By Dr. Steve Runge
I get asked this question a lot, a people seems somewhat disappointed by my response of “It depends on what you’re doing.” It’s like being asked what the best tool is in my garage: the answer will always be “the tool best suited to my task,” depending on what I’m doing. Here’s what I mean.
When tackling a tough passage I’ll typically consult scholarly commentaries like the Anchor-Yale Bible or International Critical Commentary volumes, and even from the forthcoming Continental Commentary Series among others. I can guess your first question: “Why in the world would I want to read Claus Westermann on Genesis or Hans-Joachim Kraus on the Psalms, aren’t these guys pioneers in source and form criticism?” Why yes, as a matter of fact they are. But they also knew their Hebrew better than most folks alive today, and they have spent most of their lives studying these books in far greater detail than I ever will. I may not share their presuppositions about Scripture, but there is much to commend their exegesis.
One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome in seminary was being willing to learn from someone with whom I disagreed with on certain issues. I learned to read past differences in order to learn from their expertise. In a previous post I mentioned the value of older commentaries, noting that many times you will find a more robust engagement of the text on works by Godet, Olshausen and Alford, who were not distracted by the modern issues that can preoccupy new commentators. But this is not to say there is never a time to interact with critical scholars. Like any tool, each one has its strengths and weaknesses, each contributes something to the process.
Before you get the wrong impression, you need to know that I also make regular use of more devotional commentaries. The Focus on the Bible Commentaries and Christian Focus Biblical Studies Collection are great examples. Getting the difficult exegetical questions answered is not all there is to studying a passage, you also need to be able to clearly and relevantly communicate what you have learned. If you like the academic side of things like me, you too may struggle with seeing the bigger picture of a passage: the theme, flow or theology of a passage or book. I can have all the greatest information in the world, but it is useless to the congregation if I cannot present it in a way that they can understand.
Most often the more technical issues never get mentioned in the sermon, but are more about me feeling like I have handled them. Less-academically oriented commentaries—yes, even the warm fuzzy ones—are a great safeguard against missing the “forest” because of looking too closely at a piece of bark on a single “tree”. I read devotional commentaries just a critically as I do the scholarly ones, sifting wheat from chaff.
So which commentaries are best? The ones that you need for what you are working on. Just like I use my hand saw for some applications and an axe for another, building a diverse collection of commentaries can be a great boon to your study. The academically-oriented volumes can address specific questions, whereas the “lighter” ones can provide great ideas for how best to present what you have found.
Dr. Steve Runge is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software and author of the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament, Lexham High Definition New Testament, and Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis.