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.