By Marc W. Gibson
“Any work of man will exhibit imperfections, and there are views (not many) in this work which I do not follow; yet, I regard it as the greatest uninspired work ever writ-ten.”‘ This is high praise indeed! For most books, this assessment would be embarrassingly extreme. But after reading J.W. McGarvey’s Original Commentary on Acts, I found this evaluation not that unbelievable.’
J.W. McGarvey (1829-1912) published his commentary on the New Testament book of Acts in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. He had begun writing it four years earlier when he was about thirty years of age. Upon release, it received very favorable reviews from brethren. Moses Lard wrote, “To say that the work is creditable to its patient and laborious author, would be a poor compliment indeed. It is a high honor to him. Throughout it bears most obvious traces of fine ability, clear, calm, close thought, and unremitting application.”3 W.K. Pendleton agreed, citing the excellent character of McGarvey and declaring that the commentary “strikes the happy medium . . . acceptable both to the common and to the critical reader,” taking us “back, religiously and ecclesiastically, to the days of the Apostles.”4 The appearance of McGarvey’s commentary set off among brethren a wave of interest in commentaries that resulted in the publication of other volumes in the years thereafter (Moses Lard on Romans, Robert Milligan on Hebrews, B.W. Johnson on John, et al.). McGarvey did write a revision of his commentary on Acts in 1892.5 He judged it an improved edition since he felt he was more fitted to the task. Yet, his original commentary remains more popular and, in many ways, still unsurpassed.
McGarvey’s intent and method are clearly laid out in his introduction. He first determines the exact design of Luke in writing his inspired history: “Much the greater part of Acts may be resolved into a detailed history of cases of conversion, and of unsuccessful attempts at the conversions of sinners. If we extract from it all cases of this kind, with the facts and incidents preparatory to each and immediately consequent upon it, we will have exhausted almost the entire contents of the narrative.”6 The leading objects and endeavors of his volume would be to (1) ascertain the exact terms of pardon as taught by the apostles, and the precise elements which constitute real conversion to Christ; (2) set forth the labors of the inspired preachers as the true and infallible guide of the modern evangelist; and (3) to see presented in living form and unmistakable simplicity, the work of the Holy Spirit.’ McGarvey effectively follows these themes throughout.
McGarvey’s style of writing makes all his fine books easy and worthwhile reading. In his original commentary on Acts he deliberately takes a narrative style so that it may be read through consecutively. This style is especially effective in making the history come alive as one reads the volume as a flowing story. He does not go verseby-verse disjointedly but integrates the text of Scripture into his flow of commentary. This is accomplished even as McGarvey stops from time to time to elaborate on issues andquestions of his day (and which continue to be issues and questions in our day).
McGarvey succeeded in making his commentary a virtual encyclopedia of biblical subjects. He covers every verse and includes extended discussions of the kingdom, the Holy Spirit, salvation, elders, deacons, confession, water baptism, baptism of the Holy Spirit, the name “Christian,” circumcision, and military service to mention just a few. Many commentaries are too wordy while others barely deal with difficult passages. McGarvey tackles each difficult verse and issue with sound, scriptural exegesis. On a negative note, he will refer, albeit rarely, to older writers and commentators who are unknown to most readers today.
It is also of note that McGarvey deftly catches the emotion and feeling of dramatic historical scenes, making them come alive. Do not miss his powerful and touching portrayal of Stephen in chapter 7, the classic discussion of baptism in chapter 8, his constant synthesis of the accounts of conversion, and the excellent and concise overview of Paul’s sermon in chapter 17. With a command and use of the facts of Scripture, logic, and rhetoric, McGarvey provides us with a sweeping work covering inspired New Testament history.
Of course, there will always be areas of disagreement with any work of men. I took issue with a few of McGarvey’s positions, but they amounted to minor disagreements, certainly not the kind of major doctrinal disagreements one would have with the erroneous teachings found in a liberal, denominational commentary. Without reservation I can recommend this commentary on Acts for both general reading and in-depth study. Its detail is thorough, but not too technical. The exposition is serious, yet written on a popular level. The author’s positions are acquired from the text of Scripture. The Bible student will come away challenged and satisfied. As stated well by one admirer, “Mastery of this matchless work will equip one better to preach the gospel than all the knowledge contained in a hundred works of theology often seen on the shelves of preachers today.”‘
1 Guy N. Woods, Questions and Answers (Open Forum, Freed-Hardeman College Lectures), (Henderson, Tennessee: Freedman-Hardeman College, 1976), 315.
2 This commentary is currently in its ninth edition published by the Guardian of Truth Foundation. 3 Lard’s Quarterly, Volume One (Rosemead, California: The
Old Paths Book Club, 1952), 199.
4 The Millennial Harbinger, 1864 (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, n.d.), 38-39.
5 McGarvey’s New Commentary On Acts of Apostles is avail-
able in the Restoration Library commentary set published by Gospel Light Publishing Company, Delight, Arkansas.
6 J. W. McGarvey, A Commentary on Acts of Apostles (Bowling Green, Kentucky Guardian of Truth Foundation, n.d.), 4.
7 Ibid., 5-7.
8 Woods, op. cit.
Guardian of Truth XL: No. 23, p. 12-13
December 5, 1996