On Commentaries

In the preface to his final volume of Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of John, J. C. Ryle offered the following reflections on his extensive examination of commentaries on John’s Gospels:

I freely confess that, with increasing years and experience, I have learned to think more kindly and charitably than I once did, of theologians who belong to other schools than my own.  I am more and more convinced every year I live, that there are many Christians whose hearts are right in the sight of God, while their heads are very wrong.  I am more and more convinced, that the differences between schools of religious thought are frequently more nominal than real, more verbal than actual, and that many of them would melt away and disappear, if men would only define the terms and words they use with logical accuracy.  But, for all this, I cannot shrink from saying, as in the sight of God, that at present I know no theology which appears to me so thoroughly in accordance with Scripture as Evangelical theology.  In the belief of this I have written my notes on St. John, and in the faith of this I hope to die. With the Bible only in my hands, I find difficulties in the systems of non-Evangelical schools, which to my mind appear insuperable.

Concerning the Commentators I have consulted, in preparing my notes on St. John, I wish to make a few remarks for the benefit of my younger readers, and of those who have not access to large libraries. I see no reason to alter the opinions which I expressed seven years ago, in the Preface to my first volume. After patiently studying Cyril, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Theophylact, for twelve years, it is my deliberate conviction that their Commentaries on the Gospels are often overrated and overpraised, and that those who lead young students of theology to expect to find “all wisdom” in the Fathers, are neither wise nor kind.  After an equally patient examination of the modern German Commentators, Tittman, Tholuck, Olshausen, Stier, and Hengstenberg, I am obliged to say that I leave them with a feeling of disappointment.  About them also I raise a warning cry for the benefit of young students.  I advise them not to expect too much.  Writers like Hengstenberg and Stier are well worth reading; but I cannot say that any modern German Commentators seem to me to deserve the extravagant commendation which is often bestowed on them.  In fact I have a strong suspicion that many praise German theology without having read it!

For throwing light on the meaning of the text of St. John, and for raising just and beautiful thoughts out of it, my opinion is distinct and decided, that there are no Commentaries equal to those of the Continental divines who lived immediately after the Protestant Reformation.  Unfortunately they wrote in Latin, which few persons care to read; and their books are, generally, huge, lumbering folios, which few care to handle.  Moreover they are sometimes defective in verbal criticism, and were, most of them, more familiar with Latin than Greek.  But taking them for all in all, as Expositors and Elucidators of God’s Word, in my judgment, there is nothing like them.  The man who has carefully read the expositions of Brentius, Bullinger, Gualter, Musculus, and Gerhard, will find that later Commentaries rarely contain any good thoughts which are not to be found in these five writers, and that they say many excellent things which have not occurred to later writers at all.  Why these great Expositors are so totally ignored and neglected in the nineteenth century, I do not pretend to explain.  Some modern theologians seem not even to be aware that such Commentators as Brentius, Musculus, and Gerhard, ever existed!  But the fact is one which reflects little credit on our times.

I shall say little or nothing about the works of British Commentators.  This is a department of theological literature in which, I must plainly say, I do not think my fellow-countrymen shine.  With rare exceptions, they appear to me to fall below the level of their reputation.  I shall therefore content myself with naming a few Commentaries, which appear to me more than ordinarily useful and suggestive, and which I have seldom consulted in vain.—Rollock on John is excellent; and it is a great pity that the whole work is not translated, instead of lying buried in Latin.— Hutcheson is always good; but his value is sadly marred by his interminable divisions, uses, applications, and inferences.—Matthew Henry is generally rich in pious thoughts and pleasing illustrations, and sometimes exhibits more learning and acquaintance with books, than he is commonly credited with.—Poole’s “Annotations” are sound, clear, and sensible; and, taking him for all in all, I place him at the head of English Commentators on the whole Bible.—Alford and Wordsworth have done good service to the Church by their works on the Greek Testament, and I know none at present that I can sooner recommend to a student of the original. But they both say, occasionally, things with which I cannot agree, and they often seem to me to leave important texts very scantily expounded, or entirely unnoticed.  A fuller and more satisfactory commentary on the Greek Testament appears to me to be still wanted.—Burgon’s “Plain Commentary on the Gospels” is an excellent, suggestive, and devout work. But I cannot agree with him, when he touches such subjects as the Church, the Sacraments, and the Ministry.

—In fact, the conclusion I arrive at, after a diligent examination of many Commentators, is always one and the same.  I trust none of them unreservedly, and I expect nowhere to find perfection.  All must be read with caution.  They are good helps, but they are not infallible.  They are useful assistants, but they are not the pillar of cloud and fire.  I advise my younger readers to remember that.  Use your own judgment prayerfully and diligently.  Use commentaries; but be a slave to none.  Call no man master.

J. C. KYLE. Stradbroke Vicarage, Suffolk, February, 1873.

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