The New American Commentary series (covering Old and New Testaments) utilizes a traditional format involving a running, verse-by-verse commentary that is quite easy to reference. Sure, if you want more intersection with history, theology, and application, you’ll want to supplement with other commentaries (see conclusion). But for what it does, and depending on the volume in question, the series is quite useful. It is not overly technical, nor is it elementary; it is a solid, mid-level series. As for David Garland’s volume on 2 Corinthians, D. A. Carson ranks it as “one of the best in the series.” BestCommentaries.com rates Garland’s commentary #1 for 2 Corinthians commentaries. Denver Seminary also gives it some of their highest marks. It is generally agreed among evangelicals that this is among the best available commentaries on 2 Corinthians, which I would not contest at this point in my studies.
Broad Assessment of Garland’s Contribution
My overall summary: Excellent content and easy delivery. There is no doubt that Garland is a master commentator, and he has helped me in my understanding of 2 Corinthians and as a result, my Christian life. Even though it is not a “devotional” style commentary, it certainly has large devotional payoffs; my walk with God has been enhanced by use of this alongside meditation on 2 Corinthians. Here are some choice quotes with devotional merit:
Christ is God’s yes to all meaningful human hopes. Christ is God’s yes to human longing for life, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification (1 Cor 1:30).
Everyone who is mindful of their mortality must therefore be mindful of their morality.
If we hope to be conformed to Christ’s glorious body in the next life, we must be conformed to his character in this life.
Honestly, it doesn’t have a robust academic feel (though it handles academic debates deftly), nor a robust devotional feel- it walks the middle road skillfully and hence is of immense values in both arenas. It could (and should!) be read as a devotional companion to your Bible reading. It also could (and should) be used to consult after or in tandem with intense study of the word!
Throughout the commentary, Garland demonstrates fair, level-headed assessment of options and interpretation of texts. For example, he provides a most evenhanded treatment of disputed texts, such as “letter vs spirit” in 3:6. He writes,
The letter was to be obeyed, but humans failed to obey it The problem is with humans and with the letter’s inability to create obedience. Even the most valiant attempts to obey the letter are doomed. Since the letter only specifies God’s demand and the punishment for failing to obey, it ends up only condemning the disobedient to death and never giving life or righteousness (Gal 3:21). The Spirit is the power that enables the moral life and sets people free. The Spirit therefore completes God’s action in giving the law because it gives obedience, life, and the potential for the old to become new (5:17; Eph 4:22, 24; Col 3:9-10).
I also found his discussion of financial / giving instruction in chs 8-9 to be particularly instructive, both from a practical and interpretive standpoint. In contrast to prosperity gospel peddlers, Garland writes,
We may not have all the money that we want, but we will have all the money we need to be abundant in our giving to others (408).
The problem with being tight-fisted is that the closed fist prevents us from receiving anything more from God (411).
And I particularly appreciated his placement of Christian charity in the larger context of God’s righteousness and Christ’s sacrifice in his comments on 9:9-11:
The righteousness that we become through Christ’s sacrificial death (5:21) works itself out in our sacrificial generosity to others. A lack of generosity calls into question whether or not we have truly received the righteousness of God. Paul’s point is that God makes us righteous through Christ and gives us seed money for a harvest of generosity (411).
What we do with our money, then, becomes a litmus test for our relationship to God. If we try to hoard it or to spend it all on ourselves, that should set off alarm bells that our relationship with God is out of balance or worse, nonexistent (412).
You can see in the way he writes that he uses an informal tone (i.e. first person pronouns) that invites personal reflection, while simultaneously engaging in series exegesis of the text. I love the commentary for that reason!
I will point out the two weaknesses I saw in my brief interaction, which really aren’t very serious in the grand scheme of things. First, I saw some mirror reading in at least one instance. Garland prefers to draw his interpretations directly from the text rather than exercising what is called “mirror reading”, which can be described as trying to see behind the text or using the text as a mirror to see what was happening in the historical events surrounding it. What, you may ask, is the problem with this? Well, to a certain extent, we must try to discern the historical occasion of the text. The problem is that we often make that our object of study rather than the text itself, and often it is just not clear enough (not to mention that the text is inspired by God for our benefit, not something that is behind or under the text). That said, I still felt at times that Garland bordered on too much mirror reading, particularly in his discussion of 2:5-13 (even though he expresses the limitations of mirror reading in this very section and even though his final analysis was based in the text and not in the background). But then again, he opposes mirror reading regarding 3:7-18 and provides a balanced interpretation of the text itself (p. 169). Any time you delve into background discussions, you run the risk of mirror reading, and overall I think Garland handles this well.
Second, I found his discussion of relation between law and death in 3:7-18 a bit one-sided. For example, on p. 171 he comments on 3:7 saying, “If the law does not lead to life, then it must lead to death, which in turn gives the chance for life.” What about the law before Christ came? Is this the sum total of Paul’s teaching on the matter? The reformers talked about the threefold use of the law, and I only see Garland discussing the first. Law-Gospel is one of the chief biblical-theological conundrums/questions that interests me these days, so Garland left me wanting more. That doesn’t mean that he is altogether non-instructive on the question though. For example, the four reasons he offers for why “Paul can say that the ministry of Moses metes out death for those whose hearts have not been changed” are really quite helpful. Here they are, for your viewing pleasure!
1. “The law prescribes death as the penalty for sin (Rom 5:12-21)” (p. 171).
2. “The law specifies transgressions” (172).
3. “The law provides an opportunity for sinful people to garble God’s commands with legalistic casuistry and to delude themselves into thinking that they have done what God requires” (172).
4. “The law cannot give life because it has no power to do so (see Rom 7:10; 8:1-11)” (172). In other words, “The law does not offer assistance to obey it and does not grade on a curve.”
Also helpful are his concluding comments on 3:8, along with quotations of Hafemann and Provence:
The law’s edicts bring death to those who cannot obey them; the gospel brings life through God’s Spirit. Hafemann helpfully stresses that Paul does not discredit the law ‘because of some theological inadequacy in the Law itself’ but because it ‘can no longer be the means of preparing for the final consummation.’ The new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 has been inaugurated with the coming of Christ, and God’s people can only be made fit for the day of judgment if they are in Christ and transformed by the Spirit. The difference between the old and new ministry is ‘the activity, or lack of activity, of the Holy Spirit within the human heart.’
Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians boasts a plethora of excellent modern commentaries. I have already suggested that you may want to supplement Garland’s volume, depending on your interests. While I stand by that statement, I also want to acknowledge that if you choose just one, this is probably “the one” to choose! But if you decide to supplement, here are some suggestions.
For those looking for a technical engagement of the Greek text, Murray Harris’ volume in the NIGTC series is superb. For a more popular-level treatment than Harris’, C. K. Barrett’s contribution to the BNTC series is masterful, though perhaps not as “evangelical” as Garland’s (and BNTC a corresponding volume by the same author for 1 Corinthians, which is nice). According to D. A. Carson, David Garland’s NAC volume “is less technical than that of Barrett but just as probing in the theological arena.” And in an even more accessible package, one might wish to consult Scott Hafemann’s volume in the NIVAC series, which is a solid volume in what is a sometimes inconsistent series.