How to Review a Commentary

20 Aug

John Dyer has set up site where you can read and give reviews for some of the best English language commentaries.

I hope many will join this community and offer their reviews so that Christians can find commentaries that will help them understand the Bible better and point them more to Christ.

However, it’s not easy to write a good review. How can you write a review that will best serve the kingdom of God? Remember to answer the following questions:

1. What is the Author’s View on Scripture?

Sometimes an author will claim to be an evangelical, but their commentary will make odd claims. As you read watch out for some tell tale signs such as:

  • Denying the named author is the true author.
  • Pretending a passage doesn’t mean what it clearly says.
  • Not accepting later Scripture’s interpretations of the passage (such as how the author to the Hebrews interprets certain Psalms as pointing to Christ).

2. What are the Author’s Definitive Doctrines?

If you’re considering Martyn Lloyd Jones’ commentaries on Romans, it won’t take you too long to find out his theology with a quick google. However, when finding out about an obscure researcher from an Australian seminary it can take a bit longer.

Give the reader some idea of the author’s theological perspective. Are they Arminian, Presbyterian, Charismatic? These things can help someone with only enough money for one commentary to understand which will serve them best.

3. Are There Any Odd or Innovative Interpretations?

Some commentators are more out to make a name for themselves than faithful interpret the passage. Warn potential readers if this is the case. Tremper Longman when reviewing a commentary once noted someone who gave an interesting new interpretation. He advised it was worth a look (as it may be true) but if you only had money for one commentary to find something else. New interpretations aren’t bad, but let the reader of your review make the decision if they’re worth it.

4. Who are the Intended Audience?

Pastors, laypeople and scholars all have very different needs and skill levels, and different commentaries are written for those purposes. Do you need Greek to understand it? Does it give application to those who aren’t in the pastorate? Does it give advice on preaching?

5. What are the Author’s Strengths?

All authors have to carefully select their content, whether they write 1,000 pages or 100. Therefore, they will have undoubtedly chosen to focus on certain aspects of the book.

Are they better at discussing it’s theology or it’s translation, it’s application or near eastern contexts? Do they explain it in easy terms or do they pull to shreds liberal arguments? These things may help a reader decide which commentary is going to be useful for their need.

6. How Thoroughly Does the Author Cover the Content?

I’ve read some commentaries that have had very long introductions, but have been somewhat lacking in the text. Equally some commentaries have had too short an introduction. Tell your reader these things. If you think you’re 200 page commentary is not enough if it’s your only commentary, let them know this.

7. Does it Point to Christ?

Sometimes commentators get so bogged down in technical issues they forget the whole point of the Bible is to point people to Christ. This is especially true of Old Testament commentaries. If you are going to flag up one thing, make it this: does the commentary keep in mind the supremacy of Christ?

Whether it’s a commentary on Proverbs or Hebrews, if a commentary forgets the main character it isn’t worth buying. All commentaries, all Christian books and even reviews should have that aim. Make sure you’re review has that aim too.

(Picture “Calvin’s Commentaries by Darren Larson under the Creative Commons Licence)

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10 Responses to “How to Review a Commentary”

  1. Richard August 20, 2008 at 7:01 pm #

    Some good advice overall. Though I would say that I have benefitted most from reading commentaries that have challenged my preconceptions and I would actually prefer to read critical OT commentaries. We need to be wary of commentators that seek to defend the traditional where there is no evidence to support it, I am thinking especially here of commentaries on the Pentateuch that continue to advocate Mosaic authorship. Another thing to look out for is whether the commentator uses form criticism, which they should.

    In all of them though, we should take the good, leave the bad and give as ever all the glory to God.

    Trust you are well!

  2. Tim Wilson August 21, 2008 at 8:55 am #

    I agree with you to some extent. I’ve used Tremper Longman and D.A. Carson’s OT and NT commentary surveys and the best thing about them is they’re willing to say “This guy is evangelical but does it in a bad way”. Those aren’t the commentaries I would advocate. As you say in all commentaries take the good and leave the bad giving glory to God.

    However two things I’d add in response. Firstly, critical commentaries can be useful but I’d never buy it as my only commentary on the book. I think a good review should expalin the perspective of the book so the potential reader can decide whether to read a critical commentary or not.

    However, on the flip side I do believe it’s much better to go evangelical. How is that commentary that debates every point of doctrine that is clear in the text ever going to show you Christ in the text? He isn’t and it could be a tool of Satan to drag you into intellectualism and vain debates and away from true exposition of scripture.

    I find one of the best guys for this is Calvin. He must be read against modern scholars, who may have access to better manuscripts and further studies in the area; yet he always performs an exegesis rather than a theological isogesis. There are guys today who do the same.

    I’m about to read Longman’s Proverbs commentary. He reaches a good balance, accepting Proverbs was influenced by Near Eastern traditions and that (as is clear in the book) Solomon wasn’t the final compiler; but equally starting the book with a section linking the Proverbs to the New Testament revelation of Christ. That’s the kind of OT commentary I’m looking for.

    I’m doing very well thank you. Hope you’re enjoying your study of Exodus!

    P.S. Jesus assumes Moses is the author of the Pentateuch I’m not planning on messing with him! Yes there was probably an editorial hand (I mean Moses dies at the end of it) but Moses is definitely repsonsible for the majority of the content if not it’s final form.

  3. Richard August 21, 2008 at 9:33 am #

    Make sure you check out Longman’s footnotes, :-) he has read plenty of critical scholars and would be critical-evangelical himself. Modern evangelical scholarship is only just beginning to catch up with critical scholarship and ask the right questions.

    Exodus is going well thanks. Childs is a great scholar and his book is rather long.

    On Mosaic authorship, I know that it is popular in evangelical circles to say that Jesus assumes Moses is the author of the Pentateuch but it is actually quite a shoddy argument when you look at it objectively. Jesus was simply using the ‘traditional’ understanding in a polemic with the Jews of his day. Simply on the ground of Deut. 34 we know that Moses did not write all of the Pentateuch, indeed there are sections of Deuteronomy that he obviously didn’t write. I would say that Jesus was simply using a Jewish turn of phrase which some have read too much into.

    Was Deuteronomy 1:1-5; 4:41-49 and written by Moses? I don’t think so. Moses was quite likely responsible for most of Deuteronomy, but what about Genesis? What about Exodus? There is very little internal evidence, if any, that Moses wrote it and there is evidence of many redactional layers.

    These are the issues, I would say, that evangelicals need to be aware of and a commentary that does not grapple with these questions, is not really acceptable in the modern era. Unfortunately, in my experience, it tends to be modern critical and critical-evangelical scholars who seem to be getting involved. Older evangelical writers just were not aware of the issues, or were acting like the proverbial ostrich. There are, of course, exceptions, B. B. Warfield defended the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture and advocated evolution recognising the difficulties of the Genesis account.

    God bless!

  4. Tim Wilson August 22, 2008 at 10:39 am #

    Fair enough on the whole, but I would disagree massively with the idea that issues about authorship are the right questions.

    Who wrote Hebrews? Do I care? No. What does it tell me about Jesus? What does it tell me about my Christian life? These are the questions that are worth answering.

    If one author of a commentary on Exodues has a right view of authorship but hasn’t realised the Passover is fulfilled in Christ; whereas another is misled but sees the Passover motif as it’s scirptural whole and uses it to reveal the passage fully, I know which commentary I’ll get.

    You yourself provided some excellent insight into the enthronment Psalms and enthronent ideas in Isaiah in its biblical scope. You’d never get that from critics, you will get it from evangelicals especially the older ones who didn’t have to scrap for the authenticity of the text with liberals.

    I don’t know whether we’re hitting at this from different perspectives. I’m viewing this as a preacher and a “devotional” (I hate that word but you know what I mean) reader. What I need to know therefore is very different to a scholar. Perhaps this is the perspective your coming from? If so it’ll obviously be different what commentaries you need. I’m happy for evangelicals to read critics and sort the wheat from the chaff on my behalf.

    I think it’s unfair to describe Longman as critical, even a critical-evangelical. He may be critical of common evangelical assumptions, but yet he comes to the text with three evangelical stalwarts: whatever this is true, whatever this is about Christ, whatever this is matters for my life. That’s evangelicalism as far as I’m concerned.

  5. Richard August 22, 2008 at 2:22 pm #

    I would be interested to know what critical commentaries you have read, the ones I have read are all packed with real gems.

  6. Richard August 22, 2008 at 3:17 pm #

    You may find this helpful. ;-)

  7. Tim Wilson August 23, 2008 at 8:17 am #

    None. Unless you count people like NT Wright who aren’t fully evangelical. And I have no qualms about that. It sounds hopelessly anti-intellectual, and it is. I don’t want to be an intellectual. I want to be mutually encouraged. If a person isn’t a Christian, then how are they to mutually encourage me in the Spirit? They aren’t.

    Moreover, I’ve read few evangelical commentaires that don’t sort the wheat from the chaff of liberal books for me. So why would I go liberal?

    Feel free to find those gems and point guys like me to them, brother. But rather than search in a pigs trough for the odd gem I’m gonna go to the jewellery shop. I really don’t trust my soul to do a dance with the world’s and it’s views of Scripture and come out unscathed.

    Thanks for the link!

  8. Richard August 23, 2008 at 9:21 am #

    Surely it is the duty of the pastor to exegete the text faithfully so that he can deliver a message to his flock? Exegesis is scientific not faith-based.

    I will give you an example, Calvin and many older commentators use Psalm 65:4 as a prooftext for election and I have heard a sermon using this which took it in the same way:

    “Blessed are those you choose
    and bring near to live in your courts!
    We are filled with the good things of your house,
    of your holy temple.”

    Through critical scholarship we know that this is a wrong understanding of the text and modern evangelicals have now taken that on board.

    Just because one is critical, it does not mean they are not a Christian.

    What I find ironic is that Tremper Longman recommends commentaries from the FOTL and Hermeneia series.

    I am not telling you to read critical works, I am simply saying that by not doing so you will put yourself at a disadvantage. Interraction with critic will sharpen your own thinking, help you to see things in new light and test everything you think against solid exegesis, i.e. you will be forced to defend your views. You will also be able to show critics the flaws in their arguments :-)

    E.g. If we accept that P [a Critical assumption] wrote Genesis 1:1-2:4a during the Babylonian captivity it is vital that we consider the oral traditions behind this account. Sigmund Mowinckel [a Critic] points out that in a culture that is highly oral in nature, when a story is written down it is done so for the purpose of preserving the story. This then implies that there was a vital need for this account to be preserved, that is, there was an historic circumstance that acted as a catalyst for the oral tradition to be put on paper.

    The question then is whether we can provide an explanation for this need to preserve the creation account we find in Genesis 1:1-2:4a? It is well documented (Cf. Gunkel [a Critic]) that the Babylonian creation account is remarkably similar to Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Now whilst there is a great deal of similarity the theology of the two accounts differ widely. This being so, one could argue that P saw the danger that the Hebrew account may become corrupted from Babylonian influence and so sought to record the ancient Hebrew account on paper so preserving it for future generations. Hence, whilst the creation account of P was written during the exilic period it does in fact represent a far more ancient tradition.

    There is really no antithesis between critical and evangelical if you put on a critical-evangelical hat. You can have your cake, and eat it too!

    God bless!

  9. Tim Wilson August 23, 2008 at 1:49 pm #

    How would you define critical? I would define it as critical of the text, yours seems to be critical of the common evangelical ideas?

    I agree getting the exegesis right is definitely the right idea.

    Thanks again for your challenging thoughts.

  10. Richard August 23, 2008 at 3:03 pm #

    I am using the term “critical” to refer to canonical criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, source criticism and textual criticism.

    As soon as you ask yourself “What does this mean?” You are engaging in textual criticism to a certain degree, and there are some fairly obvious corruption in the MT as found in the BHS. As soon as you ask “Who wrote this?” You are engaging in source criticism. As soon as you ask “What type of literature/genre is this?” you are engaging in form criticism.

    These are all tools to get us to the position of “So this is what the text means now how do I apply it?” A good Commentary shouldn’t be applying the message of the text within its commentary on the verses. If it is going to do this then it needs to have a separate section and thankfully most modern commentaries work like this now.

    I must confess I really can’t understand your hostility to the idea of reading critical works especially when you confess that you have to be careful when reading evangelical works.

    Three good examples of critical works FYI:
    Sweeney’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings
    von Rad’s commentary on Genesis.
    Jeremias’ commentary on Amos.

    Of course one would not agree with everything they say, but when is that ever not the case?

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