Review of Moises Silva, “Explorations in Exegetical Method: Galatians As A Test Case”

Reviewed by Chris Comis, WRS student.

Dr. Silva has definitely outdone himself with this work. I hesitated to begin this book review with such high praise, given the fact that this might overly prejudice my review in some people’s eyes, but I think Dr. Silva’s work is worthy of such high praise. This work accomplished two primary tasks: 1) It dealt with the difficult exegetical issues and methods that are used in the interpretation of any book of the Bible, or any book in general for that matter; and 2) Dr. Silva managed to incorporate most of the book of Galatians while wading through the deep waters of exegetical and hermeneutical methodology, and he did so while not just addressing the easier passages in Galatians, but some of the more difficult ones as well. This review will look at some of the exegetical and hermeneutical results Dr. Silva came to in interpreting the book of Galatians, as well as touch on some of the exegetical and hermeneutical methods used to accomplish these results.

Dr. Silva begins the book by telling us that his primary goal is to provide students, as well as professional scholars and pastors, help in evaluating competing exegetical claims with regards to the book of Galatians. Thus, this book was written more with a view to explaining exegetical methodology than a typical commentary on a book of the Bible usually provides. In other words, his goal here was not to write a “typical” commentary on the book of Galatians.[1] Rather, his modus operandi is to try and get at the root causes for why it is that competent scholars can reach such differing conclusions about the same text, all the while employing basically the same exegetical and hermeneutical principles. And so throughout the book he seeks to uncover other determinative factors involved in the exegetical process, factors which may not seem on the surface to have much influence on this process, but which after further scrutiny turn out to play a much more significant role than is often assumed.

In the Introduction, Dr. Silva points out some lessons we could learn from the history of exegesis. For example, he mentions how two of the early church fathers (Jerome and Augustine) could not agree on why Peter and Paul chose to put their disagreement (per Gal. 2:11-14) on public display, given the fact that this could impugn the authority of the apostles. Jerome thought that they had mutually agreed to this as a way of teaching the church how to deal with disagreements in a godly way. Augustine on the other hand thought that Jerome’s take on this actually impugned the honesty of the apostles themselves, as he felt that this would have cast a shadow of doubt on the integrity of these men. Obviously, this disagreement between these two men (Jerome and Augustine) more than influenced how they exegeted and finally understood the issues going on in the Galatian church, and the message of the book as a whole. But the issue that Dr. Silva highlighted here is not so much what each of these men said about the text (i.e. the results of their exegesis), but the how of their exegesis (i.e. the principles and methods they used to arrive at their conclusions). For Silva, this how of the exegetical process is the major focus of his book. We could sum up his work here as an attempt at clarifying an approach to exegesis that is akin to what is commonly referred to in the study of epistemology as the attempt to arrive at Justified True Beliefs (JTB). Every exegete has certain beliefs about what a text says, but many difficulties arise when one tries to justify these beliefs. A belief may be true but not justified (or even justifiable), and a belief can have the appearance of justification even though upon closer examination it turns out to be false. Likewise, exegetical conclusions may be true but unjustified, and conversely, “justified” but not true.[2] Hence Dr. Silva’s attempt in this book is to provide a helpful analysis of the exegetical presuppositions a reader brings to the table, the means an exegete uses to arrive at their conclusions, and the criteria every exegete should be aware of when interpreting a text. The remaining three parts of this book deal with these exegetical issues.

Part I of the book deals with the various exegetical issues involved in the study of the language and literature of Galatians. Various grammatical issues are dealt with in this first part, issues like the semantics and syntax of the Greek text. Then Dr. Silva ends the first part by discussing the literary structure of Galatians. His main point in this section of the book is to point out how exegetes tend to overlook the forest for the trees, or vice versa. He does a masterful job of showing how both linguistic analysis of the Greek language along with studying the literary structure of Galatians can provide us with both a microscopic and macroscopic perspective on the parts and whole of the book. And thus, will keep us from getting too bogged down in the details of the grammar; while also keeping us from assuming a “big-picture” view of Galatians that has no grounding in the details of the text itself, but which instead will only give us an artificial whole. In other words, he does a wonderful job showing us how the microscopic details in the grammar of the text are mutually dependent upon (and reciprocal to) the macroscopic literary structure of the text. The hermeneutical metaphor he keeps using throughout the book to describe this micro/macro perspectivalism is that of a “spiral.” The exegetical task is not simply one of adding up all the parts in order to arrive at a coherent view of the whole, but rather our view of the whole book will influence our view of the parts, and vice versa.

In Part II Dr. Silva addresses the historical issues involved when seeking to interpret the book of Galatians. He discusses the issues of “Mirror Reading” and the various sociological perspectives involved in interpreting Galatians. His main point in this second part is to show that it is really not an issue whether we will read between the lines of a text, but how we should read between the lines.[3] He even provides some criteria for an appropriate use of these methods, so that we are not left wondering if there are any hermeneutical “brakes” involved to keep our interpretation from derailing off into mere flight and fancy. He then goes on to show how reconstructing the historical background of the book of Galatians can help to clarify the historical tensions between this book and the book of Acts, as well as provide insights into the dating of the book of Galatians.[4]

Lastly, in Part III of the book, Dr. Silva addresses the theology of the book of Galatians. This last part, in my opinion, was well worth the price of the book, especially his discussion on the Eschatology of Galatians in chapter 10. He sees the resurrection of Christ which is mentioned right at the outset of the book as a major theme of Galatians, and one which coincides with the historical-redemptive theme of the resurrection of Christ throughout the Scriptures. Of course, what book on Galatians would be complete without addressing the law/gospel issue? He does this too, and with the same erudition with which he dealt with so many of the other exegetical issues and “problem passages” in Galatians. He also addresses the issue of justification by faith, but tackles this issue from a different perspective. Although he agrees for the most part with the traditional Lutheran and Reformed exegesis of the relevant passages dealing with justification in Galatians, he admits that Reformed exegetes have a tendency to broad-brush these passages by applying them too quickly to an individual’s right-standing before God, and not seeing the broader Jew-Gentile/ecclesiological issues at stake. And if you are wondering if Dr. Silva simply jumps on the New Perspective bandwagon, he does not. But he does raise some serious historical and exegetical issues that should force us to reconsider what Paul was attempting to do with his teaching on justification. Was Paul simply trying to argue that justification is all about how an individual is declared righteous is God’s sight, or was there more going on? Dr. Silva makes a good case that there was an overarching ecclesiological/sociological issue at stake here.

All in all, this work by Dr. Silva will become (in my judgment) one of the best and most learned treatises on exegetical method to date. And more importantly, I believe it will provide both scholars and pastors with an abundance of genuine insights into the book of Galatians itself. The only drawback to the book that I could detect was that Dr. Silva did not spend more time dealing with the all-important issue of the role of the Holy Spirit in the exegetical process. He did briefly touch on this at the very end of the book, but it comes across as almost ancillary. Indeed, he even mentions how some will accuse him of relegating the work of the Holy Spirit to a position of secondary status because of this. And although he makes some good points here about the role of the Holy Spirit in the exegetical process, I think it would have been best had he put this section at the beginning of the book rather than at the end.


[1] Moises Silva, Explorations in Exegetical Method: Galatians As A Test Case (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 10. In fact, he says in the preface that this book is not intended for students or pastors who have not had at least one solid year of Greek, as well as basic familiarity with contemporary New Testament scholarship.

[2] Of course, some exegetical conclusions can be both untrue and unjustified, but these sorts of conclusions are usually not points of major contention. It is usually those that are either true but unjustified, or “justified” but untrue, that receives the most scrutiny.

[3] Ibid., 106.

[4] Dr. Silva believes that a South Galatian location is to be preferred, but is also in favor of a late date for the epistle, Ibid., 131-132.