Saturday, June 28, 2014
Commentaries -- Be Cautious
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)
I use several English translations of the Scriptures during my routine study through the Bible. Doing so helps tease out important nuances – nuances that can be missed when translating from one language into another. I typically have used the Catholic Revised Standard Bible and the Ignatius Study Bible (my recommended Bible for Catholics), along with several Protestant translations such as the New International, the New King James, and the New American Standard Bible (my recommendation for Protestants).
For decades I have cautiously used Bibles with commentaries printed alongside the biblical texts. I know the text itself is fully inspired by God, but the commentaries are simply the opinions of editors and theologians. And while their comments can help increase our understanding of various passages, those same comments can misguide us because, unlike the biblical writers who wrote under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, commentaries by editors and theologians are just that: Commentaries. Opinions.
Moses, Isaiah, Hosea, Luke, Paul, and the others cannot be wrong. Editors and theologians can be.
Several weeks ago I retired my worn New American Standard Bible and replaced it with a New American Inductive Study Bible (NAISB). I purchased the NAISB because it has what has become a unique feature in modern Bibles: It has 1.5 inch margins that permit me to jot down my thoughts as I read.
The other day, as I turned to St. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, I perused the editor’s introductory comments. This is part of that commentary:
“Paul also was concerned about the church at Ephesus. Timothy, his faithful co-laborer, was pastoring that strategically important church. Possibly concerned that he might be delayed and that Timothy might need instructions to set before others as an ever-present reminder, Paul wrote to his beloved son in the faith an epistle that would become a legacy for the church and a pillar and support of the truth . . . .” (underline is my emphasis).
This editorial comment perfectly illustrates the danger inherent in an uncritical reading of any Bible commentary – whether in a Catholic Bible or a Protestant one. In this case, unless we are familiar with First Timothy, we would miss the theological error nestled in that last phrase about the “pillar and support of the truth.” The editorial comment can lead us to believe Paul’s epistle was the pillar and support of the truth. But that is not at all what the biblical text says. Here is what St. Paul wrote: “. . . I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
The Holy Spirit, writing through St. Paul, wants us to know it is the Church – not the letter Paul had written to Timothy – but it is the Church that is the “pillar and support of the truth.”
Based on the plain sense of this text (there are others, of course), and on the context of this text, Catholics believe Scripture undergirds the Catholic view of apostolic succession and the authority given by Christ to the Church to support and infallibly teach truth regarding faith and morals. One would never come to that conclusion by only reading the editorial commentary.
"All Scripture,” the Holy Spirit reminds us through St. Paul, “is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
It is important for Christians to make a habit of reading the Scriptures – to read them often, and prayerfully. It is also important for us to remember that while commentaries can be useful tools of Bible study – commentaries can be wrong.