An Updated Christmas Shopping List: Commentaries, Theologies, Reference, Oh My!

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Last year I posted here some recommendations for commentaries and other book sets people might want to buy for that pastor or seminary student in their life. It was in no particular order and it wasn’t exhaustive.

Two things happened again this year: people started sending me notes asking about this or that book as a gift and I also received my shipment of books from the Evangelical Publishing Association. I’m a judge in the Bible and Reference section for their annual Gold Medallion Awards (and I have been for about 15 years). Questions and these new additions to commentary series stimulated me to create some additions to last years sampling.

My same disclaimers apply as last year. I apologize in advance if I am critical of your favorite author, but when I look at the work of Spurgeon and more recently D. A. Carson, I realize that I’m in good company utilizing some of the sharper facets of humor and critique. Also, these are in no particular order.

I haven’t mentioned a few series because one must be mindful that commentary series often die young (e.g. The Eerdmans Critical Commentary series or the now officially aborted Clarendon Bible series). But here you go:

Preaching the Word Commentary Series. Edited by R. Kent Hughes this series began as Hughes’ sermons put into commentary form (similar to The MacArthur series). It proved to be successful and to fill out the series more quickly Hughes became the editor and other authors were added. They are brief, uniformly helpful, and much more pastoral in tone. bookstoreAnd, they are engagingly written. The key with this set is, despite, the title, they aren’t really commentaries; they are in fact synopses of how to “preach the word” and in this sense Hughes didn’t try to make his sermons something they weren’t. They are more useful to examine against what your completed sermon looks like than to see the technical details of the text. I’m not sure I would rush out and buy the whole set, although Hughes’ contributions are always worthwhile. The newest volume (1 Corinthians by Steven Ulm) covers the key features of the book without bogging down in this or that section of the epistle.

The Kregel Exegetical Commentary Series. The most important contribution to date is clearly Allen Ross’ three volumes on the Psalms, perhaps the best effort in the Psalms in recent decades. The series is solidly evangelical, really exegetical, and premillennial, although not forcing it where the text doesn’t. The only question with this series is whether Kregel can pick up the pace a bit in terms of production. So far only Old Testament volumes have been produced.

Craig Keener’s mammoth four volumes: Book of Acts: An Exegetical Commentary is now thankfully complete. All four are available at about a 50% discount and if Acts interests you and you have hefty book shelves then you might want to invest the $140 they will cost. Personally I wonder if this set is a “commentary” or perhaps better classified as an encyclopedia on the Book of Acts. It is in the tradition of von Harnack and while Keener is an excellent writer; I hesitate to call him concise, but in his own way he is, but I wonder how many pastors will require 5000 pages on Acts. But, the busy pastor may better appreciate F. F. Bruce in the NICNT supplemented by Darrell Bock in the BENTC.

A few words about Zondervan Publishing (one of the branches of News Corp’s growing influence in religious publishing). After finishing the complete revision of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan currently has several disparate commentary series in process, including taking over the Word Biblical Commentary series when Mr. Murdoch added Thomas Nelson to his empire. At first glance they seem to have something for everyone, closer examination however, make me wonder. Their new The Story of God Commentary series is an interesting new study. Edited by Tremper Longman III (admittedly not one of my favorite editors or commentators) is an examination of the storyline of each book. It deals more with overview and narrative than detail and in that it is a welcome addition. The series will not please more conservative readers (In Genesis Longman rejects a young earth position and waffles around Mosaic authorship) but as a commentary examining larger portions of text, it is a good source to sort of pull your mind out of the lexical and grammatical minutiae. Zondervan is clearly serious as all the authors have been assigned. An old friend and TMS grad, Tim Gombis is scheduled to do The Gospel of Mark. The Story of God series seems to be a good balance to the NIV Application Commentary Series and the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series. By the way, while the NIVAC is very good in places, like the Word Biblical Commentary, it’s terribly uneven and not something you want to fill your shelves with. With regards to the ZEC, there seems to be a tendency with some publishers to simply add the word “exegetical” to the title and include some Greek and Hebrew fonts, add words like aorist infinitive participle and attempt to make people thing something new (or useful) has actually been created. I’m afraid the ZEC too often falls into this category, in places there’s little “exegetical” and often it looks like the NIVAC with a few more notes. This series does continue a trend with Zondervan’s editorial desires it seems, dealing with “preachable lengths” of text. So far the nuggets here and there haven’t inclined me to want to buy any of them individually and certainly not clutter up a shelf with them. There is way too much wasted space in the text. Including the entire Greek text and then the individual author’s translation (along the lines of the Anchor Bible) is just tedious and offers almost no real value to the reader.

One set I would avoid is the Reformed Expository Commentary Series from P&R. It is thoroughly reformed even when the text isn’t and in places reads like an exposition of the proof texts of the Westminster Confession rather than the text of Scripture. The occasional useful morsel will probably be found elsewhere and in a more palatable form. The comments are often too brief or too pedantic to be helpful and naturally from my perspective utterly worthless in the prophetic books unless you agree with Calvin that the prophets must be referring to the church in their utterances. The same can be said of the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary. Built on the assumption that Christ is in every passage of the Bible, the comments are too idiosyncratic and often in the process of “finding Christ” in every passage the authors don’t find the actual meaning of the passage. Another set that I would avoid is the Preach the Text Commentary series from Baker. Each publisher seemingly has to have an entry into every commentary sub-genre but so far the offerings in this series haven’t been impressive, it seems to be more of an effort to balance out the uncritically liberal Paideia series.

By the same token I would not simply avoid some of the Sacra Pagina volumes because they are by Catholic scholars; for instance, Collins on First Corinthians is excellent. Another entry from Westminster/John Knox is the New Testament for Everyone series by N. T. Wright (which incorporates his older Paul for Everyone). Before you reject Wright immediately for his New Perspective leanings, remember he is a first rate biblical scholar (in my opinion his work on the resurrection is unsurpassed). He is a clear and engaging writer with both style and has the chops to back that style up. There are things to learn from Wright and as a commentary series it can be had reasonably priced and doesn’t take up a lot of space.

Not long ago I had a panicked call from a young pastor, whose parents, as a surprise but without much knowledge in the field, bought him the entire Yale Anchor Bible series. This series has been around since the 1960’s when it was published by Doubleday and simply known as the Anchor Bible. It is part “new translation” and part commentary. One of the advantages is that it includes the Apocrypha and useful commentaries covering those are few and far between. Yale University Press bought the rights to the series (which also includes a set of reference books) and this set isn’t inexpensive. The whole series takes an entire shelf unit and he was worried that people who came into his office would think he had become a liberal. I advised him that it was more important to honor his parent’s elaborate gift than to worry about what other people thought. It’s a set of uneven quality, but mostly liberal to extremely liberal (Carson politely calls the series “ecumenical”). Some of the more conservative works in the series (Albright and Mann on Matthew for instance) were also the worst written and the least exegetical. However, the Catholic Raymond Brown’s volumes on John are immensely helpful. However, if someone is thinking about spending the $1000 or so it takes to buy the entire set, seriously consider placing your money in a more useful investment.

It was sad to read about the passing of Dr. Thomas Oden in the last couple of weeks. He was the driving force behind the the paleo-Christian movement and especially the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary series (which expanded into other areas). The idea behind the series was unique and in some cases exceptionally well carried out. But while it is a pretty shelf set I’m not convinced having them all is a worthwhile use of space or money. One thing is that since they are little more than snippets of various Fathers on different passages, the actual context of the original writing is lost and sometimes the thrust of the commentary isn’t exactly the same as what the particular church father as trying to say.

If someone wants to spend money on you, if you don’t own the IVP Dictionaries for the Old and New Testament, they should be a first choice. The are subtitled a “Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship” and that is a true statement. While some of the conclusions will make you scratch your head, they are clear, well written, and have good bibliographies. IVP tends to use a rather narrow club of contributors, but they are all highly respected scholars, certainly not always conservative but well written and thorough.

One word of update. Since the recent scandals of plagiarism are still fresh, it’s worth noting that a couple of the series’ I mentioned last year were affected. Peter T. O’Brien’s volumes in the Pillar and NIGTC have been removed and apparently the inventories destroyed (this has had the effect of making them scarce and driving up their prices in the used market, I’ve seen some of his works going for over $200). What we can say about O’Brien and others is that as far as I can tell they weren’t making things up, as in fiction, they were just not properly attributing phrases, sentences, and paragraphs to who actually wrote them. The net effect is not error in the text as much as making the authors appear more clever than they actually are. Personally, I think they are all disqualified from being properly cited in an academic setting, but they are still good compendiums of information. But, buy the same token I would also never quote them in a sermon.

The steam in the creation of new commentary series seems to be running out a bit and theology seems to be taking the lead with publishers again (just as new works in reference have scaled back from a peak several years ago when commentary series began to take over). I expect the recent kerfuffle on the Trinity will lead to some new library1books, although after all the sessions at ETS I remain convinced the whole affair was much ado about nothing. By means of prediction I do think the field of theologies will expand. Millard Erickson and Wayne Grudem have dominated the field some time now and I expect updated full systematics from some other perspectives (an updated work along the lines of Chafer would be welcomed). Beginning the trend is the release of the new edition of The New Dictionary of Theology: Systematic and Historical (IVP, 2016). This new edition is a significant update and expansion of the original. The much-anticipated Biblical Doctrine, edited by Mayhue and MacArthur is currently schedule for release at the end of January, but may not ship until March.

But certainly don’t forget reference works! I will close with this: one of the best reference works you can get for NT backgrounds is either The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization or The Classical Tradition from Harvard Press. It’s always amazing to me how few pastors learn or know much about the Classical era of which the NT writers are often (especially Paul) and then after the NT era, the church fathers) dependent.

To answer one last question I always get, what about Logos, Accordance, Bible Works, and the like. Here are my thoughts in a nutshell. Computer programs are wonderful in helping you do things faster and more efficiently; like technical exegetical work, concordance searches, and the like. Even the tagging features to connect verses to books and journal articles can be helpful. But, as a reading tool, here’s what you need to remember. Virtually every study done shows that people read up to 40% slower on a computer screen, tablet, or any other electronic device as opposed to paper books. If space and travel is an issue, by all means e-Books are a great idea. But in terms of pure reading, these programs don’t fulfill my “faster and effective” criteria. If I am asked to rank the major programs, as I often am, here it is: Accordance is first, by far and away, it’s not even a close discussion. Second place: Bible Works a solid workmanlike program that will handle all your language and exegetical needs. Third place goes to Logos, which essentially began life as a book reading program, and that remains it best feature. In my opinion its exegetical and lexical capabilities are a distant third (and possibly fourth) behind the other two.

I hope this helps, perhaps next year we’ll do this again.

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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.