On commentaries...

Error message

(Tim, w/thanks to Jeff) Have I ever said anything about commentaries? Sure, but I'll have another hack at it.

When I left seminary, we had no money, so book purchases were mostly from used bookstores and resale shops. But I felt the need to have something "substantial" on at least one of the Gospels, so I took everyone's advice and spent about 40 of our limited dollars on I. Howard Marshall's commentary on Luke. "Stupendous example of evangelical scholarship at its very best" they all said, and I took the bait.

We moved to Pardeeville and I began preaching. Immediately, I looked for an occasion to use my most-excellent new tool and it wasn't long in coming. Choosing a text in Luke, I opened Marshall and...

Blech! Talk about a chip on the shoulder! It seemed the main thrust
of his writing was wrangling with fellow New Testament scholars about
problems invented by other New Testament scholars, few of which would
ever occur to the lover of God reading Luke's account of the life and
death of our Lord. Page after page of technical discussion that wasn't
difficult to understand, really, but left the text entirely unimproved.
There were few helpful insights and almost no timely applications or
pastoral warnings. I found myself wondering whether this was really the
state of the art in evangelical New Testament scholarship? Did all the
scholars spend their lives arguing amongst themselves and was the
thickest and most expensive compendium of those arguments the state of
the art in commentaries on God's Holy Word?

Then I discovered Calvin's commentaries and would you believe my
preaching improved? Top-drawer exegetical insights galore, and yet the
thrust of every sentence, every paragraph and page, was the application
of God's inspired words to the Church, the Household of Faith, the
pillar and foundation of the truth. Since then I've learned a few
things about commentaries.

First, if your work is in a place where some in your congregation
keep up with scholarship and oppose preaching to the conscience and
heart, I'm saddened to have to tell you that you have to own Marshall.
In such cases, you'll want to have Marshall (or his equivalent) on hand
and skim him each week to stay ahead of enemies of heart religion.
Marshall, F. F. Bruce, Mounce--there are a ton of options and any of
the myriad of seminary professor's lists of recommended commentaries
will do for which one to purchase. Occasionally these scholars will
give you an oasis of soul-water along with their Sahara desert of
giggling excitement over fashion, but reading them will generally be a
dry exercise.

Second, buy and use Spurgeon's little work, Commenting and Commentaries.
It's superb and will serve as an excellent guide for commentaries
published prior to the twentieth century. Spurgeon is not afraid to
warn you off particular authors and works, giving very specific reasons
that, at times, will leave you laughing out loud. It's hard to imagine
anything this critical, and therefore helpful, getting out the door of
an evangelical publisher today.

Third, sight unseen, buy the following:

  • This 22 volume set of Calvin's Commentaries
    on the Bible. It's the somewhat archaic English of the old Calvin
    Translation Society, but it's so inexpensive that it makes no sense to
    buy anything else. There's nothing better than Calvin.
  • Spurgeons' commenary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David. Magnificent.
  • This 4 volume set of J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels.
    Ryle was the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in the nineteenth century.
    Everything he ever wrote is worth its weight in gold, but for the
    Gospels, there's no one even close in pastoral application.
  • This inexpensive, single volume, unabridged version of Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible.
    Less--much less exegetical work, but more--much more pastoral
    application than Calvin. So much, in fact, that your principal
    challenge will be weeding the wheat from the wheat so you don't
    overwhelm your congregation.

I'll stop with those. For the vast majority of lovers of God and His
Word, with the exception of a few classic commentaries on single books
like Luther on Galatians, this is all you'll ever need to preach, lead
devotionals, teach Sunday school classes, or lead small group Bible
studies. Beyond this short list, Spurgeon's recommendations will serve you well.

One final note: Many of the best commentaries are copyright free
since they were published prior to the twentieth century. Yes, there
are some pious hustlers who claim they hold copyright to old Christian
works because they've got a lot of sweat-of-the-brow equity in E-text
versions they've scanned and OCRd, but trust me, they don't and you
ought not to let them intimidate you by talk of lawyers and accusations
of stealing. (For more concerning false claims of copyright by
Christian businessmen, see this post from January 2006.)

Unless they've made a creative contribution to the E-text that goes
far beyond such things as scanning, OCRing, footnoting, or hyperlinking
the text's Scripture references, the law is clear. The E-text is
copyright-free. Simply changing copyright-free material from hard copy
to E-text brings no right to copyright that E-text and threaten with legal action those
who use it and reproduce it without paying a royalty.

That said, many of the best commentaries are freely available for downloading to your computer. For instance, check this site out for E-text copies of J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. This is just the beginning of what an enterprising soul will find with a little effort using Google.