Commentary Connoisseur: Using A Commentary

I just finished preaching through Romans.  So, what was my favorite commentary?  Which one would I take to a desert island?  Well, let me throw up a disclaimer or two.  First, I never use a commentary that is, shall we say, more devotional in character, or better, readymade to preach.  I did say never didn’t I?  I never use that sort of commentary because there is an inherent temptation that comes along with using such a book.  What’s the temptation?  You really have to ask?  That I will use it! 

If you are a preacher you know the temptation all too well.  Think about it, haven’t you read that devotional commentary, the one with the divisions that look like they fell from heaven, the one that seems to pick out just the right word to study and has illustrations that perfectly bring out the teaching of the text?  Haven’t you read a book like that and then tried to work on the Scripture text but the outline from the book was so compelling that you just couldn’t get it out of your head?  My question is why do that to yourself?  That is why I typically use commentaries that are more scholarly in nature, which has an added benefit.  They are boring!

The second disclaimer is that I don’t read commentaries.  I use them. Now, you’re probably asking, “What’s the difference?”  Great question let me tell you.  First, and this may be another disclaimer, I think it’s impossible for a working pastor to engage in the kind of exegetical work he learns in seminary.  I have heard some professors tell their students that they need to spend upwards 40 hours on one sermon!  Now, if that’s what a man is doing in the ministry he is likely neglecting his flock and his evening sermon!  I mean, let’s face it, if I remember correctly, even Gordon Fee had a cheat cheat for pastors at the end of his book New Testament Exegesis.  It’s noble and romantic to think that a pastor would put 80 hours into two sermons but it’s also unrealistic.

What is more, I have also heard professors tell their students to do all their own translations, exegesis, hermeneutical work and only use commentaries at the end to check their work.  Again, this is pure mythology at worst and just plain misunderstanding the demands of the pastorate at best. I’m Reformed which means that I do not have a “me and my Bible” routine that I sing and dance to week after week.  I belong to a deeper and richer history.  I stand on the shoulders of giants.  If it’s just me and my Bible I’m in a world of trouble and so is my congregation!

So, I use commentaries. I see them as people with whom I engage week by week.  I have a conversation and they are active participants.  For instance, if everything is going well (I make myself laugh!) I usually begin working with the text on Tuesday. I have my Greek Bible open and I am making notes on a single sheet of paper.  It’s a mess. But it’s my mess.  I’m jotting down words, potential structures and last but not least I write questions.   Again, depending on how busy the week is depends on when I start the conversation. For example, if I wanted an honest Roman Catholic answer to a question I had regarding Romans 3 I would ring up Joseph Fitzmyer to see what he had to say.  If I wanted a more rigorously academic anti-Lutheran interpretation I would call Robert Jewett.  And if I was perplexed and needed the safety of a friendly conversation I could call Calvin or Murray or a number of others. 

However, none of these men told me what to think.  They allowed me to engage them in conversation.  I did my own thinking (and praying) and eventually my own writing.  But perhaps you’re still wondering which one I would take to a desert island if I could only pick one.  Well, I would probably pick the one that is most scholarly and the one with which I most disagreed because that would surely keep the conversation and the imagination going until I could get off that island!       

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

Jeffrey Stivason