Stanley Porter has written a scathing post on the quality of commentaries written on the book of Romans in the last 30+ years. It not a pretty picture.
I recently reviewed about fifty commentaries on the book of Romans as part of a major writing project. I included commentaries from John Bengel’s of 1742 to the latest that I could get my hands on. I wanted to examine the state of play in commentary writing on Romans over most of the modern period. I eliminated the popular and “application-oriented” commentaries, and concentrated on those that present themselves as treatments of the text of Romans. If any book of the New Testament should bring out the best in commentary writing, Romans should be the one—and was I sadly disappointed.
No, I did not read through every commentary, but I concentrated on their introductions and especially Romans 5:1-11, a passage that I have written on many times and hence know something about. I wanted to see how up-to-date each commentary was for the time in which it was written (note this!), in the following areas: Greek language and linguistics, textual criticism, theology, literary and epistolary and rhetorical issues, audience concerns, and history of interpretation.
7:16 AMGood for Stan Porter. He’s had the courage to say a few things about modern commentaries that others would never dare to mention. It’s time we stopped making excuses for repetition and mediocrity. If you’re going to say something, say something new and important. People don’t read commentaries critically nowadays it seems. No matter how shallow or mundane, we extol every new commentary that comes off the press. After all, how dare we criticize Dr. So-and-So’s latest work? We almost worship commentators, like we do war heroes. Just try criticizing U. S. Grant for messing up his early assignment in the Western Theater. Someone is likely to fire back, “How can you blame him? He was drunk at the time.” Porter is right. America has produced few really great commentaries in the past three decades. It’s a little presumptuous of publishers to fawn all over their latest works. Most of us who have reached middle age have discovered that there’s not much new under the sun. Today’s sensational new commentary is very much like the sensation of 30 years ago.
Like many I too must feel ashamed for my addiction to commentaries, or kool-aid or whatever. I took years of biblical language studies in seminary, I should know better! 🙂 I mean, if you know how to study the Bible and can access the Greek and or the Hebrew, you could, in a sense, write your own commentary! The problem is we are too busy to do all that ourselves and think we must have nothing less than an earned PhD in order to engage the Bible ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth! Okay, so I might not put out as smart a commentary on Romans as say, Dogulas Moo did, but hey, I bet with some careful reading of the text and honest exegsis, with some background reading and thinking, you could do a half decent job yourself.
There is one key book many should consider though, if you feel too dependent on commentaries and that is one put out by none other than the late great Fredrick W. Danker known as Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003). This book is simply a must have!