Last weekend in San Francisco Scot McKnight hosted a discussion with two pastors about commentaries. Scot asked these pastors to speak to scholars about the realities of their sermon preparation and what they find really useful in commentaries.
They highlighted commentaries that deal with difficult textual issues in plain language and that give some helpful hints about appropriating the biblical text for a post-Christian audience.
It was a tremendously helpful discussion.
So, I’m wondering, especially for people in ministry, but I’d love to hear from anyone and everyone: What do you find useful and most helpful about commentaries? Think especially about commentaries like the NIV Application Commentary series–if you could sit down with one of those authors and tell them what you’d like to see in one of those volumes, what would it be?
6 thoughts on “Talking with Pastors about Commentaries”
I generally tend to shy away from commentaries, but I’ve come to really appreciate the Two Horizon’s commentary (whenever they are published) due to the fact that it contains both biblical scholarship and then theological formation. I am not for doctrinal commentaries, but generally like what the TH series has done in staying away from that issue while engaging Christian scholarship.
As a pastor, I really appreciate books/articles (like your work on Ephesians) that demonstrate the author’s big idea behind each individual book. Once I see a consistent argument throughout each book, I find it easier to understand how the parts fit within the whole.
A lessor known commentary on Ecclesiastes entitled ” Ecclesiastes Through New Eyes: A Table in the Mist” really helped me see how important it is to come to a conclusion on the author’s thesis first and then to struggle with exegeting the parts. Your book only confirmed this with an Epistle like Ephesians. That is why I now follow your blog.
Rick Wadholm Jr
I would agree that a commentary that can demonstrate the “big idea” of a book is incredibly helpful. I appreciate technical textual issues, but largely these have much less impact on my actual preaching (but they are helpful for analysis of the particularities of the text). I would say that discussion of actual theological implications and extrapolations are incredibly helpful for the actual task of preaching. I also want a text that will deal with context (whether sociological, rhetorical, cultural, religious), but some seem to so over focus on a variety of potential contexts that one is forced to wade through far too much material (and discern the actually helpful) for exposition.
I prefer to avoid commentaries as long as I can in my sermon prep, but I do find that they help to validate my ideas as to what a text says and how it applies to my hearers. I also find that a good commentary will help to connect the dots from a passage to other passages from a biblical theology perspective.
I can answer the question two ways: As a seminary student/scholar, I love detailed, technical commentaries that tackle the crucial exegetical issues with a combination of clarity and completeness. I think, for example, of Karen Jobes (BECNT) and John Elliot (AB) on 1 Peter, Anthony Thiselton on 1 Corinthians, and Davies and Allison on Matthew.
But, now, as a teacher, I no longer have time to digest every critical issue of grammar, syntax and historical background. I need a concise work that does three things well: 1) helps me see how each passage relates to its immediate literary context and the major themes of the book, 2) succinctly unpacks key exegetical issues and 3) suggests fruitful avenues of contemporary application (Although I like and use NIVAC commentaries, I find it more helpful and less repetitive when this discussion is woven right into the text, as, e.g., in the BST series.) Stand out volumes that achieve these three aims, with clear and colorful prose to boot, are the works of John Stott and Gordon Fee (esp. his NICNT on 1 Cor), Michael Green on Matthew (BST), James Edwards on Mark (Pillar), Craig Blomberg (ZECNT) and Doug Moo (Pillar) on James. An interesting common feature is usually expressed int the prefaces of these books: they are more than just commentaries; their authors love the text in question and write their books with passion as labors of love for the bride of Christ.
I’m looking for a solid outline of the book, chapter, or pericope in a commentary in order for me to get the flow of argument or “big picture” in a passage that I preach. Also, exegetical insights are very helpful. For example, “grace [in the place] of grace” rather than “grace [upon] grace” as a translation for John 1:16 based on the Gr. preposition “anti” and the immediate context of Jesus as replacement for the Mosaic law.
I have also found it very helpful for a commentary to have an excursus in it dealing with an issues that run through many places in the Bible like “the Angel of the Lord.” The worst part of commentaries is the long arguments that scholars have with each other in the pages. For example, 10 pages dedicated to proving John is the author of John. It is helpful when a scholar takes a clear position of interpretation on a text, defends it and only mentions other interpretations in passing.