Sunday, July 20

Should you be using a Bible commentary?

There are two kinds of Bible students in the world.
reading the Bible commentary
There are those who believe the goal of good Bible study is to be able to study and exegete the biblical text apart from the "crutch" of the Bible commentary. Yes, commentaries are good in that they help us fill in the gaps of what we don't know but as we mature in our study skills we should be able to read the Bible without ever consulting an outside opinion. Each individual should strive to become a scholar with the skills necessary to read the text on his or her own.

Then there those who believe that good Bible study cannot possibly be carried out apart from consulting commentaries. Even those students who are skilled in exegesis and the original biblical languages need to bring the commentaries into the discussion at an early stage. This is because the Bible wasn't so much given as the Word of God to individuals but it was given as the Word of God to the Church. Thus Bible study is primarily a community activity -- when we read the Bible we do so in the context of community. Commentaries are then one way in which the extended community of Christ participates in our personal study of the Bible.

I'm of the later opinion. I believe that the first school of thought is a reflection of Western individualism and has manifest itself primarily in one strand of American evangelicalism. While it is well-intended the underlying assumptions about the Bible being the communication link between individuals and God are a little off.

This is not to say that when we as individuals read the Bible we don't hear the Word of God or that we are not individually convicted by it -- but that we best do so within the context of the extended community of God's family.

When we spread our Bibles out on the table there are others sitting in the seats beside us -- some are perhaps hundreds of years old, some are a little bit crazy, some have spent years studying the text we're examining, some are overly wordy, some are to the point, some are from other cultures and bring the outsider's perspective, some focus on minutia, and some are geared toward application. And we're altogether at the table studying together -- listening so that we might hear what the Word has to say. In some sense the goal of Bible study is to facilitate a discussion.

Now, I don't believe that the first approach to Bible study is totally without basis. We do need to develop the skills of reading the text and seeing what is there without getting totally locked into a particular commentator's perspective.

That is, sometimes when you go down the road with a commentary or a group of commentaries it's hard to see that you missed a turn a mile or two back. So, we need to learn the strengths and weaknesses -- the limits of the commentators. And there will be times when all the commentaries are missing the point. But even then we are forming our understanding within the context of that discussion -- a discussion with the rest of the church.

An experienced Bible student will learn the value of the commentator and how to weigh his or her opinion. That is perhaps a better goal than becoming so good at reading the text on your own that you don't need other opinions. Bible study is primarily a communal activity and a good student will look for ways to assemble the church for a discussion of God's Word.


Ted M. Gossard said...

Good words for us, Brad. Thanks!

Laura Springer said...

I am sad to admit that for most of my seminary career I was in the first camp. It was not until I came to myself and realized that my practice of shunning commentaries was completely at odds with my commitment to discussion-based bible study that I changed my practice. I came to see the arrogance of my individualistic me-and-God-and-the-Bible mentality. I now enjoy "distance conversations" with commentary writers and my study--and my teaching--has been enriched.

Beth B said...

Thanks, Brad. This is a keeper.