Book Review: Galatians [CCF]

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

Book Review Galatians N T Wright commentaries for christian formation

Today’s review is one I’ve been pondering for a while (I finished working through this volume back in April!) – and this is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is a commentary on Galatians, the epistle I’ve spent most time with (in 2021 I worked through Keener’s standalone doorstop, among other things; in 2022 I read Frank Thielman in the ESVEC, Samuel M. Ngewa in the Africa Bible Commentary series, and Matthew S. Harmon’s EBTC from Lexham). Secondly, it is a commentary by N. T. Wright, who I deeply respect and appreciate – and disagree with tentatively on a few things. Thirdly, it is the inaugural commentary in a new series, published by Eerdmans, and so my review will seek to take all these three things into account, whilst considering on it’s own merits as a book. Well, let’s see.

When this volume was first published and marketed, I felt that the publisher made much of how this was Wrights first major commentary. I’m not convinced that this claim holds water – Wright contributed important work to the New Interpreters Bible on Romans, and the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Colossians/Philemon – and this volume, the first to be published in an intriguing new series from Eerdmans called ‘Commentaries for Christian Formation’ (henceforth CCF), is certainly not a major critical commentary, though it is a substantial piece of work at over 400 pages. With the aforementioned Keener standalone clocking in at nearer 800 pages (though with only around 500 being commentary proper) and Harmon exceeding 650, this might not be a major commentary, but it is definitely an interesting one. The format of the commentary is not particularly innovative – the emphasis on Christian formation is woven throughout, rather than reshaping it – translation is followed by an introduction to the passage, verse by verse commentary (often themed or given it’s own title), and a conclusion to each textual unit. Ten pages of bibliography (which probably provides an excellent summary of the study of Galatians and associated issues) is followed by indices of Subjects/Authors/Scripture and Other Ancient Sources.

Wright probably needs no introduction – he is a world-renowned New Testament scholar, and rather uniquely is prolific both in academic monograph and popular devotional writing. He’s written an accessible commentary ‘For Everyone’ on the whole New Testament, and engages closely with texts from the New Testament in his work in the Christian Origins and the Question of God series. This, though, is something somewhere in between. The introduction to the commentary is a good orientation to Galatians, in my view, but also works as a Galatians-infused introduction to the thought of N. T. Wright. To put it bluntly, about thirty of the fifty pages of the introduction are a good primer on Wright’s view of Paul/the New Testament, and about twenty of the fifty are a helpful introduction to the epistle at hand. That said, very often Wright’s wider project is a good ‘way in’ to what Paul is saying in this letter: “What mattered, and matters still, is the gospel itself, the annoucement that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead and is therefore marked out as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. That is where Paul starts his argument. That remains the ground on which all Christian formation must stand” (p. 52-3). This is intimately connected to the scriptures, as Wright notes in the closing comments on the opening section of the epistle: “It all fits. This is how Paul uses scriptrue; or rather, this is how Paul reports the way in which scripture has been, as it were, using him, coming to a new fulfilment in and through him” (p. 81). This is not a commentary that is divorced from Paul’s Judaism, or the wider Bible, and that is encouraging.

With the commentary’s focus on Christian formation – rather than delivering a critical tour-de-force – Wright is not primarily concerned with that sort of writing, but I did appreciate his comments on ‘historical exegesis’: “As usual, the answer to theological confusion is historical exegesis. (Resistance to this has often come from devout theologians and preachers who have watched something calling itself ‘the historical-critical method’ undermining confidence in the gospell but that has often been an excuse for avoiding the challenge, and the prospects, of a genuine historical account)” (p. 119, referencing his own [helpful, in my view!] History and Eschatology). One of the key themes of Galatians is that of ‘regression’, and how that relates to Christian identity. I think Wright puts it well when, commenting on 2:19, he writes “This new identity, however, clearly invovles the downgrading of the old identity… The point is not that the ‘fleshly life’ (i.e., ordinary earthly life in the present decaying and sin-inclined body has ceased to exist. The point, rather, is that it no longer determines identity. That is the lesson that Peter had to learn. Today’s world, in which ‘identity’ has become such a fraught topic, needs to learn it too” (p. 154).

This commentary sets Galatians in an important location for both the Jewish-Christian conversation, and as a key to understanding or at least appreciating Pauline thought/theology. Wright argues that “Torah cannot give the life it promises, so the Galatian gentiles should not dream of adopting it. Everything Torah appears to promise is in fact already the birthright of new members of Abraham’s single worldwide family” (p. 236) – a typically dense/provocative/interlinked thought that I think I agree with. On the same page, as he turns to comment on 3:23-5, Wright goes on: “With these fourteen verses, the last seven of chapter 3 and the first seven of chapter 4, we have not only the heart of Pauline theology but the origin of all Christian theology – Trinity, incarnation, atonement, regeneration, the Holy Spirit, new life, spirituality, final destiny. As with a good whisky, we have to train our palates to taset the different notes” (p. 236). This is expansive theological exegesis – tuned towards formation – and it is great fun to read. His comments on the Jesus of Paul are similarly theologically informed but turned towards formation, for example commenting on 4:4-7, “He is the (unique) Son who accomplishes their (incorporated) sonship, even as his faithfulness is the shaping location of their own faith” (p. 269). I completely concur with Wright that “The gospel was designed to bring healing and hope into distorted and disfigured human lives” (p. 343) – this commentary by and large teases out what that actually means in relation to the text of Galatians, in a generally readable and helpful way.

As a taster for the CCF project, this is an interesting amuse-Bouche – Wright certainly shows how a balance of deep faith and informed scholarship can produce a useful resource for Christian reflection. As a commentary on Galatians, it doesn’t really do much for me that other books have – I’d suggest (As does Wright) that Craig Keener’s intense standalone commentary does pretty much everything anyone would ever need on the book (Wright writes “There is no point in reinventing Craig’s many well-oiled wheels” [p. xiii], whilst Neil Martin’s recent Galatians Reconsidered is a monograph that isn’t a commentary that has a lot to say around spiritual formation and discipleship (Wright does reference Martin’s earlier work on p. 276). I’m intrigued to see what the CCF series will shape up to be – and I think Wright’s entry is a good book on Galatians, but it isn’t quite the ‘great’ ‘major’ commentary it is advertised as. That, however, is probably a good thing, as the book that it is is a useful tool for preachers, and (once you get past the introduction) a helpful devotional read for thoughtful disciples.



Having alluded to my interest in Galatians, I’d direct folk to a paper I gave way back in 2014 on Galatians 6:17, and below offer a few comments on three other Galatians commentaries:

  • Craig Keener’s 2018 standalone Baker Academic Commentary: made my Top 21 of 2021, it was the first Galatians commentary I read cover to cover and it’s excellent (got and used ~12, dipped into at least as many more). Very readable despite its size. Note that of the 848 pages, the comm ends on p589. Lots of index + bibliography. Great job Baker Academic – good to see a standalone commentary! 5/5
  • Frank Thielman’s entry in the ESV Expository Commentary from Crossway – a good workmanlike mid-level/pastoral commentary, I appreciated it devotionally. 4/5
  • Samuel M. Ngewa’s contribution to the Africa Bible Commentary series from Hippo Books/Langham (distinct from his contribution to the one-volume ABC). A lovely little commentary. Really focused interesting layout for preachers, plenty of African contextual gems to open up the text, and discussion/reflection questions. A couple of minor quibbles but definitely a good’un! 5/5 (perhaps more like 4.5)
  • Matthew S. Harmon’s contribution to the Evangelical Biblical Theological Commentary’ from Lexham Academic – a gem of a devotional read from my perspective. It was my first full read of an EBTC – I loved the commentary proper. Bib/Theo themes excellent work but could’ve been more integrated. This is a great commentary for preachers imo, but also doing other interesting work. 4/5 (David Firth’s contribution on Joshua has been a highlight of my reading in 2023 – see my review)

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