Book Review: Galatians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) by Douglas Moo

Moo, Douglas J. (2013). Galatians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Reviewed by Dr Andy Cheung
[Douglas Moo is Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School.]

This is a commentary long awaited by many Biblical scholars and students, partly because of Douglas Moo’s reputation, and partly because Galatians is not well served with technical, conservative commentaries. It does not disappoint and that in itself is part of the expectation with a Moo commentary; that not only will it be well written, judicious in exegesis, and reasonable in conclusions, but also of consistently high quality. There’s an evenness in Moo’s work stretching back several decades and it is perhaps unsurprising that this commentary fulfils expectations of excellence. For many, this will be the new ‘go to’ commentary on Galatians.

Compared to other commentary series, the BECNT can be rather inconsistent in quality but here is a volume worthy of joining Schreiner on Romans and Garland on 1 Corinthians at the top end of that series. Students and teachers will appreciate some fine handling of the Biblical text, a generally clear writing style – perhaps a little too succinct at times – and good coverage of theological matters. There is fair and reasonable interaction with other scholars. of which readers may note the judicious handling of difficult texts (see for example at 1:10, 3:27, or 5:17).

Most of Moo’s comments won’t surprise those who are familiar with his earlier work (e.g. the NICNT commentary on Romans; Pillar commentaries on Colossians and James). This is a conservative, evangelical commentary, broadly reformed, and up to date with contemporary developments. But there is one surprise: a change in Moo’s understanding of justification. In his Romans commentary, Moo takes the traditional understanding of the term as representing a so-called “already event”, something that has happened at one’s conversion. But here, Moo has modified his position, arguing that justification carries also the sense of a future “not yet”, meaning that justification is actually an “already” and “not yet” phenomenon.

To be clear, Moo retains the traditional understanding that justification is definitive at the point of conversion. It’s still justification by faith alone. This is not a repudiation of standard protestant doctrine, nor is it apparently influenced by the New Perspective, which is mostly rejected. He argues that in Galatians there is an exhortation to works that will be revealed in the final judgement, a concept that is closely connected with justification. Moo sees here a vindication of faith which he describes as “ultimate justification” (p. 62, 164), a kind of final, future, justification at the day of judgement. His basis is that most of Paul’s references to justification are “timeless” (p. 60) with most of the remaining uses imbued with a sense of future action.

That is essentially the crux of the argument but readers expecting further elaboration will be disappointed, which is the main problem with this part of the commentary. In the Introduction, Moo announces texts where this “timeless” sense of justification is found (2:16, 21; 3:8, 11, 24) but the corresponding parts of the commentary proper lack sufficient information on why this should bring about a broader understanding of justification. A more detailed argument might be more convincing but as it stands, Moo has not built the strongest of theological cases. The argument is partly on Greek verb tenses (p. 205), but I find it questionable the extent to which present tense verbs can be used as evidence for a timeless state for justification. Perhaps the problem is with the term itself. The future sense of justification is elsewhere termed ‘vindication’ (p. 62) and this sense of future ‘vindication’ may be there but then perhaps we should just call it that – vindication on the day of judgement – without bringing a future sense to the term justification.

On the New Perspective, Moo doesn’t revisit in detail issues he has covered in other works. So on ἔργα νόμου (works of the law), only a summary overview is provided at Gal 2:16 with the reader directed to two earlier publications, one being a 1983 Westminster Theological Journal article* and the other the 1996 NICNT Romans commentary. Cross referencing is commonplace in commentaries but given that Moo has now modified his understanding of justification, it’s surprising that ‘works of the law’ isn’t afforded the same depth of detail as found in the Romans commentary (where a lengthy excursus is provided). Considering the close association with justification, it’s not clear the extent to which his prior work on ‘works of the law’ remains compatible with the theology presented here. In addition, those without access to the two prior works may be disappointed with a mere overview here. Such is the cross-referencing with his NICNT Romans volume, that readers of this book would benefit with access to the Romans commentary also.
[*KEDS students have free access to the WTJ article through our Galaxie Journals subscription]

There is one other topic where more detail would be warranted. Moo discusses the extent to which the law of Christ is distinct from the law of Moses (Gal 6:2). The two should be understood separately with the former incorporating more than Jesus’ love command, and includes all New Testament teaching and commands set forth by Christ and his apostles. This contrasts with a common view that the law of Christ should be understood as the Law of Moses fulfilled in Christ. For Moo, therefore, Christians obey the Law of Christ, not the Law of Moses, but he sees a stronger demarcation between them compared to those from a covenant theology perspective.

But these are relatively minor issues in a lengthy 850 page technical commentary. Most of this work admirably brings the reader to the forefront of academic literature. It’s an elegant work of exegesis. Examples abound. Here’s one: Gal 3:19, where Paul says the law was added “for the sake of transgressions”, to which Moo then gives a careful and nuanced handling of the preposition χάριν (meaning either ‘because of’ or ‘for the sake of’). The details are worthy of close reading but to summarise, Moo favours the latter with a convincing contextual study and, crucially, a link with Rom 4:15.

Elsewhere are useful comments on a frequently discussed text in Gal 6:16 where the identity of “the Israel of God” has long been disputed. The Greek isn’t clear: Paul could be talking about an “Israel of God” distinct from the Church, or, he could be talking about “the Israel of God” as being the Church itself. Moo notes that the syntactical evidence – the linguistic data – points to the Israel of God as a separate group but that theology and context decisively points the other way. In other words, the Israel of God is a reference to all Christians, Jew and Gentile alike. I think Moo is right about the linguistic data but I’m not so sure that the argument swings the other way when observing the overall context of Galatians. Whatever view one holds, this is a good example of some balanced discussion and reasonable conclusions.

Finally, I’ll mention two very minor gripes about the BECNT series. First, it’s odd that a technical commentary series uses the NIV text as the basis for exegesis. I’m a big fan of the NIV – but not for serious exegetical work. It’s a good translation for preaching or for devotional studies, but too dynamic for full-scale technical purposes. All BECNT commentators exegete the text at a close level – quite literally – so it’s odd that the series doesn’t use something like the ESV, NASB, or NRSV. Indeed, in this commentary, Moo himself presents his own translation at the beginning of each passage, one that is noticeably more literal than the NIV.

Secondly, for a series whose readership can be presumed to be serious students of the New Testament, the persistent quotation of the Greek text, followed immediately by transliteration, and then translation, presents cumbersome hurdles to reading. It’s the transliteration that’s unhelpful, sandwiched as it is between a Greek quotation and a translation. Its value must be small for the few who need it. Those who can read Greek don’t need transliteration; those without Greek won’t benefit from it. There can’t be many who find value in transliteration and in the meantime, everyone else has to wade through long and cumbersome sentences like these:

He prays that his readers might experience “grace” (χάρις, charis) and “peace” (εἰρήνη, eirēnē) from “God our Father” (θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν, theou patros hēmōn) and “the Lord Jesus Christ” (κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, kyriou Iēsou Christou). [p. 70]

The content of what Paul is saying (ὅτι, hoti, that) and to which he draws attention is urgent: ἐὰν περιτέμνησθε, Χριστὸς ὑμᾶς οὐδὲν ὠφελήσει (ean peritemnēsthe, Christos hymas ouden ōphelēsei, if you undergo circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you). [p. 321]

This happens every time the Greek text is cited in the main part of the commentary – in every verse, usually multiple times. Strangely many of the footnotes discuss Greek only, and are thereby inaccessible to those relying on transliteration or translation. Sometimes, this occurs in places where valuable content is found, as in the footnote to Gal 1:1 discussing the use of ἀπό and διά, or the comment on θαυμάζω at Gal 1:6. So not only does BECNT suffer from a cumbersome Greek + transliteration + translation policy, but it’s not even consistent! But these are again minor matters. Overall, this is a fine commentary from a master commentator and should hold a worthy place for years to come as a leading technical resource on Galatians. For this reviewer at least, the quality of this volume further whets the appetite for Dr Moo’s forthcoming commentaries on Hebrews and Philippians.

Dr Andy Cheung is a tutor at King’s Evangelical Divinity School.

  1. This is a good book

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