Are Bible Commentaries Necessary?


Christians enjoy studying the Bible because it’s God’s Word. Many believers use various study aids, like Bible concordances and Bible dictionaries, to increase their understanding of Scripture. Some Christians who like studying Scripture in-depth like using Bible commentaries as well. But do Christian have to use Bible commentaries?

No, Christians don’t have to use Bible commentaries. They aren’t necessary for studying Scripture. The Bible alone, read in faith, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, is all a Christian needs. However, when used properly, commentaries can be helpful to Bible readers.

It might surprise some readers that a website devoted to Bible commentaries would teach that they aren’t necessarily. But it’s true. Christians don’t have to use any study aids. Scripture alone is sufficient for knowing how to be saved and to live a life that is pleasing to God.

However, just because Bible readers don’t have to use commentaries doesn’t mean that the proper use of them isn’t beneficial for increasing one’s understanding Scripture. Keep reading to learn more.

This website helps readers identify which Bible study tools are best for their purposes. After reading this article, see The Top 50 Bible Commentaries Series to learn more.

using Bible commentaries
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction.” ~ Proverbs 1:7 (ESV)

What’s wrong with Bible commentaries?

Bible commentaries are great for seeking wisdom, which Scripture tells believers to do (Prov. 1:7; James 1:5). Learning from commentaries is like sitting at the feet of a gifted Bible teacher — which is a role that God has given to the Church (Eph. 4:11) — though their teaching is written, not spoken.

However, sometimes Bible study aids can, for all practical purposes, replace Scripture as the focus of one’s study. This is a danger that needs to be taken seriously.

Bible commentaries shouldn’t be selectively criticized. Scripture can be replaced by many things.

Bible commentaries shouldn’t be selectively criticized, however. Scripture can be replaced by many things:

  • If a Sunday school class reads a passage of Scripture for five minutes and then spends the next 55 minutes watching a lesson or teaching from a famous Christian pastor on DVD or online, the same question about focus could be raised.
  • If a pastor’s sermon starts with a biblical text at the beginning of their message, and then the remainder of the sermon is funny stories, interesting illustrations, and memorable quotations, the same question could be raised.
  • If a Bible reader’s daily devotion time starts with a verse or two and then is followed by teaching that could most accurately be described as self-help, then the same question could be raised.
  • If a small group spends most of their time talking about personal issues and church events, and just occasionally reads a verse from Scripture, the same question could be raised.

Misusing bible commentaries is a problem; selectively criticizing them is also a problem. Rather than over-correcting and never using commentaries, perhaps the best advice is to use biblical studies resources, like commentaries, properly.

Rather than over-correcting and never using commentaries, perhaps the best advice is to use biblical studies resources, like commentaries, properly.

One-volume and whole-Bible commentaries are often a good place to start for people new to biblical studies resources. See The Top 25 Whole Bible Commentaries to learn more.

Many influential Christians in history have written commentaries

Many of the pastors, missionaries, leaders, and believers that have impacted the world for Jesus Christ, not only used Bible commentaries, but wrote them to aid peoples’ understanding of the Bible.

But isn’t the Holy Spirit alone sufficient to help a person understand Scripture? The question isn’t about the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit, but what or who the Spirit uses to help people understand the Bible.

The Holy Spirit uses people to explain Scripture: God has used people to explain Scripture to other people since the early church. For example, in Acts 8, the Ethiopian eunuch needed help understanding the book of Isaiah. Philip explained Scripture to him after he was led by the Spirit to do so:

And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:29-30, emphases added).

The Holy Spirit wasn’t insufficient to explain the meaning of the book of Isaiah to the Ethiopian. Rather, He chose to use another believer to accomplish the task.

The Spirit was at work through the teaching of Philip, and in the listening and teachable ears of the Ethiopian man. Yet it wasn’t the Holy Spirit or Philip providing insight, but the Spirit using Philip to give understanding to a man studying God’s Word.

But what about verbal form vs written form? Does it make a difference that Philip was speaking, rather than writing? No. It would be strange to argue that verbally helping someone understand Scripture is permissible, but explanations in written form aren’t. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and Jude (i.e. the New Testament’s authors) certainly didn’t think the written form was inherently corrupt.

The book of the Bible many people seek a commentary on is Revelation. See best Revelation commentaries to learn more.

The testimony of the Church since the time of Christ

Christians in every century since the time of Christ, have written commentaries, including:

  • Clement of Alexandria; an early church father
  • John Chrysostom; an early church father
  • Jerome; Christian theologian
  • Augustine; Christian theologian
  • Martin Luther; Protestant Reformer
  • John Calvin; Protestant Reformer
  • John Wesley; Protestant theologian and evangelist

What about modern commentaries? Scholars and pastors from many Christian denominations and theological perspectives write commentaries today. Here are some examples:

  • Baptist (e.g. Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock)
  • Reformed (e.g. Douglas Moo, D.A. Carson)
  • Arminian (e.g. Grant Osborne, Ben Witherington)
  • Pentecostal (e.g. Gordon Fee, Craig Keener)
  • Anglican (e.g. William Lane, John Stott)
  • Methodist (e.g. I. Howard Marshall, Richard Hays)
  • Lutheranism (e.g. William Kleinig, Andrew Das)

If a person doesn’t want to use a Bible commentary, they certainly don’t have to. But for those people to project their preference on others is wrong.

No one should stand the way of another person properly using Bible study aids, including commentaries, to support their study of Scripture.

How to use Bible commentaries and why

Improper ways to use Bible commentaries are numerous. Here are three examples:

  • Reading, and depending on, commentaries more than Scripture is wrong
  • Letting a commentator have the “last word” over Scripture itself is wrong
  • An over-reliance on the work of commentators over and above one’s own exegesis for the purposes of preaching and teaching is wrong

There are other examples, too. As already stated, the solution to these problems isn’t to abandon commentaries altogether, but to use them properly.

The solution to these problems isn’t to abandon commentaries altogether, but use them properly.

In their classic book How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (link goes to Amazon) authors Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart offer guidance on the proper use of Bible commentaries.

Notice that the authors don’t over-correct and suggest Christians abandon commentaries altogether. Rather, they suggest using them properly:

“You do not begin your Bible study with a commentary!

You go to the commentary after you have done your own work; the reason you eventually consult a commentary is to find answers to the content questions that have arisen in your own study.

At the same time, of course, the commentary will alert you to questions you failed to ask, but perhaps should have” (p. 248). [1]

Commentaries support a person’s study of the Bible; they don’t replace a person’s study of the Bible.

Commentaries support a person’s study of the Bible; they don’t replace a person’s study of the Bible.

The proper use of Bible commentaries

There are many reasons to properly use Bible commentaries, including:

(1) To verifying an interpretation

2 Peter 1:20 reads, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things” (NIV).

Readers, even sincere ones, can misunderstand Bible passages. Bible commentaries provide insight on how Christians have interpreted books of the Bible throughout the centuries. Why not consult the interpretations of believers who have studied Scripture with great depth? Could pride keep a person from doing this?

(2) To seek wisdom

Proverbs 2:2 instructs people to turn their “ear to wisdom” and apply their “heart to understanding” (NIV).

Most commentary authors have studied Scripture for decades, even for an entire lifetime. Why not listen to what they have to say about a particular book, passage, or verse? Not doing do may suggest a lack of humility in willing to learn from people who have spent years studying the subject.

(3) To learn for the sake if intellectual and spiritual growth

Scripture can be difficult to understand. Peter says exactly this in 2 Peter 3:16 about some of Paul’s writings,

“[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (NIV, emphasis added)

Douglas Stuart writes:

“Not all people are equally able to figure out the meaning of any give part [of Scripture]. If you already know that, fine. But a great many people either don’t know it or don’t want to admit it. They believe the Holy Spirit ought to make everything in the Bible plain to any believer who reads it sincerely, without other aids being necessary. This is a widely held belief, and if it were true, there would hardly be any need for commentaries. But the Bible itself never says such things.

In fact, a good commentary is exactly the sort of thing that might help people understand more accurately those passages (e.g., John 14:26) that they think teach that the meaning of everything in the Bible ought to be plain to any devoted reader.” [2]

Other questions to reflect on include:

  • Why can a pastor explain Scripture, but a commentator can’t?
  • Why can a fellow believer help a person understand Scripture over a cup of coffee, but a commentator can’t?
  • Why can a blog post, YouTube video, or social media post teach about Scripture, but commentators can’t?

Bible commentaries, when used properly, are helpful tools — even valuable tools — to help people understand Scripture.

How to build a commentary library

In their book How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, authors Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart write: “If you are a serious Bible student, you will eventually want to secure, or have access to, a good commentary for each book of the Bible” (p. 246).

People who use Bible commentaries often don’t buy dozens of volumes all at once. Instead, they build up their commentary library over time. Places to buy, or access, commentaries include:

  • Bookstores: great option because some have used copies
  • Online retailers: some have used copies
  • Public libraries: some public libraries have Bible reference materials, like commentaries, that can be checked out
  • Church libraries: some churches have lending libraries that include Bible commentaries
  • School libraries: some Christian schools, including Bible colleges and seminaries, allow visitors to read books in their facility

Next steps:

References:
[1] How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
[2] A Guide to Selecting and Using Bible Commentaries” by Douglas Stuart. p. 9-10.

Recent Posts