December 12, 2017

Let a Commentary Be Your Guide (2)

Mark Minnick

This article follows on an article “That Glorious Company: The Commentators!” published in three parts, here, here and here.

This article is likewise published in three parts. This is part two, part one is here.

Dr. Minnick began this article by telling the story of George Whitfield’s discovery of commentaries and the training they offered him. He used this to continue a discussion of commentaries and their value. The first point he considered was the value of Contextual Analysis. Part two follows.

Historical Analysis

This aspect of commenting requires careful consideration of everything within Biblical texts that is dated. This includes places, people, times, and circumstances that are chronologically specific and can therefore be located and analyzed within history.

The old threat to doing this accurately was the allegorical commentator. The new threat is the highly applicational commentator. The first distorted the historical elements. The second deliberately dismisses them. In both cases the justification is “relevance.”

Without question, a dry-as-dust recital of bare historical data falls far short of opening up a text for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. But a cavalier spirit toward the actual, historical facts is creeping into the writing, preaching, and teaching of many evangelicals. For instance, one well-known homiletician writes of Christians once they leave the church building,

On the outside, people lose jobs, worry about their children, and find crabgrass invading their lawns. Seldom do normal people lose sleep over the Jebusites, the Canaanites, or the Perizzites, or even about what Abraham, Moses, or Paul has said or done. They lie awake wondering about grocery prices, crop failures, quarrels with a girlfriend, diagnosis of a malignancy. … If the sermon does not make sense in that world, they wonder if it makes any difference at all.

While agreeing with the conclusion, I feel a degree of alarm at the argument by which this author arrives there. The fact is, the Bible is first of all a book about God, not us. It is the true account of His sovereign superintendence of men and events within the actual history of the earth that is His story. For this reason alone the names of the nations and the words and activities of the individuals upon whom He has acted are significant, whether we feel that they touch any of our felt needs or not, or in fact, even if they never do. The historical facts are relevant, if for no other reason than that they are about Him. Our place, therefore, is not to turn away our heads but to take off our shoes.

But in addition, whatever contemporary relevance there is to a passage, it is inextricably bound up in the accurate definition of the historical details. The selection and arrangement of these is one means by which the Biblical writers communicated their message. Nothing is irrelevant. All is instructional. But this purpose will be left unachieved if the historical facts are quickly discarded rather than reverently considered.

For more than 20 years I’ve taught Bible to college students fresh out of America’s finest Christian high schools. I’m tempted at this point to gloss over the true state of their Bible knowledge lest I offend, but the fact is, few of them know the names of more than half a dozen or so Hebrew kings or fellow laborers with the apostle Paul. They are clueless as to Biblical dates. They know next to nothing of the cycle of the Hebrews’ sacred feasts.

They can name but one or two of the major sacrifices. They cannot tell whether Acts recounts three or four or six or eight Pauline missionary journeys. Onesiphorus is the same to them as Epaphroditus. Caiaphas may have been one of Paul’s first converts, Luke one of the apostles.

As a result, these young people simply do not have the Biblical facts to serve as an inerrant grid through which to sieve their thinking. They cannot think in Biblical terms because they do not know the Bible.

Much of the blame for this falls at our feet for thinking we know better than God. We know what is relevant. We know what will help. We know what parts of His word to discard for the sake of making a point. This is folly, and something far, far more.

Therefore, let our commentators tell us the historical facts. I want a commentary that tells them to me in details, not generalities. Generalities are nearly worthless. The best timeless applications spring from details. That’s one reason God fills His Word with them. That’s why, to use one illustration, Goliath’s specific measurements are not irrelevant. The really comforting applications for people facing impossible odds come not from hearing that Goliath was big but that he was nine-and-a-half feet big! The height of the average household ceiling is only eight feet. His coat was not just heavy, it weighed over 125 pounds. Young David himself would have weighed little more. Goliath’s spear head weighed in at about 15 pounds; David’s stones, eight ounces or so at most. These are facts to memorize and carry about in one’s head for retrieval in a critical moment. They’re useful for slinging at fears before soulwinning visitation or for calming the nerves before major pastoral confrontations.

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.)

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