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Writing a Commentary, with Christopher Ash

We're blessed at CCM to currently count Christopher Ash, director of the Cornhill Training Course  among our congregation.  Even more than his smiling demeanor and fantastic cheese and ham muffins, each term Christopher contributes a series of sermons from the book of John (we're currently hearing from John 13 & 14).  Hearing that he is also currently writing a commentary on the fourth Gospel, we thought there were some questions which would provide for an interesting insight into this process.

Christopher Ash preaching at CCM

Christopher has been so thorough in his answers that we've decided to break this up into discussion on "writing a commentary" (this post) and "the differences between writing a commentary and preaching".

CCM: We understand you’re writing a commentary on the book of John, could you tell us a little bit about the process of writing a commentary and how you’ve gone about it?

CA: Writing a commentary takes me a very long time. Some people may be able to write them quickly, but I can’t. I have written three so far:

  • Romans (in two parts: I, II)

And two on the book of Job:

  • Out of the Storm, a short introduction
  • Job: the wisdom of the Cross, forthcoming through Crossway in 2014.  A full commentary on every verse in the book.

I am now working towards writing the new Proclamation Trust volume on Teaching John’s Gospel. But don’t hold your breath for its publication!

The process is messier than I will outline, but I think there are five major parts: prayer, study, reflection, preaching and teaching, and writing.

A. Prayer

I need to pray because God the Holy Spirit has inspired the writing of these texts, and I am spiritually dim and slow; I can read the bible again and again and just not see clearly what is in it. I need the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit to open my blind eyes day after day. I need the whole process to be soaked in prayer.

B. Study

I need to study the text carefully, working through it verse by verse to make sure I understand the words, the sentences, the arguments, the flow, the logic, the original context, as well as I possibly can. It’s jolly hard work! Primarily I need to work with the text rather than with commentaries, studying hard, noting my observations, puzzles, and questions. But I do also need to consult others, both other preachers and teachers who are my friends, but also and especially absent or dead ‘friends’, that is to say, the best of the commentators who have written on this book. It would be arrogant to cut myself off from Christian history and think that I, as a solitary individual in my study, can do the work of understanding and interpretation all on my own.

I tend to work carefully through one or two heavy technical commentaries, refer to a few others, and perhaps dip into some lighter commentaries. These will help me to be sure I understand the meanings of words, alert me to difficult or controversial issues in interpretation, and give me other angles from which to view the book. They sharpen me up, force me to ask myself why I understand it the way I do, and sometimes prompt me to reassess my understanding.

C. Reflection

Reflection goes along with study. I need to mull things over, to carry questions around with me on walks or bike rides, on the bus, or when going to sleep. As I do my regular bible reading day by day in other parts of the bible, I am asking myself what light the whole bible sheds on the particular book I am studying.

The American theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards used to pin little notes to his clothing while out on horseback, to make sure he didn’t forget good ideas when he had them! I keep a pad of paper by the bedside and paper and pen on me at all times. I am reluctant to lend my black ‘Bic’ biro to others, because I never know when an idea may come into my head, and will be panicked if I cannot write it down! My wife Carolyn is used to me jotting things down in the middle of the night. Sometimes in the cold light of day I can see they weren’t such good ideas; but sometimes they can be just the insight I need to open up a passage.

D. Preaching and teaching

Preaching and teaching is critical to the process. I try to find opportunities to preach on the book I am working on, as much and as fully as I can. I especially try to preach on the difficult parts, the parts I most struggle to understand. It is when I pray and prepare to preach to a congregation that a text comes into focus. This is often the first time I really feel I have grasped it, even approximately.

Largely I think this is because I am asking myself what impact this text ought to have on myself and my hearers. Why did God the Holy Spirit cause it to be written? What change does God want to effect in us through it? The study of texts and commentaries on my own can easily degenerate into rather a sterile affair. One famous theologian said that some scholars’ approach to the bible is akin to taking a gun and carefully removing all the live ammunition from it, so that it can have no impact! But when you prepare to preach, you have to pray and work for impact, for changed lives.

At the PT Cornhill Training Course I have the privilege of being able to teach through the same bible book again and again, to zealous and thoughtful students whose questions do a lot to sharpen me up. Most pastors are not able to do this; much as they might wish to, they cannot say to their churches, “I’m going to preach Ephesians again this year. I know I preached it last year, but I want to see if I can do better second, third, fourth, time around!” But at Cornhill I have new students each year, so it’s ok. I had taught right through Romans four or five times before writing Teaching Romans. Likewise with Job. Next year will be my fourth time teaching through John’s gospel at Cornhill. Each time I feel I am getting just a little bit closer to being able to write up the material.

E. Writing

Finally, I try to write up my material as clearly and helpfully as I can. Well, to be more accurate, I write up a draft and try it out next time I teach it at Cornhill. Then I revise it, sometimes pretty radically. Then perhaps I revise it again. And finally it sees the light of day as a book, and I pray it will do somebody somewhere some good.

Incidentally, it is not that these five parts are done sequentially, one after another. It is more like a series of circles or a spiral, praying, studying, reflecting, preaching and teaching, drafting a manuscript, more praying, more studying, more reflecting, more preaching and teaching, and so on and so on. No wonder it takes so long and is such hard work!

CCM: Considering the number of resources available on many books of the Bible, we're wondering if there is a specific thing you were hoping to add to the Zeitgeist when you set out? 

CA: That is a very good question. Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh, both to the authors and to those who have to read their books. We need to justify publishing more.

In the Proclamation Trust, we are publishing a series, written by various authors, aimed at helping to equip preachers, bible teachers, and bible study leaders, to teach and preach these bible books. The books covered so far include Numbers, Isaiah, Amos, Acts, Romans, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter, and there are several more in the pipeline.

Broadly speaking, commentaries may be divided into two main groups:

  1. Technical
    These can be pretty dry, but give detailed technical background on meanings of words and sometimes quite detailed discussion of issues in interpretation.
  2. Popular
    Often not very different from published sermons; the best of these are accessible and readable, and can be helpful and encouraging.

But neither kind of commentary puts into the hands of a preacher or bible study leader the tools to help them prepare a sermon, talk, or study, for themselves. Our series seeks to do that. So we include guidance on the structure of the text, some discussion on the flow and meaning of the text, but also some pointers to how the text ought to be responsibly applied to the hearers. It is this business of application - where the text is earthed, ‘lands’ in the hearts, minds, and wills of the hearers - that is perhaps the hardest part of preaching, and where most commentaries help us hardly at all. Our aim is to include help with this. So we are trying to plug what we perceive to be a gap in current resources, and to produce clear and accessible commentaries that will be of practical help to those engaged in the work of bible teaching.

My commentary on Job is part of Crossway’s Preaching the Word series (edited by Kent Hughes), and similarly aims to model for readers the transition from careful study of the text to practical preaching of passages.

CCM: Finally, could you tell us a bit about how writing this commentary has impacted your personal relationship with the Lord, and your ministry?

CA: I love John’s gospel. It seems to me that the strongest central theme is that in Jesus, and now by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God the Father is made known to men and women. My heart is often thrilled afresh by this vision of the invisible Father God being made known to people, first and definitively by Jesus in his earthly ministry and supremely his death, and now by the Holy Spirit as he bears testimony in our hearts to Jesus. I think studying and preaching John makes me love the Father more, and - more significantly - rejoice more deeply in the Father’s love for me and all who are in Christ. It is helping me relate to God in a way that is more self-consciously Trinitarian, as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In all this, it is helping me with the assurance of living in the love of God.

Thanks so much to Christopher for sharing this with us.  We'll be back later this week with some comparisons & contrasts between writing a commentary and preaching!

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Medical Electives & Mission Work

Hi Emma, and thanks so much for taking some time to speak with us!  From the CCM Prayer Diary, we heard that you're about to start a 9 week medical elective in Madagascar, with our Mission Partners the Linleys, and we're excited to hear about it.  Maybe you could start by telling us a bit about your medical studies and background?

Thanks so much for having me! In terms of my studies, I’m a final year medical student at Imperial, and I’ve just finished my final exams (currently nervously awaiting results).

In terms of background, I grew up in the countryside as the daughter of 2 GPs, with missionary grandparents. My Mum was born in the Congo, and my grandparents lived out there for a little over 15 years (with a few breaks in the middle while the rebels put them on a death list!). So I grew up hearing wonderful (and sometimes pretty scary) stories from my Grandma about all the things they got up to out there. My Grandpa flew planes with the RAF in the war, so I thought I’d combine the 2, and as a child my dream was to be a flying doctor: I would fly the plane to a remote village in Africa, land, vaccinate all the children, cure all the diseases and fly on to the next village.  So this trip (getting a tiny MAF plane to a fairly remote hospital) is like a bit of my dream coming true (except I won’t be flying the plane, or curing any diseases!)

In the past I’ve done my fair share of travelling, my Dad is a very keen traveller and wherever we went on holiday we had to see everything and do everything there was to do, then I went backpacking round Asia on my own for my gap year (and no, my parents aren’t negligent, honest), and since then I’ve spent several summers in Kenya where my Mum is on the board of a charity. I married Richard almost 2 years ago, and since then have been trying to persuade him that holidays aren’t for resting, they’re for 6am starts to get in 4 museums before breakfast! (He’s relieved there are no museums in Mandritsara…)

Is it normal for a medic to travel abroad to Africa while studying/training?

Sort of. All medical students do a 2-3 month elective during their final year and we’re encouraged to either do a very specialist subject, or go abroad to a lower income country to see medicine in a different context. Realistically, lots of people go somewhere near a beach so they can spend 3 days a week at the hospital and 4 days a week at the beach!

So why are you heading to Mandritsara?

I chose Madagascar for my elective for several reasons. Firstly, I thought it would be fun/interesting to go and stay with some of our mission partners (in this case, the Linleys) to see what they get up to and try to get involved. Hopefully I’ll get a flavour of what life as a missionary is really like, and get to know them better.  It’s a lot easier to pray for people you know, so hopefully I’ll pray for them much more diligently when I get back! I also love Africa, so any chance to go and explore more of it is a delight, and helping out in the hospital while I’m there will be great too.

Pictures from the Linley's latest prayer letter. Let us know if you'd like to receive their prayer letters via e-mail!

What will you be doing at the hospital?

That depends on what they need, and what I am capable of. I’ll probably be doing basic tasks like putting up drips, but also hopefully getting to assist with some operating, and in helping deliver babies in the maternity unit. I’ve just finished my finals, so have the advantage that I’ve completed the bulk of final year (my elective is all that’s left really) so have more experience than some of the students going a year earlier in their studies. I might also have the opportunity to go out into local villages. It’ll mostly depend on how good my French is though!

This all sounds really wonderful and we hope it's an exciting and encouraging time away.  What can we be praying for you while you’re there?

That Richard and I would settle in and be able to get involved quickly (he’s there for 3 weeks, I’m there for 9). Please pray that our French would be good enough to start with that we can get by, and that it would improve very quickly so we can be useful. Please also pray that we would be able to encourage the people that are out there full time, and be encouraged by them!

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