26 Mar 2010

A Talk With McGarvey on Books, Reading & Preachers

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Books, Church History, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, J. W. McGarvey, Ministry, Preaching, Restoration History


Greetings from the land of Saguaros and Scorpions. It is a marvelous day here in the desert. Bright sunshine, snow capped mountains, majestic cacti and even a few coyotes have been seen this morning.

I have watched discussion on books and study come and go by and have been struck by how different the lists look when compared to say the lists that Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell or J. W. McGarvey recommended to preachers.

In 1883, J. W. McGarvey appeared on the Missouri Christian Lectureship in Independence. He addressed the gathering on “Preacher’s Method’s.” This is an outstanding presentation by McGarvey and shows that the expectations placed on preachers in the 19th century Stone-Campbell movement were seemingly different than in many places today.

Avoiding “Inevitable Decay”

McGarvey begins his speech by exhorting every preacher to “continue to grow” lest “inevitable decay” sets in. For McGarvey every preacher needed a planned “method” to continue growing. This method had to be deliberately cultivated. This “method” included four areas:

1) a system of study of the Scriptures themselves
2) a system of study of books to deepen study of the Scriptures
3) a system of preparing for the pulpit
4) and finally a system to remain faithful in these other areas of study

“Historical Study”

McGarvey recognizes there are more ways than one to approach the biblical text, but “historically” and “devotionally” are highlighted (see Kingdom Come, 79-92 for Lipscomb’s & Harding’s views on these same matters).

McGarvey stresses “historical” study of entire books in their original context and the original language. To do this, McGarvey says, we must:

1) simply read the entire book through beginning to end repeatedly and getting the “flow” of the book, ignoring chapter and verse divisions;

2) produce an outline of the entire book that reflects your grasp of the flow of the work looking for “transitions” especially;

3) and the preacher must master the historical background of the book to ground the exegesis to avoid imposing our agenda upon it. This includes understanding the “circumstances [i.e occasion] under which it was written, and the influences at work upon the mind of the author.”

To do historical study, McGarvey acknowledges most preachers will need outside sources for help. This is not a problem to J. W. McGarvey.  McGarvey has very high standards that he holds up for the preachers in restoration churches: “Complete, systematic and exact information is what our calling demands, and this we must as soon as possible acquire.”

Laborious Process but Demanded by Truth Seeking

McGarvey recognizes that what he calls for is a “laborious process” and many will be tempted to basically cheat, skimp, or just not do it. The failure to do this was, in McGarvey’s view, “the greatest defect” in the lives of preachers. These brothers “who lack this industry must remain contented with a very imperfect knowledge.” McGarvey even questions if they should be preaching. Exegetical study, which McGarvey calls “historical study” must be a deliberate way of life for the minister. Indeed congregations have a right to not only expect this of them but to demand it.

Textual Criticism

Every preacher, every one of them McGarvey insists, should be concerned with exegesis including textual criticism in his historical study of the text, even those that do not know Hebrew or Greek. Reading in recognized sources equips the minister to handle the issues with integrity. Sounding a very different note than heard in some quarters today he opined:

As a kind of concluding remark to this part of my lecture, that in all of our study of the Scriptures we must constantly consult the original if we can, and that we must by all means use the best version. The Canterbury revision of the New Testament [i.e = 1881] should now totally supplant the King James version, because it is a great improvement as a version, but because it is the only representative in English of the corrected Greek text. A man is not safe in venturing upon the exegesis of a single passage by the aid of the other version.”

Read Standard Commentaries

McGarvey next expounds, in his lecture, his advice for the preacher to develop a system of study of books to aid the deeper understanding and exegetical study of THE book. He opens it up with the frank confession: “There is a well known prejudice against the use of Commentaries.” McGarvey did not share this opinion. Not only does McGarvey see that it is implicitly the height of arrogance on the part of most would be preachers but also sheer foolishness.

The man who attempts to gain a knowledge of the Bible by his own unaided powers, while the aid furnished by a multitude of learned predecessors is at hand, seems to declare himself the equal in exegetical power of all who have gone before him. In no other department of human study do we reject the aid of our fellow-students; why should we reject it in this?

So McGarvey confronts the self-sufficient arrogance that many of us ministers fight by thrusting the question of humility in the face of the student of the word. Do we “declare [ourselves] equal in exegetical power of all who have gone before …” Gets to the heart of the matter. But good commentaries perform at least four services to the serious student of the word according to McGarvey:

1) They “guard against blunders.” McGarvey was of the opinion that “the most egregious blunders are those committed by men of inferior learning or judgment who interpret the Scriptures without aid.” A really good commentary helps keep the student or preacher honest as well as guards against really bad interpretation!!

2) They are sources of “multitudes … of information throwing floods of light upon important passages.” McGarvey declares “no man can afford to decline the use of these gathered treasures.

3) A good commentary performs a third role according to McGarvey, a good commentary does not simply confirm what we think or make us comfortable in our ways. Rather a good commentary “awakens thought.” He says pointedly “everyone WORTH CONSULTING presents the subject in some new phase … it compels us to think again over the whole ground.” A good commentary will guard against a religious version of inbreeding!

4) The final function of a standard commentary is that they “do in the main give us the right interpretation of passages, and the right application of those ...”

At this point in the lecture McGarvey sort of pauses. He wants the student, the preacher, to have more than commentaries. But it will also pay for us to ask what KIND of commentary did he recommend? He tells us explicitly. He is forceful on this point too. The preacher should “procure two or more” of what he calls “standard” commentaries on “every portion of Scripture.” Further he says

In making selections, always choose from the more recent rather than the older works. In all departments of literature immense advances are being made on the knowledge and methods of former times, and in no department are they more rapid than in the interpretation and illustration of the Bible.”

Get a book that is abreast of the latest information. One that is informed by the best recent scholarship. He says the books the preacher seeks should “be the best commentaries in English.”

Examples of Books

Thankfully, McGarvey tells who and what he thought those commentaries were for his day. It is most enlightening given the trend in most preaching schools that McGarvey does not list a single commentary written by a member of the Stone-Campbell movement, INCLUDING HIS OWN! The preacher, the student of the word, in 1883 needed the works of these men according:

1) Lange
2) Ellicot (“who produces some of the finest specimens of grammatical exegesis“)
3) the “towering figure of J. B. Lightfoot” (who in McGarvey’s opinion was “the finest
in the way of profound historical research“)

Missing is any mention of even Alexander Campbell’s stuff. McGarvey’s own Commentary on Acts did not make the list. Moses Lard on Romans did not. This is, in retrospect, fascinating. He was on guard against the ever subtle creeping in of tunnel vision and the inbreeding of sectarianism. The preacher should possess books by the recognized “cream of the crop” scholars  for study.

But as I pointed out, McGarvey thought other works were equally important as standard commentaries. He lists the multi-volume  Smith’s Bible Dictionary, which wold be an equivalent of the Anchor Bible Dictionary of today. In his mind it “contains the cream of all knowledge possessed by the most cultivated minds in Great Britain on Bible themes.” Every preacher needed Conybeare & Howson’s Life and Epistles of Paul, they need Rawlinson’s History of the Seven Ancient Monarchies to dig into the “Old Testament.” Pressense’ Life of Jesus, and his Early Years of Christianity along with “Canon Farrar’s Life of Jesus, His Life and Epistles of Paul are to be found in the library of serious preachers.

McGarvey believed the preacher should have a solid grasp the history of the Bible and the state of contemporary research as it bears on textual criticism. He places this in the field of “evidences.”

The study, then, of the state of the Greek and Hebrew text, by the aid of works on Biblical criticism, is the first task before the student of evidences.

And what kind of books should the preacher master to learn about this kind of stuff. We learned earlier in the lecture that McGarvey is critical, not only of the King James Version, but also its underlying text. So the preacher committed to a “method” in Bible study will have read, understood, and have in his library such ground breaking works of scholarship (for their day) as:

1) Tregelles’ History of the Printed Text (of the English Bible)
2) Scrivener’s Introduction to the Critical Study of the New Testament
3) and most unnerving for some today is Westcott & Hort’s edition of the Greek text.

After the preacher has digested these works he “is prepared to study appreciatively Westcott’s work on the Canon, the most masterly work on the subject now extant in the English language.”

A Schedule for Study

In McGarvey’s view the preacher should develop a method where he will “study the Scriptures” at a “fixed part of every day.” Cultivating the habit of historical study, exegetical study every day for “over the course of a year he will be astonished at the result.”

We would do well to remember that McGarvey is not lecturing those he intends to make into scholars! He is addressing ministers … preachers!! He was not afraid to challenge the ministers with the “laborious” task of digging deeply in exegetical reverence into the written word of God.

By the time he delivered this lecture, McGarvey was a household name in Stone-Campbell churches. He had already published commentaries on Acts, Matthew and Mark, and many other studies. Yet once again not one work of the “brethren” makes his list of recommended books to preachers. When we look at his views of what a good commentaries does for the student we understand why.

When we look at the authors he lists, and the books named, McGarvey is unabashedly promoting the very best of contemporary scholarship upon “the brethren.” He was not afraid of that scholarship. He was not afraid of books because his object was the pursuit of truth and not some already agreed upon position.

Final Thoughts

In my view, and that is what it is, I think if McGarvey were alive today he would recommend books like N. T. Wright (anything by him); Christopher J. H. Wright; Walter Brueggemann, John Goldingay and others. I have given lists of books elsewhere but I think it is refreshing, enlightening and even challenging to know what some of the leading lights of yesteryear thought was worth owning and reading.

When McGarvey was given the chance to recommend a book he did not do what so many tend to do. He did not recommend something a hundred years old. He did not simply recommend “in house” writers. He recommended the “best in English.” He didn’t even recommend his own commentary.

Perhaps we can learn from this great student of the word … perhaps we can profit from his wisdom.

He who has an ear let him hear,
Bobby Valentine
Tucson, AZ

13 Responses to “A Talk With McGarvey on Books, Reading & Preachers”

  1. Eric Says:

    McGarvey is sometimes used today in ways that I think McGarvey himself would not have approved of. Certainly McGarvey must be commended for engaging with scholarship that was ignored or deemed irrelevant by many, but his work on Deuteronomy shows that he was not one to just agree with the latest theories.

    And yet, I wonder what McGarvey would do with Deuteronomy today? I’ve heard some use McGarvey on Deuteronomy to deny the value of any critical scholarship.

    At any rate, I’m far from the student of history that you are, and I appreciate your insight into all this.

    On another note, a book that wouldn’t necessarily make any top 10 of all time list for preachers but provides an interesting “practical theology” twist on N.T. Wright’s book is the current book by Tom Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral.

  2. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Fine post, Bobby.

    With his dedication and his standards, McGarvey is such an inspiration. He trained Hall Calhoun so well, by the time the student made it to Yale Divinity School, he whizzed through the B.D. (today’s M.Div.) program in ONE school year; Calhoun and his family lived at New Haven for only about 10months. Then, it was on to Harvard to complete the doctorate.

  3. Josh J. Says:


    How much, if any, do you think McGarvey’s teachings in this regard were influenced by a rational, scientific view of scripture like Alexander Campbell’s?


  4. John Says:

    Hi Bobby

    McGarvey is one of my favorites. I’ve read The Fourfold Gospel twice and still refer to it from time to time.

    I have never read any N.T. Wright. What one book of his should I read first?

    Reading commentaries is a good thing. I think there is a bit of a balance involved. Reading the work of others helps me see their ideas and reevaluate my own. But it may discourage me from seeing connections in the text that others (that is, the others I may have actually read) may have missed. But then, McGarvey said to do both, Bible and comments.

  5. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Eric, McGarvey was not afraid of scholarship. He was interested in scholarship that was rooted in faith though. He was able to change his views in light of better scholarship. For example in his Commentary on Matthew & Mark, McGarvey argues for the authenticity of 16.9-20 but he addressed that issue several more times in his life and his views changed. On Deuteronomy I recommend getting Mark Hamilton’s essay “J.W. McGarvey’s The Authorship of Deuteronomy and the Rhetoric of Scholarship” in And the Word Became Flesh edited by Tom Olbricht and David Fleer. Thanks for the heads up on Tom Long. His Witness of Preaching and Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible have “long” been some of my favorites.

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Frank thank you for the kind words.

    Josh, I have no doubt that McGarvey was a product of the same environment as Campbell. McGarvey was AC’s student at Bethany. He certainly bought into Baconian perspectives.

  7. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    John glad you are here and involved in the discussion. I recently posted a list of Ten Books that every preacher needs to read, here is a link:


    I think a good place to begin with N. T. Wright is either Surprised by Joy (which is on that list) or Simply Christian. These books, of course, are not his works of NT scholarship. But if you are ready to do some thinking and brain exercises then these books simply are the most significant books in NT scholarship in a generation:

    The New Testament and the People of God

    Jesus and the Victory of God

    The Resurrection of the Son of God

    If Wright never wrote another sentence he has assured himself that people will being PhD dissertations on him for the next hundred years.

    Many of his works are aimed at the church …

    The Last Word is an outstanding book

    The Challenge of Jesus; Justification; and Paul in Fresh Perspective will nourish your soul.

    But i think i would begin with Surprised by Joy. Then I would pick up NT&PofG … just might affect how u read the NT itself. Enjoy brother.

  8. johnxbrown Says:

    Kingdom Come just came (in the mail). I am looking forward to reading it. The book came from jjoybooks on Amazon other sellers and you signed it, but you didn’t date it.

    I guess you mean Surprised by Hope, Amazon says Surprised by Joy is C.S. Lewis. S. by Hope is the one I see referred to most often in my blog reading.

    Thanks for the advice

  9. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    John you have a copy of KC, signed by me?? Wow! I thought my mom would keep her copy!! LOL! I pray you will be blessed through it.

    Yes I meant Surprised by Hope. Surprised by Joy is a very good book too though. Wrong author and different theme.

  10. Joel Stephen Williams Says:

    You mean McGarvey didn’t recommend “100 Nifty Sermon Outlines for Preachers on the Go”?

  11. mcgarveyice Says:

    Thanks for this Bobby. Little Mac does sound like his teacher when he talks books, doesn’t he? I am posting some short reminiscences about JWM, by folks in Churches of Christ, on my blog. I have a few up and a few more scheduled. mcgarveyice.wordpress.com

  12. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Mac thanks for the kind words. And yes “Little Mac” sounds like his teacher on books. I have been keeping up with your posts on JWM on your blog and really appreciate them. Can’t thank you enough for your work at the DCHS.

  13. Mike Hughes Says:

    I wonder what McGarvey’s system for preparing for the Pulpit would be. Sermon content today has changed a lot from when I was younger or maybe I am more critical. Seems today everyone wants to get involved in Psychology when preaching and less Expounding is involved.


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