When I teach Christian writing classes, I emphasize the importance of Bible study. Christian writers have an incredible privilege of inspiring and encouraging readers to draw closer to God and to dig deeper into His Word. That means writers need to know the Bible and have a solid foundation for presenting scripture in their writing.
This doesn’t mean a devotional writer needs to be a scholar of biblical texts. But there are some basics that anyone writing about scripture needs to practice. One of these is the use of reliable biblical commentaries.
When I mention commentaries, a creative writer may sigh and think, There goes the inspiration or There goes the fun or even There goes the Holy Spirit. I get it. I often have the same response. But learning how to use reliable commentaries in minimal ways is important for Christian writers. And the use of commentaries does not need to slow or make tedious our inspirational writing.
I am creating this article as an encouragement to Christian inspirational writers on the importance of using commentaries and some simple and interesting ways to do so.
Why Should We Use Commentaries in Our Christian Writing?
As Christian writers, we need to look at reliable commentaries. Through our writing, we are expressing our voice in Christian community. We need to converse with others in the community over time and space. That need to engage in dialogue is also why we check more than one commentary and see where we find overlap, consensus, or disagreement. I recommend always consulting at least two commentaries to enhance our understanding of a particular Bible passage.
In our writing, we are pointing our readers to God’s Word. We need to understand the weight of doing that. We want to be sure we are presenting scripture in a way that reflects our own dialogue with Christian community, so we are presenting to the reader as a representative of that community. We’re all in this together.
We need to take some effort to grow in our understanding of scripture over the course of our writing lives. The Holy Spirit leads us as we search the depths of scripture. Commentaries offer a good aid along the way.
Our own wounding can cause us to skew the way we understand a Bible verse. Commentaries can help us sort it through and see more clearly.
The enemy loves to mess with Christian writers, telling us one or more of the following: our understanding of scripture is wrong or not good enough; we don’t have the biblical foundation to write about scripture; or we’re going to lead readers astray. The enemy wants to stop us from writing because he knows how powerfully God will use our writing. By consulting reliable commentaries, we will be able to discern and dismiss the lies of the enemy.
When we love scripture, as most Christian writers do, a good, trustworthy commentary can also provide insights that deepen our understanding of a Bible passage. That experience is something to treasure and appreciate. Good commentaries should add joy to the inspirational process of our Christian writing.
Some Tips for Using Commentaries with Ease
Consider your use of commentaries as part of your ongoing long-term biblical growth as a writer. Don’t let it slow your writing. Let your exploration of God’s Word (a lifelong process for all of us) continue to shape your writing as you go along. Start with where you are right now. Take it as God leads. He will guide you for sure!
1. When you start working with a Bible verse, don’t go to the commentaries right away. Begin with your own prayerful work with the Holy Spirit. Don’t consult commentaries until after you have done your own study of the Bible verse and surrounding passages. You want God to work the scriptures into your heart first. Then use the commentaries for confirmation and to shed light on additional layers to explore later.
2. Find your go-to source of commentaries now, so it doesn’t become a big deal each time. It is worth the up-front investment of time to line up the commentaries you will use as a writer. Start with your church. Does your church have a library? Ask your pastor for suggestions on how to find good, reliable commentaries. (Sadly, not all commentaries are trustworthy, so seek advice from your pastor.)
Do you have a college nearby with online databases? Many local colleges give free public access to databases, and many of those databases contain biblical commentaries. Some school library databases also have free online access to full-text articles that may focus on particular biblical passages. You can often search by chapter and verse. I recommend peer-reviewed articles as the most reliable. Talk to your local college reference librarian for help. They will be glad you’ve asked.
Commentaries can be expensive to buy, but keep your eyes on your favorite publishers. Sometimes they run sales on commentaries, and you will often find good discounts on e-book versions. If you enjoy working with a particular book of the Bible, it might be worth it to buy a good commentary focusing on that book.
Do you have fellow Christian writers in your church or community? Maybe create your own co-op for commentaries. Each person buys one, and then you share with each other.
If you invest the time up front to find good sources of commentaries, you will save time down the road when you are ready to consult those commentaries. You will know exactly where to go each time.
3. Start with Bible verses you know well. One of the best ways to get your feet wet with using commentaries is to start with Bible verses you already know. When you know the meaning of a verse really well, the use of a commentary won’t bring a huge learning curve. It will simply confirm what you already know. That’s one of the easiest ways to get used to looking at commentaries.
A commentary brings you into dialogue with Christian community regarding the interpretation of a Bible verse. For some of the more commonly referenced Bible verses, you have already lived out that dialogue in Christian community. You know the interpretation of that verse and can be confident of how you are sharing it with your readers.
When I chose the Bible verse for my devotional, “Firelight,” I was very certain the core message in my devotional expressed at least part of the meaning of that verse. Why? Because I’ve heard that verse taught, preached, sung, and lived out over my entire life. I had already experienced conversation about the verse in Christian community.
So, start with Bible verses you have heard taught and discussed many times. Verses you know well. Then see how the commentaries reaffirm what you already know. That’s a great way to get used to using commentaries.
4. Start by reading just a few paragraphs from a commentary. For devotional writing and many other inspirational writing projects, you will most likely focus on one Bible verse at a time. You don’t need to read a huge portion of a commentary, just the part that covers your verse. You can read more, of course, but don’t let that cause you to put your writing project on hold. Take baby steps and grow from there. Take a quick peek at the commentaries and keep writing.
5. When you start out, you will notice how much the commentary agrees with your own understanding of your Bible verse. That shouldn’t surprise you because you know God’s Word. That’s really all you need to do: just confirm your understanding of that verse with reliable sources. It’s great if you want to explore further and discover where the commentary offers new insights. If you have a really good commentary, you may find that enjoyable. But you don’t need to do that at the start. Simply confirm: “Yep. We agree!”
6. Remember Bible verses will often have layers and nuances of meaning. If you are writing devotionals, your message will be very focused. You will just be looking at one aspect of the Bible verse you are writing about. You can skim the commentary, looking for your particular focus, and skip all the other aspects the commentary covers. That way you won’t get overwhelmed by all the layers of meaning.
When you are starting out as a Christian inspirational writer, keep it simple. Take one step, then another. With each step, you will move more deeply into your journey of Christian writing. Before long, commentaries will become a simple and natural part of prayerful preparation for your writing.