An interview with the editors of the Reformed Expository Commentary series.
There have been a few times in the past few months that I’ve mentioned the Reformed Expository Commentary Series. This is a growing series of commentaries written from a distinctly Reformed perspective and targeted at both pastors and laypersons. Having used these commentaries for both research and personal devotions, I am very enthusiastic about them and am anxious to spread the word.
To that end I recently took the opportunity to ask the editors, Richard Phillips and Phillip Ryken, a few questions about the series–who it is for, how it can be used, how it has been created, and what the future holds for it. (Note: Phillips’ reply was sufficiently sufficient that, with the exception of the digs at his age, Ryken chose to simply give it an “amen.”)
Read to the end for a special (and exclusive) download from this series!
Tim Challies: Tell me about this Reformed Expository Commentary series: Why did you decide to produce this series of commentaries? With so many commentaries available, what niche did you anticipate this series filling? What makes them unique?
Richard Phillips: I think this kind of large project inevitably flows from one’s own experience. Long before I was a minister, I found that substantive biblical exposition was the most useful devotional material. Too many “devotionals” are simply too short or do not ground their teaching in the text of Scripture. I began the practice of reading the kind of Bible exposition authored by James Boice, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spurgeon, or some other theologian/preacher and have been enormously blessed by this practice. So my interest in this kind of commentary flows from my own benefit both as an individual and as a preacher from this kind of Bible exposition. I think most of us write the kind of books that we like, and we are writing the kind of commentaries we find most beneficial ourselves. (I already find that if an REC volume is available for a book of the Bible I am preaching, it is the first one I turn to.) Lastly, we are aware that not all preachers – and almost all lay Bible teachers – are able to devote themselves to study to the extent that we are able. So we want to make convenient to others the best from the wide range of study that we are able to do. Our goal all along has not only been to produce excellent and accurate commentaries, but also eminently useful commentaries.
It undoubtedly is not by chance that the two series editors, Phil Ryken and I, are both proteges of the late James Montgomery Boice, who was known for accessible, doctrinal, and practical Bible commentaries. We wanted to carry forth that kind of work into our generation. In fact, the REC series had its genesis in conversations Phil and I had when we were preaching together at Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Our goal all along has not only been to produce excellent and accurate commentaries, but also eminently useful commentaries. Dr. Boice had recently died and we were giving counsel to his wife, Linda, about his literary legacy. Meanwhile we both had been writing books of biblical exposition and were thinking about how to best direct our expository preaching ministries into our writing ministries. It was obvious to us that we should not co-opt the Boice series, and also that our writing ministries were distinct from his in the sense of being more than just duplicating Boice’s work. We both wanted to make original contributions both in the pulpit and in the books. We ended up deciding to work together and to bring in others who could make outstanding contributions both as editors and authors. It was also providentially the case that both Phil and I were emerging out of our “apprentice” years, ready to seek to do our best work and hoping to have a good many years ahead of us to do it. So the idea of a large-scale project like this commended itself.
As for the need for this kind of commentary series, I think of several answers. First of all, most preachers and Bible-study teachers know that while there are usually an abundance of academic commentaries available, there often is very little of use that goes beyond exegesis to exposition (that is, that goes beyond answering the technical questions but actually proclaims and applies the passage). What is available is always worth its weight in gold. So we hope at least to partially fill this need with a series that (d.v.) covers the whole Bible. Secondly, when it comes to the commitments that we cherish, there is actually very little available elsewhere. Mainly, I am referring to a Christ-centered reading of the Bible and a vigorously Reformed doctrinal stance. I remember doing a paper in seminary on Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32, and not finding a single commentary in the seminary library that made any reference to Jesus Christ from this passage. So we want to provide robustly Reformed and Christ-centered commentaries to the church. Thirdly, we believe that the theology of the church is best performed in the pulpit of the church. We are grateful for the work of many outstanding and faithful academics, but we also want to see the church pulpit play a more vocal role in biblical theology.
TC: How and why are these commentaries “Expository?”
RP: One of our goals in the series is to promote and model “expository preaching” for other pastors. We believe that the best way to serve a pulpit ministry is by preaching successively through whole books of the Bible, giving a thorough teaching of the text, and grounding the message and authority of the sermon in the clear teaching of the Bible. And that is what these commentaries are: thorough, clear expositions of whole books of the Bible, passage by passage.
The REC commentaries will proclaim, explain, and apply the whole text within coherent units appropriate for sermons or Bible lessons. The REC commentaries will proclaim, explain, and apply the whole text within coherent units appropriate for sermons or Bible lessons.
TC: In the series introduction you state that all of the contributors are pastor-scholars and that, as pastors, they will first present the expositions in his pulpit ministry. Why did you decide to make this a requirement?
RP: We are aiming both to serve and to model pulpit ministries. Therefore, these have to be “real” sermons. Naturally, we edit them between the pulpit and the printer, but not all that much. If you listened to the CD of the sermon with the book open in front of you, you would say, “Yep, that was what he preached.” We don’t want to model a scholarly approach that we think inappropriate for our own churches. We also want to combat the belief today that serious, authoritative preaching is bad for the church and will kill its growth. We find the opposite to be true, and we are contributing the fruits of our own pulpit labors to others.
This significantly affects the commentaries. For instance, the question will come up regarding technical matters dealing with exegesis, text criticism, theology, or historical studies. When we decide whether to put it into the commentary, we do so by asking “Would we put this into a sermon?” And when we decide that a sermon must deal with technical matters, we try to model how to do this, because this is how we actually preached it.
Lastly, we want to encourage other fine pastor-scholars by publishing a series in which they can contribute.
TC: Is there a primary audience for these commentaries or do you anticipate they will equally benefit both preachers and laypersons?
RP: Yes, we have a clearly defined audience that we make clear to all prospective authors. Our main audience is pastors, lay Bible teachers, and informed lay people who want substantive devotional materials.
TC: We know that the volumes are distinctly Reformed in their theology. With the series editors both being Presbyterian, should we anticipate that the volumes will take on a distinctly Presbyterian form or will they appeal to Reformed folk of all stripes? How will you approach controversial topics such as baptism and eschatology?
RP: Right from the start, we wanted to be unabashedly Reformed. So many people are downplaying Reformed doctrines and we want to do the opposite. But we want to advocate a Reformed faith that flows up from the text of Scripture rather than down from the systematic theology textbooks. We certainly desire to promote, explain, and defend Reformed theology in these volumes, but to do so by careful and accurate treatment of the Scriptures. For that reason, I think the commentaries will commend themselves to Reformed folk of all stripes, mainly because we share such strong convictions on core matters, especially as they relate to the doctrine of salvation. It is also true, however, that all the authors in this series approach it from an explicitly Westminsterian approach. This means that the Reformed doctrine espoused in this series will be that set forth in the Westminster Confessions. We will handle controversial topics like baptism forthrightly, preaching as we would preach in our own churches. We will deal with them when and where the text leads. But I am certain that those who take differing views – Baptists, for instance – will find their positions treated fairly and accurately. On other matters, such as eschatology, I suppose there may be some varying views among the authors. But probably not too much. We have already had a couple of matters in which there was vigorous debate between author and editors, but all within a strongly Westminsterian grid.
TC: To this point the six available volumes are written by four authors—the co-editors, and the two biblical editors (or testament editors), Iain Duguid and Dan Doriani. What other authors will be involved as the series unfolds? How have you gone about choosing contributors?
RP: We wanted to do the initial volumes ourselves to set the grid for future contributions. Now that we have done that, you will be seeing volumes from a wider group of authors. The four of us will continue to contribute extensively to the series, but we have upcoming volumes by Bryan Chapell and Derek Thomas in the works.
We want to advocate a Reformed faith that flows up from the text of Scripture rather than down from the systematic theology textbooks. We have proposals from a number of other able contributors, but they aren’t as far along. We are also twisting the arms of other notables and we accept proposals from those who would like to submit. This is a big project and we can only contribute so much, so we greatly desire the contributions of outstanding pastor/scholars. I would say, however, that the prospective authors who are most likely to be accepted are those who already have established themselves as writers. We have a pretty demanding proposal process since the series is itself pretty demanding.
TC: Tell me, if you would, how these volumes are edited to ensure both skill and accuracy in all that is taught. What role do each of the editors play in this?
RP: The answer is that we are wearing ourselves out editing! And the reason is that we know that the only way to ensure sustained excellence is through a demanding editorial process. Normally, a volume will be slated for release two years after the draft is submitted. Each volume has a series editor (either Phil or me) and a testament editor (Ian Duguid for OT and Dan Doriani for NT). The testament editors are men with academic experience, and they especially focus on issues of scholarly concern. You might think of Phil and me as the ST editors and Ian and Dan as the BT editors, but that would be a gross simplification, since we all do both. But we did want to have testament editors who are up to speed on the current OT and NT literature. The editors go over every manuscript, and I think it is fair for me to say that pretty serious editing takes place. These edits go back to the author who responds to the edits and presents a final manuscript to the series editor, who has overall responsibility for the volume. Occasionally there is need for specific dialogue about a question that has been raised. When the series editor is satisfied with the final manuscript, it is sent to the publisher (P&R), normally 1 year prior to publication. P&R then has their own editorial process with the author, and the author interacts with them for copy editing and indexing. It’s a lot of work, but I find that I benefit enormously from the editorial process. Of course, I get the toughest editing since Phil does every single one of my volumes. I do try to get even when I can, though. There is never a time when we are not editing something, and most of the time Phil and I are both editing something the other has written. (And, yes, Phil, I am still plugging away at my overdo edits!) While it’s hard work, it’s also pretty fun because we are all in pretty regular contact. Since Phil and I are answering these questions, let me just say how much we have appreciated and enjoyed the partnership of Ian and Dan. They are absolutely essential participants in our editorial process. The commentary series would suffer notably without them and in all likelihood would not even be possible.
TC: Can you tell us who will be writing some of the more notable and more difficult (or controversial) volumes such as, say, Genesis, Romans, and Revelation?
TP: Nope. None of these are currently under contract, although I think one of us has dibs on one of them. I think we’re all waiting to get older and wiser before staking a claim to Revelation.
TC: I’ve noticed that, of the six volumes available, most rely on the ESV while one relies on the NIV as the default translation. Why the emphasis on the ESV but also the allowance for another translation?
RP: Our preferred translation is the ESV, but if someone has a strong preference for the NASB, NKJV, or the NIV, it is permissible. As you already know, the ESV is quickly becoming fairly standard among Reformed folks, so I expect to see much more ESV.
TC: How do you feel this commentary series can best be used by laypersons? Do you feel they are best suited for research and reference or are they best suited for devotional reading?
RP: I would say they have two main uses for laypersons. The first is for teaching. If you are leading a Bible study or teaching in some venue, we hope that our commentaries will be the single most useful resource you could use. Secondly, they are ideal for devotional purposes. I make it a point to use each volume for my own devotions after it is in print, even if I was the editor. (I have edited Phil’s Galatians and 1 Timothy, and Dan’s James – both were tremendous for devotions). I don’t use my own volumes for devotions though – that would be a bit weird.
TC: How do you feel this commentary series can best be used by pastors? Should this series serve as a primary commentary reference or should it be used in conjunction with others?
They are ideal for devotional purposes. I make it a point to use each volume for my own devotions after it is in print, even if I was the editor.
RP: I would recommend every pastor to read as much commentary material as his schedule will permit. He should read more academic works, including those that deal closely with the original language text. But he will also be greatly helped by expository commentaries that not only teach the text but also illustrate and apply it. We are aiming to be of service in just this regard. We would hope that every pastor would read more than the REC, but we also would hope that every pastor would find the REC to be a go-to resource.
TC: There are currently six volumes available covering seven books. How many volumes will there be in the series? Which volumes are coming up next and when do you anticipate the series being completed?
RP: We are aiming to do three commentaries per year. The following are under contract and in various stages of production (in order of publication): Daniel (Duguid), Matthew (Doriani – 2 vols), Luke (Ryken – 2 vols), Jonah-Micah (Phillips), Ephesians (Bryan Chapell), Acts (Derek Thomas), John (Phillips – 2 vols). We have other volumes in the pipeline (for a series like this, you have to be organizing things years out), but this is all that is currently under contract. We are starting to get more proposals from other authors, so I expect that the coming months will see a fair number of contracts involving new authors. We don’t know exactly how many volumes there will be overall, but we are aiming for the entire Bible. I suppose it will mainly depend on the breakdown of the minor prophets. Some will necessarily be multi-volume, but only those that absolutely demand it. We don’t have a completion date, but if we get there it will be many years from now. (It’s a good thing we’re still pretty young, although Phil is starting to get pretty old.)
TC: What are your hopes for this series and how will you measure its success?
RP: Well, as always with the ministry of God’s Word, we simply offer our work up to the Lord for His pleasure and blessing. We have seen a need and the opportunity to meet it, so we’re just doing our best. But I think all of us look upon this as one of the chief works we expect from our lives. Obviously, we would like to see the volumes gain a wide reading and use and we are hopeful that as we continue our readership will continue growing. We also hope that our work in this series will have enough enduring quality to extend beyond our own lives. Some of our goals are harder to measure.
As always with the ministry of God’s Word, we simply offer our work up to the Lord for His pleasure and blessing. We have seen a need and the opportunity to meet it, so we’re just doing our best. For instance, we hope to encourage pastors in the ministry of the Word and to model expository preaching for many. In that respect, we hope that our work will be spread through many, many pulpits. We are finding our volumes popping up almost everywhere within established Reformed circles, including overseas. We would very much like to be able to translate our commentaries for use in places where Christianity is growing so rapidly but where trained pastors are few. With these goals in mind, we are aiming for the long-run as much as or more than for the short-run. This is one of the reasons we are publishing with P&R, since we have confidence in their long-term doctrinal commitment. It is also with an aim towards enduring value that we are doing everything we can to produce the highest quality commentaries that we can. Overall, the sheer privilege of publishing biblical exposition is overwhelming, and the idea that preachers are relying on us and that simple Christians are being nurtured through our labors is overwhelmingly gratifying.
A Special Download
If you are interested in using this series with your times of personal devotions, P&R has been kind enough to provide an excerpt of the first five chapters from Hebrews. Feel free to download this file and to use it for that purpose. After five days you might just find yourself hooked!
Download File (Adobe Acrobat PDF File)
If you are interested in purchasing the series, the following six volumes (covering seven books of the Bible) are currently available for purchase from Westminster Books:
You can also follow these links to find a copy of the series introduction.