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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

How to choose a (useful) bible commentary

What would Jesus say to....
I am working my way through a preaching series on five people from John's Gospel who Jesus met. I am asking the question, What would Jesus say to someone like them, should He meet them today?

And to prepare for these sermons I am using four commentaries. Three by pastor-teachers and one by a scholar-teacher (an evangelical though, of course -  who will remain nameless). 

Sadly, but inevitably, there is a world of difference between the Three and the One.

The limited usefulness of scholarly commentaries
The scholarly commentary is filled with technical details about the text which make little or no material difference either to understanding God's Word, or more importantly to applying it to our souls: it's all arid knowlegde stuff. The commentary is constantly interacting with the unbelieving scholarship of the day (which because the book is a decade old, is already irrelevant old hat). This commentary is a thick seam which has to mined hard for nuggets of useful gold. It's difficult work - and when time is limited....

Scholarly commentaries, in short, are generally of very limited usefulness. They may put you in touch with stuff that the world is thinking (the moment they were written), they might shed light on an odd fact here or there, but by and large, they are stuffy, dry and dated.

The real problem with them is that the author is often writing with his or her eye on the academy, not the church. What will his mates at the academy think of this fine new work? What will they think of the breadth of his learning?

Scholars seek the approval of  fellow scholars, not the approval - or worse still, not the edification - of the ordinary believer. 

The vast usefulness of the others
Commentaries written by experienced pastors or church leaders, on the other hand are of enduring worth. One of the Three I am using is by the 19th Century Bishop of London, J C Ryle. He was a bright fellow, but knowing he is there to edify the saints he places any technical stuff in sort of appendices and the useful spiritual food in the main body of the text.

Even though Two out of the Three are written decades ago, they speak today, because they address the enduring spiritual problems of mankind. 

The Church, not the Academy is the Pillar and Ground of Truth
All of this goes to illustrate 1 Timothy 3:15, that the church and not the academy is where truth is to be found. Tragically the academic commentaries - and very many of the modern ones are of this ilk - reveal how much the western conservative evangelical church is wowed and seduced by the academy.

So when you are buying a commentary to help you understand God's Word, avoid the ones written by scvholar-teachers. Don't let the long list of letters after the author's name spellbind you, or the list of quotes, "the finest commentary on John today" written by his mates entice you. Find ones written by  humble pastor-teachers, whose interest will be to feed your soul, not merely to stimulate your brain or impress the academy. It will save you time and money.

And should you write a commentary, if you want it to be of usefulness in a hundred years' time, make sure you write it with the church and the glory of Jesus in mind - not the passing fancies of the academy. 

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