Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Two Front Teeth, and a Couple Other Things: A One-Volume Bible Commentary

The debate in the newspaper this morning is whether ‘Black Friday’ will creep into becoming ‘Black Thursday’. I find that grievous thought on several levels. Those who move Christmas shopping earlier in the season have a champion in my sister who called about a week or so ago asking about something my son might want. I had not begun to think about such things. She had.

Since it is that season, and since there are those of you out there making plans now about what to give then, I’d like to step into the role of Recommender of Gifts, if only for a couple of posts. This post will be dedicated to feeding the soul, the next to feeding the body. And I tend to think that at a critical level the two are related.

First, the soul.

The Christian who is hungry to know God will, we hope, read his Bible. If he does, he will regularly run into portions which seem to raise more questions than they answer. What will he do then?

1. Nothing.

2. Ask his pastor.

3. Check the notes in his study Bible.

4. Look up an answer on-line.

5. Read up on it in the free public domain digital copy of Matthew Henry he got free from a good friend.

Sometimes doing nothing is not a bad choice. It depends upon how troubling the passage is and the amount of time available. Further, it is often good to allow a passage to percolate in one’s own mind before rushing off too quickly to get someone else’s ‘authoritative’ insight, which may be presented with more authority than it ought.

Surprisingly, ‘2’ is really not often pursued. While as a pastor, I don’t want to set up shop as a Bible Answer Man, and most pastors would not have the time to answer with clarity and thought every question that might come his way, nevertheless sometimes I wonder why this route is avoided. There is an alternative, though, which in most cases is far better.

I am no more a fan of study Bibles than I am of red letter ones. Some, for sure, have great notes, but not all. My opposition is not based upon the physical bulk added, and only partially for the profit motive added to their production. My concern is that by adding commentary to the text of the Bible, we do two deleterious things. First, we short-circuit the reader’s own reflective thinking about a puzzling text. Instead of meditating upon the text, the reader’s eyes too easily head to the notes to find ‘the answer’. Secondly, by putting an interpretation of a text on the same page as the text, the separation between the two is blurred. We will tend to grant an authority to the notes which should be reserved for the text.

To look up an answer on-line can open us to all kinds of horrors. It is like on-line dating without the eHarmony screening. And as much respect as I have for the ministry and insight of Matthew Henry, and as much as we all like the word ‘free’, his insights are not always helpful in answering the questions we might be asking about a text.

So there must be a better way.

A brilliant solution, of course, would be to take study notes by trusted biblical authorities and publish them in a separate book, distinct from the Biblical text, but still convenient enough to be reached for when the need arises. I once suggested this in a letter to R. C. Sproul who was at the time busy at work on the New Geneva Study Bible. He did not see it for the brilliant idea it was.

A few weeks ago, though, I realized that a resource I already regularly used was really the resource I was envisioning. As a result, I have begun to recommend widely the New Bible Commentary, a one volume commentary on the Bible published by InterVarsity Press. Edited by four of the most highly regarded evangelical Biblical scholars of our day (Gordan Wenham, R. T. France, D. A. Carson, and Alec Motyer), this is wonderfully useful and trustworthy tool. Its concise commentary on every passage of every book of the Bible may not always answer all the questions we have, but it more often than not sheds light on books and passages which may otherwise seem obscure or impenetrable.

This is not a volume you can stuff in your back pocket or cart around to your next small group meeting (it is 2½ inches thick!). But at 2¢/page (if my math is correct) it is a gift that any who often read and ponder the Bible will love for a long, long time.

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Full disclosure: I receive nothing from IVP for the endorsement of this book. But if you follow the link above and buy the book, Amazon gives me a kickback. I feel a bit self-serving in pasting such links in my blog, but if Amazon wants to support my blog in that way, I’m happy to let them.

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1 Comment

  1. 1) I, too, took the name of my blog from Cry, the Beloved Country.

    2) I think your aversion to Black Friday creep deserves a post of its own.

    3) I love your reasons for disliking study Bibles! They are mine as well, but I’ve never heard anyone else but me give them.

    You nailed the two biggest reasons. In a somewhat smaller font I would also add that most study Bible notes have a maddening tendency to act as if there is One Right Answer even in situations where the writers of the comments have to know good and well that theirs is one opinion among several that can be held amongst people who love the Lord and accept the authority of Scripture.

    *And* (smaller font yet) they clutter up pages with stuff I already know and neglect to address that passage in [well, actually, there are several books I could insert here] that has driven me to distraction over the years!

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