This article is likewise published in three parts. This is the first part.
Gabriel Harris’s streetfront shop was a popular, heavily trafficked Gloucester bookstore in 1735. But in the summer of that same year the small room above its first floor also became a seminary for just one. There, beginning with first light around 5 a.m., a 20- year-old Pembroke College, Oxford, student knelt for the first of his many hours every day with an open English Bible and its companion two-volume Greek New Testament. “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees,” he wrote in his diary, “laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed, and drink indeed to my soul.”
The student’s name was George Whitefield. Within two years his preaching would startle the nation. But in May 1735, Whitefield was newly converted, sick, and penniless. It was Gabriel Harris who kindly took him in and provided the quiet retreat above his shop. And it was Harris who provided the eager young believer with his first real Bible teacher, Matthew Henry.
Henry had, of course, been dead for more than 20 years, but his Commentary could be had for £7. This was an immense sum, however, roughly equivalent to four months’ wages for a common laborer. So the generous Harris provided Whitefield with the set upon the understanding that he would pay for it as he was able. Now the young Christian had a seasoned pastorpreacher to guide his studies. His diary reveals his use of Henry every morning from five until six, sometimes again later in the morning or afternoon, and almost always for an hour or two in the evening. “For many months have I been almost always upon my knees, to study and pray over these books,” he wrote.
George Whitefield, though young, had made a mature discovery— the value of a great commentator for a teacher. Last issue’s column began to answer the question of what attributes characterize such a great commentator. This issue’s column will continue and conclude that discussion.
If you were to ask the average congregation which chapter of the New Testament gives the most help on the relationship between wives and husbands, chances are that a fair number of them would get it right. But if you asked them, further, why that chapter is the fifth of that book, coming near its conclusion rather than its beginning, or why that fifth chapter is in Ephesians rather than, say, one of the Gospels, it’s safe to say that few if any would know. Some commentators appear to betray the same ignorance, or perhaps intentional disregard, of contextual issues.
Contextual analysis is one of the issues least discussed by commentators. Few are really good at it. Many seem almost to ignore it altogether. But superior commentaries don’t merely comment verse by verse. They comment, first of all, section by section. They furthermore explain each section in relation to the particular book’s distinctive message. There are two great benefits of this approach.
The first is logical continuity. The second, and even more important, is theological consistency. Analyzing section by section before doing so verse by verse (or word by word) forces the commentator to connect his dots in logical lines. Relating sections to the book’s distinctive message tends to keep those logical lines confined within the Biblical author’s own theological grid.
To give an example, take the chapter of qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3. It is grammatically independent of both the chapter preceding it as well as the one following. Theoretically, therefore, it could have been positioned at nearly any place within the book. Yet it nevertheless has a context within both the book and the section of the New Testament we call the “pastorals.” A superior commentary will explore those issues in an introductory fashion before it begins its word-by-word analysis of the qualifications, even though the chapter stands alone grammatically.
As a general rule, today’s newer commentators pay far more attention to this aspect of interpretation than the older ones did. In fact, the welcome trend is to precede verse-by-verse comments (typically called “exegesis” or “exposition”) with major sections of contextual discussion which are helpfully labeled “structural analysis” or “form and structure.”
For instance, Patrick Fairbairn’s standard work of 1874 introduces the chapter in just one paragraph. The older ICC commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (1924) by Walter Lock does so in two. By contrast, I. Howard Marshall’s new addition (1999) to that same ICC series begins the chapter with two full pages of introduction.
Two other highly respected but older commentators, William Hendriksen (1957) and Homer Kent (1958) give only one paragraph each to introducing the chapter. But William Mounce’s recent contribution (2000) to the Word Biblical Commentary begins this same chapter with 15 pages (!) of introduction, including an extremely helpful two-and-a-half-page table in four columns comparing and contrasting the qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 with those of a deacon in 1 Timothy 3 and then, in the fourth column, the descriptions of false teachers found throughout the pastorals.
This is not to make the point that the older works are less valuable. Their strength, however, typically lies in other areas, particularly unquestioned orthodoxy and spiritual sensitivity. But it is to say that we have long needed commentaries that introduce Scripture contextually section by section, and that it would be a great benefit to have on our shelves not only several exegetically detailed commentaries on every book of the Bible, but also at least one which is given over almost entirely to section-by-section analysis.
Herman Hoyt’s little work on Romans, The First Christian Theology, is an example of what I have in mind here. So is Robert Gromacki’s Called to be Saints (on 1 Corinthians). Homer Kent’s small paperbacks on John, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, Galatians, and James are also very helpful in this regard.
In the case of Old Testament books I like the IVP Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series under the general editorship of D. J. Wiseman. The volumes in that series by Derek Kidner are particularly valuable. Or take a look at the BMH series entitled Everyman’s Bible Commentary, which has some outstanding surveys of both Old and New Testament books. A similar series is IVP’s The Bible Speaks Today.
To be continued…
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 • November/December 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)