Critical Thinking and Commentaries

            There are several reasons one wants to read a commentary last when studying the Bible. When one interprets the scriptures he or she needs to: identify the complete thought of the passage; examine the content of the passage; examine the context of the passage; outline the story, argument, or poetic structure of any given passage; consult experts, and apply the passage. See how consulting the experts is last? There are a few reasons for why this is the case.

  • Internal evidence is to be preferred over external evidence for the author’s intended meaning. Usually the what the author says, the author means, unless there is strong evidence to indicate otherwise.
  • You can only work with the evidence you have. Some experts are so biased against the text, for any given number or reasons, that they will make up hypothesis to try to destroy the intended meaning.
  • The goal is authorial intent, not what makes us feel better.
  • Not all experts are equal. Some have done more extensive study than others.
  • All experts are biased one way or another.

 These past couple of weeks we have been studying Genesis 1. As we have discussed, it is one of the most contested passages in the whole Bible. There have been many scholars who have written on Genesis to make it intellectually acceptable to those who refuse to believe it. This is reflected in how they write about it. Due to all of the biases against the passage (or any given passage), it is important to use critical thinking skills when interacting with these commentators.

One commentator I have had to use plenty of critical thinking skills with was John Skinner’s commentary, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis published in 1910. Dr. Skinner was the principle and professor of Old Testament language and literature at Westminster College in Cambridge. He seems like a guy who would know what he is talking about when studying Genesis, but his writing contradicts the internal and external evidence of the message in Genesis and who the author is. He writes,

“It has been shown in the Introduction (p. xxxiii) that the most obvious division of the book of Genesis is into four nearly equal parts, of which the first (chs. 1–11) deals with the Creation of the world, and the history of primitive mankind prior to the call of Abraham. These chapters are composed of excerpts from two of the main sources of the Pent., the Priestly Code, and the Yahwistic document.”[1]

            It is clear from this quote, and the long introduction, that Dr. Skinner believed that Genesis was not written by Moses, but by a compilation of oral tradition, mythology from the surrounding regions, conflicting creation accounts, the Priestly code developed around the second temple period, and the Yahwistic Document developed sometime around Ezra and Nehemiah. The problem is all of these sources are in the head of people who accept the “Documentary Hypothesis”. There are no manuscripts that prove otherwise. We even have finds today Dr. Skinner was not aware of that further prove the authenticity of the Old Testament i.e. the Dead Sea scrolls, dated to 200 B.C.- 68 A.D., and the silver scrolls containing the Numeric and Deuteronic blessings, dated to 600 B.C.[2] We do not find any significant variants that support these outlandish claims that there are different versions of Genesis scattered throughout history. It is only in the mind of the skeptics like Dr. Skinner. 

            Dr. Skinner is an extreme example of skeptical commentaries on the book of Genesis. There are better commentaries today that better reflect the intent of the author. Yet, Dr. Skinner is a good example of why one should consult commentaries last. Commentaries can be useful in consulting the grammar and historical context of a passage. Dr. Derek Kinder makes this useful observation on Genesis 1,

“Grammatically, this phrase could be translated as introducing a clause completed in verse 3 after a parenthetical verse 2: ‘When God began to create … (the earth was without form …), God said, Let there be light …’ This would not be saying that the undeveloped earth was not of God’s making; only that creation, in its full sense, still had far to go. But the familiar translation, ‘In the beginning God …’, is equally grammatical, is supported by all the ancient versions, and affirms unequivocally the truth laid down elsewhere (e.g. Heb. 11:3) that until God spoke, nothing existed.”[3]

This comment supports the internal context of the passage and the exterior context of the Bible. God was certainly not done with creation and nothing existed before He spoke.

The main point of this lesson is that when we read a commentator, we have to filter what that commentator says with the internal evidence, the context of the passage, and a little common sense. We cannot just take a commentator blindly. They could be wrong.

I hope this has blessed you. If you want to dive deeper into biblical interpretation, please check out my books presented in the resources page. These books and booklet will help you know how to study the Bible better as well as know and love Jesus more. Lord bless you. 

[1] John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, (Edinberg, Scotland, T&T Clark, 1910). 1

[2] Clive Anderson, and Brian Edwards, Evidence for the Bible, (Green Forest, Arizona, 2018). 19

[3] Derek Kinder, Genesis An Introduction and Commentary, Volume 1 of the Tyndale Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Intervarsity Press, 1967). 47 – 48.


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