Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why and How To Use Biblical Commentaries

Last week I had a conversation with a gentleman about reading and understanding the Bible. In the course of our talk he made a comment that he didn't put any stock in commentaries. I wish I could say that this was the first time I had heard someone make such a statement, but it wasn't. Sadly, I have talked with several folks who have a "me and my Bible" approach to study, meaning they pick up the Bible, interpret it for themselves, and believe that it means whatever they understand it to mean. Their line of reasoning is that God wrote the Bible to communicate with people for all time, so it just can't be all that complicated.

Some people are skeptical of scholars and commentaries in the same way I am skeptical of used car salesmen and contractors going door-to-door. The prejudice seems to run that these learned types are trying to take away our time-honored understandings of Scripture and baffle us with BS (that's Bible Study if you are easily offended). These well-meaning people fail to realize that any time they talk with someone else about the Bible, hear a sermon or a Sunday school lesson on a particular passage they are listening to commentary. Commentaries are merely a person's reflections on a book of the Bible. The best ones present sound exegetical proofs for their inferences and subsequent case for interpretation. Commentaries are conversation partners we invite into our dialogue.

Other Christians have the opposite problem. Rather than engage in a conversation with several informed voices, they read one or two commentaries and take everything they have to say as God's honest truth without doing any of their own study. No interpretation of Scripture outside of the Bible is inspired, so we can't afford to hand off our brain to another interpreter. So, what is the proper way to use commentaries in the service of Biblical interpretation? Read two or more only after you have conducted your own study.

My mentor, Dr. David Bauer, always teaches his students to inductively study the Bible, looking to such things as key terms and definitions, book survey, immediate and broader book context, word usage, NT and OT usage, etc. before they ever pick up a commentary. However, reading a few commentaries is an important part of interpretation because without other scholars weighing in on a subject it can be quite easy to see what you want to see in a particular passage. The scripture doesn't belong to you or me--it belongs to the Church, and it is in the community of faith that we should interpret it.

If you are new to reading commentaries and are not sure how to get started, you should know a few things. There are several types of commentaries aimed at different levels of learning. There are devotional commentaries, which illustrate the scholar's interpretation but offer few to no proofs along the way. These can be edifying (or even good for sermon helps) but they aren't helpful for a student engaged in deep study. You need to be able to understand how the commentator got there. Commentaries of this type would be Matthew Henry's Commentary or N.T. Wright's "New Testament For Everyone" series.

Then there are exegetical commentaries, which build a case for an interpretation from the text using such things as original languages, grammar, context, historical background, etc. There are numerous types of these with various levels of technicality. Some are easily read by a lay person while some are difficult for an academic. Personally, I use the IVP New Testament series, Tyndale New Testament series, Word Biblical Commentaries, New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) and New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT), and New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC) to name a few. If you want further help in selecting good study resources, I highly recommend Dr. Bauer's An Annotated Guide to Resources For Ministry.

Once you find some that work for you, don't feel the need to read them like regular books. They are reference tools. A good one will be laid out in such a way that you can dip in at the points in the conversation where you are interested or need clarity.

Please let me know if this has been helpful to you or if you have any thoughts or questions.


  1. I'm coordinating a Bible study using the "Swedish method." Are you familiar with it? What do you think of it? Do you disagree with the "God wrote the Bible to communicate with people for all time, so it just can't be all that complicated" statement?

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Justin! I'm not familiar with the "Swedish method." I looked at a couple of sites, trying to get an idea of how it's done, but in truth I can't say that I could make a fair assessment without seeing how it plays out in actuality. It seems to have several things going for it: prayer, group accountability, and asking questions of the passage. Where I see a possible problem would be in the purely subjective nature of the reading in a rush to application. Some passages are fairly clear about what the reader is expected to do. Some passages are not so clear and may require a careful, broader book and canonical reading to understand what is going on.

    As to my views on "God wrote the Bible to communicate with people for all time, so it just can't be all that complicated" I realize that I probably should have explained that more clearly. Thanks for pointing that out. First of all, I do believe that God gave us the Bible to communicate with people for all of time; however, that doesn't mean that we can come to the Scriptures casually and expect that we understand what it means. The Bible was written for us but it wasn't written to us. I think that it's possible to get the gist of God's message from a casual reading. People are sinful and in need of a savior. God sent His Son to save us. We can be right with God and enjoy Him forever. Etc. But there are some other things that require real work and study. The scandal of the particular is that God revealed Himself to a particular people (not 21st century Americans but Israelites) with a particular cultural customs and practices, many of which we are unfamiliar.
    Peter even mentions that many of the things that Paul writes are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), and Paul, himself, tells Timothy that he should study so that he can rightly divide the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)--both of which indicate that things can get complicated. I hope that helps.

  3. That's a good explanation, thank you. The key to the Swedish method is to rely solely on the text examined (or the preceding parts examined in previous weeks). I find too many people, myself included, go into a Bible study with their lexicons, commentaries, etc. and don't stop and think for themselves or learn to read for themselves. They make the mistake of saying "well, my dictionary says the Greek word means _____" which is also problematic. I'd done that myself for years but found just by sitting down and asking simple questions of the text I learned more and got more familiar with the text than I had ever been previously. Suppose you are in a people group that may have very little of the Bible translated into your language, much less commentaries. You want to know that the Bible is relevant and still speaks to your time and your culture. Missionaries have to work hard to leave anything not reproducible in the native culture out of their discipleship process, including commentaries.

  4. Yes. You are right in saying that too many times people go straight for secondary resources rather than spending time in the text for themselves. The method that I have been trained in and that I push for is the Inductive Bible Study method. I think I might write a post about it soon. Needless to say, it focuses on contextual evidence, raising questions, and drawing inferences based on specific clues--particularly structural relationships. Only after you've done your own hard work of reading, questioning, and inferring do you look to outside resources--such as commentaries, lexicons, and the like.