By J.W. McGarvey
Study Of Other Books
From this brief treatment of the study of the Scriptures, we pass to the study of other books, and fist to the study of Commentaries. This is really but another method of studying the Scriptures, yet it may properly receive separate treatment.
There is a well known prejudice against the use of Commentaries, but it is confined to a small and decreasing number of persons. The man who attempts to gain a knowledge of the Bible by his own unaided powers, while the aid furnished by a multitude of learned and devout predecessors is at hand, seems to declare himself the equal in exegetical power of all who have gone before him. In no other department of human study do we reject the aid of our fellow-student; why should we reject it in this?
Good Commentaries render us important service in many ways. First they serve as a guar against blunders. Among the most egregious blunders in the interpretation of Scripture are those committed by men of inferior learning or judgment who interpret the Scriptures without aid. The use of a judicious Commentary guards us against many blunders of this kind, and it corrects many a mistake into which we fall before the Commentary is consulted. In the second place, it is a ready source of information. Multitudes of facts and references throwing flood os light upon important passages have been collected by the research of commentators, and furnished to our hand, which would otherwise be beyond our reach, or, if we reach them at all, it would be after years of toil and the reading of thousands of pages. No man can afford to decline the use of these gathered treasures. True it would strengthen his powers to gather them for himself, but he may strengthen his powers much more rapidly by gathering up these, and then by the aid of these, going ut to search for others. The speculator who wishes to make millions but never rejects the few thousands already within his grasp, but he uses the thousands as the means of getting the millions. In the third place, the use of Commentaries awakens thought. Every one that is worth consulting presents the subject in some new phase; it presents something difference from and often inconsistent with our own previously formed conceptions; and it compels us to think again over the whole ground. Such recasting of thought on a subject is necessary to intelligent confidence in our final conclusions. In the last place, Commentaries, with all the errors which may be properly charged against them, do in the main give us the right interpretation of obscure passages, and the right application of those which are not obscure. If we follow them implicitly we are but seldom led astray, and if we find in them only a confirmation of our own conclusions this gives us strength and gratification.
While I insist, however, upon the value of Commentaries, I would also insist upon a judicious use of them. When about to study a passage of Scriptures, never consult the Commentary fist. If you do you are likely to accept the author’s views, whether right or wrong, and you mind will be biased in the subsequent study of the text itself. First study the text until its words and sentences are distinctly apprehended; until all that is clear in it is understood; until its difficulties are discovered; and until your own mind has grappled with these difficulties more or less successfully. You are then prepared to consult the Commentary. As you read it you know of what it treats; you can judge of the correctness of its statements; you can see where it touches the difficulties; and you can accept or reject the explanations which it gives with an intelligent judgment.
I would suggest as another precaution in regard to Commentaries, that the young preacher take pains, as soon as practicable, to procure two or more on every portion of Scripture which he studies, lest he become a blind follower of a single guide, who, in some places, is almost certain to be a blind guide. In making selections, always choose from the more recent rather than from the older works. In all departments of literature immense advances are being made on the knowledge and methods of former times, and in no department are they more rapid than in the interpretation and illustration of the Bible.
The best commentaries in English on the whole Bible are Lange’s, and the Bible Commentary, sometimes called the Speaker’s Commentary, because the preparation of it was first proposed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Commentaries on the New Testament, and on special portions of it, are very numerous, and many of them are excellent; but Ellicott’s works contain the finest specimens of grammatical exegesis, and Lightfoot’s the finest in the way of profound historical research.
There are some other Biblical works, the study of which is scarcely less important than that of Commentaries. Of these I will mention a few, and foremost among them all, Smith’s Bible Dictionary. This great work might be regarded as a commentary on the whole Bible arranged in the order of subjects and not in that of books, chapters, and verses. It contains the cream of all the knowledge possessed by the most cultivated minds in Great Britain, on all Bible themes, including all places and persons mentioned therein. Only in the geography of Palestine, I believe, have more recent investigations superseded it in important particulars.
Next to this in value I would place the Life and Epistles of Paul, by Conybeare and Howson. It is scarcely saying too much of this work to assert that to the man who has not studied it, it offers a new revelation on Acts of Apostles and the Epistles of Paul. As a companion to the Old Testament, Rawlinson’s History of the Seven Ancient Monarchies is of almost equal value. It supersedes all other ancient histories, and makes full use of the historical materials derived from the disinterred libraries of the ancient world. There has recently appeared in English a series of works covering in part the same ground with the Life and Epistles df Paul just mentioned, but reaching backward and forward of it in point of time, with which every preacher should become familiar. The Life of Jesus, by Strauss, followed by Bauer’s Life of Paul, and the Apostles, of Ernest Renan, opened a new era in infidel literature, one in which a large number of eminent men have undertaken the entire reconstruction of New Testament history, with all that is miraculous left out. These efforts have called forth two works in France, now found in an English dress, and three in Great Britain, which are among the best of all modern contributions to Biblical literature. They are Pressense’s Life of Jesus, and his Early Years of Christianity; and Canon Farrar’s Life of Jesus, His Life and Epistles of Paul and his Early Days of Christianity. These works, without taking the form of direct replies to the works of Strauss, Bauer, and Renan, are written from the new point of view suggested by those works, and they contain a complete vindication of the historical truthfulness of the New Testament. I sincerely regret, in regard to the profound and eloquent works of Canon Farrar, that I am constrained to modify my commendation of them by cautioning the reader against his belief in a post mortem gospel, and his inadequate conceptions of inspiration.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 6, pp. 167-168
March 15, 1984