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Galatians for You

T. David Gordon

Galatians for You, by Timothy Keller. Purcellville VA: The Good Book Company, 2013, 199 pages, $22.99.

Full Disclosure: Candor requires me to state two things to the reader of this review. First, Tim Keller is an old friend whom I’ve known for thirty years. It would be difficult for me to find fault with him even if he were ever to commit one. Second, I just recently finished writing a five hundred-page monograph on the reasoning in Galatians 3 and 4, in which I argued (as I have for thirty years in print and the classroom) that neither the traditional approach to Galatians (which Keller adopts) nor the New Perspectives approach will work. So, I write from the (preposterous) point of view that the reasoning in Galatians has not yet been correctly understood, whether by Luther, Calvin, Keller, et al.

Tim Keller is one of the most able men I know, and one of the most cooperative. The editors of this series asked for his notes from a study he had done many years ago on Galatians, and Tim graciously provided them. I wish I had the un-edited notes, which, I am confident, would have been rich with insight. The editors have edited those notes to satisfy the purpose of their series: “Each volume of the God’s Word For You series takes you to the heart of a book of the Bible, and applies its truths to your heart” (7). The specific goals of each book in the series are four, to be: Bible-centered, Christ-glorifying, relevantly-applied, and easily-readable. Now, these four cannot, of course, be equally achieved. The Bible is an ancient book written in ancient cultures and languages, so it cannot be “easily-readable,” so the criteria of “Bible-centered” and “easily-readable” cannot be equally attained. But I believe that last criterion of “easily-readable” is the determinative criterion.

To achieve this end of readability, the volume reads almost more like a web page or a teen magazine than a book: summary statements in large font appear on many pages; questions for reflection occur about every two or three pages, The fonts are non-serifed, important words are in bold font, and others are in gray. There is a glossary in the back that includes abbreviated definitions of words that may need them, e.g., “incarnation,” “egalitarian,” “epistle.” But the glossary also informs us that “barren” means “unable to have children,” that “affections” are “the inclinations of our hearts,” and that “subjective” means “something which is based on feelings and opinions,” definitions that many of us have known since we were nine or ten years old. The over-all purpose is to create a series of books that are “welcoming” to those who ordinarily do not read (and “emerging adults” in the ages of 18–29 only read printed matter for 49 minutes per week). The editors have probably achieved that purpose, but for those of us who read, the presentation is entirely too distracting and busy.

At some point, one reaches Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point,” where, in the effort to make something easy you make it simplistic. I think this series does so. One page on the historical background to the letter? Three pages on the New Perspective on Paul? It might have been better to have said nothing about these matters than to have said so little. Indeed, there is little here that could not be gleaned simply from reading an English translation of Galatians thoughtfully.

Keller’s approach is a fairly standard “dominant Protestant” approach, that regards the problem at Galatia to consist in the Judaizers teaching that people must obey the ceremonial law of Moses in order to be saved. I published my reasons for disagreeing with this view many years ago, so I will say no more about that here (if interested, cf. my “The Problem at Galatia,” Interpretation 41 [January 1987]: 32–43). As such, Keller’s approach is entirely “safe,” theologically, and is characterized by his always-clear declarations about salvation being an entirely free, dismerited, gift from God. Considering the series of which it is a part, the book is fine. Keller’s love for the gospel is evident throughout the book; his capacity to make refined distinctions, however, is less evident, because the editors have tried to make the volume approachable to non-readers, readers who would probably fail to catch anything that was nuanced or refined. Insofar as Keller’s thoughts can be found here, they are fine, orthodox, and encouraging; but they have been somewhat concealed behind a cloud of simplification.

The poet Oliver Goldsmith once physically assaulted Thomas Evans for a negative review, and then Goldsmith published an apology for the assault in the London Chronicle. When James Boswell asked Dr. Johnson about the apology, Johnson replied, “He (Goldsmith) has, indeed, done it very well; but it is a foolish thing well done.” I am inclined to think the editors of this series have also done a foolish thing well; they have skillfully produced a book for non-book-readers. But should such a thing be done at all? If people cannot read thoughtful, sustained, adult prose, perhaps we should just leave them alone and let them Tweet, Text, or Instagram. I really do not know what kind of a recommendation to make about a book like this: Readers will find its visual presentation distracting and its content simplistic; non-readers will probably find it to still be too wordy, too “booky.” I doubt even Goldilocks could find someone for whom it is “just right.”

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2013.

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