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5 things to consider when using a commentary


Faithfully preaching God’s word week in and week out is a weighty task for the pastor. Thankfully pastors today have access to countless resources and commentaries to help aid in their preparation, but that raises the question how should a pastor use a commentary? While so much of answering this question will depend on the specific circumstances of each pastor’s ministry, here are five things I believe all pastors should consider when using commentaries in their sermon preperation:

1) Do your work first

When using a commentary, it is important you make sure you do your own work first. I found it to be true both in my writing and sermon preparation, that if you go to a commentary right away or other sources, you can lose your own voice and you’re at the mercy of what other people have said. It is important that you think through the text yourself before turning to a commentary. I would recommend as a general rule you write out our put your sermon together, putting together the points of your sermon before you look at a commentary.

Of course, there may be times that you find it helpful to consult a commentary. Perhaps you are so confused that you have no idea what’s going on, and then maybe a commentary would help. But I think typically you should do your own work first. This goes for application as well. Pastors should first think of their own congregation and how the text applies to them and only after giving it some though consult a commentary. After completing writing my sermon I will often consult another commentary.

2) Read commentaries to consider other perspectives

I think the main benefit a commentary provides a pastor is that commentaries help pastors see other perspectives that they didn’t consider before. I’ve experienced this as I’ve been working on my commentary on the book of Ephesians. My process for writing a commentary is to first write the first draft using the Greek text alone. Then after writing it out, I read other commentaries and often find myself saying, “I didn’t think about that interpretation.” The benefit of commentaries is that we’re all limited and partial, and a good commentary will reflect the history of interpretation for 2000 years. So, you’re benefiting from all of those who have preceded us in interpreting the text.

3) Select good commentaries

My bias is that pastors would consult more scholarly commentaries. I think you can learn from commentaries written by pastors, but when think about using commentaries, scholarly works should be preferred. Not because they are necessarily better, but because they have read, processed, sifted, thought through the work of many scholars. At the same time, such commentators have also read monographs and scholarly articles. All of this provides a lot of depth for the pastor to consider. I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite commentaries here.

4) Give yourself enough time

Pastors should try to give themselves enough time to consult several commentaries in order to gain from the different perspectives offered. As I mentioned, I’m working on writing a  commentary on Ephesians, and I’m on my 10th or 11th commentary and there are still things I am learning. So giving yourself time to consult multiple commentaries if possible (it isn’t always possible!!) can shed light on a passage or give a new argument or another angle on it that I always find helpful.

5) Commentaries can’t answer everything

Sometimes I’ve had people complain to me, “the commentaries don’t answer the questions I have.” I am sympathetic to that, but also know that everyone who writes a commentary can’t answer everything. You’re constrained. There’s always a lot more to say on everything and every commentary, including my own, has strengths and weaknesses. So pastors should read every commentary with discernment because no commentary is perfect or can answer every question. And one reason it’s good to read more than one because different commentaries have different strengths.

Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also serves as associate dean of the School of Theology.

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  • Thomas R. Schreiner