When Should We Read Commentaries?

Ask five different pastors this question, and you will get five completely different answers. Paul Levy, for instance, reads a couple commentaries all the way through before starting a sermon series. After that, he uses them only when he’s stuck. Others (and this seems to me to be the majority position) advocate that one should only use commentaries at the very end of the process of writing a sermon or Bible study. Oftentimes, the justification for this position is that one must make allowance for the work of the Holy Spirit, and we should not merely parrot what other people say. Some even advocate that no commentaries should be read until after the sermon is written. My experience is a little different.

I find that after I have gone through the text in the original languages very carefully, I still don’t have very many thoughts of my own. I am not much of an original thinker. I really only form my ideas of what the text says in conversation with others who have delved far more deeply into the text than I have.

As with any theological book, one eats the meat and spits out the bones. The same is true for commentaries. By all means, work through the text carefully on your own (and do it first, not least so that you can understand what the commentaries are saying). However, why limit yourself to your own ideas? Why not allow the historical stream of churchly interpretation to feed into your understanding of the text? I usually find that my final position on a text has a very eclectic set of nuggets gleaned from many different sources. I am often surprised at how it works. A commentary from which I got no help for weeks at a time sometimes justifies its very existence in one week where it nails the text and none of the others did. It can be breathtaking at times. Then there are those commentaries that very often have solid insights on almost every page (though these are rare).

To answer the objection about the Holy Spirit is easy. Firstly, the Holy Spirit comes through prayer. I seriously doubt that reading more commentaries constitutes an obstacle that the Holy Spirit cannot overcome. Furthermore, why couldn’t the Holy Spirit be operating through those commentaries to give you what you need? Can the Holy Spirit use the words of dead white European and American males (and a few of them alive still)? There are some excellent female interpreters of Scripture as well, who have written good commentaries (Joyce Baldwin and Karen Jobes spring immediately to mind)

The saddest thing of all in my mind is when a pastor thinks he is so much smarter than church history that he doesn’t need to read what anyone else thought on a passage of Scripture. Really? So you’re smarter than Calvin, are you? Smarter than Augustine? You have the Holy Spirit and they did not? We are not enslaved to any one interpreter. We are not required to believe everything that any non-inspired theologian wrote. Reading them does not mean that we are limited to them. But iron sharpens iron, as the biblical proverb has it. Why allow ourselves to be dulled by refusing to engage in the great centuries-old conversation about the meaning of the text? Limiting ourselves unnecessarily can result in very dull sermons, where so many nuggets in the text are simply by-passed so that the pastor can get up on his hobby-horse.

Make no mistake: there are dangers no matter what position you take on the reading of commentaries. The dangers of reading lots of commentaries are pride, an overdose of explanation, a presentation of too many alternative interpretations (which can easily bewilder a congregation), merely parroting in the sermon what others say, and confusion in one’s own mind about the meaning of the text. The dangers of reading too few commentaries, however, outweigh the dangers of reading too many, in my opinion. For here are the dangers of reading too few: ingrown, idiosyncratic interpretation; missing too many details of the text; application that has no root in the meaning of the text; stream of consciousness preaching; pride and over-reliance on one’s own interpretive skills (which would fall foul of Proverbs’ dictum to lean not on your own understanding); a despising of church history; a denigration of the Holy Spirit’s work in other ages of the church; chronological snobbery. It seems to me that the dangers of reading too many are more easily avoidable than the dangers of reading too few, since they are more obvious. If a sermon is the result of one mind interacting with many minds about the text, is there not a multitude of counselors? Isn’t that safer? I advocate, therefore, and practice an earlier reading of the commentaries in the process of sermon-writing and Bible study preparation. I advocate reading the commentaries (and as many as time and money allow) right after the careful reading of the text in the original languages.

General Assembly Roundup

My thoughts on this year’s GA are not going to be comprehensive, as I was in Overtures Committee, which met for quite a long while simultaneous to the floor of GA itself. I missed the entirety of the Review of Presbytery Records report, for example. However, many of the most important things happened in Overtures this year.

The Overtures Committee (hereafter OC) recommended that GA answer Overture 1 (concerning setting up a mini-SJC for presbyteries) in the negative. There was quite a lot of discussion about this, but the problems with it were just too much. I am against the principle of having any commission being unaccountable to the presbytery that commissions it. I do not regard complaints as constituting full accountability, since complaints have to work against quite a lot of inertia in order to gain traction. The GA went with the OC’s recommendation.

Overtures 2 and 9, concerning the recreation clause, also got quite a lot of discussion, which got a bit heated in the OC. The OC decided, in the end, that our system was not broken, and thus recommended a negative response, which the GA adopted.

Overture 3 (concerning the baptismal vows) also foundered upon the recognition that the language of “dedication” was already covenantal in nature, when one considers the context in which it comes (do you know any Baptist who would be comfortable with BCO 56?). GA followed the committee’s recommendation.

Overtures 4-6 (presbytery boundary overtures) came through other committees besides OC, and they were approved (which means that my presbytery will be multiplying into three presbyteries as of January of 2016).

Overture 7 (concerning compelling a TE to testify) generated a lot of discussion both in the OC and on the floor of GA. The Kuyperian influence seemed rather strong, as quite a few people rather whole-sale imported civil judicial categories into the church (including fifth amendment rights). The vote in the committee was fairly strong on the amended version (which would have narrowed the cases in view to doctrinal cases). However, on the floor, the amended version was narrowly defeated (by about 22 votes, if I remember rightly). This despite the fact that TE David Coffin was the originator of the motion, and argued quite eloquently in favor of it. I think the overture should have passed. We have to be open anyway about what we believe.

In RPR, we won some and lost some. The most important one was won. Philadelphia Presbytery was cited for an exception of substance on their ordaining a man who wasn’t sure that the NT fully excluded women from the church offices. As I understand it, both the man and his church have left for a more liberal denomination. This exception was passed by a rather wide margin.

We lost the Westminster Presbytery vote, and they will have to answer next year’s GA for including language in their standing rules excluding theistic evolution from being an acceptable view.

Eastern Pennsylvania was also lost, concerning the man who had a very FV-sounding exception on paedocommunion (he first stated his difference in such a way as to include all the benefits of salvation to the baptized; on further reflection, he revised his views to state that some of the benefits of the Lord’s Supper accrue to all the members of the visible church, which is not a significant improvement).

The most exhausting thing about GA was the personal resolution offered by TE Sean Lucas and TE Ligon Duncan III on racial reconciliation (the OC spent at least 6 grueling hours on it!). There can be no doubt that this is a timely issue, and a very serious one, given the recent riots in various places in the US. The main issue in the debate hinged on whether the PCA ought to repent now of its racial sins in a less-than-perfect manner, or wait a year and perfect the language and accuracy of the language (and put some wheels on it, so that practical steps might be taken). The African-American Presbyterian Fellowship was not entirely in unison on this issue, thought it seemed that the majority who spoke favored waiting a year, primarily for the practical reasons. Another issue was how the personal resolution came to the floor (skipping the local session and presbytery levels). A more considered and thorough document could be forthcoming if various presbyteries get in the act for next year. Almost the last thing in the GA was a season of prayer for racial reconciliation that lasted well over an hour.

My thoughts on this are a bit mixed. On the one hand, I hate racism with a passion. All people are made in God’s image, and there is no such thing as a second-class citizen among God’s elect. On the other hand, I wonder if we are reacting too strongly to many impulses in the culture that would make white people feel guilty simply for being of the same color as people who have oppressed African-Americans in the past. The personal resolution called on the PCA to confess its sins in its complicity with those who opposed the Civil Rights movement. This was a bit strange to me, since the PCA was not in existence at the time. There are undoubtedly some churches and men in the PCA who were around then who have something of which they must repent. And I have no problem acknowledging that there are such churches and such men in the PCA, and that they need to repent. However, the fact that I am in the same denomination as some of them does not automatically make me guilty of the same sins, any more than I am guilty of teaching theistic evolution, simply because some in the PCA are doing so. I will write more about Daniel 9 in relationship to Ezekiel 18 later, as it really deserves its own post.

On a more personal note, my family came with me this time (7 people in a small hotel room makes our home seem absolutely humongous now!), and I was shocked to discover that I had more energy every day, not less. It was terrific family time that we had, especially in the pool.

Overture 3 to the PCA GA

Overture 3 has to do with the wording of one of the vows made by the parents at a baptism of a child. The overture wants to change the language of “dedication” to that of “acknowledging” the covenantal context of the child.

I am opposed to this overture. As various people have pointed out, the questions for the parents are quite covenantal already (see in particular question 2 of BCO 56-5). The entire context, in fact, of that section of the BCO has covenantal language pervading it, whether it is the highly covenantal language of BCO 56-4, or the command for baptism not to be unduly delayed (hardly things a Baptist would be comfortable with!).

The language itself comes from the PCUS documents of 1894, from a time and place where Baptistic culture was alive and well. This language didn’t seem to bother them at the time!

Furthermore, as has also been pointed out by several people, dedication in itself is not unbiblical. Hannah did so with Samuel. It can be argued that John the Baptist was dedicated to the Lord. Maybe the language is not always there, but the idea seems to be present. The fact of the matter is that dedicating babies is something we agree with Baptists on. The difference is that while dedication is the only thing Baptists do for their babies, we (or, rather, God!) do(es) something more. God places a covenant sign and seal on that child.

In other words, it does not seem to me that we should reject something in our standards simply because the Baptists use similar language. I can’t imagine any self-respecting Baptist agreeing to the theology of BCO 56. I am perfectly content with the language as it is. The overture does not offer any biblical argumentation as to why the current language is insufficient. It argues primarily from the “Baptist” cultural background, which, as I have said, I find insufficient.

Overture 1 to the PCA GA

Overture 1 of this year’s overtures has to do with how presbyteries handle judicial cases by means of a commission. According to the rationale, the amendments give the presbyteries three options: 1. hear the case as a whole presbytery; 2. appoint a judicial commission to bring a recommendation (maybe this should be called a judicial committee?); or 3. appoint a judicial commission to render the presbytery’s final verdict. According to the rationale, this could still allow for complaints to be filed against the decision.

However, one problem remains: the commission that is given full power to render the final verdict would still not be under a final approval or disapproval by the presbytery. It is far more difficult to get a decision overturned by means of a complaint (when, by the time the complaint is heard, most of the presbyters are not really willing to deal with something that they feel is over and done with) than it is simply to overturn the commission’s verdict at the presbytery meeting without using the complaint. There is less inertia, if you will. For these reasons, unless a fix to the full accountability problem can be found, I will probably vote against it.

New Online Resource for Biblical Literacy

(Posted by Paige)

Compass Rose 1I am pleased to invite you to visit the Grass Roots Theological Library, a newly minted website housing the creative debris of a very busy mind.

Not at all intended to rival this worthy blog, my site is meant to be a collection of free, excellent, user-friendly resources for those who are serious about promoting and pursuing biblical and theological literacy for themselves and for others in their spheres of influence.

For pastors, teachers, and other leaders there are original, elder-tested Bible lesson plans and “Reviews of Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself” . . . For the self-feeding autodidact who may lack professors or peers for the journey there are numerous resources, essays, talks, and lists to help. My goal with all of this is to offer worthy, unpretentious and unique contributions to the never-ending task of nurturing Christian literacy.

Suggestions are always welcome, and new material will keep showing up as time goes along. My personal favorite stuff: over 500 original text-based questions to ask when studying the book of Hebrews . . . weekly brief “Bible Journal” posts sharing some lively commentary on whatever I’m studying . . . my wall maps (you’ll see!).

Intrigued? The proof of the pudding is in the eating – please visit and glance at the Library so that you can know better what I am talking about. If you like what you see, please Bookmark or “Follow” so that you don’t forget about it (you can follow on Twitter also, @GrassRootsTheo). I promise you’ll only get notifications when I post a new Bible Journal piece. And please share this with those in your circles, whether leaders or learners, who would benefit by it!

Welcome to the Library!

Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself

(Posted by Paige)

Two curious questions for you:

One, in your church, who has responsibility for choosing and vetting the material used in Bible studies or classes for women? I know that some churches have pastor or elder-led systems of review in place, and some not so much.

Two, if you are someone who has this responsibility, are there any titles – whether written for popular audiences or specifically for women — for which you would appreciate a sound and careful review, so that you do not have to read the books yourself?

Putting together a Library of a website with resources for Christian literacy, and hoping to include a shelf of Reviews of Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself. Give me some suggestions! (Some of these are truly painful to read – so this is Christian service in action! :)

Are Sacraments Fundamentals?

It seems rather common these days in the PCA for folks to deny that sacraments are gospel issues. The way the intinction debate went is an excellent example showing us how the PCA tends to think about the sacraments. So many people claimed that intinction does not threaten the gospel, so why should we bother? In fact, rather unkind words were thrown in the face of anyone arguing the opposite case (legalistic, Pharisaic, overly narrow, etc.). I have written a fairly comprehensive (all of the most important secondary literature was consulted) paper on intinction, arguing that the Bible is against the practice, because of the symbolism of separating body and blood being closely connected to death. Even intinction is a matter of the clarity of the gospel being preached in the sacraments.

The matter of the recipients of either sacrament is a fundamental of the system. We obviously hold that this is true with regard to the recipients of baptism, since we do not ordain credobaptists in the PCA. Yet, inconsistently, most of the PCA regards the age of the recipients of the other sacrament as non-essential. Why would the age of the recipients of baptism be essential, whereas the age of the recipients of communion not be essential? The only reason I can think of in this regard is that we have let pragmatics and precedent take over. The single most cited reason why we should allow people to believe and teach this (even if they are not allowed to practice it) is that we have allowed this in the past, and that, going back to Wolfgang Musculus, it has been “part of the Reformed tradition,” whatever that nebulous standard implies. To respond, there is nothing in the BCO that establishes past precedent as constricting future action.

As I have written in the past, there are 17 places in the PCA Constitution that assume credo-communion, such that an advocate of PC CANNOT claim a difference with only one part of our standards. The difference is FAR more fundamental. The PC advocate has a completely different view of how the sacrament works. Reformed theology has always claimed an active component in the reception of the LS, unlike what is required in baptism, which is wholly passive. The PC advocate denies the distinction between the sacraments, ironically demonstrating that he has not thrown off his Baptistic assumptions enough.

If the sacraments are not gospel issues, then why should we not ordain someone who holds to transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? Memorialist? Usually, we’re not willing to go there. But then, that would mean that we view some sacramental issues as gospel issues, and other issues as not gospel issues. Perhaps this is true. I, for one, am not willing to die on the whole grape juice versus wine debate, though since Jesus used wine, I see no reason why we should ever have switched to anything else. But this is a different question from the recipients of the sacraments.

So, this blog post is addressed to the evangelical middle of the PCA: I plead with you to consider the evidence, dig through the material, and recognize that the Reformed tradition has always viewed the sacraments as fundamental to the system. They are not peripheral. Our forefathers were willing to die over differences regarding the sacraments. That is because the sacraments preach the gospel. They are gospel issues.

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Shaking Things Up: Hebrews 12:26-29

(Posted by Paige)

Here is another Hebrews puzzler for you! In our study we have finally made it to ch. 12, and I am contemplating possible readings of 12:26-29, where the author exposits Haggai 2:6 re. the “shaking” of the earth and the heavens. In his 2010 commentary Peter O’Brien sums up the general consensus on this passage when he writes in a footnote:

The shaking that God will do ‘once more’ is usually taken to mean that the whole universe will be shaken to pieces and the only things to survive will be those that are unshakeable. It is understood as the eschatological judgment to be visited upon the earth at the end of the age, when the material universe will pass away (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Pet. 3:10, 12; Rev. 21:1). At that point only the kingdom of God will remain, the kingdoms of this world having been utterly destroyed (Guthrie, 422). (O’Brien, p.495n.262)

This eschatological reading seems largely to be based on the phrase “ὡς πεποιημένων,” usually translated “that is, created things.” But John Owen points out (in an appendix of Calvin’s commentary) that this could also be read as “things that are completed, accomplished, finished,” allowing us to read as the object of “shaking” the Old Covenant, or the Jewish religion, instead.

I am wondering whether there is any legitimacy to the suggestion that the author has in mind here NOT the final eschatological transformation to new heavens and new earth, still pending; but rather the completed, accomplished, finished “shaking” of heaven and earth that occurred when Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary and inaugurated the New Covenant, new kingdom, new world order by the sprinkling of His blood (cf. Heb. 12:22-24). This event would still have been future in relation to Haggai’s time, but (in contrast to the eschatological reading) would have already been accomplished by the time Hebrews was written.

Although I have not encountered it in my resources outside of Owen, I find this possible reading compelling in light of the stress in this epistle on the dramatic and decisive change from Old Covenant to New; and it is also in keeping with the author’s assertion in v.28 that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” indicating that this unshakeable kingdom is already an accomplished state of affairs.

What do you think? Does this passage give us information about a future event involving the material universe, or is it conveying the earth-and-heaven-shattering nature of the already-accomplished work of Christ?

Thanks in advance for your perspective!

A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

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