Comparing Commentary Types

By John Frye, The Commentary Niche

Pastors usually have commentaries of various types. The Story of God Bible Commentary series aims to fill a niche that seeks to understand and live particular texts within the greater Story of God that the Bible presents. Let’s consider three commentaries I possess on the Book of 1 Peter.

A Critical Commentary. I have a dated commentary (first edition 1946) by Edward Gordon Selwyn titled The First Epistle of St. Peter: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes, and Essays. At the time I bought it, I’m sure that someone said, “Oh, John, you’ve got to get Selwyn on 1 Peter.” I have used it, but, frankly, it is laborious reading. Selwyn presents me with more classical Greek than I can ever appreciate or use. I meet the early Church Fathers as Selwyn makes numerous quotes, and there are references to non-canonical early church letters, e.g., 1 Clement. As a pastor, I machete my way through the dense scholarship in Selwyn’s work on the hunt for his “commentary” on the verses at hand for a sermon or teaching. “Thar’s gold in them thar hills,” I keep telling myself. And there is. Any pastor who wants the historical, patristic background for the views of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6, she must grab a strong cup of coffee and read Selwyn’s “Essay I- On 1 Peter iii:18- iv:6.” The Word Biblical Commentary series is a more current critical commentary series. I have James D. G. Dunn’s on Romans. Critical commentaries celebrate textual, exegetical minutia (and I don’t mean that pejoratively).

An Application Commentary. As I noted in the last post, I have Scot McKnight’s The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Peter. The niche of this commentary series is right in the title—application—at the far end from a critical commentary. The text, of course, is explained based on thoughtful evangelical scholarship but it moves to its goal in the section called “Contemporary Relevance.” The ancient text is commented on, followed by a section called “Bridging Contexts,” i.e., from the biblical world context to our world. Followed by application, i.e., relevance. I like this series because the scholars have insights into our culture and offer suggestions for relevance that I would not know or think of. It’s a handy series for preaching, hear me, as long as you credit the author from whom you get that amazing homiletical idea. So, what does Scot offer in terms of “contemporary relevance” for 1 Peter 3:18-22? Having determined that the text is about the vindication of Jesus and justice being established, Scot writes, “We must attempt to regain a belief in justice, but we must transfer our hope away from governmental officials to God, to his actions both in this world and especially in the next. … What I argue here is that I can cope more readily with this kind of limitation and chaos [a child abuser released back to the streets on a legal technicality] in society because I know that someday all will be rectified, the guilty will be fairly punished, and the innocent victims will be vindicated to enjoy the life that God wants for them” (220, Scot’s emphasis).

The Story of God Bible Commentary. To the commentary at hand: Dennis R. Edward’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: 1 Peter. Selwyn’s commentary is 517 pages of compact print and Edward’s is 240 pages of elbow room print. The niche, once again, is in the title “Story of God.” This commentary, also, is at the other end from a critical commentary because now we see the whole forest and not the veins in the leaves of individual trees. Scholarship is not sacrificed, but is used for a specific purpose, answering this question: How does this particular text in 1 Peter fit as puzzle piece, not only into the letter, but into the sweep of God’s redemptive story? Application is not forsaken, but emerges from the stories the author tells. I mentioned some of Edward’s stories in the last post. Edwards incorporates the pertinent scholarship behind his comments, offers the various views about specific issues and texts in the book of 1 Peter. To whom did Peter write? What are the prevailing views of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6? What about “baptism saves you”? What is the meaning of “Babylon” in 5:13? Yet, the niche is the Story of God. Edwards writes, “First Peter 3:18-22 is among the most confusing parts of the NT. …Therefore, to try to interpret this passage is a lesson in humility. …[M]y suggestion as a pastor is that we offer a modification of the harrowing-of-hell perspective: that Christ defeated death (1 Cor 15:55), dealt a blow to Satan (Rev 20:2), and also proclaimed victory to imprisoned fallen angels. We should also point out that Jesus made his proclamation upon his resurrection, helping people to move away from picturing Christ in hell but rather seeing him standing tall and victorious, risen from the dead” (166).

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