How Important Are Commentaries For Understanding The Bible?

As protestants, there are tenets of the faith that we hold close to our hearts. Today let us muse on one of the tenets of the protestant reformation – Sola Fide (by faith alone). We as protestants believe that we are saved by and through faith alone and that good works don’t justify us. Now given this context let’s look at three bible verses “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Jam. 2:24 ESV), “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (1 Tim. 2:15) and finally, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” (1 Pet. 3:21). What do we make of this? Don’t the texts at face value look like they are contradicting the tenet of Sola Fide

Or let us look at the author of Hebrews for that matter. He looks at Psalm 110, Psalm 2 and several other texts and attributes them all to Jesus Christ. What am I getting at with all of this? Well, if you are an average reader of the bible like me, passages like these would very often leave you with questions. How can James say that a person is justified by works? Or how can the author attribute all those Psalms that David wrote to Jesus Christ? Also, as a student of the bible how do you navigate through the so-called difficult passages. Well, let me tell you about one of the greatest gifts to the church – commentaries. 

Isn’t the Bible enough? 
“The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”  — Matthew 23:2-3 ESV 

God spoke and the universe came to be from nothingness, God spoke and dead Lazarus came to life.

What does Jesus mean in this passage when He says that the people should listen to the Pharisees? Aren’t Pharisees the mean clique in the bible? The ones that Jesus called a brood of vipers? Well yes, and yet Jesus says listen to them though no one is to imitate them, as they are hypocrites who don’t follow up their speech with actions. What Jesus is getting at is that they are Orthodox and that their teaching and application of the law is something Israel should benefit from. Now of course there are things they got wrong, say divorce laws and Messianic interpretation of the prophecies. But Christ has no problems asking us to listen and benefit from what they got right, namely their teachings and commentaries. 

Throughout the Church’s history, God has raised men who were equipped to read and understand the bible in a much more comprehensive, systematic, and organic manner than most people can. Now surely this is not the work of man, but God using earthen vessels for His glory. So what does this mean for us? It means that when we look at the scripture and try to navigate through the hard passages, we have help. We have a rich heritage of saints in Christ who have wrestled with the texts of the scripture and we get to stand on the shoulders of those giants. So to the question “isn’t the Bible enough?” Well, that depends on what is meant by the question. Is the Bible sufficient for obedience and practice of our Christian faith? Truly it is. But does that mean all we ever need is a copy of the Bible? Well in the majority of the cases no. Part of the reason behind this is also because the Christian faith is based on relationships and communities and it most definitely is not a private faith. God builds us up not just through the direct reading of the bible but also through scripture applied in mutual edification in a church context. He builds us through the Bible preached from the pulpit. He builds us through the application of the Bible during tough seasons of church discipline and restoration. He also builds us up through the various scriptural resources made by the saints of Gods for our benefit. 

Commentaries Don’t Replace Meditation 
“Blessed is the man, who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” — Psalm 1:1-2 ESV 

We find that the blessed man of psalms finds his joy from the law of the Lord and how this in turn helps him fight sin. And what do we see the man do with the law? He meditates on it day and night. In order to find joy from the scripture, the blessed man spends a large chunk of time not just reading it, but pondering upon it, reflecting upon it, and internalizing it. Also, we have to understand that the Word is living and active and able to change us and work in us (Heb 4:12). God spoke and the universe came to be from nothingness, God spoke and dead Lazarus came to life. This same word works on and in us when we meditate upon the word. So resources including commentaries that we use to understand the Word of God should be nothing more than aids that we use in our meditation and shouldn’t be our primary means of meditation.

Types of Commentaries 
Now there are various kinds of commentaries and not all might be suited for everyone. Different kinds of commentaries may be used based on the need. We will broadly look at the 3 categories of commentaries:
1. Exegetical Commentaries 
2. Devotional Commentaries 
3. Other preaching, historical and thematic commentaries 

If my understanding of a passage is in complete contradiction to what the church has held for ages, then I am wrong.

Exegetical Commentaries 
Exegetical commentaries are aimed at helping the reader understand the context, content, and meaning of a book by explaining the passages and verses contained in it. It is aimed at providing the reader with everything he/she needs to know about the book to be able to benefit and draw applications from it. Exegetical commentaries are again divided into advanced and mid-level commentaries. The advanced commentaries are aimed at Pastors, scholars, and theologians and in most cases expect some amount of a theological grounding and an understanding of the original languages for the reader. Mid-level commentaries on the other hand are more useful for students of the bible who are not familiar with the original languages but yet want an in-depth understanding of the bible. 

Devotional Commentaries 
Devotional commentaries are a pilgrim’s tool and are aimed at drawing applications and gleanings from the books of the Bible. These commentaries often do not delve into the technicalities of original languages, sentence structure, and grammar of the sentences, but rather provide the reader with content for reflection and devotional reading. 

Other Preaching, Historical and Thematic commentaries 
Other categories of commentaries include Preaching or Expositional commentaries which use sermons and sermon manuscripts to explain passages. Historical background commentaries give insight into the history of a book and the context that it is set in, these can serve as a precursor to exegetical commentaries. Several commentaries provide in-depth analysis of the social, political, cultural, and economic background of a book. 

In conclusion, commentaries are a great resource to have and can greatly help us to study and understand the Word of God. They also help us know which teachings the church has held as Orthodoxy. If my understanding of a passage is in complete contradiction to what the church has held for ages, then I am wrong. Here’s an analogy I like to use. Think of understanding the gist of a passage similar to finding a buried treasure within a piece of land. Our years of experience of having known the texture and layout of the ground makes our search for the treasure easier. But often our eyes are locked to the ground when we proceed with such a search, this is when the fence provided by commentaries and other resources come in handy. Right about when we are about to exit the piece of land with our eyes glued to the ground, these fences stop us from proceeding any further. It keeps us from wandering off and helps us look for revelation within the grounds of Orthodoxy. 


Additional Resources: 
1. Cross Focus: How to Study the Bible (Rev. Christopher P David)
2. Street Talk Theology: How to study the bible