A Case for Using Commentaries Earlier Rather Than Later

In his lucid book on the doctrine of Scripture, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of GodTimothy Ward makes a helpful observation regarding the use of commentaries.

I have sometimes been encouraged by others, both as a preacher and as a Christian who reads Scripture for myself, only to turn to Bible commentaries as a very last resort, when, after much wrestling and searching for myself, I still could not make out the sense of a passage—or perhaps just to check that what I thought was its meaning was not entirely off-beat. There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find ‘the answers’, as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself. Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later.

My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by the generations of believers who have come before me. Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start. For most Christians, who lack the time, resources and perhaps also the inclination to do the research themselves, good preaching will be a crucial means by which that historic consensus on Scripture’s meaning is conveyed to individual believers. For that, of course, the preacher needs to be, as he should be, well educated in biblical, historical and systematic theology (173).

Surely, prudence must be exercised with the use of commentaries and their non-use or delayed-use.  There can be a kind of latent pride associated with not using commentaries, but as Ward points out there can also be an unhealthy over dependence.

Either way, we cannot abandon the tradition of the church.  We must learn how to glean from the past without becoming enslaved by it.  His counsel, therefore, merits consideration and frees us who labor in the Word to turn to the commentators as we need, not just after we have merited their comments.  In the end, we must give a final account for our own interpretations (2 Tim 2:15), but since the church (and its ministerial tradition) exist as a pillar and buttress of the truth, it is good and right to read the Scripture with the Reformers, the Fathers, and others who help us see what Scripture is saying.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss