Home > Biblical Theology, Commentaries, Preaching, Recommendations > Five Rules for Choosing a Commentary

Five Rules for Choosing a Commentary

February 25, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

God has blessed the church with many gifted writers and thinkers who are producing a plethora of good commentaries to help people understand the Scriptures.  With so many commentaries available to Christians, how does one decide what is a worthwhile commentary?  I realize that many people have their own ideas of what they look for in a commentary, but I would like to share five rules that I generally try to follow when choosing a commentary.

1.) Choose individual commentaries over entire sets.  While the temptation is to purchase an entire set of commentaries; the better rule to follow is to buy individual commentaries as you need them.  An entire set limits you with one perspective and are often not as thorough or up-to-date as individual volumes.  I would also suggest you avoid buying a whole set of a particular series (e.g., Word), since these volumes are usually hit or miss in their quality.  There are many excellent commentaries (part of a series or not) that would be missed if you purchase an entire set only.  However, if you must purchase a whole set there are some worthy ones to choose from (e.g., Calvin; Kistemaker).  I would recommend purchasing a one-volume commentary or a good Study Bible over a set if you want a commentary on the whole Bible.

2.) Become familiar with good authors and stick with their works as a general rule. Once you discover who the solid scholars are in the fields of Old Testament and New Testament studies, consult their commentaries first, but be careful.  Some first-rate scholars can write terribly shallow commentaries that will leave you sorely disappointed.  Moreover, some scholars may write the same commentary on a particular book for various series, but don’t feel compelled to purchase every commentary they write for a particular book because it’s usually the same material.  Finally, if you are concerned with understanding the text from a redemptive-historical perspective then read the authors who teach from that perspective regardless of the series; however, be careful not to neglect other commentaries that may not agree with your perspective.  For example, Darrell Bock is a progressive-dispensationalist, but has written superb commentaries on Luke and Acts.

3.) Choose commentaries that are balanced in exegesis and exposition.  Some commentaries are heavy on exegesis (e.g., NIGTC) and some are so heavy on exposition that there is hardly any substance.  I recommend finding commentaries that balance both.  For example, the Pillar, Baker, and New International Series on the Old and New Testament are good at balancing both.  There are some commentaries that are strictly exposition (although most do possess some exegesis) that are invaluable for preaching and application purposes such as the Reformed Expository Series and the Preach the Word Series.  Again, I would find the good volumes of both sorts (exegesis and exposition) and if you can’t find a good combination purchase some solid exegetical commentaries and some good expositional commentaries.

4.) Purchase commentaries that are solid on theology.  There are lot of commentaries that approach the text from a critical perspective (e.g., Anchor, ICC) and my advice is go with commentaries that are rich in sound theology.  While the exegetical aspects of the text are extremely important (and even some critical aspects), I find little use for commentaries that are mostly interested in presenting theories and scholarly debates.  If our goal is to understand the text and then convey the meaning of the text to the congregation then understanding the theology of the text is crucial.  The same fault with critical commentaries can be found with commentaries that are heavy on application.  While application is important we should want to understand the text and teach people the Bible, which involves understanding individual texts in light of the whole canon, rather than always trying to find an immediate application for modern day hearers.  For example, the NIV Application series does a good job of trying to balance exegesis and application; however, some volumes are better than others.

5.) Buy Worthwhile Commentaries.  This point is rather obvious, but what I mean here is buy a few select commentaries rather than many.  Commentaries are grossly overpriced and so many are disappointing; therefore, spend your money wisely and only purchase a few good ones.  Moreover, I would encourage you to purchase “large” commentaries.  What I mean here is buy commentaries that have some substance to them.  So many commentaries lack substance.  I am not suggesting that the bigger the commentary the better (e.g., 860pp. is better than 160pp), but most commentaries that are short are short for a reason–they lack serious depth.  In other words, shorter commentaries will always leave you wanting more.  Now there are some really good short commentaries (e.g., Barry Webb on Zechariah), but in my opinion it is safer to go with larger commentaries.  It is always better to have more than less. 

As a final word of encouragement, remember that commentaries are wonderful tools to help us understand the text, but they are not the source or substance of our teaching.  Purchase your commentaries carefully and read them regularly.  Hopefully, this list helps provide a few helpful tips for purchasing these useful, but expensive commodities.

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  1. February 25, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Excellent advice here, Chad. Thanks for posting it. I’d be interested in your recommendation of a one-volume commentary. I am asked quite often what I recommend am really don’t know what to say. So if your average Christian layperson wants a basic commentary of the whole Bible, what would you suggest?

  2. Chad
    February 25, 2008 at 10:00 am

    I would suggest the “New Bible Commentary” 21st c. edition, eds. Wenham, Motyer, Carson, and France. It is up-to-date, has great contributors, and even has a section on intertestamental literature.

  3. February 25, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    Helpful post! I have also found the New Bible Commentary to be a good resource. May I add a 6th?: Buy any and every commentary written by Carson, Beale, Moo, or Schreiner. I can’t imagine anything shallow coming from the pens of these guys.

  4. February 26, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Criteria similar to your 5 rules, and a similar disgust for spending lots of money for a poor commentary, led me to create a list of “first” commentaries for every biblical book. It may be helpful to those who find your rules helpful.

  5. February 26, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Concerning #4, Anchor and ICC offer valuable information concerning background that is necessary to deal with the text, so it may not be wise to rule out those series altogether.

  6. Chad
    February 26, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Luke, agreed. I am not ruling them out for their historical contribution, but for the overly critical aspects that characterize the series, which in my opinion is less helpful (although important at times). With that said, I think there are plenty of conservative commentaries that do a fine job of dealing with background material without all the critical jargon.

  7. February 26, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Very helpful post. It is informative.

  8. David
    February 26, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Tim,
    John Sailhamer’s NIV Compact Bible Commentary is a treasure. Short, cheap, yet he gives clear overviews exposing the “big picture” of the text. He is a OT theologian, so it is weighted in that area, though probably the area in which most people need help. His section on the Pentateuch is a condensation of his “Pentateuch as Narrative” which is worth 10x’s its weight in gold. Check out the NIV Compact Bible Commentary. Don’t be afraid of the NIV name. He usually uses his own translation. Zondervan published it so they use NIV in the name.
    Blessings,
    David

  9. February 27, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Thanks for these wise guidelines. There are a number of books offering advice concerning commentaries. In my opinion the best is that produced by Derek Thomas, which I understand has or is about to be updated. Thomas writes from the perspective of a pastor, rather than an academic (which he has now become).
    There are commentaries, I think people need to warned about, e.g. I. Howard Marshall has a very large commentary on Luke in the New International Greek Text Commentary series. Derek Thomas describes it as ‘problematic.’ I would suggest the word ‘useless.’ It probably has some good material, but a busy pastor doesn’t have the time to wade through the liberal rubbish to find any useful observations that may be there.
    Another similar work is the Ephesians by Andrew Lincoln in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Lincoln is not sure who wrote this letter, and his commenatary never rises above his confusion on this basic issue.
    As a general rule I find that newer commentaries are the best because older commentaries tend to be very verbose and sometimes deal with issues that have faded into the dustbin of history. However Matthew Henry is usually worth consulting. Sometimes he is superb, e.g. his comments on the creation of Eve (Genesis 2:21-25) are poetically wise. J.C. Ryle is likewise often very good.

  10. February 28, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    If I can throw my two cents in: one volume commentaries are hard to come by. The one editeed by F.F. Bruce is good. It seems to be a summary of the expositors series. The New Century Commentary is good as well. Let us also not forget the classics: Jammeson Fausset and Brown for the whole Bible, Keil and Delitch for the OT (both of which you can get free from e-sword) and even Clark’s commentary is good with a little discernment. And of course matthew henry to get good theology. I have my own list on how to choose christian books HERE

  1. February 26, 2008 at 11:45 am
  2. February 26, 2008 at 1:46 pm
  3. February 27, 2008 at 9:51 am
  4. March 3, 2008 at 9:00 pm
  5. August 11, 2009 at 3:27 pm

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