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How Should We Read Commentaries?

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(This was an answer I gave to a question posted to me about 3 years ago as to why there are different kinds of commentaries and how one should use them)

How Should We Read Commentaries? Or more importantly,  should we read them? I will dedicate the later part of this post to types of commentaries and their different siblings. However first let me address the need and the danger thereof reading commentaries.

A NASCAR driver knows how to maneuver his car very well. A lab technician masters his basics. A musician has her ears trained at recognizing musical notes. A musician once told me, “the curse of being a musician is that you know on which key your spouse is wining” He meant to say while his wife complains, he rather cannot help it but recognize that the melody of her complaint is on the key of F#, simultaneously he can’t help it but to remember the day before it was on the key of B-flat. A musician that does not have his ears trained at recognizing notes is not yet a musician. He could be one who reads a musical notes and repeat.

Likewise a christian, as a follower of Christ, must know how to handle his or her bible very well. After all our Master and Lord was skillful at reading, interpreting and applying Scripture. Remember Jesus used to ask individuals “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Lk 10:26) The question is one of content and method. Another way of putting it would be “do you know what your bible says? And do you know how to interpret what it says?” These skill-sets are both supernatural gift and natural abilities. Both are important. One must read, or hear the words of the bible to be supernaturally aided for spiritual understanding. So much a prerequisite that it is the apostle John writes”Blessed is the one who reads aloud (note the singular ‘the one’) the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, (note the plural those) and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” Re 1:3.

There is a danger of merely becoming “relevant” to this generation at the expense of faithfulness to Truth: the Truth that Jesus himself testified before kings having being sent by the Father. That is to say, there is a kind of bible reading that masters on how to turn each biblical verses into snippet of fanciful cliches and articulate verbal-decorations. Satan has this deceptive way in Christians since the time of the apostles: namely to be found relevant to our hearers, helpful to those who need it and yet at the expense of something that is a matter of life and death. Since the garden of Eden, Satan has been selling his lies so that people exchange the truth for something other than what God has truly said. Accordingly, there is a way of preaching and teaching the bible that simply exchanges Christ for the sake of being perceived as “pragmatic”, “relevant”, “stimulating”, “helpful”, “mind and heart captivating”. The reason I put these words in quote is because these are simply perceived realities. In truth they are not helpful. They are not relevant. They do change people but they do not necessarily transform into Christ-likeness. Some of us have sold our soul for pragmatism. The mainstream Christianity has been in danger of exchanging Truth for pragmatism for such a long time now. So much so is the temptation to be relevant, at the expense of the truth, Paul warn Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season (2 Ti 4:1–2)

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:5)

Therefore Timothy should always remain faithful: However, why?

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3–4)

Paul is reminding Timothy that within his generation, there are those who would see his preaching and teaching as cold, boring, irrelevant, irrational, intolerant or simply dubbed as “wide of the mark”. It does not satisfy their itching ears: an idiom that conveys an acceptable manner or speech.  This idiom is not that far from us. Didn’t you have an itch on your back, and you would like someone to know exactly where it is and scratch it? A smile follows. Likewise, Timothy’s sound and faithful teaching appears to these people as dull. It does not satisfy their itching ears. It is uninteresting. It lucks stimuli. They want another kind of preaching, a kind that scratches their itching ears.  It was several years ago, a gentlemen approached me to tell me how he enjoyed the sermon that day. The preacher preached a kind of popular sermon among Christians. He said “this is a kind of sermon that my soul craves!”. The reason I brought this up is that sometimes we Christians have a tendency to form our own canon of truth, a measuring rod, by which we measure the Truth. We pick this favorite theme over that. We emphasize this segment of truth above that. Hence, unspoken and unwritten official sub-culture exists within the broader church. Anything that does not conform to that preconceived parameter is judged to be unsound, unbiblical and irrelevant. This sub culture, by which we measure what is truth, has become the standard for so long. So much so is the scrutiny that to deviate from that is dubbed as erroneous or flat out heresy. A church that does not preach that kind of truth-claim simply is said to be dead. That means we have itching ears for certain kind of truth!

A couple of years ago, attending a conference on the doctrine of the Trinity, I met a brother who labors for the gospel in Africa, during our break up sessions. He and I have a meaningful conversation about a certain theme imported to Africa from a certain strand of Christianity here in North America. It is a set of beliefs that no one held in church history until recently. It is sickening to hear it proclaimed as truth to so many of us. But then it is equally self-suicide to anyone of us to speak against it. Why? because so many Christians have heard it so many times, that it has become a measuring rod of truth. This preacher have taught me a life long lesson that day. It is another topic for another day. So how can we become faithful bible readers? One of the ways to remain faithful is to develop a skill-set for reading our bible well and know how to use resources appropriately (appropriately should be underlined). This question of appropriateness leads me to the next point.

Commentaries in general and Personal bible study in particular

The first task of any bible reader is first to think God’s thoughts after him and then apply that to our life-context. Anything short of that is dangerous. That is why every serious bible reader must know to consult several kinds of resources. First let’s address the big hype about commentaries. Two dangers to avoid:

  • It is dangerous for your soul to simply jump to reading commentaries, bypassing the task of thinking and pouring yourself on the bible! Bible reading must be the first task. God gave us the bible and not commentaries. The best and the godliest of commentaries are there to serve us to read the bible more carefully and faithfully. But they are not to replace the bible. Therefore to read the bible once and jump to commentaries is to replace God’s thoughts for men’s thoughts, regardless the fact that these commentators are faithful (I am referring here to only those Evangelical commentators who are reverent to Christ and His words). Our task, in the first instance, is to read the bible careful, prayerfully, and with pen and paper outlining the biblical author’s flow of thoughts. This part of the process is called Exegesis- taken from a Greek word found in, for instance, in John 1:18 et.al. It means to lead/read-out a biblical meaning from a given text as oppose to Eisegesis, which means to read-in our own meaning to the biblical text. Awful number of us fall into this temptation. In other words we are called to biblical exposition (to say what God has said in the way he has said it) than imposition, (to say what God has not said in ways that he has not said it). Reading the bible well, learning how to do exegesis for ourselves, is the primary task of every believer. Referring commentators immediately betrays this responsibility. At best it makes us ‘echo-chambers’ who repeat what others have said regardless the fact that what they said is faithful and Christ-honoring. At worst however, we fail to become God’s voice for our generation. We need such prophets in our day- those true prophets who pour themselves in the biblical text, those who know how to handle the word of truth (that is faithful to the author’s meaning) and teach others accordingly in God honoring, Christ-centered, and Spirit filled manner. May we respond to this call?
  • It is equally dangerous for your soul not to consult Commentaries if you simply read and re-reread the bible and never consult those who’ve read the bible more than you have, and know the bible more than you do. Not only we might fall to the acute temptation of being wise in our own eyes, moreover, we are in great danger of misleading those who gave their hearts and ears to listen God’s voice from us. We have failed them. We face judgement if we dare to do so. We gave them junk, just because we refuse to listen anyone but our own private interpretation. The best of commentaries affirm or challenge your conclusions and help you listen to God better. My challenge to those who think commentaries are not helpful, to say the least, is by asking us a question: Why do we ask people to listen to us? Or buy/download our sermons? Why do we post or blog our explanations of a biblical text? If you don’t find it helpful to listen to other commentaries, why should others listen to you? Above all why should anyone trust us? In my experience, those who claim that they have no need of referring to commentaries repetitively fall into saying things doctrinally erroneous. They would not have fallen to that grievous error, had they listen to others. Earlier in my ministry, I fell to this temptation. I tell you this, so you refuse this temptation and humble yourself to learn from others. Let’s call it for what it is. It is pride and should be addressed as such. We all are proud people in one way or another. Let us acknowledge it and address it in a godly way without condemning one another.

Every good commentary therefore consists of the following four categories. I usually think of these as the four tires of a car.

  1. Exegesis: seeks to understand what is the literary context and the flow of thought of the given text. Here the reader seeks to understand the meaning conveyed by the author, which is called authorial intent: what the writer is trying to communicate to the reader. The reader seeks to analyze the words, the sentences, the flow of thought etc..Every reader should exhibit a good sense of reading skills. Many of us are not trained to read well. I was surprised when I took a class few years ago on how to read a biblical text: at a sentence level, paragraph level, chapter level, at a discourse level, a book level and a canon level. I was then surprised how little my reading skills were. We often claim to read but many times it is a superficial reading. The intent of this scrutiny of the text is not that we bring out some new secret revelation that was never seen before. The attempt is rather to keep us from reading what we think the text is saying (known us reader response) than reading out what the living God has written (authorial intent).
  2. History: seeks to understand how this text/ flow of thought would be understood by the original audience (here the reader should be careful not to read the present worldview of the reader back to the worldview of the writer). Every book of the bible are occasional. That is to say, there is a specific reason why they were written.
  3. Theology: seeks to understand why God (the divine author) spoke these words to us through (the instrumental means of) the human authors. At this stage the reader discovers the timeless truth, after analyzing very closely what the given biblical text is trying to communicate (meaning) with its historical context (relevance). Then the reader begins to uncover the timeless truth (theology) about God and grasp what God communicates  for all people living at all times and in all places. For instance, Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians concerning food, clothing, worship conduct, etc…have an immediate context that is applicable to the first century as well as multiple implications to the modern christian. However the reader must be able to discern, first, the precise theology of the imperative. In other words, forbidding to wear a certain kind of head-covering in worship today betrays Paul’s intent and is not faithful. Thus understanding why Paul forbid those practices is in order.
  4. Application: The fourth step will be to apply the biblical context to our present life-context. Here is a pastoral tone. At this point the reader is equipped to face every challenge that the present worldview throws at us. This is called contexualization, making the ancient text relevant to today’s life. Usually people tend to rush to this 4th point without much understanding of the above three steps. Just as neglecting the fourth makes the church irrelevant and dead, so too the first three. There is a danger of becoming pragmatic to this generation at the expense of Truth. God does not change, His will is still the same. The first task of any bible reader is first to think His thoughts after him and then apply that to our context.

 

Few Words about Commentaries in general and commentators in particular

So in commentary writing, these above points come to sharp focus. Therefore before you pick a commentary, a given commentator must exhibit the following qualifications.

1. Linguistic Competence:

What I mean by ‘original languages’ is knowing the language that’s used to write a book of the bible. Greek for the New Testament and Hebrew/Aramaic for the Old Testament. For instance if a commentator is trying to write a commentary on the New Testament, he or she must know Greek relatively well (emphasis is on the word relatively). Exegesis is done of the original Greek text, not the English or any other translations. If a commentator is trying to exegete from the English translations, then he/she is not a commentator but an expositor- in my opinion. It is totally fine for a pastor/teacher to do his exegesis (#1 above) on the English translations (on at lest 3-7 English translations, should be noted!). An expositor of God’s word mainly makes use of Commentators’ intimacy of the biblical text and is not required to know the original Greek. My point here is before you pick any commentary, first know if the person is qualified to write one. Otherwise, that person must demonstrate that he or she is relying on other commentators. That is fine too. Just know the quality of the work.

The bible is a written form. Every writer who desires to communicate with his/her audience must draw on common literary conventions of one type or another. Therefore a reader should be able to tell genres when he/she encounters one. There area about 9 agreed genres in our bible (Historical Narrative, Law, Wisdom, Poetry, Prophecy, Apocalyptic, Gospel, epistles). For instance, one does not use the rule of soccer to play a basket ball. Or one does not play a guitar, a stringed instruments, like he would play a wind-wind instrument like a flute. One does not play the rhythm of 3/4th the same way as 4/4th. Therefore as a commentator should be able to tell how poetry works in the Hebrew language to communicate truth, much of our OT prophetic books are composed as poetry. That is staggering. So once a bible reader knows relatively how parallelism works in Hebrew [poetry], it keeps himself and his listeners from committing many interpretative errors. It should be noted that reading a Psalm, a poetry, like history would end up in misinterpretation! of course.

2. Historical Competence

Christianity is a historical revelation. The God of history acted in time and spoke in history. When revelation is divorced form history, it becomes lifeless. Jesus was raised in history. The bible says that if the resurrection is not a historical fact, then our faith is empty. Christ has not risen bodily. However biblical revelation is the manifestation of the glory of God in human history. Jesus was sent at a point in time, and history (Gal 4:4). A good exegete of God’s word therefore should be fairly informed about the cultural, linguistic, geographical and social context in which God revealed himself.

This is many times confused with being someone who is a walking ancient history databases. It is crucially important but it must always be done by the experts. Does this historical context, relevant to the writer/ book? There are histories that have nothing to do with the specific text.

There are misleading historical sources, that are very later than the apostolic periods and they are being read back to that period. It is a mistake.

For example some have claimed, concerning Jesus’ reference “a camel passing through the eye of the needle” (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25), that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped and first had all its baggage removed and he claimed that Jesus was referring to that. Several biblical scholars noted that there is no historical evidence whatsoever, in all of the documents that came down prior to AD 70, that mentions any such gate. Of course some commentator of old wrote in his commentary that there was such a gate in Jerusalem as his historical context. Since then it has got a life of its own. But it’s a wrong historical source and we should be careful which commentary we should refer and done by whom.

3. Theological competence:

I cannot stress this enough. There are two main branches of theology. Biblical and systematic (thrown in the mix, Exegetical, historical, pastoral..etc.. theologies-but I already discussed these above). In biblical theology the exegete summarizes the contribution of each biblical writer along the line of salvation history both on a canonical level and thematic level (to simplify to you the reader, even though this is beyond the scope of this post, a common misconception between biblical theology being a descriptive disciple where as systematic a prescriptive one should be discouraged. Their differences are as important as their contribution) as to its total message in relation to the theme of the book and the whole of the canon. In traditional categories of Systematic, then we ask how this biblical book contribute to our understanding of the following topics:

  1. Doctrine of Scripture
  2. Doctrine of God
  3. Doctrine of Man
  4. Doctrine of Creation
  5. Doctrine of the Person and Work of Christ
  6. Doctrine of Salvation
  7. The doctrine of the Person and the Work of the Holy Spirit
  8. Doctrine of the Church
  9. The Doctrine of last thing

Therefore our understanding of these topics becomes enriched and informed by our careful exegetical reading of every book of the bible.

4. Pastoral competence:

Here the commentator does not leave the reader alone with out applying all of these truths to his/her life. All of this exercise is not merely a mental gymnastics. It is to lead all to faith in Christ and maturity that is found in Him. It is to bring everyone mature and ready to all good works, it is to bring the excellence of Christ and the supremacy of his atoning scarifies relevant to everyone.

Why then different types of Commentaries?

Because of focus and space limitations, publishers divide the tasks of commentary writing into mainly those 4 categories. While all good commentaries attempt to accomplish all those four at the same time, but they emphasize one of the above disproportionately. Therefore there are Exegetical commentaries, Historical Background Commentaries, Theological Commentaries and Application Commentaries corresponding to the above four categories.

Those that Focus on Exegesis and theology

(Such as Baker’s Exegetical commentary/ Zondervan’s Exegetical commentary/ Pillar NT commentary/ )

001 003 002

Those that focus on historical context such as:

004005

Those that focus on the Theological message of the book:

006007

Finally those that focus on application of the biblical book:

008009

The above categories, all do all four points at the same time while one of them is emphasized.

© 2016, Samson Tilahun. All rights reserved.

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