Ah, my gentle snowflakes, it is once again that time of the year! In Eastern Christian churches, chapels, and monasteries near and far the words of St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (barring any reprehensible liturgical transgressions which need not concern us here) are being heard during the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday lectionary cycle has just treated us to three consecutive readings from that Epistle (1:11-19; 2:16-20; 6:11-18), and the Saturday lectionary cycle will soon offer us another three (1:3-10; 3:8-12; 5:22-6:2). It is no secret that, like the infallible Moisés Silva and the great J. Gresham Machen before him, I am fascinated by the Epistle to the Galatians; it surely comes as no surprise, then, that year after year hearing its words in Church invariably leads me to revisit the Galatians literature at my disposal, which is fortunately not inconsiderable.
Chief among the works to which I turn is our Infallible Hero’s book Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), which I enthusiastically recommend to all. To open this book is always bittersweet, however, given the opening paragraphs of its Preface (p. 11):
“Like every other book, this one has a history. The main title reflects the latest stage in that history, namely, a volume intended to provide guidance in the development of exegetical method. But in the beginning it was not so. Nearly two decades ago [=c. 1976] I envisioned a more ambitious work, consisting probably of two or three volumes, and covering in near-definitive form every major area in the study of Galatians. It would have established with firmer footing than before the original text of the epistle; it would have uncovered significant facts in the history of interpretation; it would have provided a cogent treatment of Paul’s use of the Old Testament; and so on.
I have not totally given up on some of those goals, but time (the awesome competitor) is against me. A few years ago, however, it occurred to me that there might be some value in publishing part of the material as a work-in-progress. If nothing else, such a move would facilitate conversation with other scholars, whose feedback could be of great help in further developing my research. (In other words, when the inevitable criticisms appear, I can conveniently respond that nothing here is meant in a definitive way—my statements here are all tentative!) Such a volume would have the additional advantage of making it possible to rework and bring together a few articles that have been previously published but that are directly relevant to the larger project.”
Needless to say, the mere thought that Silva might never publish his multi-volume treatment of Galatians is enough to trigger the onset of despair in more than one expectant soul. Mercifully, we are not wholly bereft of resources if we wish to pursue Silva’s interpretation of Galatians: in addition to Interpreting Galatians and a bounty of articles in journals and books, we have a full outline in his contribution to the New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, and his rather thorough treatment of St Paul’s use of the Old Testament in Galatians in his contribution to the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. (There also exists a 13-CD lecture series recorded while Silva taught at Westminster Theological Seminary, which I hope to acquire some day.) [UPDATE: This series is now available online from the Westminster Archive Media Center.] Still, it is surely much to be regretted that Silva’s extended treatment might never see the light of day, neither as a multi-volume work, nor even as the single-volume commentary once slated to appear as part of the BECNT series—though, as our friend Kevin Edgecomb has happily reminded us, hope springs eternal.
Now, there are some youthful projects on a grand scale for whose abandonment we should render thanks to Almighty God. Take mine, for instance: nearly a decade ago, I envisioned a homiletical commentary on the Epistle and Gospel readings for Sundays and Feasts. It would have established the ecclesiastical text of the pericopes with firmer footing than before; it would have identified the more significant lines of patristic and liturgical exegesis connected with each passage; it would have provided a cogent treatment of the canonical shape of the New Testament and its relationship to the shape of the lectionary; and so on. Though I am a little over three decades younger than our Infallible Hero, time (the awesome competitor) seems to have caught up with me too, and I have come to the conclusion that this is not a project I could realistically complete in my lifetime. Of course, I have not totally given up on some of those goals. Beyond the issue of time, however, I have come to question the rationale behind a project like the one I once envisioned. For one thing, patristic commentaries on Scripture are more readily available in English now than ever before: witness IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and Ancient Christian Texts series, as well as Eerdmans’ fantastic and promising series The Church’s Bible (whose volume on Isaiah, I should note, features the NETS translation by none other than Moisés Silva). The publication of patristic sermons is also on the rise: in addition to the old mainstays like the NPNF (for St John Chrysostom) and Toal, one can also turn to the admirable new volume of the complete homilies of St Gregory Palamas. Many similar examples could be mentioned.
More importantly, however, I am now concerned that a series of homiletical commentaries on the lectionary readings might wrongly communicate to its readers that we must preach exclusively those texts appointed by the lectionary. This is, broadly speaking, the received wisdom of the liturgical movement of the past century. But upon further reflection, one worries about unwittingly crossing over into something of an utilitarian understanding of liturgy: why read any Scriptural texts in worship that will not be the subject of a sermon? And if we ought to preach on these and no other passages, why stick with a lectionary that is so very repetitive in its choices? As is well known, this line of reasoning lead to the scrapping of the traditional Roman lectionary in the West in favor of a new 3-year lectionary, even featuring readings from the Old Testament. All of these texts are thematically linked, thus facilitating the endeavor to preach from them. By contrast, our lectionary seems like a prehistoric beast: the Epistle and Gospel readings run on practically independent cycles, and the pairings of a given Sunday this year might not be the same as for the same Sunday the next!
What is missing here is the crucial notion that reading and hearing the Scriptures in the Church is a complete act of worship in and of itself. In this capacity, then, Scripture only needs to be read and heard in order to be “liturgically effective” as such. Naturally, the Scriptures must also be preached, but it should be understood that this is a separate matter (that is, a separate act of worship) altogether. Now one may ordinarily preach on the Scripture readings of the lectionary (and especially the Gospel) as a matter of course, but this is not strictly necessary: one may also consider (laudably and profitably, given the lean biblical diet of many of the people in our churches) preaching according to the pattern commonly known as lectio continua. This does not lessen the importance of lectionary readings in the least, since, as we have noted, these readings fulfill an altogether different liturgical function—certainly in the Byzantine lectionary, the Gospel readings, for example, are carefully selected and arranged in a canonical shape that paints a definite picture of Christ, the Mystery of whose power and divinity in the Resurrection we celebrate every Sunday.
So, in the end, there is every reason to render thanks that my youthful project will never be finished, but every reason to mourn the fact that Silva’s might not. Let us fervently pray that things will remain unchanged with the former, but that they will radically change with the latter, much to our benefit.