Christmas Book Recommendations

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For the last 25 years, a few weeks before Christmas I begin to get questions from friends, relatives, and parishioners asking for my opinion on Christmas gifts for the pastor or seminary student in their lives, especially as it relates to books. Since I’m a professional librarian and have trained pastors, I apparently seem like a good person to ask.

With slight variations they run something like this, “I want to do something special and I’m think about getting them [fill in with this or that large set of books], do you think they’ll like that?”

These good folks are always well intentioned, but most of the time they know next to nothing about either the books or authors or even the subject matter. I recall one acquaintance who received a couple of large sets which he didn’t have the shelf space for, but he needed to “display” them to make the gift giver feel good, so a large number of much more useful material had to be stacked under his desk. I recall another student coming to me once in despair. He had received a large and expensive set of books, which his wife, parents, and sisters pooled their resources to buy. Since the set was largely useless he asked me, “What do I do?” It’s possibly still displayed on a prominent shelf.

Booksellers, who naturally exist to make money, will often have displays of large sets of books with a “Christmas Special” that amounts to something like 75% off of retail. One set that I’m looking at right now on the other computer screen is listed for $89.99 off of a retail price (at least what they list) of $700 or a sale price 87% off. That sounds like a great price (which is a tolerable price as you’ll see below) but it is also exceptionally misleading since no one would pay full retail for that or any other set.

So, as a public service as Christmas nears (and planning ahead for graduation time when these same questions will come up again), let me offer some advice on the purchase of large sets of books. What follows is in no particular order. By the way, if I offend anyone or disparage your favorite author, I apologize now. However, I’m always reminded of Charles Spurgeon in his Commenting and Commentaries, where he often made rather biting remarks about certain works. On a commentary on Daniel by Henry More, he remarked, “If a man had no more than More, he would certainly long for more.” My comments below occasionally will follow that vein, so you have been warned.

Expositions of Holy Scripture (various publishers, most recently Hendrickson) by Alexander Maclaren.

Alexander Maclaren was a contemporary of Charles Spurgeon (although they apparently didn’t care for each others company) and pastored the famous Union Chapel in Manchester, England for 45 years. He represented the well-educated, wealthy, upper middle and upper class wing of the Baptist Union. Early on he rejected biblical inerrancy and opted for an evolutionary scheme of creation, although he rarely mentioned either. His conduct during the Downgrade Controversy, where he was appointed along with some others to meet with Spurgeon in an effort to quell the controversy can only be described as disinterested at best and disingenuous at worst.

His expositions are rather banal and you can almost hear an affected “stained glass voice” as you read. While rejecting inerrancy, Maclaren’s expositions are remainly broadly evangelical and he will generally land within traditional Baptist interpretations of the texts relevant to ecclesiology. However, he will often frustrate the reader by seemingly never dealing with an important text or taking a clear position. Beyond that, the set will take up way too much space, unless you can acquire it for free, take a pass.

Expositor’s Bible Commentary (new edition), Zondervan Publishers.

This new edition has been generally well received. Several of the weakest entries in the original series, such as Kalland on Deuteronomy and Mare on Corinthians, were thankfully replaced. However, the original first volume, which contained a set of introductory essays, most of which were exceptionally helpful, was not included in the new edition. Personally, I thought this was a singular mistake and weakened the overall new edition but it was dropped nonetheless.

For a set of commentaries it is now rather uniformly of high quality, excellent in places and no less than good in others (the spectrum of quality in the original series was much wider in a negative direction). If you can find a set for $250 you won’t be overpaying for it. If you can find the original volume one to add to the present whomever you choose to gift should be appreciative.

Commentary on the Old Testament (recently published by Hendrickson) by Keil and Delitzsch.

I see this set currently listed at an 86% discount, which is about 13% too little. This was a valuable set when it was first produced over 120 years ago and it was a staple for many pastors for a long time. Despite the unevenness of work in its day it was a valuable set; however, its day has long since passed. The only real value for this set now has is to look pretty on the shelf.

Actually the “set” was never designed to be a set and the publisher rebinding individual volumes as sets over the years has made it one of the more difficult sets to use in an academic setting (the page numbers were never redone, so any given volume may have the same page number in two or three locations). It has long since been superseded for the student by works current in research and is too dense and cumbersome for the busy pastor. The tidbit here and there that is still edible in this set isn’t worth the space in the pantry. Avoid at any price.

Pillar New Testament Commentary, edited by D. A. Carson (Eerdmans Publishing).

This series didn’t begin life as a series. Eerdmans published Leon Morris on the Gospel of John at the very end of the line of individual commentaries being published. Essentially all commentaries are now part of a series rather than a “stand alone” work. There are exceptions to that rule, but it is now exceptionally rare. What Eerdmans did was repackage Morris’ work into a new series: The Pillar New Testament Commentary series. Edited by D. A. Carson and now at 16 volumes, it is one of the most valuable commentary sets currently in production. The problem with series is that they often take a long time to produce (for example the Word Biblical Commentary still is incomplete after nearly 40 years) and they are of uneven quality. This series is due to be completed very shortly and Carson has kept the quality at a uniformly high level. While it retails for nearly $800, I’ve seen the set available for about half that. If you want to make an investment that will last for many years, this is a good place to put your money.

The Pulpit Commentary and The Biblical Illustrator (various publishers).

I have placed these two venerable sets together to dispose of them at the same time. There was a time when the only books a pastor in a small rural church might have were these. It would be rather impressive as at about 60 volumes total they took up the better part of an entire bookshelf (over the years I’ve seen many sets inscribed to a new pastor). They were designed for the pastor possessing what Spurgeon used to call “slender apparatus,” and I guess they were better than nothing at all. But today they aren’t, the material is dated, the illustrations are trite and even offensive in places. They are valueless when commenting on the original languages and are from an era when everyone still used the King James Bible.

I’ve seen these sets available practically for free at local Goodwill Stores; so don’t buy them new, even at an 83% discount. If you have them and need to create shelf space, they make excellent kindling for a warm winter fire.

The Dictionary of New Testament Theology, edited by Gerhard Kittel (Eerdmans Publishing).

This ten-volume set has been a high-end lexical resource since it first appeared in English in the 1970’s. It is a massive collection of essays on individual words and word groups in the Greek New Testament. It remains valuable for the student or teacher; although I would question its utility for the busy pastor. But I have a couple of warnings about purchasing this set. If you want to buy this I strongly recommend finding an older printing that has real dust jackets and stitched binding. The newer printings (last 10 years or so) are not stitched, they are glued and the bindings simply will not last. I’ve seen them crack and split after a couple of years. You might pay more than the current sale of $90, but you can still find them for about $120 and they will last a lifetime.

There is something you also need to know about the content. This was originally a German language work and the main editor, Gerhard Kittel, was a thoroughgoing Nazi (shortly after the war he died while in allied custody awaiting trial for war crimes). Kittel was not the only contributor of this ilk in this set and the anti-Semitism comes through pretty clearly in places, although more subtly elsewhere. It’s not that they were trying to hide anything, they probably couldn’t conceive any other kind of thinking. As such, in my view, there are places where it is an unreliable guide although crafted in careful scholarly language. It’s still an important set and still useful for the scholar, but the unaware pastor or student can be mislead in places. Handle with caution.

Word Pictures in the New Testament by A. T. Robertson (B&H Books)

Robertson, who taught Greek at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for many years left two main works, his Historical Grammar and his six volume Word Pictures. Designed as less of a commentary and more of an extended word study through key words in a verse-by-verse setting. It can be helpful in places but he often falls into “word study fallacies” by making the etymology of a particular word carry more weight than they can possibly bear. It’s a nice set that is useful in places and doesn’t take up too much space, but they can be found for a much better price than retail, generally as owners who discovered they really didn’t need the set sell them.

The Renaissance New Testament by Randolph O. Yeager (Pelican Publishing).

I only include this set because someone recently asked me about it, which led me to think that possibly some misguided publisher has brought it back, although I hope not. This set took poor Mr. Yeager nearly his entire adult life to complete, so he gets an “A” for effort and perseverance; however, as Carson points out it is a “monument to misplaced energy.” The set takes up considerable space to no possible benefit to the owner. It’s based entirely on the King James Version, the comments are either entirely self-evident or entirely misguided. He apparently had some facility in New Testament Greek, but I’m always hard pressed to see how it helped him. Don’t even let someone give this set to you.

The Daily Bible Study by William Barclay (Westminster-John Knox Press)

I would have thought that by now most people would understand that William Barclay’s commentaries have been thoroughly discredited. However, I’m often still surprised that people buy and pastors still quote this amazingly bad series. Barclay had a fascinating way of explaining manners and customs and historical information about the New Testament. He was writing purely for the layman and as a result he never used footnotes or referred to sources that could be verified. Not only are most of his explanations about manners, customs, and history wrong, in the process he denies essentially every significant Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, many pastors, especially in the 1960-80 era often quoted Barclay to illustrate their own sermons and in so doing legitimized Barclay in the minds of their listeners in the process.

The set remains immensely popular and Barclay’s son has recently updated it. Nothing in the updates fixes any of the terrible theology and unsubstantiated references that supposedly make the Bible clear to the average layman. This is a set that pastors should be paid not to use.

New International Commentary on the Old Testament and New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans Publishing).

These series have been ongoing since the late 1950’s and the New Testament series will soon be getting its fourth editor (Ned Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon Fee) since Dr. Fee recently had to retire because of his health. If someone really wants to do something nice for a present either of these sets are worthwhile. They have been updating them regularly (some of the earlier parts of the series have been replaced, such as John Murray on Romans was replaced by Douglas Moo). The sets are expensive, it will usually take at least $300 per set on sale, but they have and will stand the test of time. F. F. Bruce’s Acts, while significantly dated, is widely regarded as the model for a modern biblical commentary. The scholarship, research, and writing standards for the both series have remained high. If you have to make a choice, I prefer the New Testament series slightly over the Old Testament, but only by a small margin.

Commentary on Romans (12 Volumes) by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Banner of Truth Publishing)

I’m sure I will get into trouble here with many readers, but $300 for this set is way too much. While it will look nice on the shelf and certainly help with your bona fides for any young restless reformed groupie that visits your office, I found this set to be ponderously unhelpful. I’m rather convinced that anything that could be said in 100 words Lloyd-Jones could say in 1,000. Of course, these began life as sermons, not as an intentional commentary.

As a dispensationalist I naturally think his comments on Romans 9-11 are entirely misguided. He creates useful outlines and makes good pastoral observations, but his utility in Greek is dubious. As Carson states, “Lloyd-Jones is probably not the model most preachers should imitate.” That being said, while he is wordy, he’s readably wordy and there is value in his comments. However, for a commentary you can get John Murray’s two volumes on Romans and have a thorough commentary on the text with the same theology explained much more clearly and without the spatial commitment of an entire shelf.

The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, by John MacArthur (Moody Press).

Now, if you’ve recovered from my comments on Lloyd-Jones, we’ll move on. This set is unquestionably a singular achievement and it’s single-handedly kept Moody Press afloat for many years (it’s the only series they print that remains profitable with strong sales). It can generally be found as a set new for about $400 and it’s worth that investment and the new dust jackets are much more attractive than the plain hardbacks were. That being said, the series is a cross between sermonic material and commentary and that’s not always good. In the editing some of the sermonic quality is lost and they were never supplemented adequately enough to create a solidly pure commentary. Over the years his theology shifted as well and as a result there are internal inconsistencies within the series.

The focus of the series also shifted very early and Moody allocated more pages to each volume. The set would be greatly strengthened if the first two entries Hebrews and Galatians, were replaced with new editions, but there seems to be no plan for that. For the Sunday school teacher, the Bible study leader, the young pastor, or who Carson calls, “the well-read layperson,” this series has a high value. Buying it as a set is also the best bet, as you’ll save about 50%

New Testament Commentary by William Hendriksen and Simon Kistemaker (Baker Books)

Hendriksen completed eight of the commentaries and after his death Kistemaker finished the New Testament. This set is useful, thoroughly committed to inerrancy, and often has helpful pastoral comments. The tone of the series is staunchly Covenantal-Reformed, often tediously so. Hendriksen’s contributions tend to be much more wordy and dogmatic and he rarely interacts with opposing viewpoints. Kistemaker is a little easier reading, but he also doesn’t give much time to other possible interpretations.

The set is often available for under $200 but honestly there is a reason that its popularity has declined (as a set it was even out of print for a time). A few of Kistemaker’s contributions are still valuable, but personally I’d buy these individually. Hendriksen’s volumes (especially the gospels) are dated and pedantic. The Pillar series is a far better use of your money and shelf space.

The New International Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Eerdmans Publishing).

This is the more technical version of the NICNT series. It is a commentary on the Greek text, not the English and therein lies my warning. The set is not inexpensive (about $350 on sale) but you need to be sure the person receiving this is really a good Greek student. For pastors who got B’s and C’s in Greek during seminary and haven’t kept up on the language this set will may be more of a frustration than a help. The authors do no explain the basics of the language; they rather assume a superior working knowledge of New Testament Greek on the part of the reader. Some of the volumes can be exceptionally technical in places and are probably more suited to the advanced student working on his doctorate than the busy pastor.

That being said, it is a superior set of high quality and thorough scholarship. If the person you have in mind to give this too is good with Greek, they should rejoice to receive this set.

The Bible Exposition Commentary, by Warren W. Wiersbe (David C. Cook)

When I have finished preparing a sermon and I’m giving it one last check the place I always go to it Wiersbe. The longtime pastor at Moody Church and then the radio teacher for Back to the Bible, is by far my favorite preacher and author. Checking his comments will almost always reveal a new way of looking at a text, an emphasis for preaching or teaching, as well as useful and timeless illustrations. A compilation of his famous “Be” series of individual commentaries, the five volumes are generally available new for around $50 and will be the best $50 you will ever spend.

Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible, by John Calvin (most recently published by Hendickson)

This classic set reprints the Calvin Translation Society editions in the Victorian era. They will repay the reader in most areas. Calvin did the commentaries toward the end of his life and they often represent his more mature thought. The careful reader will see that the comments are occasionally at odds with The Institutes, but that is to be expected. Here I will repeat a warning that I gave earlier. If you want a set that will last, look for the Baker Books edition from the 1980’s. The volumes are stitched and the binding will last a lifetime. The current Hendrickson set is cheaply bound and glued, not stitched. You might get a new set for $100, but spending $200–250 on the older edition is a wise decision (and they will actually open and lay flat on the desk). There are, of course, some quirks in the way Calvin did some of the books (his chronological presentation of Samuel, Kings & Chronicles) and his synoptic presentation of the gospels. Also, he didn’t do a commentary on Revelation. Calvin can be loquacious at times and his comments make arcane references to the current events of his day; but the Translation Society editor’s are often helpful with footnotes.

Word Biblical Commentary (now published by Thomas Nelson and distributed by Zondevan)

In the publishing world there has been a recent consolidation and News Corp (owned by the Murdoch’s who also own Fox) how have owned Zondervan Publishing for nearly 20 years now owns Word and Thomas Nelson (along with Harper-Row). In their acquisitions and rearrangement of each imprint it appears that Zondervan will ultimately take control of handling the Word Biblical Commentary (Word had been changed to the “W Group” and then sold to Thomas Nelson and now they all belong to the Murdoch empire).

I can make this one really simple; don’t buy this as a set. First of all it takes nearly an entire shelving unit for the whole thing, but beyond that it’s probably the most uneven series that has even been produced. Some of them are excellent and some of them are simply awful. There seemed to be no unifying editorial control and certainly no unifying theological point of view. It’s a mix of just about everything and there are a few of the authors I would be hard pressed to even call evangelical. The good individual commentaries can be bought individually without cluttering up an office with books whose only usefulness is tossing in with the Pulpit Commentary and Biblical Illustrator.

Conclusion

There are any number of other sets I could mention, and perhaps I’ll add some other thoughts around graduation time. I would mention that if you are looking to buy a gift of books for your pastor or student and you don’t know what to get or if something is worthwhile, ask around. Send me an email if you like. You might see the set of commentaries by Matthew Poole, very nicely bound, very pretty, and reasonably well priced, but you would be buying something destined to never be used.

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Dennis Swanson

About Dennis Swanson

Dr. Dennis M. Swanson is currently the Dean of Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Formerly was the VP of The Master’s Seminary Library, Accreditation, and Operations for 24 years. He also oversaw the production of The Master’s Seminary Journal, and is an experienced writer and editor. Prior to the he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.

  • Greg Pickle

    Perhaps one more word of advice to would-be purchasers? Ask if they want it in electronic form before you buy it. I find commentaries on Logos to be significantly more valuable and useful than print editions, for many reasons.

    • Dr. Dennis M. Swanson

      That’s true and it has advantages. Couple of things to remember: Currently Logos does not have a contract with Moody, so no Moody titles (including MacArthur Commentaries) are currently available. If you have an older version of the commentaries they will work, but that may not continue. That leads to the other issue. When Logos does a major upgrade it occasionally necessitates reloading your book purchases for the new version. In this case that would mean Moody stuff would probably stop working. Two other minor issues: The Logos pagination doesn’t always align with the print version; this isn’t a particular concern for pastors, but it’s a major headache for students writing papers. Also every study done on the subject shows that reading from a screen or tablet reduces reading speed on average of 30%.

      • Greg Pickle

        Agreed on all of that, though I didn’t know about having to reload book purchases (I own a Logos 4 package on Logos 6 software, maybe I’m missing something). I’m speaking only from my personal situation, where the positives seem to outweigh the negatives. Helpful thoughts!

    • Dr. Dennis M. Swanson

      Also, in this essay I was assuming regular book purchases, perhaps in the future I’ll discuss e-Books at length. Sorry If I didn’t make that clear.

      • Greg Pickle

        No, you were clear! Just wanted to throw in my perspective on what it would be like to personally receive a set of hardback books – one which I suspected is shared by many.

  • Thank you, Prof. Swanson. This was confirming & entertaining – otherwise seemingly competent preachers cite Pulpit and Barclay, which only casts doubt on every other assertion they make! (Though I think that Hendriksen / Kistemaker still have value – and I enjoy surveying MNTC and Calvin after my sermon is done). 

    But 2 concluding thoughts came to mind and 2 questions. 1) Your survey casts doubt upon Logos’ advertising claims (ie, save $$ on print value), when you would never buy, much less use, many of the sets in their “bundle.” 

    2) The greatest value of buying a commentary set is to get discount on useful volumes and sell others to buy better commentaries. I gave up trying to get a set a long time ago, all of them are too uneven. Give up procuring sets entirely, I say. 

    So my 2 questions: 1) I’ve found bestcommentaries.com very helpful, any remarks on their approach / rating scale. Usually, the top 3-5 seem to be the top 3-5 commentaries available. Any thoughts?

    2) Thoughts on NIDOTE and NIDNTE?

    • Jason

      Dr. Varner has said the new, Silvia NIDNTE is worth it.

      • You want to buy my older edition for Christmas?

        • Jason

          Yeah, send them this way I’ve got a penny jar $1 works for me . . . 😉

  • Dr. Dennis M. Swanson

    For what it’s worth here was my system on commentaries when I was preaching regularly. Say I was preaching through Philippians. I would buy maybe 15 commentaries on Philippians. I split them between categories: popular, semi-popular, technical, critical. Then I would try to get a chronological range (Fathers-Reformation-Modern eras roughly). I would make all my notes, and when I was done with the series I would generally keep the 2-3 I thought most helpful and sell the rest to help me buy the books for the next series.

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