Essay / On This Day

Adam Clarke and the Whole Bible

Today (August 26) marks the death of Adam Clarke (1762-1832), one of the greatest of evangelical Bible commentators. His masterpiece and lifework (first published from 1810 to 1826) is the voluminous commentary on the entire Bible, which is stunning for the amount of detailed investigation it brings together in one place.

The full title of the work is

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: The Text carefully printed form the most correct copies of the present authorized translation, including the marginal readings and parallel texts; with a Commentary, and Critical Notes, designed as a help to a better understanding of the Sacred Writings.

I don’t have the relevant statistics about it (page count, etc.), but it’s big. The online edition at is of limited usefulness because of persistent font trouble in Greek and Hebrew. Much of it is available at Google books (volumes 1, 2, 3, etc., including the whole NT in one volume), and a reasonably-priced CD can be had from Logos Software. (If you know a better online source, e-mail me via my Scriptorium author’s page and I’ll update this post with the info).

Spurgeon had this to say about Clarke’s commentary:

Adam Clarke is the great annotator of our Wesleyan friends; and they have no reason to be ashamed of him, for he takes rank among the chief of expositors. His mind was evidently fascinated by the singularities of learning, and hence his commentary is rather too much of an old curiosity shop, but it is filled with valuable rarities, such as none but a great man could have collected. Like Gill, he is one sided, only in the opposite direction to our friend the Baptist. The use of the two authors may help to preserve the balance of your judgments.

Spurgeon even joked that he had to keep his John Gill (very very Calvinist, dare I say hyper?) and his Adam Clarke commentaries (quite Arminian, maybe more consistently so than Wesley) separated on the bookshelf so they wouldn’t wake him up at night with their arguing. He put the commentary of the more neutral Doddridge in between them as a buffer. Spurgeon goes on:

If you have a copy of Adam Clarke, and exercise discretion in reading it, you will derive immense advantage from it, for frequently by a sort of side light he brings out the meaning of the text in an astonishingly novel manner. I do not wonder that Adam Clarke still stands, notwithstanding his peculiarities, a prince among commentators. I do not find him so helpful as Gill, but still from his side of the question, with which I have personally no sympathy, he is an important writer, and deserves to be studied by every reader of the Scriptures.

Clarke knew so much that he sometimes lost sight of the forest temporarily as he pursued his interest in one of the trees. Spurgeon cites as an example of Clarke’s occasional lapses of judgment the odd digression on Genesis 3 where Clarke follows out some etymological arguments to the conclusion that Eve was tempted by an ape, not a serpent. It is a mark of Clarke’s overall sagacity that he presents this argument in a way that is ultimately helpful to his readers, and illuminating about the dynamics of Genesis 3, even for those of us (by which I mean everybody but Clarke) who think that was probably a serpent, not a monkey. Selah.

Another time besides the day of his death, I will write about Clarke’s mis-steps in the doctrine of the Trinity. All told, Clarke was solid on the doctrine of the Trinity, and held a very high view of the absolute deity of Christ in particular. However, he dropped the ball on one of the sub-doctrines that make up the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, the eternal sonship of Christ. Clarke believed that when the Scriptures talk about Jesus, they only call him “son” when they are referring to him as incarnate, and that Scripture never thinks of the pre-existent divine second person as being the “son” of the first person. “Son” only applies to the incarnation, not eternity past, according to Clarke.

But the great tradition of trinitarianism has always understood Scripture to be pointing to the fact that from all eternity, the second person is from the first, that “son” refers to the eternal second person, and that in the incarnation the eternal son became the incarnate son. In fact, without that argument, it’s hard to see how the church would have found a way to describe the incarnate son as divine. So Clarke’s position is an oddity, rejecting eternal sonship but affirming the doctrines of Christ’s deity and the Trinity. Sadly, Clarke’s view on incarnational sonship has had more influence than his idea about the monkey in the garden of Eden. But that is a topic for another day. I have nit-picked at a couple of problems in Adam Clarke’s monumental feat of scholarship in service to the church and the truth.

Take up and read Clarke on whatever passage of Scripture you are currently studying. You will find help and insight on every page of Clarke, for any page of the whole Bible!

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