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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Cautious about Commentaries




Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)


I use several English translations of the Scriptures during my routine study through the Bible. Doing so helps tease out important nuances – nuances that can be missed when translating from one language into another. I typically have used the Catholic Revised Standard Bible and the Ignatius Study Bible (my recommended Bible for Catholics), along with several Protestant translations such as the New International, the New King James, and the New American Standard Bible (my recommendation for Protestants). 

For decades I have cautiously used Bibles with commentaries printed alongside the biblical texts. I know the text itself is fully inspired by God, but the commentaries are simply the opinions of editors and theologians. And while their comments can help increase our understanding of various passages, those same comments can misguide us because, unlike the biblical writers who wrote under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, commentaries by editors and theologians are just that: Commentaries. Opinions. 

Moses, Isaiah, Hosea, Luke, Paul, and the others cannot be wrong. Editors and theologians can be.

When I last retired my worn New American Standard Bible, I replaced it with a New American Inductive Study Bible (NAISB). I purchased the NAISB because it has what has become a unique feature in modern Bibles: It has 1.5 inch margins that permit me to jot down my thoughts as I read. 

The other day, as I turned to St. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, I perused the editor’s introductory comments. This is part of that commentary:

“Paul also was concerned about the church at Ephesus. Timothy, his faithful co-laborer, was pastoring that strategically important church. Possibly concerned that he might be delayed and that Timothy might need instructions to set before others as an ever-present reminder, Paul wrote to his beloved son in the faith an epistle that would become a legacy for the church and a pillar and support of the truth . . . .” (underline is my emphasis). 

This editorial comment perfectly illustrates the danger inherent in an uncritical reading of any Bible commentary – whether in a Catholic Bible or a Protestant one. In this case, unless we are familiar with First Timothy, we would miss the theological error nestled in that last phrase about the “pillar and support of the truth.” The editorial comment can lead us to believe Paul’s epistle was the pillar and support of the truth.  But that is not at all what the biblical text says. Here is what St. Paul wrote: . . . I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

The Holy Spirit, writing through St. Paul, wants us to know it is the Church – not the letter Paul had written to Timothy – but it is the Church that is the “pillar and support of the truth.”

Based on the plain sense of this text (there are others, of course), and on the context of this text, Catholics believe Scripture undergirds the Catholic view of apostolic succession and the authority given by Christ to the Church to support and infallibly teach truth regarding faith and morals. One would never come to that conclusion by only reading the editorial commentary.

"All Scripture,” the Holy Spirit reminds us through St. Paul, “is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;  so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). 

It is important for Christians to make a habit of reading the Scriptures – to read them often, and prayerfully. It is also important for us to remember that while commentaries can be useful tools of Bible study – commentaries can be wrong.

4 comments:

Christian LeBlanc said...

Interesting. I'm always cautious about translations and commentaries as well. Seems like there's no single trans or commentary that doesn't give me pause at some point. Although I've been happy with the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament RSV so far.

Rich Maffeo said...

A friend of ours (in his 80s and a Catholic for 60+ years) directed me to the Ignatius Study Bible after I had complained to him about how liberal I believe the NAB translation and (especially) the commentaries can be in that version. I was extremely happy to have found the Ignatius Bible!

Barb Schoeneberger said...

I,too,like the Ignatius Study Bible. Scott Hahn has a lot to do with the commentaries and I believe his work is very trustworthy. When I read the Bible, I find that all commentaries are inadequate, though, because in reading the Bible I naturally fall into meditation on passages, often wondering about things not mentioned in the commentaries. Then I have to ask God to show me somehow the answer to my question.

Rich Maffeo said...

I've made it a habit to put a question mark next to passages that confused me, and then when the answer came (sometimes years later), I wrote the date and the answer in the margin of the bible. When I first starting reading the bible I had lots of question marks. Not so much anymore after 43 years reading it.

My purpose in writing and posting that essay is to encourage the brethren to do their own research, instead of letting others do all the work for them. It is no different from doing any kind of academic research . . . go to the primary sources if possible.

I find, though, a lot of people prefer to be spoon fed. That can be disastrous at worst, and at best, lead to poor nutrition.