The Preacher & Commentaries: Don’t Preach Them

Commentaries are resources for preachers, not sources for sermons.  They are tools that help us in the passage study phase of our preparation.  They are not a sermon bank of material waiting to be pilfered and preached.

If you read the introductory preface to a commentary (which would be unusual behaviour, I suspect!) you will see that the commentary or series is targeted toward a specific audience.  Perhaps it is aimed at non-Greek trained lay people, or at seminarians, pastors and Bible teachers with some Greek, or whatever.  In reality, these categories are so broad that I would prefer to view them not as targeted communication, but as descriptions of a range within which the writer offers his or her explanation.

Preaching is different.  When you preach your goal is not just explanation to a broad audience, but targeted transformation in a specific audience.  You can be much more specific in knowing who your listeners are and what they need to hear – not only by way of explanation, but also with an emphasis on application.

Here are three more related comments on preaching and commentaries:

1. Watch out for atomisation.  The vast majority of commentaries are highly atomistic.  While a good commentator will be aware of the discourse level unity of the passage, it is hard to find commentaries that are overtly aware of the macro level flow within a book.  It seems to me that often the commentator is so engrossed in the phrase-by-phrase explanation, that a stretch and coffee break before proceeding with the writing can lead to a sense of atomisation in the end product.  The preacher is not offering a book where the listener can go back and review the section introduction, or re-read complex sentences.  The preacher is offering an aural exposure to both explanation and application of a text.  Different.

2. Only quote a commentary if the quote is exceptionally valuable.  You don’t need to prove you read commentaries (or checked in with Calvin, or whoever).  You don’t need to feel inadequate to be the preacher (though we all are) – they invited you to preach, not Doug Moo or Tom Schreiner.  Study and prepare to the point that you can effectively explain and apply the text.  Only quote a sentence or two from a commentary if it really is uniquely pithy, arresting, compelling and gripping, not to mention helpful!

3. Don’t feel obligated to cite your sources.  If you do quote, no need to cite sources every time.  Preaching is not an academic essay.  Sometimes the reference to an unknown name can be unhelpful, sometimes (depending on the name), downright distracting or humourous!  If who it was makes a difference, cite them (i.e.Churchill), but if not, just say “one writer put it like this…” (anyone who cares can always ask you afterwards).

Tomorrow we’ll think about gathering good conversation partners around us.

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8 thoughts on “The Preacher & Commentaries: Don’t Preach Them

  1. “Just say “one writer put it like this…” (anyone who cares can always ask you afterwards).”

    Grragh! That goes very much against the grain.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it doesn’t come naturally at all. And I do think that Christians are horribly prone to passing on baseless “someone said X” stories, so that it doesn’t hurt to go against that trend.

    • Mike, when I’m grading academic papers I completely agree. But when preaching we need to think through how things come across. Too much footnoting, and sometimes any footnoting, can be either intimidating, off-putting, distracting or annoying. We need to have total integrity and not get into any type of baseless stories, but the solution to that issue is integrity, not total citation. My opinion, of course.

      • We don’t want to claim credit for a good turn of phrase, if it isn’t ours. I’ve used the “one commentator said this” means of citation, and think it is a good way to protect honesty without dropping a meaningless or potentially confusing name in a sermon context. It depends on the audience, of course. I wouldn’t hesitate to cite Spurgeon or Luther if quoting them.

        I think Mike’s point about stories is well-founded, though, and I’m glad he said it. I never thought about it before, but if I were going to pass on a story, as opposed to quoting a single line, I think it is wise to cite the source. I get far too many unsupported “Christian stories” in my inbox.

  2. Thanks Peter, I have really appreciated the posts on commentaries and preachers and would like to add my own opinion on this issue. I agree that if we are going to quote a commentator we should at least let people know that we are not the source though I do not think it is necessary to give exact references like footnotes in an academic paper.
    I have found that as I have spent time and soaked in the text and taken a look at what various commentators have had to say, I glean certain ideas from them, process the passage in light of those ideas, and then those ideas begin to form in my own mind and begin to own them for myself.
    I prefer not to take extensive notes into the pulpit but to preach from the text. When I do think a particular commentator has said something truly valuable, I will have to take that quote, but that is not all that often.
    I guess what I am suggesting is what has worked best for me and that is not to extensively quote commentators but to truly own the text and form my sermon from the ideas in the text. This enables me to preach much more extemporaneously and given me much more freedom in the pulpit. I may have some ideas that some might recognize as they flow out of my conversations that I have with certain commentators as well as those conversation partners that I have during the week as I walk with other men and bounce some of my ideas off of them. Personally, at this time in my preaching I don’t find myself quoting very often. I appreciate the conversation:)

  3. I agree that this is not academic writing. It never hurts if using a story or a phrase o state who said it. Stating what commentary you used isn’t really nessassary. Very fewer with remember anyways. It just seems like I may add cluter to the sermon. Truthfully the commentary should only be a source to open your THINING, more creatively it shouldn’t be directly written into your sermon.
    All the best,
    J L Bowen

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