Essay / Literature

Let Us Now Praise Study Bibles

The ESV Study Bible is soon to be released, and from the plentiful pre-release materials that I’ve seen online, this promises to be a great resource. The editors seem to have crammed a lot of helpful things into a single volume, including background info, maps where you need them, and essays that I wouldn’t normally have thought of as belonging in a study Bible: essays on interpretation, systematic theology, and even world religions. And they have also made judicious selections about what to leave out, what to emphasize, and how to keep the support materials from overtaking the main text. Like many people, I’m looking forward to getting a copy, and am wondering if it will be serviceable as my “main Bible” –not a reference work that lives at my desk, but the Bible I carry most often, to consult, study, jot notes in, and use for teaching.

Hook bible illustrationLooking back on the various Bibles I’ve used as my “main Bible” over the years, I see a tattered little brown King James Version with illustrations by Richard and Frances Hook. It makes me happy to see that I wore this thing out, underlining in red felt-tip, highlighting in bright yellow, and making marginal notes that seem pretty obtuse to me now but obviously mattered a lot to me around age 16. I also must have memorized a lot of scripture back then, because whenever I have to dig deep into my memory for a passage, it comes out of my mouth in startlingly Elizabethan prose. Then there’s a New American Standard edition of The Open Bible that I moved into and took many more notes in. Seminary had me using a paperback NRSV most of the time, but I never really warmed up to the translation, and ended up gravitating back to a leather New American Standard for my own studies. A compact interlinear Greek New Testament has been a good way to keep myself sharp on the grammar of the Greek NT. I used a hardcover blue NAS for the first several years of teaching at Biola, but a few years ago we at the Torrey Honors Institute switched to the English Standard Version for our class work, and true to its promise, that translation has served well for church, school, and family use alike.

Of all those “main Bibles” I’ve moved through, only The Open Bible was an actual study Bible with notes throughout, and I consulted them frequently. I’ve looked into my dad’s Scofield Bible and my wife’s Life Application Bible, but mostly I’ve preferred carrying around a basic text without any accompanying commentary. After all, I teach in a great books program that pushes students to have a direct encounter with primary-source classics rather than reading textbooked excerpts. So it makes sense that I would be prone to recommending the simple text of the Bible itself, unencumbered by commentary. If you’ve ever been around a Bible-study participant who answered every question with “The note in my study Bible says….”, then you know how a mis-handled study Bible can put the brakes on thoughtful interaction with Scripture.

That is probably the main objection to study Bibles: that they do your thinking for you. Precisely in a Bible that you intend to use intensely for personal study as you work toward mastery of the Bible’s content, shouldn’t you do all the work of digging out wisdom yourself? On the contrary, I think it’s precisely in that individual study time that you need somebody glancing over your shoulder now and then to make sure you’re not inventing your own private heresy. The great Reformers, with their rallying cry of “sola Scriptura” and their confidence that Scripture was self-interpreting, nevertheless knew better than to leave individual Christians alone with a text, as if the Bible had just dropped out of the sky and onto their study desk. Luther and Calvin and the rest were seriously into the business of catechizing, commentating, and expounding from the pulpit the right interpretation of Scripture. It was not up to every new generation of believers to figure things out from scratch: the Apostle’s creed had it right, for instance, and the church had continuously read Scripture rightly on the essentials (late medieval distortions notwithstanding). The hard work of interpreting Scripture is still there for the wise user of a good study Bible, but so are the ancient guidelines.

And in another sense, Christians who are serious about Bible study do need somebody to do some thinking for them: translators, obviously, need to think the original-language statements into English for us. And wherever factual or lexical information would be illuminating, we need somebody to look up that information and make it available to us.

A second objection, though, is that study Bibles are doomed to be overly interpretive on all those issues that go beyond the merely factual or historical. They codify whole systems of theology and weave them into the interpretive texture of Scripture. It’s easy to see how this could be a problem: imagine a good doctrinal argument among people using the Reformation Study Bible, the Catholic Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible, and Dake’s Study Bible. No doubt a confessionally or denominationally-slanted study Bible could be a distorting influence on a believer’s ability to read without bias, by offering the pre-packaged “right interpretation” of all passages. To have all these explanations ready at hand could indeed induce interpretive blindness toward some of the very sections of Scripture that would force you to re-think your position on important issues. On the other hand, that kind of impaired vision afflicts people with or without study Bibles. The anti-trinitarian Watchtower organization mostly doesn’t equip Jehovah’s Witnesses with elaborate study Bibles, but they impose an interpretive grid over Scripture that succeeds in blocking the total message of the Bible and juggling away the troubling evidence of Christ’s deity. So the objection turns out to be a warning against exegetical obstinacy in general, not study Bibles in particular. (As an aside, the more gossipy objection to the ESV Study Bible is that it’s going to turn out to be the Complementarian Reformed Baptist Study Bible –“After all, look at the people who endorse it.” I for one am more optimistic that we’ll see an evenhandedness and objectivity in the final product that make it useful far beyond those circles).

So the final common objection to study Bibles comes from scrupulosity about anything being on the same page with the word of God. I understand the impulse of this objection, and I appreciate that kind of sensitivity to safeguarding the holiness of Scripture. I’m all for making a sharp distinction between text and commentary. But if I ever thought that distinction had to be marked by keeping the two on separate pages, I no longer think that. Bible and commentary sit side by side on my desk. What changes when they sit side by side in one volume? “The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the LORD. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” Oops, sorry, KJV there.

There are other ways of distinguishing text from commentary. These ways involve careful page design, typography, and shading. The ESV Study Bible excels in precisely these areas. The text of Scripture is compactly placed on the page in a way that enables you to read straight off the page without being dragged off into commentary unless you choose to go there. The best thing in any study Bible is still a good, thoughtful selection of marginal cross-references, and the great system of references from the ESV Classic Reference edition is apparently expanded considerably for the Study Bible edition. Becoming fluent in the use of those cross-references is the fundamental skill needed by all serious Bible students: habitually perceiving those canonical interconnections produces a discipled mind, able to read Scripture holistically. It also unties the mental knots that keep us from seeing the reality that Scripture is deeply self-interpreting. A study Bible that goes about its work humbly and helpfully can do the same. I’m hopeful that I might end up with a new “main Bible” this season.

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