Tremper Longman on the Use & Abuse of Commentaries

Whether you want to know how to read Genesis, understand Old Testament essentials, or preach Proverbs, Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III will lead the way.

He’ll also spark debate.

Longman’s been met with disagreement for handling Genesis 1–11 as theological history “describing these historical events in a largely figurative manner.”1  (Longman explains how evolutionary creationism and the inerrancy of Scripture relate in the Mobile Education course Perspectives on Creation: Five Views on Its Meaning and Significance.)

Surprisingly for a theologian, he’s also written a book on politics.

Though a prolific author of both books and commentary volumes, Longman doesn’t take it for granted that everyone values biblical scholars’ works. For those asking “Are commentaries important, really?”, here’s Longman’s answer from Old Testament Commentary Survey (a resource that helps readers choose a commentary on any book of the Old Testament):

There is a right way and a wrong way to use a commentary. Actually, there are two wrong ways. The first is to ignore completely the use of commentaries. Some people do not consult commentaries because they believe that, since all Christians are equal as they approach the Scriptures, scholars have no privileged insight into the biblical text. The second error is to become overly dependent on commentaries. “These people have devoted their whole lives to the study of the Bible. How can my opinion measure up to theirs?”

Those holding the first position are wrong because they forget that God gives different gifts to different people in the Church. Not all people are equally adept at understanding the Bible and teaching it to others (1 Cor 12:12–31). Those holding the second position err in the opposite direction. They forget that God has given believers the Spirit by which they can discern spiritual things (1 Cor 2:14–16).

The right way to use a commentary is as a help. We should first study a passage without reference to any helps. Only after coming to an initial understanding of the passage should we consult commentaries.

Neither should we let commentaries bully us. Many times they will be of great help, but sometimes the reader will be right and the commentaries will be wrong.”2

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And that isn’t the only place Tremper Longman addresses the argument for scholarly insight into Scriptures. He does so again in How to Read Genesis, chapter one:

To really get under the surface of Genesis we can benefit from the work of professionals, those whom God has called to devote their careers to the study of the Scriptures.

As I make this statement, I anticipate resistance on the part of some readers. “No,” they might protest. “God speaks to us clearly in his Word. All we have to do is pick it up and read it. We don’t need to spend a long time thinking about principles of interpretation. The work of scholars obscures rather than clarifies the simple, literal meaning of the Bible.”

I support much of the sentiment expressed in this hypothetical reaction. Even if they are not really aware of it, the protest is based on the important doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture.

The priesthood of all believers (based most explicitly on passages like Jer 31:33–35 and 1 Pet 2:9) tells us that we can all have a personal and intimate relationship with God without some kind of human intermediary. The Reformers, people like Luther and Calvin, asserted this truth over against traditional Church doctrine that insisted on the necessity of professional clerics. . . .

The Reformers argued strongly for the clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture. They rightly held that the Bible was not written in a code. Further, they defended the view that the Bible could be understood on its own terms (sufficiency of Scripture). We do not need the tradition of the Church fathers to understand the Bible.

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When rightly understood, these doctrines are fundamentally important and crucial to defend. The problem is that the priesthood of all believers as well as the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture have been wrongly understood and applied in areas they were never intended to be applied. In short, what the Reformers understood the Bible to teach was that the message of salvation in the Bible is clear and understandable to all without the need of a priestly mediator or scholarly input. That human beings are sinners in need of a Savior and that the Savior is none other than Jesus Christ is patently clear in Scripture.

However, not everything is equally plain. How long is the “day” of Genesis 1? Was the flood universal? Who are the Nephilim? Why do some verses say that the Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt and others say it was the Midianites? Who is God referring to beside himself when he says, “Let us make human beings in our own image”? Who was Melchizedek, and what, if anything, does Abraham’s tithing to this enigmatic figure have to say to us today about donations to the church? The list could go on and on. A reading of Genesis will raise many questions in our minds that are not quickly and easily resolved. Indeed, a number of questions remain unanswered even after intensive study. One important principle of interpretation is to recognize that not all of our questions can be answered.”3

Though even biblical scholars can’t answer every question raised from reading Scriptures, Tremper Longman’s works offer answers to quite a few. Find out more about Tremper Longman, and save up to 30% on selected works. 

  1. Longman, Tremper. “Summary of Evolutionary Creationism.” Lecture, Mobile Ed: TH331 Perspectives on Creation: Five Views on Its Meaning and Significance, 2017.
  2. Tremper Longman, Old Testament Commentary Survey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013), 2.
  3. Tremper Longman, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 20.

Comments

  1. “The right way to use a commentary is as a help. We should first study a passage without reference to any helps. Only after coming to an initial understanding of the passage should we consult commentaries.

    Neither should we let commentaries bully us. Many times they will be of great help, but sometimes the reader will be right and the commentaries will be wrong.

    …based on the important doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture.”
    _____________

    IMHO, that’s pretty sound advice.