Two Types Of Commentaries

John W. Robbins’ March 7, 1986 Foreward to Gordon H. Clark’s commentary on First And Second Thessalonians [Note:  Not a blanket-endorsement of Robbins, Clark, or the Trinity Foundation]:

“Generally speaking, there are two types of commentaries on Scripture being published today. The first type is what is mistakenly called scholarly: It is several hundred pages of fine print designed to be read by seminary professors and students and containing all the latest academic speculations about authorship, textual criticism, cultural context, and meaning. Such volumes are frequently written in a sort of code that must be deciphered before the reader has the foggiest idea of what the author is trying to say. Sometimes the men who write these commentaries are of the opinion that the Bible is difficult to understand and only seminary professors are competent to explain it; obviously they have not read either the Bible or their own books.

The second type of commentary being published today is the popular, devotional commentary. It is free from the academic jargon and code that the scholarly commentaries use, and because of this, the devotional commentaries are generally despised by the authors of the scholarly commentaries. The feeling tends to be mutual. The devotional writers also despise the scholars for their ‘impractical’ and academic dissertations that are read by no one but other seminary professors and the students who are at their mercy.

As different as these two types of commentaries are, they resemble each other in two important ways. Each, for example, uses its own jargon. The academic works speak of ‘form,’ ‘structure,’ ‘redactors,’ and contain an occasional ‘excursus.’ The popular, devotional books use words like ‘sharing,’ ‘caring,’ ‘coping,’ and ‘experience.’ Each sort of commentary uses the jargon appropriate to its audience; neither retains the pattern of sound words spoken of in Scripture.

But there is a more important similarity between the two types of modern commentaries: Neither takes the Scripture seriously. The devotional commentaries regard the text as an excuse for pathetic little homilies and stories that are ‘practical’ and ‘relevant.’ The actual meaning of the text is ignored. If a certain word happens to appear, say, Spirit, the following discussion is not about the person and work of the Holy Spirit (and still less about the Trinity), but how to be filled with the Spirit, how to determine one’s Spiritual gifts, or how to display the fruit of the Spirit. And if the text uses a word like predestination, the opportunity is taken to explain the wonders of free will.

The academic commentaries, on the other hand, ignore the text in their own way. They speculate about who the author might be, when it was written, who the redactors were, which documentary hypothesis is the most plausible, what other commentators have said on these points, and how much clearer modern philosophy is than this two thousand year old book. The meaning of the text is buried under a mountain of speculation.

Neither type of commentary, it must be recognized, academic or devotional, is a commentary on the Bible. Both obscure the text, sometimes unwittingly and sometimes deliberately, but they obscure it nevertheless.

Now the only justification for writing a commentary is to comment on the text: to explain its meaning clearly, to show how it fits into the meaning of the Bible as a whole, and to apply its doctrines to contemporary movements and ideas. Very few commentaries in that sense of the word are being written today. First and Second Thessalonians is one of the few. Its author, Gordon H. Clark, whose erudition surpassed that of seminary professors, refused to write either academic or devotional commentaries. He appealed neither to the reader’s intellectual pride nor to his emotional moods. Clark’s concerns, first and last, was that the Scripture be explained clearly, that its meaning and implications be made explicit, and that contemporary problems be analyzed in Biblical terms. All his commentaries are written with these purposes in mind. The Trinity Foundation is pleased to present First and Second Thessalonians, his seventh commentary. It will, undoubtedly, be despised by the authors of academic and devotional books alike. But serious Christians will welcome it as one of the best books yet written on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians” (John W. Robbins).