James W. Alexander on the abuse of biblical commentary and other treatises

Jerrod Hess

Puritan Board Freshman
So truly are perverse methods founded in an evil nature, and so prone are we to abuse the best principles, that, with the Bible in our hands, as a chosen study, we may slide into the old blunder of undigested and impertinent erudition. The text may be swallowed up of commentary. Indeed, we know not a field in which pedantic erudition careers with more flaunting display, than this of interpretation. Young clergymen there are, whose proudest toils consist in the constant consultation of a shelf of interpreters, chiefly German. We protest against this pretended auxiliary when it becomes a rival. The commentary, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master. The state of mind produced by sitting in judgment to hear twenty or fifty different expounders give their opinions on a verse, is morbid in a high degree; and cases are occurring every year, of laboriously educated weaklings, rich in books, who are utterly destroyed for all usefulness by what may be called their polymathic repletion. No—more knowledge of Scripture is generally derived from direct study of the text, in the original, with grammar and lexicon, than from examining and comparing all the opposite opinions in Pool’s Synopsis, De Wette, or Bloomfield.

Again we say, commentaries must be used, and thankfully, but just as we use ladders, crutches, and spectacles; the exception, not the rule; the aid in emergency, not the habit every moment. There are times when what we most of all need is to open the eye to the direct rays of self-evidencing truth; and at such times every intervening human medium keeps out just so many rays from falling on the retina. Holy Scripture cannot make its true impression unless it be read in continuity; a whole epistle, a whole gospel, a whole prophecy at once; and with repetition of the process again and again; but this is altogether incompatible with the piecemeal mode of leaving the text every moment to converse with the annotator. The best posture for receiving light is not that of an umpire among contending interpreters. So far as the text is understood by us, our study of it is converse with positive truth. Suppose some errors are picked up, as they will be, in individual cases: these will be gradually corrected by the confluent light of many passages. The sum of truths will be incalculably greater than the sum of errors. The healthful body of truth will gradually extrude the portion of error, and cause it to slough off. The analogy of faith will more and more throw its light into dark places. All these effects will be just in proportion to the daily, diligent, continuous study of the pure text. Generally it will be found, that the more perusal of the text, the more acquisition of truth. And in application to the case of preachers, if we have learnt anything by the painful and mortifying experience of many years, it is, that of all preparatives for preaching, the best is the study of the original Scripture text. None is so suggestive of matter: none is so fruitful of illustration; and none is so certain to furnish natural and attractive methods of partition. If we did not know how many live in a practice diametrically opposed to it, we should almost blush to reiterate, what indeed comprehends all we are urging, that God’s truth is infinitely more important than good methods of finding it.

James W Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching (Solid Ground Christian Books), pp. 178-179
 

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
When I hear thoughts such as the venerable Dr. J.W. Alexander posits, pretty much saying that only those who can read the original languages expertly are to be trusted, I hesitate. For even scholars and experts differ, not to mention those who are renegade from the faith, yet still highly educated and skilled. I am reminded of what was said of John Bunyan:

There was one book, however, that he knew as hardly any other man in any age has known it — the Bible. His knowledge of it was not the scholar's knowledge, for he knew nothing of Greek and Hebrew or even of such Biblical criticism as existed in his own day. What he had was a verbal knowledge of the English versions that was never at fault. Many stories are told of the readiness with which he could produce apposite scriptural quotations, often to the confusion of much more learned men than himself. This intimacy with the Bible, combined with one other element, is enough to account for the substance of The Pilgrim's Progress. That other element is his profound acquaintance with the rustic and provincial life about him, and with the heart of the average man. (Source)​

This view of Bunyan is confirmed by another,

“John Owen, generally reckoned to be the most accomplished and learned theologian that England has ever produced, was asked by the King [Charles II] why he was so fond of listening to the Particular Baptist John Bunyan preach, ‘to hear a tinker prate,’ as the King sarcastically expressed it. Owen replied, ‘May it please your Majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.” (Life of John Owen)​

Not to detract in any sense from the honor of Dr. Alexander, let us not depreciate the work of God's Spirit in lowly yet godly men in giving them understanding and skill — sometimes with the aid of (trusted) learned expositors and exegetes — for the edifying of God's people. We are not to have a priestly class of "experts" over us, as the perspicuity of Scripture is a truth we hold to, and, when needed, we have tools to aid us in difficult passages. An educated and sound minister is a God-send, though somewhat rare in these days, and not all churches have such. Even relatively simple folks have the tools and resources sufficient to feed and guard the flocks of the King.
 

VilnaGaon

Puritan Board Sophomore
When I hear thoughts such as the venerable Dr. J.W. Alexander posits, pretty much saying that only those who can read the original languages expertly are to be trusted, I hesitate. For even scholars and experts differ, not to mention those who are renegade from the faith, yet still highly educated and skilled. I am reminded of what was said of John Bunyan:

There was one book, however, that he knew as hardly any other man in any age has known it — the Bible. His knowledge of it was not the scholar's knowledge, for he knew nothing of Greek and Hebrew or even of such Biblical criticism as existed in his own day. What he had was a verbal knowledge of the English versions that was never at fault. Many stories are told of the readiness with which he could produce apposite scriptural quotations, often to the confusion of much more learned men than himself. This intimacy with the Bible, combined with one other element, is enough to account for the substance of The Pilgrim's Progress. That other element is his profound acquaintance with the rustic and provincial life about him, and with the heart of the average man. (Source)​

This view of Bunyan is confirmed by another,

“John Owen, generally reckoned to be the most accomplished and learned theologian that England has ever produced, was asked by the King [Charles II] why he was so fond of listening to the Particular Baptist John Bunyan preach, ‘to hear a tinker prate,’ as the King sarcastically expressed it. Owen replied, ‘May it please your Majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.” (Life of John Owen)​

Not to detract in any sense from the honor of Dr. Alexander, let us not depreciate the work of God's Spirit in lowly yet godly men in giving them understanding and skill — sometimes with the aid of (trusted) learned expositors and exegetes — for the edifying of God's people. We are not to have a priestly class of "experts" over us, as the perspicuity of Scripture is a truth we hold to, and, when needed, we have tools to aid us in difficult passages. An educated and sound minister is a God-send, though somewhat rare in these days, and not all churches have such. Even relatively simple folks have the tools and resources sufficient to feed and guard the flocks of the King.
I read somewhere that Spurgeon said that if you pricked Bunyan, he bled Bible.
 
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