I love biblical commentaries. I own a couple hundred of them. I have my favourite authors and series’. I use them every week and almost always have a stack on my desk.
But they can be dangerous to preaching. If used wrongly, commentaries can lead to bad sermons. A preacher needs to be aware of the pitfalls that come with commentaries so that they can use them wisely without making some common mistakes.
The Danger of Commentaries
There are several fundamental differences between a sermon and a commentary. This should be obvious to us, and yet often preachers rely heavily on commentaries to guide their sermon preparation. Missing these differences leads to commentary misuse.
1. Commentaries Are Too General
A commentary is written to a general audience, but as a preacher you have a very, very specific audience. A commentary is written for pastors, scholars, and those who study bible seriously, to be read sometime in the next twenty or so years, in basically anywhere in the English-speaking world. It’s a very broad audience. But you, O Preacher, are called to teach and proclaim this text to a very specific audience, who live in a very specific place, at a very specific time. A commentary synthesizes scholarly thought on Romans 2 to a general audience. My sermon this week needs to explain Romans 2 to a very particular group of people. Some are devout believers. Some are coming to church for the third time ever. Some have dying parents. Some have children going through a crisis of faith. Some are single parents. Some are fleeing abuse. Some think they are Christians, but probably are not. Some recently lost their job. Some have secret sins. These aren’t hypotheticals. These are just some of the very specific situations in my church this week. What does Romans 2 have to say to these situations?
And I’m not just preaching this message anytime. The day is not irrelevant. I’m not preaching for the archives. I’m preaching to the very real audience that God has gathered in front of me. And this group is gathering on February 2. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. It’s the weekend of Chinese New Year. It’s the first Sunday after the Grammy’s. It’s almost tax season. These aren’t irrelevant. If it’s on the mind of your people, it matters. What does Romans 2 have to say on this particular day? Commentaries will ignore all this, but a preacher must consider his context and his particular audience. Your sermon is supposed to be more timely, than timeless. That’s the advantage of a sermon, specificity is its strength. A sermon that sounds like a commentary loses one of the greatest advantages of the medium.
2. Commentaries Deal With The Text, But Not The heart.
A good sermon moves from understanding the text to its application to us and our life. Commentaries, by nature, avoid this critical component of preaching. The few commentaries that do attempt application are generally rather hit and miss. Sometimes their application is relevant and helpful, at other times it misses badly. But who can blame them? For all the reasons listed above, good application is simply outside the scope of a commentary and its very general audience. A scholar in Kentucky, writing 15 years ago is perfectly capable of helping you understand the text, but probably is ill equipped to apply that text to your people this Sunday. Commentaries can be useful, but if relied on too heavily, they will leave your short of the goal of your sermon.
3. Commentaries Make Bad Sermons
A good commentary will help the reader understand the meaning of the text in its historical and grammatical context. Nothing more. A good sermon will draw the listener in, build up tension in the listeners minds to be resolved by the text, unpack and apply the text in a way that engages the mind and the heart, and will inspire people to take the appropriate next steps. A commentary aims to explain. A good sermon aims to engage the mind and the heart with a view to response and action. A good sermon does so very much more than a commentary even attempts. Sermons that sound like commentaries are bad sermons, no matter how good the commentaries were. A sermon that sounds like a commentary being read is like filming Peter Jackson reading Lord of the Rings and calling it a movie.
4. Commentaries Can’t Replace Personal Study
Studying the text of scripture is hard work. There are questions to answer, puzzles to solve, ideas to reconcile. When the phone is ringing and emails are coming every minute, its tempting for preachers to cheat their study. I hate math and am terrible at it. In High School I relied heavily on the answers in the back of the text book. Too heavily. Running to the answer sheet didn’t actually do me any favours. And neither does running to the commentaries in advance of actually wrestling with the text for our self. I know it’s tough work, but it’s our calling as preachers. Preacher, your people aren’t gathering to hear what Douglas Moo thinks of Romans 2. They come to hear the fruit of your personal wrestling with God through his Word. You need to engage and internalize the text for yourself. Good preaching is the overflow of serious personal engagement with the Bible.
The Place of Commentaries
This is not to say that commentaries must be abandoned altogether (although if you decide that, I can provide a loving home for them). Commentaries are a terrible place to start (in place of personal study). They are a terrible place to end (failing to apply the text to your listeners). But they are a helpful check in your study. As we study and wrestle and struggle with the text, there is a group of advisors and experts that can help us in our study. I’m not the first person to preach Romans 2. It would be foolish to act as if I was. We can learn from those who have gone before. But you have to know their expertise: they know the original languages better than you ever will. In many cases, a particular author has devoted his entire life to studying and teaching the particular biblical book. There are things learned in 40 years of study that cannot be replicated by a busy pastor in a few days. There is much they offer.
But they don’t know your church. They don’t know your people, or your town, or your culture. Having written a decade ago, they don’t know what your people are facing this week. They may have great insight into Romans 2, but they cannot know what God is saying to your people, this week, from Romans 2. Fulfill your ministry.