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Great Servants, Lousy Masters

Not too long ago I reviewed the book The Trellis and the Vine and said that it is a book to which I give my highest recommendation. Since I wrote that review I’ve turned to the book often and have continued to find it very, very useful. I was glad to learn just recently that there will soon be a sequel to it titled The Archer and the Arrow (which I believe is due out a little bit later in the year).

As I was reading the endorsements for the book, I noticed that Mark Dever says this: “Phillip Jensen has been both faithfully and provocatively preaching God’s word for decades. Here he tells us how. His observations are keen, his suggestions convicting, his speaking plain. (And he also finally explains for us why most commentaries are so useless to the preacher!).” I was naturally a little bit intruiged by this, so went searching for Jensen’s explanation of why commentaries can be so useless. I quite liked what I read and got permission from Matthias Media to share it with you. Here it is, drawn from a chapter titled “Preaching the gospel by expounding the Bible” and a heading titled “Use your external sources wisely.”

The second thing to point out is the place of external aids in the process of preparation. It is very easy, particularly after spending years in seminary or Bible college, to assume that the answers we need will be found in the finest writers of the day. And so in order to find out what the text says we spend more time in the biggest, fattest, most up-to-date commentaries than we do in the Bible itself. But even the writers of the very best commentaries don’t know more about God’s will than the apostles who penned God’s word. And God’s revelation is not in their commentary but in the original text.

Part of the problem arises from the process by which commentaries come to be written these days. It starts with university staff and postgraduate scholars producing mono- graphs, theses and journal articles, usually about a small point in the text or an obscure matter of current debate. The pressure on these scholars (in respect of their jobs and careers) is to say something new, and this tends to push them towards historical background research—an area in which it is easier to come up with new discoveries and to contribute to the ongoing academic conversation. The commentary writers then gather up these various articles and theses into a book that is really a compendium of recent research organized by the text of a Bible book. The commentators will usually try to add something to the research by giving an overall argument to the book, but frequently they do no more than arbitrate among the various articles and debates, very often losing sight of the message and emphasis of the biblical text as they do so.

The result is that the agenda for the conversation has been set by someone apart from God. And in modern theological writing, it has often been set by someone who has no idea at all about who God is, but who has been asked to write the commentary because of their status or experience within the academic community.

It’s not that we should ignore the commentaries. They can be very useful tools, especially in pointing out interesting things in the text that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. And if they have theological biases and commitments different from our own, they can lead us to ask questions that we would never have asked. But never read commentaries until you have wrestled with the text for yourself, and come to some conclusions about what you think and why. Otherwise you will just lap up whatever they feed you.

Commentaries, Bible dictionaries and the like are great servants but lousy masters.

And to that I think we can anticipate hearing a loud chorus of “Amen!”