Sometimes Less is More
Jan 19, 2011 David Lang

Sometimes Less is More

Someone posted an interesting question on our forums the other day:

I can understand having print study bibles because we can have a range of helps quickly to hand in a single volume. But with bible software on portable devices, we can have whole dictionaries, commentaries, etc—who is the intended user of study bibles in electronic form?

This user then went on to explain that he no longer uses study Bibles in Accordance that much, preferring instead to turn to more in depth commentaries and study aids. "So really," he concluded, "why have study bibles in e-form when we have access to so much more?"

I think there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but here's mine: sometimes less is more. In other words, sometimes you want to dig deep into commentaries or resources that will examine an issue in depth, but at other times you just want a little quick exegetical help. At those times, the more concise the treatment of a passage, the better.

When studying a passage, it's always good practice to put off turning to commentaries until you have explored the passage for yourself: examining the wider context; comparing translations; identifying key people, places, and events; etc. Then, when you turn to a commentary, you'll be equipped to interact with its interpretation rather than just accepting it uncritically.

However, there are times when you come across a passage that just has you stumped. It may contain some figure of speech you don't quite understand, or it may seem to contradict some important theological doctrine, or it may mention some ancient practice that seems almost nonsensical. At that point, you need a little help just to be able to keep reading through the passage intelligently.

Difficult passages like this tend to be those that commentaries spend a great deal of time on. Because the meaning of these passages may be the subject of debate, commentaries tend to explain each interpretation, weigh all the arguments for or against, then eventually render a verdict on what the commentator believes is the correct interpretation. When you're still in the early stages of studying a passage, getting embroiled in long, intricate discussions like that can derail your study altogether. Faced with several possible interpretations, you can find yourself stuck in a kind of "analysis paralysis" when it comes to your passage.

Far better at times like these to turn to a concise resource that will give you just enough information to keep reading your passage without feeling lost. Study Bibles and less technical commentaries are worth their weight in gold at that point. (Okay, so they don't weigh anything in Accordance, but you know what I mean!) These more concise resources give you the quick help you need without bogging you down with too many details.

Personally, I follow a kind of informal hierarchy when it comes to looking for interpretive help. When I'm still in the early stages of observation and I just want a little quick help, I'll turn to a trusted study Bible. If I have a little more time or the study Bible didn't give me the help I needed, I'll turn to less technical commentaries like Expositor's Bible Commentary, The Bible Speaks Today, Holman, or Tyndale. EBC is usually the first place I turn because it tends to give a thorough overview while still managing to be concise. I've also been really impressed with Tyndale lately. It is highly readable and seems to cut to the chase without too much meandering.

When I really want to study a passage in depth or I have a question about some subtle point of grammar, that's when I'll turn to more detailed commentaries like Pillar and NAC, or even technical commentaries like NIGTC and Word. These commentaries tend to demand a little more time and careful attention, so I turn to them when I'm willing to devote that time.

Oh, there is one last rung of my commentary hierarchy worth mentioning, and it's probably not what you'd expect. If I find myself in "analysis paralysis" after reading some technical discussion about competing interpretations, I'll usually turn to Calvin's commentaries. Calvin is obviously dated and he will sometimes deal with controversies or questions that wouldn't even cross our minds today. Yet Calvin was such a gifted interpreter that I often find he clarifies things for me when modern controversies have me befuddled.

Whatever study Bibles or commentaries you find most helpful, I would strongly recommend that you follow a similar hierarchy when looking for interpretive help. When you need quick help to keep reading a passage intelligently, turn to a trusted study Bible or less-technical commentary. Reserve the in depth commentaries for that stage of your exegesis where you're ready to compare your own observations with those of scholarly commentators. Until you're at that stage, less is definitely more.

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Archived Comments

Robb B

January 19, 2011 1:26 PM

David, 

I would add the NIBC commentary series to your first tier of non-technical, shorter commentaries. I find it very readable and usually helpful for quick information.


Jon

January 19, 2011 1:48 PM

One other good point of use for these study Bibles, it would seem to me, would be on the iPhone--good for quick lookups on the smaller screen--easier to treat it like a genuine study Bible. :-)

-Jon

 


Jonathan

January 19, 2011 2:37 PM

Less is more, especially for the iphone 4. (rhyme unintentional) I also find that with certain study Bibles the simpler phrasing of concepts or nuance within concepts can spark better ways to communicate meaning, through simpler language.

I like to think that accordance is providing a path or bridge for those who do not have theological training in the church to step by step delve deeper into theological discussion.

I also appreciate the available "Legacy" commentaries because they allow us to better understand and access the two thousand years of theology we stand upon today.


JS

January 19, 2011 3:57 PM
I just bought Calvin's commentaries for the same reason... love it, and a great price.

Wesley Perdue

January 20, 2011 3:59 AM

I completely agree with a hierarchical approach to Bible study. 

My Bible study workflow has evolved in a rather interesting manner. I used to have a completely print-based workflow, but major portions (all but the commentaries) have gone electronic. It started with Laridian's MyBible on Palm devices and moved to Olive Tree's BibleReader on my iPhone and then iPad. Next came Accordance on my Mac. I now typically read the Bible on my Kindle. It's refreshing, as the Kindle's focus on presenting the text alone makes it easy for me to avoid distractions. 

Here's my current Bible study workflow:

1. I read the passage in my four favorite translations on my Kindle: ESV, NLT, NET, and NIV 2011. Why Kindle? It's easier to focus there than on an iOS device or print study bible. A text-only print bible would be similar, just heavier.

2. I access the ESV and NLT Study Bible notes in BibleReader on my iPad as needed. I also can do Greek and Hebrew research in BibleReader. BR is very good for highly mobile, sophisticated Bible study.

3. I use Accordance on my Mac to do in-depth textual, Greek, and Hebrew research. The ability to compare everything side by side is priceless, as are the Greek and Hebrew resources.

4. My go-to commentaries are the Bible Knowledge Commentary (print and Accordance), the Revised Expositor's Bible Commentary (print), and the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (print).

5. For more in-depth commentaries, I usually buy them as needed. For basic Bible studies, I usually start with the NIV Application Commentary. The NICNT and NICOT are often my favorite next step.

Why isn't Accordance on the iPad included in my workflow above, especially since I already have it installed? In my humble opinion, it's not quite yet polished enough for effortless use.  I am confident it'll get there; version 1.0 shows great promise.

Why don't I buy my all commentaries electronically? I don't like to read long-form text on LCD displays (i.e. my Mac or iPad), and I prefer the random-access nature of books to the Kindle. I also don't like paying for them twice. Study Bibles work great in iOS; I have a few in BibleReader. I hope to pick up a few for Accordance in a future sale.

PS: Just picked up the JPS Torah commentaries for Accordance (nice sale!) and I must say what a delight it is to read on the iPad. I have the Genesis volume in print, and it's one of my favorite commentaries. It made a very nice transition from print to eBook.




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