Part One of Three: In which Dr. Minnick shares his wisdom on selecting commentaries.
There are few writings worth reading twice. But one I’ve enjoyed several times more than twice is the first chapter of C. H. Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries, entitled “A Chat About Commentaries.” Spurgeon loved books. His autobiography contains an entire chapter about his library, numbering by his death some 12,000 volumes, several thousand of which were commentaries. The prince of preachers began his chat about them advising, “In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you.”
A glorious army. Not everyone agrees, of course. Some preachers who ought to know better have described them as “dishes of dead men’s brains.” Nearly 50 years ago Thomas Horne described the mindset of such preachers in his Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of Holy Scriptures: “By some, who admire nothing but their own meditations, and who hold all human helps in contempt, commentaries are despised altogether, as tending to found our faith on the opinions of men rather than on the divine oracles” (I, 353). But Spurgeon had the last word on such lofty pretensions when he observed, “It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to them, should think so little of what He has revealed to others.” For my part, I’m glad to walk with all the wise men I can, even if I must have their brains served up in books. My shelves are lined with these urns. They are the surrounding witnesses whose sitting silently affords me the rare fellowship of welcomed stillness yet instant counsel when I ask. I love the company of the commentators.
But whose company to choose? There are thousands from which to pick. Wilbur Smith, 36-year editor of Peloubet’s Notes, counted 284 in his library on the book of Revelation alone, not including another 60 or so on that same book in the larger comprehensive commentary series (Lange, Meyer, Alford, etc.). I doubt I’ll ever amass (or wish to) anywhere near that number of volumes on any single book of Scripture, but through the years they do tend to gather.
In 1997 our church completed a five-year study of Romans. I find on counting that I accumulated 60 volumes on that particular book. And there were additional works that I did not myself possess but consulted in other libraries. I can also remember standing in the basement of Kregel’s immense used bookstore in Grand Rapids no more than ten years ago and reminding myself that I needed to hunt up commentaries for my section on John, which at the time, as I recall, numbered only a dozen or so authors. February of 1999 ushered our church into a Lord’s Day morning series in that Gospel, and I find now that my section on it has increased to nearly 70 volumes. Not all, of course, are equally valuable. Some are of no value. I thumb disappointedly through some books and am reminded of Spurgeon’s sarcastic observation about a commentary authored by a man named Pyle: “A pile of paper, valuable to housemaids for lighting fires,” he quipped. Both money and shelving are too short in supply to squander on such as that.
So how does one know a good commentary? All I can do is talk about what I find useful for myself and trust that no one will take it as a criticism if I differ from his own preference. If I can exercise that liberty, then here, to my way of thinking, is the basis on which good commentaries are chosen and the characteristics of those that are best.
The Basis For Evaluating Commentaries
I choose commentaries based upon my hermeneutics, my approach to Scripture interpretation. I’m looking therefore for commentators whose hermeneutics are consistent with my own. This means that their analysis reflects a clear understanding of the difference between (1) what a text says and (2) what a text means by what it says.
What a text says is determined by investigating it (a) literally (as opposed to figuratively or symbolically), (b) grammatically (or syntactically), (c) historically, and (d) contextually. These four processes are initial and tend to be objective.
What a text means by what it says is determined by concluding its ramifications (a) theologically and (b) applicationally. These two processes are final and tend to be more subjective.
A good commentator, like a good pulpit expositor, reflects his understanding of the difference between these two issues by dealing with them sequentially, analyzing first what the text actually says before finally branching out into theological conclusions or applications. Few commentators, however, embody the best of both worlds. They tend to be either examinational or practical (focused upon practice), but rarely both. If I were forced to choose one over the other, I would opt for the former since my theology is settled and pastoring yields its own ever-widening stream of applications. Happily, however, the company of the commentators is multitudinous! So bless yourself and your people with a large fellowship of them.
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)