Secondary Sources: More Harm Than Good?

In the world of Bible study, there are several types of great tools, such as Concordances and Lexicons, to help us successfully navigate the teachings of the Bible. Beyond these, many people also rely on secondary, extra-biblical sources for their study, knowledge and understanding—and for good reason. There is an inordinate amount of Bible-related information that is simply not contained or well-developed in the Bible. But the problem is that, when it comes to understanding Scripture itself, many will mistakenly turn to secondary sources first, rather than to God’s word. Secondary sources make it extremely easy to find answers to biblical questions… perhaps, too easy.

Take Bible Dictionaries or Encyclopedias, for example. These resources are used to learn about things such as the different Jewish sects of the first century, ancient units of measurement, biblical character portraits, and much more. When dealing with factual subjects, their entries are likely to be accurate and educational—albeit extraneous, potentially distracting from what is truly important, and generally holding little everyday value for the life of the believer. Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias also often address theological subjects such as salvation, atonement, or the deity of Yeshua. In these cases, the various authors tend to take much more liberty with their topic, and are free to infuse their own subjective, theological ideas, which can color our understanding.

Similarly, Commentaries also face this possible issue. Un­like Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, Commentaries are primarily theological in nature, containing short articles that specifically correspond to particular Bible verses or passages, rather than being topical. The breadth of work evident in a commentary can give the impression that the author possesses an uncommon amount of biblical knowledge, and therefore his work should carry greater weight. But it shouldn’t. As with anyone’s teachings, the correctness of the commentary will depend entirely on the theology of the commentator. Even a highly-regarded commentary can contain incorrect Bible interpretation. Eigh­teenth century scholar Matthew Henry, for instance, taught in his six-volume, exhaustive commentary of the Bible that true and real Christians are now the true and real Jews. Paul begs to differ (Romans 2:28-3:2).

Study Bibles, as well, can be particularly problematic. These specially-published Bibles embed supplementary material directly next to, above and below the text of Scripture itself. Although this makes for an extremely convenient study resource, the format has a severe lack of barrier between God’s pure word and the fallible words of man. It constantly bombards the reader with information and concepts that he might never even dream of, were it not for the intrusion of human thoughts and ideas imposing themselves on the precious pages of Scripture. This is precisely what happened through the teachings of the 20th century Scofield Reference Study Bible, which proposed and enshrined the errant idea that an earth millions of years old is biblically compatible with the word of God. Study Bibles are troublesome because they butt the words of men directly up against the words of God, which unavoidably gives that material an undue influence, if not authority, over the reader’s understanding of the text.

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Whenever we over-rely on things like Bible Dictionaries or Encyclopedias, Commentaries, Study Bibles, or even sermons and the religious writings of our various faith traditions, we will inevitably adopt the points of view of those teachers, scholars and experts, and then filter what the Bible actually says through those secondary sources. When we aren’t getting our biblical understanding primarily from reading the Scriptures for ourselves, those other voices become God’s word to us. We need to differentiate between resources that simply help us read the Bible, and resources that tell us what they think the Bible means.

So use secondary sources sparingly, if at all. Remember that God’s word is the one word that should carry the most weight, and to limit all other voices so that the Scriptures can clearly speak for themselves.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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2 replies
  1. Trish Tipton
    Trish Tipton says:

    Just curious…If you’re not able to read the original Hebrew or Greek and want to understand the scripture from the original text, would you recommend using an Interlinear Hebrew, Greek, English Bible?


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