Kyle Anderson from Logos software just published a fine article on how to use Bible dictionaries. He warns against simply reaching for a commentary when we are studying the Bible.
I heartily applaud this basic sentiment. As Christians, we are supposed to be enjoying the Bible, not reading the tale of how some other person enjoyed it. It is refreshing to read the following from Gordon Fee, in his NICNT commentary on First and Second Thessalonians (p. x): “…as has been my lifelong habit, I write the commentary first and then consult the secondary literature, making any necessary adjustments and adding the proper footnotes.” Of course, this is Gordon Fee, who is able to write a basic commentary on the text without any secondary literature, a feat far beyond what most of us can handle. Still, the ideal is the same.
How sad to realize that many commentary writers are spending much more time in the secondary literature than they are in the text of Scripture. This is one of the side effects of the multiplication of commentaries in the last few decades. Apart from the danger of intellectual inbreeding, we are running the danger of making the Bible a dry book, one which is not blessing, changing and surprising the commentators and through them the readers.
Anderson’s other point was that the Bible student might profit greatly from dictionaries and lexicons, on the assumption that they will provide useful linguistic and historical data for Bible study without robbing the student of the joy of his or her own exploration. On this point too I’m in full agreement, and in fact I typically follow that same practice.
On the other hand, the student should qualify Anderson’s blog with this caveat: dictionaries do not supply “objective” information as contrasted with the supposedly “subjective” commentaries. I regularly use the IVP dictionaries and access the Anchor Bible Dictionary almost daily; I have also written articles for both series. The author of these tools do not simply supply information; rather they supply information which they then interpret. In fact, sometimes the articles are written by people who have already published their opinions in commentaries.
While their purpose is to be as neutral as possible, full neutrality is a goal, not a reality. This is true for dictionaries, certainly in word study series such as TDNT, and to some extent even in basic Hebrew and Greek lexicons. In fact, in an odd twist, some Bible dictionaries quote from commentaries. The Bible student needs so discernment with all the available tools.
“Bible Commentaries and Dictionaries, a word of advice from Logos and myself,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD en New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica