in 2021.
Perkins, William. The Works of William Perkins. Volume 2. Edited by Paul Smalley. Reformation Heritage, 2015.
I began reading this commentary this year and I hope to complete it. I’ve not yet read far enough to render a verdict.
Lightfoot, J. B. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. 1865; reprinted, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999.
This is an older commentary that several of the new commentators mentioned as worth reading. I wish I had had time to read it this year.
F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
I’ve not read this commentary through in its entirety, but I’ve regularly found it helpful when I’ve consulted it.
Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. WBC. Nashville: Nelson, 1990.
This is another commentary that I’ve not read entirely through but which I’ve found help in consulting. I don’t find it as reliable as Moo, Schreiner, or Bruce, but I still find it helpful.
Das, A. Andrew. Galatians. CC. Saint Louis: Concordia, 2014.
I’ve only read the front matter, but this looks to be an excellent recent Lutheran commentary on Galatians.
Keener, Craig S. Galatians: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019.
As a Methodist Keener represents a different viewpoint on Galatians from the above commentators. He is also a master of extra-biblical background material. I find Keener to be a skilled commentator, though I read him with an alertness to theological differences.
Don Johnson says
I recently finished preaching through Galatians and found Timothy George in the New American Commentary set to be quite good (though I argued with him on many points!). This is to be expected as my soteriology differs, but I found he often had good insight on every page.
Thank you for the input. I’ve used George in the past on occasion, and I’ve found him helpful the times I consulted him.