The Right Use of Commentaries

Below are a few comments on the proper use of commentaries from Louis Berkhof’s book Principles of Biblical Interpretation.  Commentaries, along with good study Bibles, are excellent resources to enhance one’s understanding of the Bible.  But there is a right way and a wrong way to use them.  Obviously, or maybe not so obvious, one wrong way is to become over reliant on them, which keeps one from reading and understanding the passage or working through them on their own.  Likewise, there is the real danger of simply regurgitating the thoughts and ideas of the commentaries as well.  That said, Berkhof provides some excellent advice.

  1. In seeking to explain a passage, the interpreter should not immediately resort to the use of commentaries, since this would nip all originality in the bud, involve a great deal of unnecessary labor, and be apt to result in hopeless confusion.  He should endeavor first of all to interpret the passage independently, with the aid of whatever internal helps are available, and of such external helps as Grammars, Concordances, and Lexicons.
  2. If, after making some original study of the passage, he feels the need of consulting one or more commentaries, he ought to avoid the so-called practical commentaries, however good they may be in themselves, for they aim at edification rather than at scientific interpretation.
  3. It will greatly facilitate his work, if he approaches the Commentaries, as much as possible, with definite questions in mind.  This will be possible only after a certain amount of preliminary original study, but it will save time in that it will obviate the necessity of reading all that the commentaries have to say on the passage under consideration.  Moreover, when he comes to the commentaries with a certain line of thought in mind, he will be better prepared to choose between the conflicting opinions which he may encounter.
  4. Should he succeed in giving an apparently satisfactory explanation without the aid of commentaries, it will be advisable to compare his interpretation with that given by others.  And if he discovers that he goes contrary to the general opinion on some particular point, it will be to the part of wisdom for him to go over the ground carefully once more to see whether he has taken all the data into consideration, and whether his inferences are correct in every particular.  He may detect some mistake that will compel him to revise his opinion.  But if he finds that every step he took was well warranted, then he should allow his interpretation to stand in spite of all that the commentators may say.

For more on resources, see point #2 in this post:

4 thoughts on “The Right Use of Commentaries”

  1. Hi John, first of all, thank you for such a great blog! I look forward to reading new posts all the time. My question about this is this: I am going through the Bible for the very first time. I started with a reading plan from my local church, but decided to abandon that and read straight through from Old Testament to New. I am reading the ESV Study Bible, and after reading a certain amount of verses, I jump to reading the study notes for those I’ve just read. Is this being the opposite of the first bullet point? Or is this a bit different when it comes to study bibles? I also have the full set of William Barclay New Testament, Daily Study Bible books, as well as the Old Testament by various authors. My goal once I finish the Bible w/ the ESV, is to take those individual books and go through them one at a time.I feel since I am new to reading God’s Word, that I want to understand it as much as possible, but feel I may be hindering developing my own opinion at times, cause sometimes the ESV doesn’t seem completely clear unless I read a study note. I’m almost wondering if I should just grab an NLT and read it first and then come back later to the ESV? Thanks!

  2. Hi Nathan, some great comments and questions there. First off, it’s great that you’re reading through the Bible. So many people neglect that and it’s important not only to understand it as a whole, but in witnessing to others as well. Not sure if you’ve seen it, but I wrote a post on Bible reading plans that might be of some help because it addresses many of the things you are asking about: I’ve tried to include some great resources there as well.

    It’s ok to use the notes in your study Bible as you read, but the danger is to become over-reliant on them for your interpretation. By that I mean it’s not good to just assume everything the notes say is correct instead of thinking on our own. Since you are reading the whole Bible, largely what you’re doing is filling your mind with as much Bible knowledge as you can at one time. What I think Berkhof means in #1 above is that after reading a passage, we should try to think through it ourselves. Look at the cross-referenced verses if need be, they often help you see what the Bible is saying about itself (and the Bible is it’s own interpreter).

    The ESV has some pretty good study notes, but like anyone else, they are not perfect. Are you wanting to read the NLT because it doesn’t have notes, or because it explains the passage easier? Remember that the NLT uses what’s called a dynamic equivalent translation, so it is offering alot of interpretation for you. Maybe a good solution is to read the ESV text, then read it in the NLT, think through the passage some, check out the cross references if need be, and then consult the study Bible notes if you get stuck. And be sure to pray. Sometimes I’ve been so stuck on a passage (Romans 9 for example) that I’ve literally taken weeks of prayer and reading/thinking through it. These steps might take a little longer, but it’s better to understand what your reading than to just read it and have no clue.

    This might be a helpful resource too:

    Now, here’s another way to do it. Read through your daily bible reading plan. Make notes or questions as you go, but keep the “in-depth” study to a minimum as it relates to your reading plan. Then supplement your reading by studying particular books of the Bible or passages that interested your from your daily reading. Here you would read and think through the passage more, consult study Bible notes or commentaries, etc. So now you are making sure to get through the whole Bible at a reasonable pace and in addition to that, spending extra time studying particular parts more in depth. So for example, you may want to spend more time trying to understand what God is saying through the Apostle Paul in Colossians, rather than spending time studying the tabernacle layout in Exodus (at least for now). This is why sometimes I make the distinction between reading your Bible and studying your Bible. Both are necessary.

    Hope this helps!
    In Christ alone,

  3. That makes a lot more sense! I noticed that for the most part I understand what is going on in the text. So my new plan is just read the Word, and only reference study notes for further explanation when the passage seems confusing, like 1 Samuel 2:12-17. I wasn’t quite sure what Eli’s son’s were doing, until I read a study note, which helped a lot, and as I went back to re-read it slowly, it clicked finally. The fear I have is not being able to discern for myself what God is speaking to me on the pages, and I now realize that consistently using the study notes after each passage was crippling my OWN understanding instead of allowing me to see what the passages meant to me.

    Thanks so much for your reply! I truly appreciate it!

    God bless,

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