Contend Earnestly: Should We Use Study Bibles?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Should We Use Study Bibles?

If you look around your local church you'll probably notice that people are carrying around these huge books, covered in enough leather that took a whole cow, where they are so big the dorks out there are carrying them in their rolling briefcases, because they are so heavy.

These things you see taking over the church are called study bibles. They are huge. Each one needing their own pulpit so your arms don't get tired holding them up.

Last year, the ESV Study Bible was named as the best book of the year by most major bloggers and Christian publications. This has made study bibles even more accessible to even the Reformed folk who have held off so they didn't have to trust in Arminians and dispensationalists to give them sermon ideas.

Now this opening makes it sound like I am completely against study bibles, which I am not. What I do want to put forth is some thoughts on how to make sure we don't allow the notes in the study bible as infallible as the red letters that they are explaining.

I know that we all, or most of us, remember the days of the horrific bible studies where you read a verse and then everyone gave their opinion on what it meant to them. Sometimes, I remember hearing 10 different views on the same verse. I was in high school back then, caring less about Jesus but had to pretend because my dad was the pastor. I remember thinking, "Who cares what these guys think it means, what does it actually mean?" So, off those horrific "bible studies" I understand why more people like to have in their hands a short commentary on the Scriptures where ever they are. I get that.

But, what has happened, or what I see happening, is that instead of studying the bible for themselves, they simply read the notes and that becomes ex cathedra. I hate to bring this up, but those who do the notes in your Bibles...they are fallible. I know, it's crazy to think that they could be wrong and you are just a dumb sheep following dumb teachings, but it could be true. What is funny, and it shouldn't be, is that every time I hear someone read from their study Bible notes, I just hear, "baaaaaaaa, baaaaaaaa" I ask them, "well, what did you find in your own study of the passage?" They look at me like a hooker in a baptist church.

I just want to put forth some ideas to help make these study Bibles, a help and not a hindrance.

All these things that I list should come before one even looks at the study notes in their study Bibles.

1. Know who wrote the notes. Know their background and theological convictions. Try to have Bibles with differing views so you can have a good supply of ideas on different verses in the Bible. This creates one to think out differing views to think and study for themselves.

2. Study the passage yourself. I know, this sounds crazy. Actually study the bible for yourself? Sounds like I am asking you to try and form your own ideas on what the bible says. Well, I am. If you merely recite what others say, what makes you different than a parrot who asks if you want a cracker? How is this understanding the Christ in your heart and not merely head knowledge? Tear through the passage yourself, looking at context, looking at who wrote the passage, cross referencing the passage with other passages and verses in the NT and OT, compare your conclusions with the rest of the Scriptures, find where Christ is the hero in the passage, etc.

3. Pray over the passage. Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to teach us and guide us. Just to give you a hint. The Holy Spirit isn't code for John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul or J.I. Packer. I know we forget that, and these men know their Bibles very well, but they have searched the Scriptures and would ask you to do the same. Read a passage, read the verses and spend time in prayer that God would show you what it means and how it represents Jesus as the hero and how you should glorify God because of it. When was the last time you prayed over a passage that you read and studied?

4. Ask, "How does my interpretation work within the rest of the Scriptures?" If you have come up with an interpretation of the passage that contradicts the Bible in other parts, you might want to check yourself. This step requires one to be drenched in the word of God. But with someone who loves God, this step comes as they become more and more sanctified and grow in the knowledge of the Christ. A new Christian might have no clue on this as they are new to the Bible. This can take time. But any Christian, new or old, should do as much as God has supplied in this area.

5. Ask friends how they have interpreted the passage and how it has impacted their life for Christ. If you are homeschooled and have no friends, then start using what we call a computer and get on twitter and facebook so you can make friends. Kidding of course. But simply ask others that you love and see live for Jesus and ask them about it.

6. After all this, see what the study Bible (which I would recommend the ESV Study Bible) or other commentators have to say. You won't always be in agreement and sometimes this is okay. The only time this isn't okay is if you have come out completely opposite from all sources in professional training. You might want to take a second look. If you come out thinking that Jesus really has wool and hooves because he is called the Lamb of God, you might want to rethink your interpretation of those scriptures. Test their conclusions on the passage, making sure that you aren't merely reciting what they have said, but coming to a conclusion that makes you worship Christ instead of the human interpreter.

The reason I write this is that with the internet, cheap books and study Bibles, personal struggle with passages have become abnormal. Instead, what we find it a lot of reciting of famous preachers and teachers of today and times gone by. Although it is very profitable to study what the Holy Spirit has told others, we need the Spirit to test us and our spirit as well. We need to struggle through prayer and study on our own so that we can see the transformation of the Spirit in our lives. The passages that mean the most to me are the ones I have personally studied and prayed over like crazy and then having the Holy Spirit walk me through it to deeper understanding of how it should affect my love for Christ.

I don't hate study bibles, but I fear what they are doing to our congregations. I fear that if used improperly, we will grow into parrots reciting whatever the study notes say, and without knowing it, we have made them infallible and non-negotiable. The only persons who are those two things are the Trinity, not man.


Steve said...

There is also the same danger in reading books about the Bible, or commentaries. But they often give you more opinion than in the study Bible. So you really need to be careful not to become a sheep of Christian authors as well. After all, Satan made the first commentary.

But your are spot-on that you must study and think for yourself. Otherwise you'll have trouble discerning.

Seth McBee said...


I completely agree. This post probably has many applications. I thought I would focus on study bibles, but yes, commentaries and books have been my crutch in the past, so I don't like to point to my own sin, thank you very much :)

Be About Time said...

I have been guilty of using commentaries and study Bibles as a crutch. My toes are hurting now. Thanks for the honesty.

Jailer said...

Seth -- Your points are well taken, but as a guy who (1) cut his teeth on the NIV Study Bible and first gained the courage to read the Word all the way through because there were some helps readily available, and (2) is currently teaching adult Sunday school in a church where biblical illiteracy is sadly rampant, I must say I have come to appreciate the value of the study Bible, especially for the new or immature Christian.
Oh, and I regularly use a Reformation Study Bible (ESV) of the kind you refer to ... :)

Seth McBee said...

Yeah...I completely agree with you on your points...the dangers listed are there because what happens is that no study happens, just a glance down to the bottom of the page for the commentary in the study bible will suffice for many...for me, that is going to make more people knowledgeable about Scripture, but not living their lives based on Scripture.

It just becomes reciting instead of experiencing.

That is what scares me about all these things...but that doesn't make them unprofitable or wrong in any way.

Josh said...

What about a Driscoll Study Bible?

Seth McBee said...

He is a good pastor, but he still isn't Jesus or the Holy Spirit...I know some might disagree, but that is my stand :)

Keith said...

"...The Holy Spirit isn't code for John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul or J.I. Packer." 8^)>

Good post.

Anonymous said...

I have done the following:

1. Taught passages out of the Bible with no notes or commentaries needed. Easily checked scriptures against scriptures, the ancient languages and it still means what I thought it meant. Thank you, Spirit of God.

2. Taught passages out of the Bible where I was like "I know what this means BUT... I better check what other people said. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I disagree. But I bring it all together double and triple check everything. Sometimes I stand firm with what I knew before and sometimes my stance gets tweaked a little. Thank you, Spirit of God.

3. Taught a passage in the Bible because I had to because it was the next passage in the book I am teaching and I go, "uhh? What the?" It is at this moment, it is so tempting just to read notes and commentaries and go, "Oh we are good to go..." and move on.

Alas, I never learned a thing about the passage and yet, I am going to teach this passage with conviction to my flock?

Therefore, when I get to something that I get stuck, I keep re-reading over and over again, pray about it... hard and then do word and topic studies. Keep digging until I own that passage in my heart, not just what's in my head.

All of that credit belongs to Spirit of God. Thank you, Holy Spirit.

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