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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: http://voiceoftruthblog.com/how-to-fail-at-your-new-years-bible-reading-plan