McGarvey On Commentaries

March 12, 2008

Taken from Talking the Walk:

(A look at excerpts from J.W. McGarvey’s lecture on “Preachers Methods” delivered at the Missouri Christian lectureship 125 years ago… 1883: (cont.)

Study of Other Books

“Good Commentaries render us important service in many ways.

1. First they serve as a guard against blunders.Among the most egregious blunders in the interpretation of Scripture are those committed by men of inferior learning or judgment who interpret the Scriptures without aid.
2. In the second place, it is a ready source of information. Multitudes of facts and references throwing floods of light upon important passages have been collected by the research of commentators, and furnished to our hand, which would otherwise be beyond our reach….
3. In the third place, the use of Commentaries awakens thought. Every one that is worth consulting presents the subject in some new phase: it presents something different from and often inconsistent with our own previously formed conceptions; and it compels us to think again over the whole ground.
4. In the last place, Commentaries, with all the errors which may be properly charged against them, do in the main give us the right interpretation of obscure passages, and the right application of those which are not obscure. If we follow them implicitly we are but seldom led astray, and if we find in them only a confirmation of our own conclusions this gives us strength and gratification.

“While I insist, however, upon the value of Commentaries, I would also insist upon a judicious use of them. When about to study a passage of Scripture, never consult the Commentary first. If you do you are likely to accept the author’s views, whether right or wrong, and your mind will be biased in the subsequent study of the text itself. First study the text until its words and sentences are distinctly apprehended; until all that is clear in it is understood; until its difficulties are discovered; and until your own mind has grappled with these difficulties more or less successfully. You are then prepared to consult the Commentary….”

“I would suggest as another precaution in regard to Commentaries, that the young preacher take pains, as soon as practicable, to procure two or more on every portion of Scripture which he studies, lest he become a blind follower of a single, guide, who, in some places, is almost certain to be a blind guide. In making selections, always choose from the more recent rather than from the older works. In all departments of literature immense advances are being made on the knowledge and methods of former times, and in no department are they more rapid than in the interpretation and illustration of the Bible….”

[cph: it is fascinating to note that many of the “classic” conservative commentaries upon which we still rely were being released about this time and McGarvey notes and recommends them.]


  1. This one’s a keeper. Thanks for posting it.

  2. I would add the need to use newer commentaries. There are many things in the last couple decades that have been worked through that won’t appear in the older commentaries. There are also many quack theories in the last couple of decades but those don’t typically make it into the better commentaries.

  3. Great perspective and, in my opinion, very wise counsel on using commentaries.

    My only caveat, like mattdabbs’, is to be careful with choosing commentaries just because they are more recent. More recent, at times, can be more liberal as well. There are a number of commentary reviews and evaluations that can help with this. DA Carson has published a fine one.

    I stick with the commentaries used by those I respect (or written by them in some cases) and, hopefully, allow them to augment my exegesis not formulate it.

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