The Intolerable Demands of Scholarship

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.



  1. Reformed Sinner said,

    November 9, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    For one I think it’s the pressure to sell books. Unfortunately publishers need to make money, and writers need to write books that publishers would publish. This is why we get these “specialized” commentaries nowadays, one for each “market segment.”

    For two I think the seminary need to take some blame in this mess. The compartmentalization of seminary into “departments” have forced students to compartmentalize their learning, and give the false impression that when you enter BT you need to turn off your HT, ST, PT, and only use your BT side of the brain. Even professors may have force this into the students because they believe it themselves.

    The only reason I realize ST and BT has a strong relationship is because of Richard Gaffin, I was amazed at first how can he switch teaching BT and ST and does it so well. Gone are the days when a theological professor means you can hop from department to department to teach different courses and not miss a beat. We don’t need more “OT expert” or “NT expert” or “ST expert”, we need more BB Warfield.

    Finally, Reformed Expository Commentary?

  2. Paige Britton said,

    November 9, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    I’m not sure that I agree with you that it’s a detrimental thing to have commentaries at different reading levels. As one who has read her way from entry-level texts to more complex ones, I sure appreciated the unencumbered, less technical commentaries that I started out with. It’s also a mark of a good scholar if he or she can articulate complicated things in a simple way, to those who are just beginning to investigate exegesis and theology for themselves.

    I would say that the present proliferation of commentaries raises a specific new pastoral challenge (besides the challenge of figuring out which ones you are going to pay attention to yourself!): it seems to me necessary now, if you want to challenge your congregants (and especially your teachers and elders) to become more informed about biblical texts, that you take time to give them a good dose of church history, a sketch of the predominant theological perspectives they might encounter, and a healthy attitude of open-minded skepticism towards all the various competing interpretations. The skills of carefully reading, comparing, and evaluating interpretations are probably rusty in most folks, and the sheer variety of perspectives floating around is going to be daunting to anybody who sets out to read anything more than the study notes in her Bible!

  3. greenbaggins said,

    November 9, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Paige, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s bad to have commentaries on different levels of technical expertise. I think it’s valuable that not every commentary is on the Greek or Hebrew text. But sometimes, categories of people are practically invented in order to sell books to them. The “educated layman” is obviously different from the normal layman, in the lingo of today. As a result, the commentary for the educated layman will have transliterated Greek and Hebrew, which I find an enormous distraction. The problem is: how educated is the educated layman? Can he read Greek like the educated layman of old could do? Whose definition are we using?

  4. November 9, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Part of the problem is the pressure to publish. Part of the problem is the proliferation of people with PhD’s in the various fields. Part of the problem is the explosion of knowledge. But from my perspective, the main problem is that Biblical studies is no longer primarily done by godly scholars for the church, but by academics of every stripe for other academics. That accounts in part for the proliferation of journals as well as commentaries. Every academic niche has to have its specialist journals, preferably with at least one each in English, German and French. Hence, Journal for Old Testament Studies (English), ZAW (German-the title means Journal for Old Testament Studies, but I’m not going to use three lines spelling it out). There’s also the really big seller, Journal for Cuneiform Studies. Most of the academics in Biblical studies have some sort of religious affiliation, but that’s not their primary concern, nor is it their primary audience. The result is, no one can keep up with the avalanche of publications. Hence, you really no longer have specialists in Old Testament Studies. You have people who specialize in Pentateuch, or some of the historical books, or some of the prophets. The result is longer and longer commentaries on shorter and shorter sections of Scripture. Thus you have Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible series totaling 2688 pages in three volumes. At least he finished the book, thought six years passed between the appearance of the first volume and the appearance of the last one. But at least he finished. Moshe Greenberg published the first volume of his AB commentary on Ezekiel in 1983 (408 pp, chs 1-20). The second volume (372 pp, chs 21-37) appeared in 1995. The last volume, presumably chs 38-48 has yet to appear.

  5. Paige Britton said,

    November 9, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Yep, I think I am equally cynical about the marketing bit. Good point. (But actually I kind of like the transliterated Hebrew ones; Tremper Longman’s commentary on Proverbs does this, and I’m not minding the leg up in learning a smattering of vocab. I am definitely not a “normal layman,” however it’s defined.)

  6. GLW Johnson said,

    November 10, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Professor Shaw observations ,I think are spot on. The various book projects that I have been involved in ( including one that Lane is currently part of ) try to address isssues that do directly impact pastors and people in the pew-even though at times the subject might require extensive interaction with the academy and with highly techincal terms that your typical pastor or layman is not familar with-sometimes this simply cannot be avoided.

  7. Chris Donato said,

    November 12, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    The Brazos series does indeed seem to miss more than hit. The Acts volume isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. But I’m not sure the REC is tons better. Duguid’s work I’ve found very helpful, though. Where, oh where, are the Reformed biblical-systematic theologians of yore?

    I just realized I was echoing some of #1 above…

  8. GLW Johnson said,

    November 17, 2009 at 4:51 am

    There is a very disturbing aspect to much that grows out of all of this as far as the so called ‘Evangelical’ community is concerned. It appears that practically every single doctrine that once described historic Evangelicalism is under assault from with the camp-and this often gets launched from ‘scholarly’ academics ( or at least the appearance of being ‘scholarly’)- ranging from penal substituation and justification to the doctrine of the Biblical inspiration and even the Trinity. One high profile ‘Evangelical’ recently urged evryone involved in the ongoing ‘discussion’ over the Reformation and the doctrine of justification to not be dogmatic but be willing to listen sympathetically to other points of view because , after all,we all are on a journey and at best all we can do is make ‘suggestions’. One wonders, as we make our collective way down the road, where on this journey there is room for the Apostle Paul’s thundering anathema against ‘another gospel’ ( Gal. 1:6-9).

  9. November 17, 2009 at 8:13 am

    I haven’t seen a Brazos volume that I like. The one that’s come most highly recommended from people I consider to have valuable opinions is Leithart’s Kings volume, and I was sorely disappointed with that. Maybe I’d have gotten something out of it if I’d read larger sections of it, but I read it on a few passages my congregation was preaching on, and what he said that was fine was in the other commentaries, but what was unique to him was problematic in the worst way. He speculates a lot about the number of times words are repeated, and he makes connections across different texts that seem highly unlikely to me. I didn’t find him answering a lot of the questions I was turning to commentaries to see others’ answers to, and some of those were theological and apologetical, both of which I’d expect to find in a series doing what this one advertises itself as doing. His biggest strength is in critiquing others’ views, but that wasn’t enough to get me to hold onto the book, even though we’re not remotely done with the preaching on Kings. I sold it online and sent it off last week. The other volumes I’ve looked at (Matthew and Acts) were even less helpful.

    I find transliterated Hebrew very valuable and an alphabet I don’t know very distracting. I know Greek but know only a smattering of Hebrew terms and only in transliteration. It makes it much harder for me to read the WBC for OT, the WEC, or the McComiskey series on the Minor Prophets, but the NICOT (along with the aforementioned Baker OT series) has transliterated Hebrew with actual Hebrew in the footnotes, and that seems the most helpful to me.

    Benjamin, Moshe Greenberg wasn’t able to complete his final volume on Deuteronomy. It will be done by Jacob Milgrom instead, which will at least allow it to cohere with the Leviticus commentary in that series, even if it won’t cohere with the rest of that series’ treatment of that book. I suspect it will be a better work than Greenberg would have done, considering that Milgrom’s work is among the best of any of the mainstream biblical scholars who don’t hold to the high view of scripture that I do.

    The only REC volume I’ve read is Galatians by Philip Ryken. It read like a series of expositions rather than a commentary that seeks to guide those who will be giving their own expositions or leading exegetical Bible studies, which is unsurprising given that they began as a sermon series. I suspect the entire series is like that. I’d put it in the same category as the Preaching the Word series more than what I expected, which was that it would be something like the EBC or Tyndale commentaries.

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