Monday, February 25, 2008

Excursus: The Value of Commentaries

In my series on sermon preparation, I indicated that a valuable resource in creating a sermon is commentaries. I have heard many people condemn the use of commentaries, stating things like, "I do not use commentaries. I only use the Word of God" or "I do not care what the scholars say, I only care about what Jesus says" or "Using a commentary is essentially saying some man's views are as inspired as the Bible." I assume statements like these are meant to sound spiritual but in reality they sound arrogant and uninformed. Commentaries are a useful and crucial part of studying Scripture. Here is why.

To begin with, it should be noted that no one believes commentaries to be as inspired as Scripture is. This is a straw-man argument. It is easy to for someone to critique another for using a commentary in their study by accusing them of something that is not true and then knocking down that argument. I know of no bible student, NO bible student, who views commentaries with the same value as they view the Bible.

Instead, bible students see commentaries as a personal consultant, so to speak. Which one of us would NOT ask a knowledgeable, mature, strong Christian their opinion on passages we may be struggling with if that Christian was sitting next to us in the pew. That is what we are doing when we consult a commentary. The scholars who write commentaries may have devoted their entire Christian life studying one book or a section of books (this does not mean they do not read the whole Bible, they just spend their professional career in a few books). They have devoted themselves to understand the times which the book was written. They have spent hours pouring over the text in the original language. They have had a lifetime of allow the text transform them through the principles gathered from their studies. They have taught others the nuances of the text. In short, they are experts regarding the text, usually.

If there is some student out there that says, "I do not need the insights of mature Christians who have studied the text in depth and could add to my understanding" then that student should stop their study, get on their knees, and begin to ask God to work on their pride issues. Yes, we each have the Holy Spirit. But why do the critics assume the Holy Spirit does not work in those who spend their life studying a particular text. Additionally, why do the critics fear thinking about the text instead of just "feeling" it. God has given us mind which can comprehend truth. We should use it.

Secondly, there are times we are wrong about our own interpretations about a text, as much as we do not want to admit it. I had friend tell me once that the passage in Isaiah that says "Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength" was not about "waiting" as in patiently waiting for the Lord, but it was instead about "waiting" like what waiters do. Therefore, his "new" interpretation of the text was that those who are busily serving the Lord will renew their strength. This may preach in some congregations and there may be pastors who want this to be the interpretation but the fact is, it is a wrong interpretation. A quick study of the words show that "wait" strangely enough means "wait, to patiently wait on the Lord" much like Jesus told his disciples, "wait in Jerusalem until the Promised one comes." (Can you imagine Jesus telling the 11 disciples who were holed up in their room after his death, "go about busily serving me until the Holy Spirit comes.") Working with commentaries would help us see when we are misunderstanding a text.

Yes, it is true that commentators can also be wrong about a text. This happens frequently. That is why one should consult several different sources and not just their favorite author. It not always majority rules but we come up with "waiter" and every other person in the world and throughout history has said "patiently wait," perhaps we may want to rethink our interpretation. Or are we so arrogant to think that God has not revealed this insight to anyone else throughout history and earnest, godly men have missed this meaning simply because they just were not smart/spiritual/ingenious enough?

Thirdly, not all commentaries are equal. There are some that better than others. There are some that are conservative in their approach to Scripture and there are some that liberal in their view of Scripture. A good Bible student researches these, and can avoid the liberal commentaries, unless he needs to see how liberal theologians are misleading the church. There are commentaries which deal more with the technical issues of the text and some that more devotional in content. Some are scholars working with the text and some are just transcriptions of a pastor's sermon. All of them have their place and it up to the Bible student to find the right mix to provide a good overview of the text in question.

Finally, please note that consulting the commentaries came closer to the end of the study process than the beginning. No commentary was written to be the first source. If you ask any commentator about the use of their material, they will affirm that the Bible should be studied independently at first and then after sufficient time with the text should a commentary be consulted. Perhaps, this is where the critics do understand. Maybe when they use commentaries they are tempted to go directly to them and they have not been properly taught about the use of commentaries. Or perhaps they have seen people misuse commentaries. Whatever, the case, consulting commentaries should be closer to the end of the study rather than at the beginning.

As I have said in different posts (here and here) commentaries are the tools through which the Bible student does his job. Imagine taking your car to the mechanic and he says, "Well, I need to replace your transmission and I can do a great job of it." You look on his walls and around his shop and there is not one tool; no wrenches, no screwdrivers, no impact wrenches, nothing with which to accomplish the job he said he could do. Sure, he could do it. It may take him a long time, and it would not be a quality job (do we really think he could tighten all the bolts to safety specifications with his bare hands?). Tools help him do the job well and safe. That is the job of a good commentary: to provide the exegete with a good tool to do his job safely so that he can accurately convey the Word of God.

Diagram -> Outlining -> Excursus -> Word Studies -> Commentaries -> Excursus -> Refining -> Illustrations -> Practice -> Preaching


Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what you said except for your disregard of liberal scholarship except to spot places where the church is being misled. In reality, some of the best Old and New Testament scholars are what evangelicals would call "liberal" or even non-believers altogether. While they ultimately miss the gospel, they can help open up the biblical text in lots of helpful ways. Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic, for instance, has written one of the very best commentaries on 1 & 2 Timothy (in the Anchor Bible series). Dibelius and Conzelmann's Pastoral Epistles commentary in the Hermeneia series remains a mandatory read, not only for scholars but preachers as well.

In short, my warning is not throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because a scholar is a liberal doesn't automatically disqualify him/her as having anything of value to contribute. That would be just as arrogant as assuming that we don't need commentaries at all. Similarly, just because a scholar is an evangelical doesn't make him/her correct--a point which you also make.

Mark said...

Peter Mead at
has been talking about commentaries. I really enjoy his posts in regards to preaching.

Rolland said...


You are correct and I misspoke. One should never simply avoid those who are in disagreement and should never shy away from those things that would challenge the intellect. These are good thing.

I would still stand by the concept that the busy pastor's time may be more effeciently spent by finding some very good, conservative, technical (or somewhat technical) commentaries. I realize the gauge of good bible exegesis is not effeciency. However, my thoughts and comments in this area are directed toward the mission pastor I visited in rural Wyoming who works at least 40 hours a week sculpting those large statues in front of Cabela's and still faithfully ministers to the small body of believers God has put in his responsibility. I think of the pastor here in Colorado Springs who is on the fire department full-time and still preaches to the congregation, while helping the church administer a free, full-service medical clinic throughout the week. Men like these who are making a difference in the kingdom probably do not have the time or the resources to spend on these commentaries that disregard the gospel. They may not have a access to the theological library where these resources could be found. Some of these men may have just gotten through their language classes by the skin of their teeth. They depend on the leadership of a trusted commentator when a passage is difficult.

I agree, rarely is it a good idea to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I was painting in too broad of strokes. However, with the above concessions, I would stand by the concept of turning to conservative commentaries first and, if time is limited, only.

I am glad the post has sparked some discussion. We all need challenged, don't we. THANKS STEVE!