Which Commentaries Should You Buy?

By: Larry Hart

Most pastors worth their salt are eager to obtain the best practical resources to help them carry out their myriad tasks as shepherds in God’s flock. I can remember pumping the seminary professor I most respected and trusted for suggestions on the best Bible commentaries, and my own students do the same with me from time to time.

If ever there was a time when the body of Christ needed pastor-teachers who are serious students of Scripture, it is now! The present renewal needs leaders who have mastered sound principles of biblical interpretation, with skills in biblical Hebrew and Greek. Such leaders can enable and help the people they serve to read the Bible with understanding.

In Pentecostal circles it is too often the case that scriptural texts are twisted and tortured in the name of “spiritual revelation.” Believers too often simply accept mindlessly and passively the pronouncements of their teachers and pastors, while those very teachers and pastors have spent very little time in substantive study of Scripture. How often has a preacher claimed for a passage a supposedly Holy Spirit-revealed meaning which clearly violates all the principles of sound biblical interpretation? How many times do people approach the Bible as if it were a Rorschach (ink blot) test and project whatever meaning that fits their fancy onto the text?

Perhaps one of the reasons it is so urgent that Pentecostals cooperate with the Lord as He merges them with the evangelicals is this very problem of “playing fast and loose” with the Bible. Evangelicals care passionately about “rightly dividing the Word.” (Recently the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) published a masterful treatment of the subject of more than 900 pages: Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible. They are also the theological watchdogs for historic orthodoxy. And, in my opinion, they have generally written the best commentaries.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary have provided a very helpful resource in this area, a volume entitled How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Zondervan, l98l). It is the kind of book a Christian leader with the responsibility of teaching and preaching the Bible can use with great profit as well as pass on to those he or she serves. The book contains a very helpful survey of the best Bible commentaries.

A similar service is rendered by Mark Lau Branson in his Reader’s Guide to the Best Evangelical Books (Harper & Row, 1982). Actually, not all the books surveyed could be classified as “evangelical” or “conservative,” but Branson’s overview of the best in Christian books is nevertheless informative and downright fun! Have you ever wondered what books are Jack Hayford’s favorites-both personally and professionally? How about those of Pat Robertson, Lloyd Ogilvie, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Peter Wagner, Pat Boone, Richard Foster, John MacArthur, Carl F.H. Henry or Philip Yancey? They are all listed in this volume along with those of a number of other Christian leaders.

Branson also refers the reader to two comprehensive surveys of the best Bible commentaries which I would also recommend: John Goldingay and Robert Hubbard’s Old Testament Commentary Survey (Revised Theological Students Fellowship/InterVarsity Press, 1981) and Anthony Thistelton and Don Carson’ s New Testament Commentary Survey (Revised Theological Students Fellowship/InterVarsity Press, 1977).

We use commentaries to help us get at the precise meaning biblical to us through them. The first prerequisite to understanding the Bible, though, is a personal relationship with its Author.

As J.I. Packer points out in his excellent volume, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Revell, 1984, p.239), the Holy Spirit provided us with the Bible through His role in the processes of revelation, inspiration, canonization, preservation and translation. He also enables us to appropriate fully the Bible’s message through His work in authentication, illumination and interpretation. A coldly
rational analysis of the text without crying out for the Holy Spirit’s help is futile. It is impossible to “substitute” the Scriptures for the Spirit or vice versa. They are inseparable. The Bible is a supernatural book-authoritative, God-breathed, infallible, inerrant. The starting point for fully understanding it is being empowered by the One who wrote it. Nevertheless, this truth does not
exonerate us from the task of serious study of the Bible with all the available helps.

To begin with it must be said that the absolutely best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. This fact calls for a wide reading of the Scriptures-daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. In addition, we can receive tremendous help simply by using cross references. The New American Standard, New International and New King James versions, for example, have excellent cross-reference editions available. Also, a number of fine study Bibles have been provided which are tantamount to having access to numerous commentaries within the confines of one book. Very handy! The Bible is amazingly clear as it stands without any of these helps. The Reformers called this the “perspicuity” of Scripture. Even so, the Bible demands and deserves scholarly study.

John Calvin said that the two most important characteristics of a good commentary are brevitas (brevity) and felicitas (coming to the point). Look for these in your own investigation of commentaries. Both Luther’s and Calvin’s Bible commentaries are available today and are still tremendously helpful and relevant, precisely because they were so skilled at getting across the riches of God’s
timeless truth. Through the study of Bible expositors old and new we have access to a virtual gold mine of scriptural teaching. Through the printed page, commentaries enable us to sit at the feet of scores of spiritually gifted (and scholarly) teachers and preachers. Don’t be afraid to explore them! Bad commentaries are like bad hairpieces: generally you can spot them quite easily!

So read the Bible-both devotionally and for a broad knowledge of what it says. Use reference and study Bibles. All along, cry out for the Spirit’s help. Study the Word with some of the helps listed below.

If I could only have one book in my library in addition to the Bible, it would be The Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible. I know of no more helpful or reliable a resource for understanding the Bible than this book. The first task performed in getting at the meaning of a passage is establishing the context of the passage. Scholars call this “contextual analysis,” and the reason it is so important is summed up in the adage: a text taken out of context is a pretext. You will have gone a long way down the road of contextual analysis simply by carefully reading through the particular book of the Bible you are studying and then checking with the Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible for historical backgrounds, literary questions and the like. In addition, this handbook contains a sort of chapter-by-chapter running commentary for each book of the Bible. With its numerous helps, beautiful full-color photography (one trip to Israel and you will treasure this volume even more!) and sound scholarship, the Eerdman’s Handbook is, in my opinion, simply unsurpassed for the purposes it serves. Eerdmans has also produced a concise version of this handbook which is especially handy for travel.

Many pastors graduate from seminaries still wrestling with the problem of how to bridge the gap between exegesis and homiletics-that is, between the study of the biblical texts and the preparation of sermons. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has written a book precisely to answer that need titled Toward on Exegetical Theology (Baker, 1981). In a practical, step-by-step fashion Kaiser shows how it is done. He argues, as well, that too many commentaries are being produced that fail miserably in this area. Thus, he has written a commentary of his own on Malachi as a companion volume to further illustrate and demonstrate the principles he develops. Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love (Baker, 1984) also contains a helpful appendix on the “Usefulness of Biblical Commentaries for Preaching and Bible Study.”

Another issue (should I say problem?) that seminary-trained church leaders face is that of biblical criticism. Can these historical and literary methodologies be used constructively? With the long and depressing history of destructive biblical criticism controlled by naturalistic presuppositions (i.e., “miracles don’t happen”), should I consult the various commentaries whose authors make use of these scholarly methods?

Years ago C.S. Lewis called for a little humility on the part of the biblical scholars with their “assured results” of historical criticism, form criticism, source criticism, reaction criticism, and the like. After all, Lewis’ own contemporaries were using similar literary methods in their analysis of Lewis’ own writings, and more often than not they were missing the mark. How much more biblical critics who are separated from the writings they are analyzing by 2000 years and who do not share the same cultures and languages of the Bible writers! (See Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” in Christian Reflections, Eerdmans, 1967, esp. pp. 159-161.)

Right now the entire enterprise of biblical criticism is being called into question. For evangelical perspectives on this issue consult: Biblical Criticism (Zondervan, 1978) by R. K. Harrison, B. K. Waltke, Donald Guthrie and Gordon Fee; The New Testament and Criticism (Eerdmans, l967) by George Eldon Ladd; The Old Testament and Criticism (Eerdmans, 1983) by Carl E. Armerding; and New Testament Interpretation (Eerdmans, 1977) edited by I. Howard Marshall.

Perhaps we will simply have to live with some ambiguity in this area of concern. Evangelicals themselves have seemingly made constructive use of these methods, and the results are often impressive. Howard Marshall’s commentary on Luke and F.F. Bruce’s commentary on Galatians in the series New International Greek Testament Commentary are two examples. (Anything these two brilliant evangelical biblical scholars write is worth purchasing, including their commentaries!) On the other hand, I often find myself having to separate the wheat from the chaff when I consult the works of non-conservative biblical scholars. Raymond E.
Brown and Markus Barth might serve as two good examples.

Markus Barth’s two-volume commentary on Ephesians and Raymond Brown’s two-volume work on John, both in the Anchor Bible series, are impressive pieces of biblical scholarship. I have received tremendous insight-and numerous sermon ideas!-from consulting these commentaries. Brown also published The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1977) on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, from which I have received numerous stimulating insights into the theology of these passages. And yet in picking the fruit from Brown’s exegetical garden beware of the snakes! He can be absolutely brilliant in discerning literary forms and theological insights and at the same time be devastatingly skeptical of the actual historicity of the biblical events he is studying. He is too often controlled by naturalistic presuppositions in his use of the historical/literary methodologies. Markus Barth (son of the great theologian, Karl Barth) seems to me to be less “radical” than Brown, but the same concerns about the accuracy of the results of these scholarly labors still stand. So if you feel uncertain of your abilities to sort out these matters then perhaps you should avoid these kinds of commentaries or at least refrain from recommending them to the people you serve.

Positively speaking, a Catholic Charismatic scholar like George Montague can use the biblical critical methods without being controlled by skepticism toward the supernatural. His book, The Holy Spirit: Growth of a Biblical Tradition (Paulist Press, 1976), is a very interesting, stimulating and practical commentary on virtually every passage on the Holy Spirit in the entire Bible. He
comments:”Fundamentalism makes the mistake of thinking there is no distance between the biblical times and ours, and it distrusts the help of historical and literary sciences to bridge that distance. To some extent this reaction is understandable, for biblical criticism of the rationalist variety has not always avoided imposing its own philosophical presuppositions on the material and on the student. Somehow the truth of the matter must lie between these extremes.”

Montague aspires to merge scholarship and spirituality and to a large degree succeeds.

Personally, I ride the biblical criticism horse very lightly. The results are too often too speculative for my tastes, although at times you might catch me singing to a congregation in the biblical Greek a supposed hymn of the early church in such passages as Ephesians 5:14 or 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22. (Dale Moody, the seminary professor I alluded to earlier, taught me how to do that!)

Sometimes you can find the best comments on a given passage of Scripture in books other than commentaries per se. Through the use of the Scripture index all kinds of insights-and related biblical truths can be gleaned from New Testament theologies such as those by Donald Guthrie (New Testament Theology, IVP, 1981) and George Ladd (A Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974).

If you are studying a Pauline epistle it is often quite helpful to look up comments on your passage in texts on Paul’s theology, such as those by F.F. Bruce (Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, Eerdmans, 1977) or Herman Ridderbos (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Eerdmans, 1975). Archeological information often sheds additional light as well. My favorite source is J.A. Thompson’s The Bible and Archeology (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 1982). Also, there is now available the Archeological Commentary on the Bible (Doubleday, 1984) by Gonzalo Baez-Camargo.

If you are studying the Old Testament narratives of Exodus or Numbers, you can find numerous insights in Jamie Buckingham’s A Way Through the Wilderness (Chosen Books, 1983). In addition, Lloyd Ogilvie and Charles Swindoll have published a number of books chockful of exegetical and homiletical insights (see their numerous titles). It is helpful to expand your horizons in these ways in your quest for insightful commentary on the passages of Scripture you are studying.

The Bible commentary series that perhaps comes the closest to bridging the gap between “what it meant” and “what it means” (Kaiser’s ideal) is InterVarsity Press’ The Bible Speaks Today. John R.W. Stott’s commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount, Ephesians, Galatians, and 2 Timothy in this series are superb.

Commentary sets on the entire Bible are usually uneven. It is generally better to select the best volumes from each rather than purchasing the whole set. The exceptions might be the Tyndale Commentaries and the New International Commentaries. Both The Expositor’s Bible Commentary and the New International Commentaries and The World Biblical Commentary show promise, and the old Keil and Delitzsch series is still quite valuable. The New Century Bible Commentary series has some fine authors, and The Good News Bible Commentary, just beginning, is worth examining. Word Books, under the editorship of Lloyd Ogilvie, is publishing an excellent series (especially for preachers!) titled The Communicator’s Commentary. William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible is a perennial favorite, and the New Bible Commentary: Revised is perhaps the best one-volume commentary (OT and NT) to consult.

And finally-and all importantly-obey the Bible! Believe it. Do what it says. Base your life on its promises. Nourish your life on its truth. Put its principles into practice. We have only scratched the surface in appropriating the Bible’s liberating truth. Could this be true in part because we have been too lazy to study the Bible?

Finding the Best Volumes Within Commentary Sets

Commentary sets covering the entire Bible usually consist of some volumes that are more effective than others. It is generally better to select the best volumes from a number of sets rather than to purchase whole sets.

Larry Hart compiled the list below, which gives some of the best commentaries for each book of the Bible.

The following abbreviations are used:

AB (The Anchor Bible, Doubleday); BST (The Bible Speaks Today, InterVarsity); EBC (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan); HNTC (Harper’s New Testament Commentaries, Harper & Row).

IB (Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon); ICC (The International Critical Commentary,T & T Clark); NBC (The New Bible Commentary: Revised, Eerdmans); NCBC (The New Century Bible Commentary, Eerdmans); NICNT (The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans).

NICOT (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans); NIGTC (The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Eerdmans); OTL (Old Testament Library, Westminster); TNTC (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Eerdmans); TOTC (The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, InterVarsity); WBC (Word Biblical Commentary, Word).

Recommended Volumes

Genesis: Derek Kidner, TOTC, 1967; Ronald Youngblood, How It All Began [Gen. 1-11], (Regal Books, 1980); Ronald Youngblood,
Faith of Our Fathers [Gen. 12-50], (Regal Books, 1967).

Exodus: R. Alan Cole, TOTC, 1973; Brevard S. Childs, OTL, 1974; Bernard Ramm, His Way Out (Regal Books, 1974).

Leviticus: R.K. Harrison, TOTC, 1980; Gordon Wenham, NICOT, 1979.

Numbers: Gordon Wenham, TOTC, 1981; Philip J. Budd, WBC, 1984.

Deuteronomy: Peter C. Craigie, NICOT, 1976; J.A. Thompson, TOTC, 1974; G. Ernest Wright, IB, 1956.

Joshua: John Bright, IB, 1956; Martin H. Woudstra, NICOT, 1981; Trent C. Butler, WBC, 1983.

Judges: Arthur E. Cundall, TOTC, 1968.

Ruth: Joyce G. Baldwin, NBC, 1970; Edward F. Campbell, AB, 1964; Leon Morris, TOTC, 1968.

1 & 2 Samuel: Hans W. Herzberg, OTL, 1965; Ralph W. Klein, WBC  (1 Sam.), 1983.

1 & 2 Kings: Carl F. Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Books of the Kings (1876; Eerdmans reprint, 1970); William LaSor, NBC, 1970.

1 & 2 Chronicles: Jacob M. Meyers, AB, 1965.

Ezra, Nehemiah: Derek Kidner, TOTC, 1979.

Esther: Joyce G. Baldwin, NBC, 1970; Lewis B. Paton, ICC, 1908.

Job: Francis I. Anderson, TOTC, 1976; Robert N. Schaper, Why Me, God? (Regal Books, 1974).

Psalms: Derek Kidner, TOTC, (2 vols.), 1973, 1975.

Proverbs: Derek Kidner, TOTC, 1964.

Ecclesiastes: Derek Kidner, BST, 1976.

Song of Solomon: Robert Gordis, The Songs of Songs and Lamentations (Rev. ed.; Ktav, 1974).

Isaiah: Edward J. Young, NICOT (3 vols.), 1965-72.

Jeremiah: J.A. Thompson, NICOT, 1980; John Bright, AB, 1965.

Lamentations: R.K. Harrison, TOTC, 1973; Delbert R. Hillers, AB, 1973.

Ezekiel: John B. Taylor, TOTC, 1969; Andrew W. Blackwood, Jr., Ezekiel (Baker, 1965).

Daniel: Joyce G. Baldwin, TOTC, 1978; Ronald S. Wallace, BST, 1979; Edward J. Young, NICOT, 1949.

Hosea: Derek Kidner, BST, 1981.

Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: Lesile C. Allen, NICOT, 1976.

Amos: J.A. Motyer, BST, 1975.

Nahum, Habakkuk,Zephaniah: John D.W. Watts, Cambridge Bible Commentary, 1975.

Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: Joyce G. Baldwin, TOTC, 1972.

Matthew: D.A. Carson, EBC, 1984.

Mark: William L. Lane, NICNT, 1974.

Luke: I. Howard Marshall, NIGTC, 1978; Leon Morris, TNTC, 1974.

John: Leon Morris, NICNT, 1970; Raymond E. Brown, AB (2 vols),
1966, 1970; F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans, 1983).

Acts: F.F. Bruce, NICNT, 1954; I. Howard Marshall, TNTC (2nd series), 1980; Stanley M. Horton, The Book of
Acts (Gospel Publishing House, 1981).

Romans: C.E.B. Cranfield, ICC (2nd series), 2 vols., 1975; Cranfield, Commentary on Romans (abridged for general readers; Eerdmans, 1984); C.K. Barrett, HNTC, 1957.

1 & 2 Corinthians: F.F. Bruce, NCBC, 1971; C.K. Barrett, HNTC, 1971 (rev. ed.), 1974.

Galatians: F.F. Bruce, NICGT, 1982; Donald Guthrie, NCBC, 1969; John R.W. Stott, BST, 1968.

Ephesians: Markus Barth, AB (2 vols.), 1974; John R.W. Stott, BST, 1979; F.F. Bruce, NICNT (2nd ed.), 1984.

Philippians: Ralph P. Martin, NCBC, 1976; Gerald F. Hawthorne, WBC, 1983.

Colossians, Philemon: Ralph P. Martin, NCBC, 1974; Peter T. O’Brien, WBC, 1982.

1 & 2 Thessalonians: Leon Morris, NICNT, 1959; Morris, TNTC (2nd series), 1984;F.F. Bruce, WBC, 1982; I. Howard Marshall, NCBC, 1983.

1 & 2 Timothy, Titus: Donald Guthrie, TNTC, 1957; J.N.D. Kelly, HNTC, 1963 (reprint: Baker, 1981); John R.W. Stott, BST,

Hebrews: F.F. Bruce, NICNT, 1964; P.E. Hughes, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977); Donald Guthrie, TNTC
(2nd series), 1983; Raymond Brown, BST, 1982.

James: James Adamson, NICNT, 1976; Peter Davids, NIGTC, 1982.

1 & 2 Peter, Jude: Michael Green, TNTC, 1971; J.N.D. Kelly, HNTC, 1969. 1, 2, & 3 John: I. Howard Marshall, NICNT, 1978; John
R.W. Stott, TNTC, 1964.

Revelation: George Eldon Ladd, Revelation (Eerdmans, 1972); G.R. Beasley-Murray, NCBC, 1974; Robert Mounce, NICNT, 1977.

Larry Hart is associate professor of theology at the School of Theology, Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He earned degrees from Oral Roberts University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served in the pastoral ministry for nine years in Kentucky and Indiana and was chaplain at ORU.

(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)

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