Comment on Commentaries

I’ve written on commentaries before, such as here and here, and even here. I was just prompted by something I read to point out something else concerning commentaries. As well as the standard sage advice to not overly revere the commentaries, but rather treat them as conversation partners; as well as the solid suggestion to not invite them into the conversation too early; one more suggestion:

Don’t only read commentators that are solidly within your own theological tradition or denominational stream. It is tempting, especially with limited resources, to always buy from the same denominational publishing house, or in a series that is largely of your kind theologically.  Some people seem to only read Reformed Calvinists, others look for well-known Arminian theologians, others like anything connected to Dallas, others want Abingdon Press, others only John MacArthur, others only Tom Wright, others only buy UK/Australian authors, etc.  Tempting as such an approach may be, you will find that richer insight is gained by engaging with a variety of voices.  All of these that I have mentioned can be helpful, as can Roman Catholic commentators, or Jewish commentators, etc.

A couple of caveats (since I know some readers will take me out of context and write me off theologically for one of the items in that list, or perhaps for all of them – I could list more until I find your favorite!)  (1) Just because it’s different, doesn’t make it right, any more than it makes it wrong.  That is to say, whatever their tradition or theology, some commentators deal with the text better than others – you are still looking for good commentators.  (2) Make sure you have some grounding yourself before you bounce around in other camps.  Reading multiple voices is part of good seminary training, but be careful not to intellectually buy into anything and everything in print.  (3) Don’t neglect quality commentators from “your camp.”  They will probably form the “spine” of your collection.  (4) It is helpful to know where a commentator is coming from.  It helps to know that this guy always looks for an obscure position and takes it.  It helps to know that that one comes from a theology that tends to read these kinds of verses in this way.

Finally, I’ve mentioned John Glynn’s helpful book in the past.  I’d like to point you to a very helpful online resource strongly influenced by John Glynn’s book.  Perhaps you have not come across it yet – I would not say that I always agree with the scores given to a commentary, of course, but it largely seems to be a very helpful guide.  Take a look around it, you will probably be glad to add it to your bookmarks!

Build Confidence in the Word

John MacArthur writes about the clarity of the Bible in his chapter in Preach the Word.  Let me quote him here – not new information (I hope), but important information well worthy of our pondering:

The student of Scripture need not fear that its message is unknowable.  Rather, he can rejoice in knowing that God revealed himself and his plan of salvation in a way that men can understand.  Not only does the Scripture repeatedly claim that God revealed what is written within its pages (over 2,000 times in fact), it also describes itself as that which gives light (Ps. 119:105; 2Pet. 1:19a), is profitable (2Tim. 3:16-17), explains salvation (2Tim. 3:15b), addresses common people (cf. Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:37; Eph. 1:1; 1Cor. 1:2), can be understood by children (Deut. 6:6-7; Eph. 6:4; 2Tim. 3:14-15), and should be used to test the validity of religious ideas (Acts 17:11; cf. 2Cor. 10:5; 1Thess. 5:21-22). It is the truth (John 17:17) that sets men free (John 8:31-36).  Thus, to deny the clarity of Scripture is to call into question not only the Bible’s own self-claims, but also God’s ability to communicate clearly.

Let’s make sure these truths are fresh in our hearts.  It’s easy to begin with strong confidence in the Word, only for it to fade over time.  Is it time to refresh and renew our understanding of and commitment to the clarity and power of God’s Word?

Let’s also make sure we don’t undermine our listeners’ confidence in the Bible.  There are certainly parts that are harder to understand, the Bible itself acknowledges that (2Pet. 3:16).  But the main message of the Bible is clear for any who will read it . . . so let’s encourage them to do just that!

Review: Preach the Word, edited by Leland Ryken & Todd Wilson

Subtitle: Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes (2007)


Kent Hughes is a name I have been aware of for many years, but honestly I have never heard him preach or read any of his books.  Still, this book of essays written in his honor caught my attention.  Collections of essays in honor of individuals of spiritual stature range in quality from excellent to extremely ordinary.  Sometimes their quality of production falls far short of the person’s life and ministry they are intended to honor.  Not so in this case.  This book is a quality production from Crossway and a decent collection of essays from an impressive list of contributors.  This book is worthy of our attention.

Divided into four parts, the book contains sixteen essays, culminating in a gracious and encouraging biographical essay on the life and influence of Kent Hughes.  By the end of this book, you will have greater motivation to pursue the exposition of God’s Word, and a greater passion to expand that ministry by influencing the next generation.  Not a bad legacy to honor Kent Hughes’ ministry.

The first part is concerned with Interpretive Principles and Practices.  The book begins with a call to expository preaching from David Jackman.  John MacArthur offers a sound although very basic introduction to inductive Bible study.  Paul House considers the preaching of Old Testament narratives with a focus on three sermons from Acts.  Wayne Grudem offers a helpful chapter on rightly interpreting the Bible.  The only chapter to surpass Grudem’s contribution in this section is the excellent offering on “The Bible as Literaure and Expository Preaching” by co-editor, Leland Ryken.

The second part focuses on Biblical and Historical Paradigms.  Bruce Winter helpfully considers Paul’s approach to warfare in reference to the thought processes of his listeners – how to preach to minds not fully renewed.  Duane Litfin’s chapter on Paul’s kerygma foolishness in 1Cor.1-4 is superb.  In my notes I remarked the book was worth the price for this chapter alone.  Wallace Benn moves the book into church history with a straightforward summary of Richard Baxter’s classic, The Reformed Pastor. J.I.Packer then adds another heavyweight and inspiring article (in power, not in density), a delight of a chapter on Charles Simeon.

The third part concerns Contemporary Challenges and Aims.  Here you find Phillip Jensen and D.A.Carson’s more engaging lecture on contemporary challenges in ministry.  Philip Ryken then offers a very good call for expository preaching that is evangelistic, doctrinal and practical.

The fourth and final part focuses on Training and Example.  Peter Jensen considers the seminary setting, where he rightly wishes that expository preaching were the primary goal of the entire faculty.  Jon Dennis offers a detailed list of eight principles for multiplying ministers from 2Tim.2:2 and its surrounding context.  David Helm brings in British church history again, in an engaging article that looks for a generation of preachers to be trained.

This is a solid book, well worth buying and reading.  The essays are all decent and worthy of their place, although it must be recognized that the offerings of Leland Ryken, Duane Litfin and J.I Packer (perhaps with David Helm’s historically birthed effort attached to Packer’s consideration of Simeon) – these stand out as especially worthy of note and worth the price of the book!

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 3

We’ve considered unhelpful “pseudo-feedback,” and lack of the best feedback of all (life change).  Here are a couple more categories to consider:

6. Ministry drain. This can sneak up on a preacher.  Preaching takes a lot out of you.  It uses up stores of energy.  Not only physically, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally and relationally too.  Many preachers point to the post-preaching lethargy they experience.  Most non-preachers are unaware of this phenomenon.  The danger is that we forget it and then misread the drained feeling for discouragement through failure or whatever.  Answers are as common as paperbacks in a bookstore – rest more, exercise more, eat better, drink water, pray longer, pray earlier, have dates with God, have dates with your spouse, wrestle with your children, take Mondays off, etc.  No easy answer, but don’t misread the source of the discouragement.

7. Unhelpful Comparison. Number 1 was comparing your preaching to what you imagined it would be like ahead of time.  This time it is comparing your preaching to others.  It’s good to learn from others.  But don’t beat yourself up because you are not Robinson, MacArthur, Piper, Stanley, Miller, Craddock, Swindoll, Kaiser or whoever your personal favorite might be.  Super-preachers are a blessing to many, perhaps even to us as we listen to them on the radio or at mega-events.  But the people that hear you on Sunday morning need you on Sunday morning.  You may not be super-smooth or super-polished or super-funny or even a super-scholar, but you are a super-blessing as you faithfully preach the Word out of love for God and for them!  Be careful not to get down through unhelpful comparison.

I don’t want to make a post too long, so instead I’ll extend the series.  Another post to follow.

Review: The Expository Genius of John Calvin, by Steven J. Lawson, 2007.

Steven Lawson is a pastor who works closely with John MacArthur at the Expositor’s Institute.  He was trained at Dallas and Reformed Theological Seminaries.  This book is the first in a series of Long Line of Godly Men Profiles published by Reformation Trust of Ligonier Ministries.

This is an attractively presented little hardback (133pp).  In it Lawson seeks to present the qualities and distinctives of John Calvin.  Not Calvin the theologian who wrote the famous Institutes, nor Calvin the commentator whose exegesis is still referenced by serious scholars, nor Calvin the statesman who served as a Reformation leader in Geneva with influence spreading much farther, nor Calvin the shaper of both church and western culture, but Calvin the pastor, Calvin the preacher.  For all his accomplishments, Calvin’s priority was his pulpit ministry to real ordinary needy folk in Geneva.

The first chapter of the book presents a brief summary of Calvin’s life and legacy.  In the subsequent seven chapters, Lawson deals with various aspects of the preaching of Calvin, delineating 32 distinctives recognizable in Calvin’s preaching ministry.  Throughout the book, Lawson’s observations are supported diligently by sermon sound-bites and quotations from other scholars like Alister McGrath, James M. Boice, T.H.L. Parker, etc.  Although the support material is sufficient, it is by no means overwhelming and it does not turn this engaging little book into a dry academic research tome.

Chapters two and three address Calvin’s attitude toward the pulpit and personal preparation.  It is no surprise to read of his diligent mind, devoted heart and relentless will, but challenging nonetheless.  Then Lawson considers how Calvin would launch a sermon, along with reference to delivery (no notes, I’m glad to report!)  The most substantial chapters deal with expounding the text and crafting delivery.  The last two chapters look at application of the truth and sermon conclusion.  A couple of brief appendices are given to support details in the book (sermon text verse divisions for several series and an outline from a sermon on Job 21).

I have studied church history, even the Reformation, but I am no church historian.  Does this book deserve great respect as an accurate and insightful piece of historical research?  I don’t know.  Perhaps Calvin scholars would disagree with details or emphases.  Perhaps they would applaud loudly.  Certainly Calvin the preacher and pastor is often lost in the focus on his Institutes (written as an introduction to his commentaries!), or in the controversies over his politics and leadership.  Calvin the preacher is worthy of our attention.  This little book is a quick read, but thought provoking in its clarity.  Thought provoking on a historical level, perhaps, but especially as we consider our own preaching ministry today.  I would not suggest we affirm every distinctive and emulate without thought for our own times and contexts, but I’m sure any preacher would find their own ministry poked and encouraged by this book.  I look forward to subsequent volumes in the series.