I’m a pastor’s kid, which means I clocked a truly impressive number of hours hanging out at the church when I was growing up. One of my favorite perks about being a PK was that there was a secret space at church that was off-limits to others but not to me: my dad’s office. Row after row of books hugged the office walls, floor to ceiling. Thousands of pages, covered in leather or shiny jackets, printed with complex names and foreign languages, towered over my small frame. I would sit in his big leather chair, reading spines, thumbing through titles, and sometimes quizzing Dad on the contents. I loved surrounding myself with these “dad artifacts,” especially the rows of matching commentary sets. I knew then and there that I would spend my life building my very own library. First with fun chapter books, then classics, then college textbooks, and eventually seminary tomes. But when it came time to build the centerpiece of my dream library—commentaries—I wasn’t sure where to start.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the only thing we had to worry about when choosing a commentary set was which one looked the best on our shelves? The truth is, navigating the world of biblical commentaries can feel downright confusing. But taking on the challenge of building a strong theological library is an important and worthwhile task and, with some basic guideposts, anyone can confidently select these resources.
Commentaries are an exercise of theology in community.
“He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.”
Ephesians 4:16 (NLT)
To answer the question about why we need commentaries, we have to start with how Christians are meant to learn about God. Theology happens in community. But in our culture, and even in our Christian circles, we are often tempted to think about our lives and our faith individualistically. As personal as our salvation stories may feel, God has ransomed a people for Himself. When we come to salvation, we become individual members of a larger whole—the body of Christ.
It is as part of this body that we come to know God and grow in Him. As we pursue spiritual formation together, we seek to find ways to speak about the things of God that are both clear and accurate. This theological task has been taking place among the faithful for thousands of years, and we are the beneficiaries of all those who have paved the way.
Most of us are not biblical experts, and none of us are experts in all areas of theology. Even pastors and professional theologians are constantly learning from other believers, pouring over commentaries and theological material in order to prepare lessons, write books, or preach sermons. We all need help from each other, and when it comes to theology, we need help from credible theologians, both past and present. Understanding this, we can see that commentaries are a key tool for doing theology in community. Modern believers have unprecedented access to the church’s theological knowledge, and if we utilize commentaries, it will both enhance our understanding of God and assist us in parsing the Word. Think of it this way: as the Holy Spirit illuminates the Word, a chorus of faithful theologians walks alongside us through the text, and with them all the treasures of their expertise and insight.
Understand how biblical commentaries are categorized.
Not all commentaries contain the same type of information, and they are not all intended for the same purpose. By understanding the different types of biblical commentaries available, you can quickly begin the process of choosing the correct one for you. Although many commentaries do not fall strictly into one category, there are three main types to consider:
- Technical: Also known as critical or exegetical commentaries, these volumes cover the text in meticulous detail and usually require some working knowledge of original biblical languages. Topics covered include lexical, structural, contextual, and meaning analysis. (Examples include International Critical Commentary and Word Biblical Commentary.)
- Homiletical: Also known as pastoral commentaries, these volumes are designed to aid teachers and students of the Bible in sermon and lesson preparation. These do not require proficiency in biblical languages. (Examples include Expositor’s Bible Commentary and New American Commentary.)
- Devotional: Also known as applicational commentaries, these volumes are meant for personal study and growth. They are not technical in nature and instead focus on the core meaning of the text and life application. (Examples include God’s Word for You series and The Wiersbe Bible Study Series.)
I am personally excited about the new Christian Standard Commentary (CSC) series from Holman Bible Publishers. The CSC falls in my favorite commentary “sweet spot,” balancing the line between technical and homiletical. It seriously considers the intrinsic theological and exegetical concerns of each book, engaging with a range of issues raised in contemporary scholarship, all with an eye to practical application. While the CSC tackles rigorous scholarship head-on, it doesn’t lose sight of the church—theology in community for community.
Lean on theological voices you trust.
Understanding what kind of commentary to look for is only part of the battle. The next step is choosing which volumes you want to buy within each category.
I cannot think of any preparation step more valuable, in terms of time and money, than seeking out the wisdom of those who have gone before you. The last thing you want is to break the bank filling your bookshelves with the wrong volumes. Commentaries vary widely in terms of content, quality, and application, and considering how expensive they are, it’s wise to take the time to listen and learn before you buy. This will likely translate into doing a little research, asking good questions, and reading a few books. Look specifically to the dependable, trustworthy voices in theological spaces you already know, including theologians, authors, and ministers. Several world-class theologians have published books specifically on recommended resources.
To get you started, here are two resources that have been exceptionally helpful to me:
- Daniel L. Akin’s Building a Theological Library (revised, 2019). Dr. Akin is the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he is one of the best-read persons I know. I can wholeheartedly recommend his work and his advice to anyone looking to fill their shelves with quality scholarship. Here’s why this resource stands out among the crowd: 1.) It’s free. Visit danielakin.com and access it from the “Publications” dropdown menu; 2.) It’s short. Cover-to-cover, this book is only 68 pages; 3.) It’s thorough. Akin covers a full range of theological topics, from general reference works and commentaries to worship and counseling ministries; 4.) It’s organized. Akin uses a very helpful commentary tagging system, which categorizes each commentary suggestion clearly and allows readers to quickly determine the most fitting volume.
- Bestcommentaries.com. This is a website that indexes scholarly reviews and ratings of commentaries and ranks them within categories—for free! It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? While I’m a big proponent of questioning information on the Internet, this website is lauded widely as a quality source of information. Users can quickly search by series, authors, topic, or book and clearly see ratings and read reviews. This website is invaluable.
Don’t sacrifice excellence for aesthetic.
The single best advice I ever received about choosing commentaries is this: do not limit yourself to a matching set. Book-by-book commentary series often share the same editorial team, but the individual volumes are all written by different authors. As the authors vary, so does the quality of work therein. While a matching commentary set looks stunning on a bookshelf, you are not necessarily getting the best possible scholarship for each and every book in the series. Don’t sacrifice excellence for aesthetic.
Wherever it is that you are ministering right now, I hope that you consider how biblical commentaries can contribute to your personal edification and kingdom contributions. We are better theologians when we do it together.
Lindsay Lewis Bowen is a marketer for B&H Academic Publishing, an imprint of Lifeway Christian Resources. She graduated with a BA in history from Truman State University, an MA in international relations from the University of the Witwatersrand, and an MDiv from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Lindsay and her husband Andrew serve Bethel Baptist Church in Illinois; they are over the moon for their newborn daughter and are heavily reliant on coffee.