Why I Use Commentaries

In my church tradition (conservative Anabaptist) there is some understandable hesitation about using Bible commentaries. We have witnessed the deadly effects of liberal scholarship upon the church. This has left many of us fearful of biblical scholarship in general. Were not the early disciples ordinary, untrained men? And isn’t the world full of Christians who are ever learning and yet failing to follow in the steps of the Lord Jesus Christ?

I can’t discuss these questions in depth here. Instead, I would like to give several reasons why I use Bible commentaries.

I listen to preachers.

I have yet to meet a preacher with whom I perfectly agree. (That even includes me, because I wish I could go back and make a few changes to some sermons that I have preached.) Yet I would hate to think of how shriveled up I would be spiritually if I quit listening to every preacher as soon as he said something wrong. Sermons give us spiritual food. They help the Holy Spirit renew our minds and nourish our souls. Yes, we need to overlook the pet topics and quirks of preachers and even spit out some bones of human tradition or unbelief from time to time. But because we are hungry, we keep listening and we keep growing. The same is true of good commentaries. Yes, there are pet topics and imbalances and sometimes even unbelief and heresies to sort out. But there is also much nourishment for the hungry soul.

I am not the first person to read the Bible.

Paul said it best: “Was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Cor. 14:36). For thousands of years now, the Church of Jesus Christ has been reading and interpreting and living the Bible. I would be foolish if I ignored the insights of the saints of the past. Were they often imbalanced in their understandings? Certainly! And so am I. I think I can sometimes see their imbalances more clearly than they could. Likewise, perhaps sometimes they can see my own imbalances better than I can. If my own generation or my own church tradition comes up with an interpretation of Scripture that has rarely or never existed before in 2000 years of Church life, then I would like to know. Reading commentaries helps prevent chronological snobbery and connects me to the Spirit’s work within the saints of the past.

I take my car to the mechanic.

The wisest car owners take a personal interest in their own cars. They learn basic maintenance skills, follow the advice in their manuals, and listen carefully for unusual sounds. The same should be true of wise Bible readers. We should read the Bible for ourselves, learning how to interpret it faithfully and how to spot when the Scriptures are handled in an unusual or unfaithful way. But car owners are also wise to take their car to an expert mechanic from time to time. Any good mechanic has spent much more time thinking about cars than I have. I drive it; he understands what happens inside the car that enables me to drive it. I bring my observations and questions to him and he responds with insight and skill, listing potential problems and potential solutions. Similarly, a Bible reader is wise if he seeks the help of an expert from time to time.

An expert? Yes, an expert, for an expert is simply someone who has spent a lot of time studying a topic. Someone who has spent thirteen years studying the Pastoral Epistles (as William Mounce did while writing his commentary) is bound to know a few things about those books that I will never discover on my own. He can point me to some important interpretive problems and describe the various solutions that have been suggested by interpreters over the years. Do I complete every repair suggested by my mechanic? No. And do I accept every interpretation affirmed by a commentary? No. But in both cases I am wiser for having listened to an… expert. (Click here and see point #2 for more.)

 I believe the Bible should be interpreted by the gathered saints.

In our Anabaptist heritage we talk of something called the brotherhood principle. This phrase reminds us that we are not meant to live the Christian life alone. As we follow Christ, interpreting and living the teachings of the Bible by the power of the Spirit, we do it together. This belief has been expressed in various ways in our Anabaptist history. We see it in our communal approach to church discipline, in our barn raisings and mutual aid programs, and in our lay leadership. Sometimes we contrast ourselves with evangelicals, denouncing the individualism found in many American churches. Yet one of our most dominant current expressions of the brotherhood principle has actually been borrowed from evangelicals: Sunday School. And I think there is one area where many evangelical churches practice the brotherhood principle better than most conservative Anabaptist churches do: in sermon preparation.

The typical conservative Anabaptist preacher prepares for his sermon in near isolation. His fellow pastors and the rest of his congregation often have no idea of his sermon topic beforehand. And if he consults any study helps they are often limited to a few accepted works (Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Strong’s, Kauffman) or maybe a popular-level book that he is currently reading. Sometimes the preacher is alone for his entire time of sermon preparation, without any other human input whatsoever. Many evangelical pastors, in contrast, plan a schedule of sermon texts and topics in advance, consulting with other church leadership and staff. In addition, they often have a significant library of study helps in their home or church office. They prepare their sermons while surrounded by a multitude of hardcover, paperback, and digital saints.

Am I saying that all evangelical sermons are better than all conservative Anabaptist ones? Am I saying that commentaries always interpret Scripture faithfully? Certainly not. I am suggesting, however, that consulting commentaries is one good way to practice the brotherhood principle. It is one good way to allow the gathered saints to help us interpret the Scriptures. Less of “me and Jesus” and more of a “multitude of counselors” could bring safety, helping us handle the word of God more faithfully. And yes, if wisely used, commentaries could improve our sermons.

Summary: I Need Help

Each of my reasons for using commentaries all really boil down to one: I need help. I need nourishment, perspective, and expertise from others. I need the Church. I need the people the Spirit has given as gifts to the Church. I need help to listen well to the Scriptures.

There are other reasons I use commentaries. I like books. I like studying books. Hey, I even like footnotes!1 So if you’re not the bookish type, yet you need some help understanding a Bible passage, perhaps I can help you a little. Take a look at my commentary lists or ask me for a more specific recommendation. Who knows? Maybe it won’t be long before I’ll be feeding on one of your sermons or asking you to recommend a good mechanic. We need each other.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Use Commentaries”

  1. Through 15 years of “Beachy-Amish” pulpit ministry I had a growing sense of aloneness and need for broader theological and exegetical input into the sermons I was preaching. This article “Why I Use Commentaries” sums up so well this sense of dependency upon others better trained, and how we can safely benefit from their expertise.

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