On Nineteenth-Century Commentaries

I’ve noticed two things about nineteenth-century commentaries that make me very cautious about ignoring them as most modern commentaries do (with the exception of a very few that are still quoted). The first thing is that they often have a much better grasp of the flow of the book of the Bible than modern commentaries, which tend to atomize the text rather a lot. And yet, the nineteenth-century commentaries are still more up-to-date on text-critical issues than the earlier commentaries (although sometimes hopelessly one-sided!). In fact, the older commentaries require the modern reader to wrestle with the flow a great deal more than their modern counterparts tend to do. I’m thinking especially of the Word Biblical Commentary, which not only atomizes the text in almost every place imaginable, but further atomizes its own understanding of the text, dividing up its sections into text-critical, form-critical, exegetical, and application sections. This drives me crazy, and I know I’m not the only one. D.A. Carson hates it, too.

The older commentaries also tend to require a greater attention span to follow the thread of their reasoning. Modern commentaries are written in the television age. Like it or not, this affects the way that the commentator grasps the text. Now, I am far from disparaging modern commentaries, as some of my persuasion do. I tend to pursue the most recent commentaries as well, knowing that there are things in them that the older commentaries do not have. However, it is amazing to me that the more I read, the fewer new things I find in the modern commentaries that have not already been said.

Also, I find that the older commentaries still say many things that the modern commentaries do not. I say these things to prevent chronological snobbery in either direction when it comes to commentaries.

The second major thing I find about nineteenth-century commentaries is their ability to see the big picture. They are often much more synthetic in their approach to the exegetical enterprise, and as a result, they don’t get lost in the forest. It must be said that these are generalizations. There are a fairly decent number of exceptions on both sides. For instance, there are nineteenth-century commentaries that atomize, and there are good modern commentaries that don’t. Similarly, there are nineteenth-century commentaries that lose the forest, and there are modern commentaries that don’t. However, this is what I’ve discovered in reading them. Therefore, I am planning on reading the nineteenth-century commentaries, so that I don’t fall into the same traps that modern commentaries often do. I have and would recommend Lange’s commentary, the Pulpit Commentary, Meyer’s Commentary, and Barnes’ Notes.

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13 Comments

  1. Paige Britton said,

    July 27, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Mmmm, yes, the world of complex sentences. Writing and reading was lots different then, just as a matter of course. They could probably do more with their minds in a sitting than we can (when I study I am always having to squash the urge to jump up and see what is happening at Green Baggins…)

    Hey, I am greatly liking Kostenberger’s theology of John, which you recommended awhile back. Thanks!

  2. July 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    The other interesting fact about reading older commentaries is that you will often find that the current hot debate has been hashed out before, though perhaps not in precisely the same way.

  3. July 27, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Also, some of the best commentaries of past centuries can be read devotionally, even doxologically. I think Robert Leighton on 1 Peter is a good example (long before the 19th-century, I know). Plus, one gets the feeling, when reading some modern commentaries, that the commentator has written his book for other commentators and for scholars generally, not for the general Christian public (D. A. Carson’s legendary “mythical well-read layman”).

    That’s the curse of the modern technical commentary: so much atomizing of the text that the commentary is almost all exegesis and no theology.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    July 28, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Paige, glad you are enjoying Kostenberger as much as I did. His book is worth every penny, I think. Dr. Shaw, I too have noticed this phenomenon. It tends to undercut modern arrogance that such thoughts have never been thought before. I just ran across, in the Pulpit Commentary on Romans, the argument that the righteousness of God means God’s own righteousness. Apparently N.T. Wright is not as original as he thinks he is. Richard, I agree. There is a severe rift between exegesis and theology in the modern world. I have often descried it on my blog.

  5. Raja Dani said,

    July 29, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Lane,

    What is your opinion and assessment of NT Wright? I thought he said some very insightful things in “Justification” that made a lot of sense to me, and that are commonly overlooked.

    Thanks

  6. greenbaggins said,

    July 29, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Raja, while some of Wright may be appropriated by the church, he denies and/or obscures the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith alone. He is not a reliable guide when it comes to justification.

  7. Raja Dani said,

    July 29, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Lane,

    I know this is off topic from this post, but could you elaborate where he is off the tracks? To my knowledge, he agrees that justification is by faith alone. He just adds that it is not the whole pie with regard to justification. And you used the term “Reformational doctrine of justification”, do you use this in the sense of the biblical doctrine of justification? Are the two synonomous? Isn’t this the rub that Wright is trying to point out?

    Maybe you could do a separate post on this. I keep hearing (and reading) a lot of criticism of Wright, but when I read him I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Have you read “Justification”?

    Thanks

    Btw, so as to at least comment on this particular post. I agree that we should keep reading the old as well as the new. Every age has its strengths and weaknesses….

  8. Raja Dani said,

    July 29, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    one more thing, if you’ve already written on this topic you can just direct me to that. I didn’t search your archives. And I’m not a maverick NT Wright defender, I’m honestly trying to understand the controversy….thanks

  9. michael said,

    July 29, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    After reading the thread and now these post comments I sit here convinced of one of two things and another thing certain.

    One, I will die someday in the future and pass before those left behind.

    Or, two, Christ will return before that day comes, one, above and in mass the balance of the Bride will be then joined as One forever with those who have passed before us when that event occurs.

    What is certainly true in either case is this and it is this that it seems to me is touching the heart of the issue you laid out with this thread:

    Ecc 7:13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?
    Ecc 7:14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

    The Nineteenth-Century commentary writers had more to draw from than those writers of the Eighteenth and Seventeenth and Sixteenth and so on. Besides, it seems for the present day writers have at their fingertips technologies that put so much more knowledge of what has been written readily at their disposal to write from, our great great grandchildren quite possibly would make a similar observation of the Twentieth and Twenty First century writers, simply because we simply can only speculate what will come after we are gone from History and written commentaries.

  10. michael said,

    July 29, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Lane,

    as for a response to Raja Dani’s request above, I could recommend Dr. J.V. Fesko’s book, Justification, Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.

    He does a wonderfully decent and superb job of taking apart N.T. Wright’s view on justification.

  11. Raja Dani said,

    July 30, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks Michael.

    Lane, have you read Justification or any of NT Wright’s other works?

  12. greenbaggins said,

    July 30, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Raja, I have read all of N.T. Wright’s major works, although I haven’t quite finished his most recent book on Justification (I’ve read most of it). I would say that Fesko has great answers to N.T. Wright, as does Cornelis Venema in his book on the subject. I’m content with their analyses, as well as Guy Waters.

  13. Raja Dani said,

    July 30, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    OK, thanks!


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