Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
As preachers and teachers of the Word, we desire to understand and proclaim the Scriptures faithfully. If the text is not understood it will lead to incorrect teaching which results in misapplication. Furthermore, if one does not grasp where this text fits in the immediate context, in the section, in the book, in the Testament, in the Bible, one will be miss God’s redemptive plan which finds its climax in Jesus, who is the interpretive lens through which we read and understand all of the Scriptures (cf. Matt. 5:17-20; Lk. 24:25-27; Acts 28:23; Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 1:20). In our EFCA Statement of Faith, this is captured in the expression “Jesus – Israel’s promised Messiah” (Article 4, Jesus Christ).
Commentaries serve as one of the important resources to aid in our preparation to teach and preach God’s Word. But with the many commentaries (and not all are written equal!), how does one go about choosing which are the best ones, and for what purposes?
Two excellent resources I have used over the years are Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey, 5th ed. (Baker Academic) and D. A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey , 7th ed. (Baker Academic). New editions of both have recently been published.
Carson was interviewed with this question in focus: What Makes a Good Commentary. Though I encourage you to read the complete interview, three questions and responses were particularly helpful. I have delineated the paragraphs below in questions two and three to into separate points to highlight them.
What makes for a good commentary? How ought an average pastor determine which commentaries to purchase?
Good all-round commentaries help readers think their way through the text—which requires adequate handling of words, sentences, flow of thought, genre, theological presuppositions, knowledge of historical setting, and, ideally, a commentary writer who is humble and of a contrite spirit and who trembles at God's Word. But most commentaries do not do all these things (and other things—e.g., interaction with some other commentaries) equally well. That is one of the reasons one is usually wise to consult at least two or three commentaries with different emphases.
Most commentaries (though there are some exceptions) are quite poor at integrating exegesis of the text at hand with whole-Bible biblical theology. This is a huge lacuna. If you run from exegesis directly to application, you will often get things wrong and tend to drift toward privatized applications. In other words, it is important to understand any part of God's Word in terms of the book, corpus, and entire canon, to grasp how texts drive toward Jesus and the gospel, before too much application is attempted.
More broadly, most commentaries can't do much toward faithful and telling application. Although the biblical text (explained by the commentary) ought to have a major say in shaping your sermon outline, few commentaries will help you at that point—and most of those that try to do so are not very good. Reading commentaries will not necessarily turn you into a good exegete: that requires more focused reading of the text itself.
What are some common pitfalls to avoid in the use of commentaries?
To name a few:
If a preacher only has time to consult, say, two commentaries per passage, what principles would you give to help guide his choice?
Suddenly, the limitation to two commentaries seems unreasonable!
Do you use commentaries? How do you determine which commentaries to use? How do you use them?