December 18, 2017

That Glorious Company: The Commentators! (2)

Mark Minnick

Part Two of Three: In which Dr. Minnick shares his wisdom on selecting commentaries. [Part One here]

Part One begins by discussing The Basis for Evaluating Commentaries. Part Two follows:

The Characteristics Of Good Commentaries

The cardinal characteristic of a good commentary is that it answers questions. That’s because disciplined expositors begin their preparations by asking literal, grammatical, historical, and contextual questions about the text. A good commentary, therefore, answers some of those questions. Better commentaries answer more of them. The best answer all. But they do so in two ways.

Insightful. Good commentaries answer questions insightfully not superficially. Their answers penetrate beneath the surface of what is obvious. For this reason, the edited sermons of popular preachers seldom pass muster for commentaries. Preaching by nature is far more homiletic than hermeneutic. In addition, for the sake of popular appeal, publishers deliberately edit out of sermons whatever real textual investigation they may have originally included. As sermons, such diluted writings may contribute interesting illustrations or warm devotional thoughts. But as commentaries on the actual text they often merely restate what most well-taught Sunday school children can see for themselves.

This is particularly the tiresome vice of many works on the narrative portions of Scripture. They almost invariably read, for instance, “Now we see here that David went to such and such a place. We notice that he talked with so and so. So and so said this and that to him. Obviously they were having an argument.” Well, if we see, we notice, and things are obvious then the reader noticed them for himself. He needed no man to teach him. Incredibly, such superficial explanations are often concluded with equally jejune applications, such as, “We all have disagreements with other people. But we need to learn to be patient with others. We can actually learn something from anybody,” etc. If these myopic guides are what some of the brethren equate with commentaries, then it’s no wonder they’ve determined to find their way alone.

There are exceptions to this weakness. To name just a few, the sermonic commentaries of David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, particularly his treatments of the Sermon on the Mount, Romans, and Ephesians. James Montgomery Boice’s messages through Genesis and Romans are quite exploratory. W. A. Criswell did outstanding sermonic commentary work on the Book of Revelation, published in one volume by Zondervan in 1969. The extended set of commentaries on the New Testament preached by John MacArthur is helpfully expositional. To a lesser degree so is the Preaching The Word series by R. Kent Hughes. Preachers will find his two volumes on Luke to be especially good.

Two older sets of sermons which are not published as “commentaries,” but which nevertheless include a tremendous amount of outstanding exposition, are Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible (21 vols.) by the Cambridge pastor Charles Simeon, and Expositions of Holy Scripture (17 vols.) by Alexander Maclaren. Maclaren, the peerless expository preacher of his era, is especially good. Almost always his insight unlocks something critical but overlooked by even the most careful contemporary commentators.

Ordaining counsels could have a great ministry with the next generation by providing every man on whom they lay hands with a set of Maclaren and exhorting the new preacher to use it!

Having begun to mention names, I trust that no one will take these or any further recommendations here as broader endorsements of the men themselves, their associations, and most certainly not of their every theological position. On those bases Fundamentalists are often compelled to discipline by Scriptural separation men who nevertheless say some helpful things. We’re dealing now with just one issue—the degree to which a commentary attempts to answer our questions about the text. Judged by that criterion alone, these sermonic commentaries and sermon series mentioned are useful.

Faithful. Let me add now the second characteristic of the way good commentaries answer questions. In addition to doing so insightfully, they do so faithfully, not skeptically. That is, their explanations stem from adherence to what the text obviously says rather than agnosticism about it. Skepticism should not be mistaken for insight. What the text plainly says should be expounded faithfully. I want to be careful, however, not to be misunderstood on this point.

Some evangelicals misinterpret a Fundamentalist’s insistence on faithfulness as his turning a blind eye to scholarship. In Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, John Stott lists eight tendencies of what he perceives to be “the mind-set styled Fundamentalism.” The first is “a general suspicion of scholarship, and science, which sometimes degenerates into a thoroughgoing anti-intellectualism.” This surprisingly uninformed caricature begs the question of what can be safely accepted as trustworthy scholarship. Fundamentalism has historically welcomed the light of believing scholarship but Scripturally criticized what is otherwise.

That’s not to say that all commentaries written by unbelievers are without any redeeming value whatsoever. William Barclay, for instance, though Neo-orthodox at best, rarely twists texts to his unorthodoxy. He displays a general respect for their wording—a faithfulness in presenting their obvious sense—even though it contradicts his positions.

I wouldn’t look to such a commentator for the wisdom of God the natural man can never understand (1 Cor. 2:12-16), but I might, as in the case of a Barclay, profit from his word studies, cultural data, and literary illustrations.

In other words, a commentator may be rejecting of the text’s theology personally but faithful to its wording professionally, just as a Shakespearean scholar may differ personally with the moral lessons of the great bard’s plays while at the same time conceding faithfully that Shakespeare taught these things. He may say, “I don’t personally believe this, but it’s obvious that Paul did and here is where and how he said so.”

But when a commentator’s bibliography includes not a single conservative and when his notes consist largely of disgorging other highly credentialed but unbelieving men’s esoteric denials of what the text obviously says, I’m done with him. Like the proverbial king parading self-deceived before the fawning, he wears no clothes, and I don’t line up for long to look.

Between these two extremes, those who belabor the obvious and those who deny it, there are commentaries that answer my questions with both faithfulness to the text and penetrating insight into its depths. They are, to repeat, insightful not superficial, but faithful not skeptical, and so they are in keeping with my hermeneutics. They approach the text literally, grammatically, historically, and contextually. Let’s look now at how good commentaries answer our questions about these four issues.

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.)

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