On The Use Of Bible Commentaries
My memory is fallible, but I have vivid recall of the top of my desk in my early years of preaching, a little over thirty years ago (not "desktop" as in computer; desk top as in wooden office furniture).
In the middle of the desk, a King James Version Bible; to the right, an American Standard Version opened to the same passage. To the right of the American Standard, a Big Chief Tablet under a Bic pen. In circular arrangement from the left over to the right: W. E. Vines, Young's Analytical Concordance, Barnes Commentary, Zerr, the appropriate Gospel Advocate commentary, Adam Clark and Pulpit. (If my study was in Romans, R. L. Whiteside; if Acts, J. W. McGarvey).
The top of my desk was designed according to my study method.
1. I would read the text in the King James and American Standard
2. check key words in Vines and Youngs
3. read everything about the passage written by Barnes, Zerr, Gospel Advocate, Adam Clark, Pulpit and other commentaries I had available
4. Then, begin writing my notes on the Big Chief tablet! Those notes would later be typed and studied for use in teaching a Bible class or preaching on that text.
Thankfully (and due to previous training at the feet of the wise) this system did not yield a steady stream of error. I did not parrot what the commentaries said. But I do not follow this system of study today. It is a process with built-in flaws I didn't see in my earlier years.
Now, I leave the commentaries on the shelf. They have not been entirely eliminated from my study process, but they have a different place. I begin with the text. I do consult reference works (dictionaries, concordances, software resources), but commentaries have become something like a "last resort." First, I want to read the text and go directly to noting my observations. The use of commentaries is now near the end of the process, not near the beginning!
My experience has been that the more you read and study the Bible, the less you will depend upon commentaries. When you first buy them (this is especially true for young preachers), you will devour them. You may face the danger of reading more from the writings of men than the Word of God. A sign of this is, when you first decide to study a passage, you pick up the commentaries before you open the Bible! But if you use commentaries cautiously, moderately and properly, and most important -- if you read and learn the Bible -- you will use commentaries less with experience. (I have sold many of my commentaries; I keep a few in digital format and access them periodically, not regularly.)
Commentaries are works of men. When you read a commentary, you are simply reading what some man said about the text, that may or may not help in your study. If you forget that, you suffer the risk of confusion, error and lack of independence. "Second only to the fault of not doing adequate study is that of introducing into one's preparation too soon the secondary resources. When used at the proper time they are indispensable, but if too early opened, they take over. They suppress and intimidate the preacher. After all, who is going to venture a thought or an interpretation when at the very same desk are six internationally known Bible scholars?" (p.#106, Preaching, Fred B. Craddock).
Commentaries may help you find the best words and phrases to express what you have found in the text. You should not let commentators dictate to you what the text means. While commentators may help you see the text in accurate perspective, it is your task to conclude what the text is saying. Once you do that, the rhetoric of the commentator may help you find the right words and phrases to express what you have decided the text means. For example, 1 John 4:1 -- "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world." After you have studied this verse in the context of I John and in keeping with everything else the Bible says, you can know what it means before consulting any commentary. Then, if you consult Barnes' commentary to help you find the words to emphasize what the text means, you may find his comments helpful: "He [John] cautions them against trusting to every kind of spirit, or supposing that every spirit which animated even the professed friends of religion was the Spirit of God... ." Thus the value of the commentary is not to convince you as to the meaning of the verse, only help you express the meaning. Commentaries are great resources to assist us in expression, in choice of words.
Perspectives & Predictions
The Truth Commentary series is a valuable set of books, well-suited to the needs of Bible students. The authors are men with strong academic background, talented writers with good research skills and a desire to present the text with practical value. Mike Willis has edited this series with great care and devotion to the truth and power of God's word; using men who are godly in their behavior and who preach and write about the text with conviction. I recommend the series and suggest that you set up a plan to eventually own and use the whole set. But don't open it, preach it and teach it as it is! Bro. Willis and those who wrote the individual volumes have no desire to replace the Bible. It is a collection of writings of good men, sharing with us their understanding of the text, to help - not dictate. Read the Bible!
Turn to commentaries to help you understand and express what you have already read and studied.
If I my venture a prediction, I believe we will see more and more Bible study resources in digital format (CD's for computer access). Past issues of The Preceptor and Vanguard are now available in digital format (inquire at The Preceptor). Faith and Facts has produced an extensive line of CD's for computer access and audio (see http://www.faith-facts.com/cd.html). Pulpit Commentary is available in CD format for less than $75. While I am not a great fan of James Burton Coffman's commentaries, the New Testament series is available from ACU press for a few dollars. I know of plans brethren have to produce commentaries in CD format. For those who use computers, these products can become a convenient way to quickly access the resources you used to pull off the shelf. Yet, in whatever format -- paper or electronic -- read the Bible first! Use commentaries and resources after you have engaged your mind directly with the Word of God.
And all of this applies to every word of Expository Files!
By Warren E Berkleys
From Expository Files 9.10; October 2002