Feb 18, 2011 David Lang

Overcoming Blind Spots: Get Perspective with Commentaries

For the past several posts, I've been discussing how we can overcome our blind spots when it comes to reading the Bible. By "blind spots," I mean those things we gloss over or simply fail to see because of our preconceptions about what the text says. I've discussed how reading and comparing multiple translations can help to alert us to aspects of the text we might have missed, and I've compared The Message translation to a convex mirror which can bend our gaze so that we can see around our blind spots. Today, I want to talk about how commentaries help us overcome our blind spots by offering us a new perspective on the text.

The point of this post is really pretty self-evident. Of course a commentary can give you another perspective on a passage, because you're reading someone else's interpretation of that passage. What's more, because most commentaries interact with other interpretations, they actually help you to view your passage from multiple viewpoints. All those different perspectives will help you to see aspects of the text you might have missed because of some blind spot.

This is how commentaries are supposed to be used: to gain second opinions and other perspectives after you've first done the work of examining the text for yourself. Unfortunately, we are sometimes tempted to turn to a trusted commentary not to get a perspective on the text, but to get the perspective on the text. No matter how much we trust a particular commentary, we must be careful not to examine its perspective too quickly or to accept it uncritically. After all, even the most reliable and insightful commentator has his or her own blind spots, and we should be careful not to adopt those blind spots while trying to see past our own.

Over the past six months, I've been teaching my oldest son to drive. In teaching him to change lanes, I've talked him through checking the rearview mirrors and doing a head check, but there have also been times when I've craned my neck and told him the coast was clear. I've done that to help him when there's a lot of traffic and I know he's trying to remember to do several things at once, but I know that I can only do that in the early stages of teaching him to drive. Otherwise, he'll develop the dangerous habit of depending on someone else's perspective rather than learning to check his blind spots for himself.

Becoming too dependent on a commentary may not be as obviously life-threatening, but it will definitely limit your perspective on your passage of study. That's why it's best to consult commentaries toward the end of your study of a passage, after you've begun to develop your own interpretation of the text. That way, you begin to interact with the additional perspectives the commentaries provide, rather than merely adopting them as your own.

If you actually take this approach to using commentaries, it becomes much less important that the commentary be one you trust or which shares your own theological perspectives. I began this series of posts about blind spots by talking about how a commentary with which I largely disagreed helped me to see an aspect of Genesis 3 which I had always glossed over. Because I had already studied the passage for myself, I wasn't threatened by a different interpretation of that passage. I learned from what I found helpful and gave little credence to the parts I found too ideologically driven. Used in this way, even commentaries you strongly disagree with can be immensely helpful. In fact, it is sometimes the commentaries with which you most disagree that can be the most helpful in exposing your own blind spots.

By the way, if you're looking for help selecting a good commentary, Dr. J's recent podcast on Purchasing Commentaries offers a lot of helpful buying advice.

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Archived Comments

Shawn Goodwin

February 18, 2011 4:38 AM

I think you are right to stress the need to interact with the Biblical text on its own terms. But I am not sure that doing that first with out the help of commentaries is the best way of doing it. The reason this may not be the best way is because everyone approaches the text from some preconcieved understanding, whether this comes from a previously heard sermon, devotional book, translation, or additional helps. When I am interpreting a text, I do prefer to start with the contors of the passage and the main idea. I then pretty quickly approach the secondary literature and take good notes. After I have a wide selection of literature, I then compile my notes and set down to write from the Biblical text. I do this because I want the Biblical text to be the last thing I have read before I begin writing. For me this is the best way to let the text speak for itself and stand on the shoulders of better interpretors than I. I first heard of approaching the biblical text like this from Douglas Moo.

Dr. J

February 18, 2011 7:35 AM

"That's why it's best to consult commentaries toward the end of your study of a passage, after you've begun to develop your own interpretation of the text."


I completely agree—and this is a really important point. Commentaries can be a crutch, a lazy interpreter's easy way out. However, when used as you decribe, they challenge, refine and extend one's own interpretation. That's their highest and best use.

David Lang

February 18, 2011 9:55 AM

Shawn, as long as you're interacting with the commentaries without accepting one interpreter's view uncritically, I'm certainly not adamant about a specific sequence. Beginning and ending with the text as you describe strikes me as an effective way to give primacy to the text.

In the end, I think the ideal Bible study method is the one which works best with the way each of us thinks and processes information. I talk a little about the influence of personality in this post from last year.


February 18, 2011 1:42 PM

Two Davids, and two great posts, one here, and one last year: <a href="http://www.accordancebible.com/Two-Davids">http://www.accordancebible.com/Two-Davids</a>


February 18, 2011 1:43 PM

Try again: