Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Commentaries are books about books and they come in handy when we read a culturally distant book like the Bible. Biblical culture has at least three attributes that line up poorly with American culture. The Bible is highly relational, reflective, and laconic (carefully chosen words) while American culture is transactional, superficial, and wordy—we are inundated daily with verbal and visual messages. Consequently, one of the most difficult challenges in leading an adult Bible study today is finding a commentary that is both accessible and informative. Timothy Keller’s, Galatians for You, meets both criteria.
Keller is the founding pastor (church planter) of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (www.redeemer.com) in New York City which is famous for successfully evangelizing young professionals. He received his masters of divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) and doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has written a number of books, including: The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008) and The Meaning of Marriage (with Kathy Keller; New York: Dutton, 2011). When GCTS set out a box full of Galatians for You in the library at for free distribution last spring, I snapped up a copy.
Galatians for You is the first in a series of “for You” study guides. Why start a series with the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians? In an online video introduction (http://bit.ly/19XgT4B), Keller gives three reasons: 1. it provides a good summary of the Gospel, 2. it explains the uniqueness of salvation by grace and how it differs from the law, and 3. it helps explain how the Gospel transforms us through grace and fosters the fruits of the spirit.
Galatians for You is organized in 13 chapters. In the book, 2 to 3 chapters are devoted to each of the 6 chapters in Galatians. These chapters each divide into two parts focusing on: 1. explaining the Biblical text and 2. applying the issues raised. Both parts have study questions. A brief introduction precedes and a glossary, appendix, and bibliography follow these chapters. The introduction summaries the theological issues presented in the letter and provides historical context. The glossary defines technical terms appearing the text. The appendix provides a brief explanation of the new perspective on Paul raging in theological circles.
Keller’s art begins with simple communication. In his introduction, for example, he uses simple words to describe: the gospel [as] the A to Z of the Christian life (9). And his personal touch stands out as he identifies with Paul as a fellow: church-planting missionary (10). Keller writes using lists and bullet points and shares both both information and emotion. For example, his historical review consists of just three bullet points and his introduction observes Paul is both surprised and angry (13). These characteristics identify him as a post modern writer and make his writing read like a blog.
Keller’s craft runs through the entire commentary. For example, salvation by grace differs from (presumed) salvation by law because grace depends on a promise while law depends on performance (78). He writes: For a promise to bring a result, it needs only to be believed, but for a law to bring a result, it has to be obeyed (11). He classifies Christians (Paul’s audience) falling into four categories depending on whether they obey the law and/or rely on the law (versus grace) for their salvation. These categories emerge: 1. law-obeying, law-relying (modern Pharisees), 2. Law-disobeying (libertines), law-relying (cultural Christians), 3. Law-disobeying, not law-relying (secular or relativistic), and 4. Law-obeying, not law-relying. Keller observes that most Christians struggle to live out group 4 (obey the law out of gratitude), but often slip into one of the other three categories (117-118). Keller’s willingness to struggle with these issues gives his writing depth. En un español se diría que es profundo.
Keller’s Galatians for You is a joy to read. Many commentaries and study guides written for a lay audience fail to engage the text and completely ignore the struggles that a post-modern audience faces. Keller is strong on both points. I look forward to teaching this text.