Sunday, April 5, 2009

Review of the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary

Tyndale publishes the NLTse bible. The cornerstone is a commentary series designed for a verse for verse walk through.

As they put it
The Cornerstone Biblical Commentary provides students, pastors, and laypeople with up-to-date, evangelical scholarship on the Old and New Testaments. It’s designed to equip pastors and Christian leaders with exegetical and theological knowledge to better understand and apply God’s word by presenting the message of each passage as well as an overview of other issues surrounding the text.

The book studies open up with a long introduction, an expanded version of what you would find in a good study bible. The bulk of the books consist of a small passage from the bible (about 5 verses) then a long series of translation notes followed by an exegetical commentary. The closets analogy I can think of is Zondervan's Expositor's Commentary for the NIV.

Really as I see it, this series consists of two books woven together. The translation commentary gives an "official" translation explaining the NLTse. Where they stood on various translation issues, why they translated the way they did. What is nice about it is that while it address the Greek it doesn't assume Greek. It is clearly designed to explain reasons choices were made assuming the reader isn't aware of those choices. It explains shades of meaning the translation couldn't capture because of the inevitable choices made in translation. For a church leader of a church which uses the NLT as their bible this makes the series an absolute no brainer purchase. I should point out though there is very little discussion of manuscripts or how the underlying Greek was choosen. The translation commentery will not replace a more serious original languages commentery like NIGTC. But unlike NIGTC the average Christian reader can read Cornerstone comfortably.

The second bulk of the book is commentery on the content. This definitely is theologically narrow in the sense it works strictly from a modern evangelical protestant viewpoint. The tone is "the passage means" where the meaning is what one would find in a good evangelical commentery or sermon. Alternate views of passages are not covered. Scholarly views are not covered. The introductions frequently assume all sorts of points. For example the introduction to the Pastoral Epistles mentions counter arguments to Paul's authorship in a sentence and then gives a one paragraph apologetic in response. Which is all to say that Cornerstone is a very good evangelical study bible but I can't call it a work of scholarship. What it does do though is alert the reader to where there is scholarship on various issues. Where I think Cornerstond works really well, would be for church bible study groups, and self directed study. Again since the average knowledgeable Christian can read cornerstone well they can get a great deal more depth without having to dig into various manuscripts or 30 footnotes on obscure academic papers. It also might be very useful for preparation for expository preaching, yet another reason for a church leader in an NLTse congregation to buy it. The intent is to hit the major points from an evangelical perspective, not to explicate the major points in the secondary and academic literature like Baker's or NIGTC would which is what a pastor is going to be looking for.

When I first agreed to do this review I had expected to contrast Cornerstone with Anchor. I had briefly looked at Cornerstone and the mix of mostly English theology with a light discussion of Greek, felt like the mix from Anchor. Since they included Hebrews a contrast with Buchanan's To the Hebrews, was what I had in mind, a terrific liberal vs. conservative treatment review. But as I started to write the contrast I found I really couldn't do that review. Cornerstone is a very comfortable read: pick a text, specify an important issue bring it to resolution all in 30 seconds. Anchor is much much more detailed and the conversation is happening at a higher level: text --> issue --> concepts about the issue --> further works on those concepts;  with no clear resolution the goal is knowledge not answers. I can't imagine using Anchor as the basis for a small group bible study. In the same way I can't imagine myself actually using Cornerstone as a primary commentary. I was constantly frustrated both in its historical analysis and its textual commentary by how it brushed off key alternate viewpoints. Anchor is all about the non-obvious, Cornerstone is all about making sure the reader gets the key points, NIGTC is all about the debate.

The fair comparison and the most applicable is with the Expositors commentary, as I mentioned above. Cornerstone plays the same role for the NLT that Expositors does the NIV. In terms of history I have to say Expositors is more detailed. In terms of theology and exposition Cornerstone is more detailed. But the real advantages of Cornerstone are in two areas. First the form factor, Expositors are oversized books while Cornerstone are slightly smaller than average hardcover. For use in a small group bible study I think this is major advantage. The second is the underlying translation. The NLTse is a better translation and does a better job in capturing nuance than the NIV does. Moreover the Expositors is still reacting to the debates of the 1970s in terms of replacing the KJV while for Cornerstone those are long passed, so the notes on the translation are dealing with contemporary issues.

In short what Cornerstone is really is a great expansion of the NLT Study Bible. A series of 8500 pages of discussion of scripture readable and most likely extremely useful by any interested Christian, lay leaders or a pastor. The availability of a set like this provides another good reason for a church that is looking for a translation to pick the NLT. The commentary is translation specific and viewpoint specific and makes good use of that specificity to remain focused on what the bible says. Where I can't recommend it is for someone with less applied goals.

In many ways the Tyndale's NLT lineup is a fantastically strong lineup. They have a teen bible, which is tasteful and usable a really nice collection of study and devotional bibles (upcoming post) aimed at adults and a commentery which is useful for pastors and small group church study. They also have the best NT interlinear on the market. For an evangelical church it is getting hard to see why one would pick another publisher's lineup. Zondervan is still splitting itself between the NIV and the TNIV while Tyndale is unified behind a single product. The NRSV offers this sort of breadth (and more) for the 7 sisters, but most evangelical churchs wouldn't be comfortable with those works.

Apple used to run commercials "the computers people actually use", Cornerstone could use the phrase, "the commentary people actually read".

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