Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Why Read Old Commentaries?

Every period of church history exhibits a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Human nature being what it is, we tend to prize what we have going for us while remaining ignorant of our deficiencies.

This is the great value of old commentaries for today's Bible students. Although the old books reveal the weaknesses of their time, they also contain its strengths. That's why I love these words from David Steinmetz:

The principle value of precritical exegesis is that it is not modern exegesis; it is alien, strange, sometimes even, from our perspective, comic and fantastical. Precisely because it is strange, it provides a constant stimulus to modern interpreters, offering exegetical suggestions they would never think of themselves or find in any recent book, forcing them again and again to a rereading and re-evaluation of the text. Interpreters who immerse themselves, however, not only in the text but in these alien approaches to the text may find in time that they have learned to see, with eyes not their own, sights they could scarcely have imagined and to hear, with ears not their own, voices too soft for their own ears to detect.

--in "John Calvin on Isaiah 6," Interpretation 36 (1982), p. 170.

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Speaking of old books, I got to go to the noon meeting of the Downtown Lion's Club yesterday. One of my friends, Trent Sisemore, was the keynote speaker. He talked about the history of the English Bible and brought along several examples from his personal collection, including a 1611 copy of the King James Version. Trent gave a really good speech. Afterwards, I got the chance to look through some of those Bibles. Fascinating.


Anonymous said...

A 1611 KJV or a copy of a 1611 KJV?

Adam Gonnerman said...

Good thoughts. I have trouble reading older commentaries mostly because of the heavy western European slant and lack of familiarity with the original historical context of what was written.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Matt, it was the real deal, a 1611 KJV. Also, a 1599 edition of Matthew's Bible, plus a 400-year old Torah scroll.

Adam, I get why older works can put you off. You would agree that even those commentaries and other Bible study tools being published today are in the modern, Western tradition. What older works lack in historical context they tend to make up in their attention to the theological contours of the biblical text. Even at that, they are not easy to read. It's a taste I'm still acquiring.

Latayne C Scott said...

One of the best gifts I gave myself was learning Koine Greek. And the second-best one was reading through Spurgeon's Treasury of David. It has taken me years, and I am not through it yet. But I savor every word, honored by the presence of millennia of Christian thinkers. And to think that Spurgeon compiled all this before the presence of computers to help him. I'm amazed.

As I writer, I find that Spurgeon not only ennobles my mind, it raises my own level of writing to a higher plane. I can't wait to thank CHS in heaven.

Latayne C Scott