It is becoming nearly impossible to become a master of one’s field of expertise in theology these days. There is so much written, and the fields are exploding in every book of the Bible. H.G.M. Williamson has this to say: “In framing my own suggestions on these matters, I have been generous in including discussion of the work of others, but no one familiar with the literature on Isaiah will expect to find full and comprehensive coverage; the days when that was possible have long since passed” (his commentary on Isaiah, p. 2). What is somewhat startling about this comment is that it comes from a commentary that is in the International Critical Commentary series. If any series was known for comprehensive coverage, that was the series.
I’m noting several trends in scholarship, then. Firstly, we see many commentaries with multiple authors. This seems a healthy trend, not only because there can be division of labor, but also because there is built-in peer review.
Secondly, and not so healthily, we see many more commentaries that take much smaller chunks of material. The Williamson commentary mentioned above only covers chapters 1-5 of Isaiah. This trend has some snares accompanying it, most notably that the text can become more and more fragmented, with fewer and fewer scholars seeking to articulate the message of the book as a whole. Now, to be fair, there are plenty of scholars out there who are aware of this problem, and are trying to counteract it. However, the problem remains.
Thirdly, we are seeing many more commentaries that are not well-rounded, in terms of their audience and method. Niche commentaries seem to be the order of the day. We have scholarly commentaries, not-so-scholarly commentaries, popular commentaries, and these are all addressed to various sectors of the community interested in getting help on the meaning of the text. Nowadays there are even geographically distinct commentaries. This also I see as an unhealthy trend. It fosters the point of view that says that everyone’s interpretation of Scripture is going to be different, and therefore there is no one correct meaning of Scripture. There can be some good things about geographically distinct commentaries, in that some interesting perspectives can arise coming from countries that are not part of the West. And the applications can be unique, as well. However, the dangers are not so apparent, it seems to me.
The very worst trend I see is that the demands being put on biblical scholars to master their fields means that they no longer delve deeply into the other theological disciplines to see what they would have to say about their text. This is especially true of systematic theology. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen in a commentary, “That’s a dogmatic imposition on the text, and we can’t talk about dogmatic categories, when we’re dealing with exegesis.” I would be quite rich. There are a couple of series that are trying to buck this trend, one from a liberal, or mostly liberal perspective, and one from a conservative perspective. I refer to the Brazos Theological Commentary, and the Reformed Expository Commentary. These series are ones to watch, although there have already been a couple of duds in Brazos (the Matthew commentary by Hauerwas is way too short to be of much help). Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what comes out of these series. The REC, in particular, has produced quite a number of gems already.