How to Use a Critical Commentary If You’re an Evangelical

Logos sells many different commentaries. Literally thousands. They all fall into different categories, and here’s one schema you could use to organize them (borrowed from here, though there are others):

  1. Devotional/practical commentaries (NIVAC, LABC) focus on applying the Bible to real life.
  2. Pastoral/homiletical commentaries (REC, MNTC) were originally sermons and primarily provide models for other preachers.
  3. Exegetical commentaries (NAC, NICNT) go deep, but typically reserve Greek and Hebrew for footnotes.
  4. Critical commentaries (ICC, WBC) go a bit deeper and assume knowledge of the original biblical languages.

Framing the issue

Non-Christians generally don’t write commentaries in the first three categories. You don’t write devotional commentaries unless you’re devoted; you don’t write homiletical commentaries unless you’re a preacher; and you don’t usually gain all the doctoral-level education necessary to write exegetical commentaries and then spend all your time writing for people who can’t read Greek.

So when non-Christians write biblical commentaries—and they do—they tend to write critical commentaries. They’re interested in contributing to the long-standing scholarly conversations about the collection of books we now call “the Bible.” Evangelical scholars are, of course, interested in doing the same thing, and they write reams of scholarly-level commentary on the Bible every year, digging into Greek and Hebrew with γύστῳ.

But for the reasons I’ve just mentioned, the name “critical” has generally come to denote a definite personal distance from the text of Scripture, a distance filled by academic conceptual tools. That’s the way I’ll use the word “critical” in this article: as something not altogether good. When is it ever appropriate for God’s creatures to talk about his words as if their truthfulness is up for debate or irrelevant to the task of studying the Bible?

Nonetheless, I own, read, and am grateful for critical commentaries. Why? And how can other evangelicals make good use of them?

1. Think critically about the “critical.”

Either the Bible is God’s Word or it isn’t. If it is, it’s not only trustworthy, it’s authoritative—that’s the evangelical view. If it isn’t God’s Word, Bible study may be a source of wisdom, inspiration, academic interest, or even research grants, but at the end of the day it can’t tell me what to do, think, or love.

Criticism is not bad in itself. We listen to movie critics and read literary critics because they have developed the skill to see what we cannot.

But within biblical studies, the very word “critic” can be a pretense, an implicit (and false) claim to the right to sit back at an academic distance from the Bible. If the Bible is our Creator speaking, then it is by nature up close and personal. It makes demands no image-bearer can escape.

There are ditches on the non-academic side of the road, of course. Your reading of the Bible can become so personal that you refuse to use all the intellectually demanding tools available for its study. You may reject them as needless or as inimical to piety. Or you may stop listening to scholars simply for being scholars, even when they are merely fulfilling their God-given service to the church (Eph 4:11).

One of the conceptual tools I use when I read critical commentaries, particularly when they busy themselves with talk of sources and redactors, is this simple question: “How could anyone possibly know this?” For example, one critical scholar said this:

The Jews honored the books of Samuel and Kings for their historical value, and additions of old traditions and reinterpretations were constantly made to the historical books, including Joshua and Judges…. Probably the most popular books among post-exilic Jews were those of the prophets. The number of glosses and additions to these books between 500 and 200 B.C. attest this popularity. (14)

I mean no offense to the scholar who wrote these words, but how could he possibly know this? I often think of a story from the life of C.S. Lewis. It seems a reviewer of a book by Lewis’ friend Roger Lancelyn Green commented that, of course, Green’s “High Tiger” was borrowed from Lewis’ Narnian character Aslan. Lewis wrote in to the Times Literary Supplement,

The critic suggested that Mr Green’s Tiger owed something to my fairy-tales. In reality this is not so and is chronologically impossible. The Tiger was an old inhabitant, and his land a familiar haunt, of Mr Green’s imagination long before I began writing. There is a moral here for all of us as critics. I wonder how much Quellenforschung in our studies of older literature seems solid only because those who knew the facts are dead and cannot contradict it? (3:992)

Quellenforschung is source criticism, the effort to discern the original sources in a literary document. Lewis wrote a little more forcefully to his friend Green:

I do wish [the critics] would criticise the books before them a little more and spend less time in constructing imaginary histories of how they came to be written (e.g. that the ring in Tolkien ‘is’ the Hydrogen Bomb!). Histories which in my experience are almost invariably quite wrong. (3:993)

Lewis points out that if ever a critic might be expected to be right in his reconstruction of an author’s sources, it would be a contemporary critic writing about a contemporary author. Not so, apparently. So why should we trust the Quellenforschung of critics writing millennia after the work they’re reconstructing?

2. Read up on specific critical theories.

Critical theories come in and out of fashion, as does critical terminology. The older terms “higher criticism” and “lower criticism,” for example, have fallen out of use; they have been replaced, more or less, by “historical criticism” and “textual criticism.” See Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies, 57; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 773.)

Theories about how the biblical documents were put together also wax and wane in popularity. The “Documentary Hypothesis” carried major weight among critical scholars for a long, long period. And critical commentaries reflected this consensus. They referred regularly to the “Jawhistic,” “Elohim,” “Deuteronomic,” and “Priestly” sources supposed to have been stitched together to make the Pentateuch. This theory is sometimes named with the acronym “JEDP.” But as Douglas Stuart in his Lexham Bible Dictionary article on the topic explains, the JEDP theory collapsed under its own weight. Now the “fragmentary” (the Pentateuch is a hodge podge) and “supplementary” (the Pentateuch was a single work supplemented later with other texts) hypotheses have taken its place among critical scholars.

Evangelicals have had various reactions to critical theories such as those upholding form, source, redaction, and canonical criticism. Whatever your take, you’ll have a hard time reading many critical commentaries if you have no familiarity with critical theories.

Articles in the Lexham Bible Dictionary, such as Stuart’s, cited above, can help. Standard evangelical introductions to the Old Testament—Gleason Archer’s Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Longman and Dillard’s OT intro, Carson and Moo’s NT intro (the latter two sold in a set)—can provide help on specific books. As you enter the study of a given Gospel or prophet, check these introductions to prepare you to use the critical commentaries on that book wisely. They’ll alert you to the going critical theories.

3. Practice your epistemological jujitsu.

The secular, academic approach to Scripture is remarkable for not acknowledging itself as an approach. It sees itself as objective, neutral, reasonable.

But as I (be)labored to say earlier, when the Creator is speaking, there is no neutral response. And evangelical commentators sometimes come under criticism because they don’t pretend to be neutral; they bring faith commitments to their work.

Evangelical OT commentator Iain Provan goes all jujitsu on such comments in the preface to his excellent Understanding the Bible volume on 1 & 2 Kings. This is a bit demanding, but very clever and excessively well worth your time:

All historiography is also in some sense ideological literature. That is, any story about the past involves selection and interpretation by authors intent on persuading their readership in some way. This does not mean that the historiographical texts are in general incapable of speaking truly about the past. The historians in question clearly believe that some stories about Israel’s past are indeed true. They believe this, for example, of many of the modern stories about it—the stories told by archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and the rest. We assume, in addition, that they wish us to regard their own books as true accounts of Israel’s past—and not, for example, as cleverly constructed fictions. There is evidently no difficulty in principle, then, about historiographical texts referring truly to the past. It seems that a decision has simply been made that the biblical witness to Israel’s past, in particular, is to be marginalized. A selective skepticism is at work here. The biblical stories about Israel, on the one hand, are approached with the maximum degree of suspicion in regard to the extent in which they truly reflect what happened. There is, on the other hand, a touching degree of (sometimes quite uncritical) faith displayed when it comes to modern narratives about this same entity. Confessionalism of a religious sort is attacked in the name of critical enquiry and objectivity, but the noisy ejection of religious commitment through the front door of the scholarly house is only a cover for the quieter smuggling in (whether conscious or unconscious) of a quite different form of commitment through the rear.

Provan doesn’t deny that evangelicals have their religious commitments; he simply observes that the skeptics do, too.

Conclusion

When applied to a book evangelicals do not consider inspired and authoritative, such as 1 Maccabees, I have found the critical approach just right. I used Jonathan Goldstein’s volume on that book in the (critical) Anchor Yale series and found it to be nothing short of excellent. And if it’s possible that critical theories can put blinders on some interpreters, evangelical theories can do the same thing. Critical theories do have things to teach us.

Perhaps that sounds rather weak after I’ve issued so many warnings about critical commentaries. So let me reaffirm: there is a sense in which critical scholars, though not neutral, do not have a dog in every particular exegetical or theological fight. (They’re not neutral mainly in the sense that they think the whole fight is bunk.) This approach can really be helpful. They carry into their work a commitment to the scholarly details—tracking down ancient references, displaying broad reading, canvassing available options—that ought to make evangelicals grateful. And when they do challenge evangelical views, those challenges trickle down through documentaries and National Geographic cover stories and articles in The Guardian to people in the pew. Critical commentators have to be engaged, not ignored.

Evangelicals should own and use critical commentaries but have the conceptual tools necessary to read them discerningly. Look especially to evangelical introductions—NT and OT introductions, commentary introductions—to help you read critical commentaries critically.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. Hi Mark, first would like to thank you for highlighting the value of these types of commentaries. They add a necessary and valuable perspective, and are often the works that push biblical scholarship forward. They are for me a necessity for preaching.

    I would just like to add that, while some critical commentaries may be avowedly secular, most of the authors of these volumes have deep Christian (or Jewish) faith commitments that are just different from those of Evangelical Christians. For example, Ulrich Luz’s three volume work on Matthew and Francois Bovon’s three volumes on Luke in the Hermeneia series are clearly written by Christian believers who want to help the church’s proclamation. Take critical commentaries on Romans: Cranfield (ICC), Dunn (Word), Jewett (Hermeneia), Fitzmyer (Anchor). These guys all write “from faith to faith.”

    • Acknowledged. Good points. Pushing scholarship forward, adding a valuable perspective that thereby proves itself necessary—I’m with you there. Cranfield in particular I have appreciated. My schema is a heuristic and some lines between categories are very blurry.

  2. Eric F.Fary says:

    all good points Mark. Engagement is the key. Not covering our eyes to work they say. I love your concept of how they think they are neutral. Truly laughable but again very good points !

  3. Hey Mark, I am doing a research paper on Romans 12:19, and need to engage with some critical commentaries for it. Who slash what commentaries would you suggest me purchasing for my Logos library, based on what you just wrote, that would be helpful to keep on my “shelf”?