I don’t use study Bibles.
No, smart-aleck whippersnappers! I didn’t say that I don’t study the Bible. I said I don’t use a study Bible. I have a couple of them. One of my first Bibles was the original, inspired, Scofield Reference Bible. I’ve had a Thompson Chain. The ESV Study Bible is on my phone and tablets. I just don’t use them as my main Bible and I think that in general, it’s kind of a bad idea to do so. Use them as a reference, essentially as a commentary? Great. But I like the idea of my main Bible being a plain text (or bare text) with perhaps a few translation and textual notes and maybe a cross reference here or there. My preference is single column, but that’s even more minor.
I started thinking about this recently because of Marty Duren – I blame most of my problems on him. He posted on Facebook about an African Study Bible. As someone who travels to West Africa a couple of times a year, I found that fascinating. How many of our interpretations and insights in Scripture are conditioned by American culture rather than by accurate hermeneutics? I plan to get a copy of that sometime. But I won’t use it as my main Bible.
I don’t use study Bibles much. I think you might be better off not using one as your main Bible. Let me explain why.
NOTE: Permit me to put this in perspective. I think there is a worthy principle here, but this is one of those personal-preference, follow-your-conscience, agree-to-disagree things. Study Bibles aren’t sin, I just think that Bible students might be better off not using them as their main Bible study tools.
Where It All Started
I have taken a lot of classes in my college and seminary days, but only one would I point to as life-changing, ministry-empowering. It was Dr. Howard Hendricks’ Bible Study Methods course that was required for first-year students at Dallas Seminary. He taught a four-step approach to Bible study – observation, correlation, interpretation, and application. Dr. Barbieri stepped in and taught the hermeneutics section of my class.
Dr. Hendricks laid out one requirement from the very start. We were to bring a bare text, modern language edition of the Bible with paragraph divisions. That was when I laid down my Thompson Chain and got a used copy of a New Testament in newer translation known as the New International Version. There were so many valuable lessons that I learned in that class that made a difference in my Bible Study and my ministry, but there are two that apply to this topic.
1. The Observation Principle
Dr. Hendricks taught us that observing the text was the most important part of Bible study. We often make assumptions about texts and what they mean, so if we are going to understand the meaning of Scripture we need to carefully, comprehensively, objectively, and accurately observe the text. He insisted we do observation of the text on our own without referring to anyone else’s opinions or interpretations. Only after we carefully observed the text could we consult commentaries, other men’s sermons, and such things. His famous quote was, “It’s amazing how much light the Bible sheds on commentaries.”
The single assignment that changed so many young skulls full of biblical mush was the Acts 1:8 lesson. He said, “Make 25 observations about Acts 1:8.” I labored and struggled and worked my way through it until I managed to come up with twenty-five observations. They could not be interpretations or applications. They had to be observations of the text. For instance, there is not a single command in the text – it is a statement of fact. Things like that. I wiped the sweat from my brow and took my assignment to class ready to turn it in only to be met with these words from teh Prof. “Okay, now make 25 more.” The groan was heard throughout downtown Dallas. Somewhere, though, as I struggled through that assignment, the light came on. I turned in a paper with over 80 observations of that text.
We need to do our own homework first – study, translate, graph the sentence structure, check lexicons for word meanings. We need to do observation and correlation (figuring out the structure and flow of the passage – sometimes called “arcing” now, I think) before we do interpretation and application.
2. The Humility Principle
Lest you think we were being taught to ignore the wisdom of others, Dr. Barbieri taught us clear principles of grammatical-historical hermeneutics. He also reminded us of the importance of humility. After I do my independent, personal study, and I go to the commentaries to see the opinions of others, I need to maintain respect for the past. He said, “If you come up with an interpretation of a passage that no scholar in 2000 years of church history has come up with, what is the chance that you are right and everyone else is wrong?” Of course, sometimes someone comes up with a new insight. But it is rare. If in my independent observation I come up with a unique and creative interpretation, I am more likely to be wrong than all the Bible teachers of church history. Humility is a good check.
All of that is prelude. I have several reasons that I don’t use a study bible. Here they are.
Dangers of Using Study Bibles
1. The danger of imbuing human teachings with an unwarranted divine authority.
Have you ever argued with someone who thought one of Scofield’s notes was an unassailable and inerrant interpretation? I know that most of us know the difference, but when you put your personal notes alongside the biblical text, it gives them an air of authority, a weight that they do not deserve. There was a time when the idea of putting interpretational notes alongside the Bible text was unheard of and generally condemned. Scofield’s notes breached that dam. But I am not sure it is a good and helpful innovation. If the sacred text is sacred, ought it not to stand alone?
Imagine that I was the best there was, a non-pareil Bible teacher. People drooled to hear my insights into the text. Are my teachings worthy to sit side by side on the page with the biblical text? I know that people can answer that two ways, but I find it troubling at the least. For me, I would say no. Human opinions shouldn’t share the page with the inspired text.
Of course, most people can understand the difference between the authority of the text of Scripture and authority of the study Bible’s notes. But have you never encountered someone who did not make that distinction? I have. Whether it be Scofield, or Ryrie, or the Reformed viewpoint – notes sometimes take on an enhanced authority.
Obviously, most of the Christian world doesn’t agree with me on this. A quick check of CBD shows at least 18 different people with their own personal study Bible available. My guess is 18 is only a fraction of the total number available.
2. The danger of replacing the Spirit’s illumination with man’s opinions.
Why is observation of the text so crucial? We believe that the Bible is a supernatural book and when a Spirit-indwelled believer observes a Spirit-inspired book a Spirit-empowered enlightenment takes place. The Spirit works powerfully in the human heart as the word of God is read and studied. The danger is that when we start with a study Bible, we let John MacArthur’s views, or Charles Ryrie’s or Joyce Meyer’s (God forbid) or someone else’s ideas guide us.
If you have a plain text, you are along with God’s word and the Spirit. Grapple with it. Work through it. Seek to understand it. Then, when you think you understand it or at least understand what you don’t understand and know what the questions are that need to be answered, go to the commentaries. Dig out your study Bible. But only after you have done the hard work of Bible observation for yourself.
3. The danger of hobby horses replacing the full counsel of God.
The Bible contains the full counsel of God for all of humanity. But the Bible shelf at your local LifeWay store has a plethora (yes, I know what a plethora is, amigos) of specialized study Bible. Women’s study Bibles (and men’s, and youth, and children). On my perusal of CBD, in addition to the 18 personal study Bibles, I found Bibles for Catholics, for Charismatics, for Apologetics buffs, for those with an interest in Archaeology and Bible Backgrounds, for “Everyday Life” (others aren’t?) – a scriptural smorgasbord
The danger here is that we read the Bible for what we want. The Dispensationalist gets a Dispensationalist Study Bible and gleans all the Dispensationalist truth that the Dispensationalist authors of the study notes can find. Calvinists get Reformed Study Bibles and glean all the Reformed truth that the Reformed authors of the study notes can find. Arminians and other non-Calvinists read their study Bibles to confirm their views. The Charismatic gets a Full Gospel study Bible and gleans all the Spirit-filled truth from Pentecostal authors to confirm his views. We don’t really study the Bible, we confirm our dearly-held views using study Bibles to help guide us. Bible study becomes less a process of conforming our minds to the counsel of God than an exercise in confirmation bias.
If you think this doesn’t happen, you need to get out more!
Jim Pemberton, one of our SBC Voices regulars, added this comment. I thought it made the point I was trying to make here better than I did. I include part of his comment here. (Kudos on the “O Brother” reference.)
One thing that bothers me is what you have mentioned, that you can find a study Bible at the local Christian bookstore for every little group out there. It’s basically a publisher feeding the narcissistic impulse of our current generation in order to turn a profit. To quote Ulysses Everett McGill, “I don’t get it, Big Dan.” It basically means that we only want to study the Bible with a filter for our own sensibilities rather than be confronted with the convicting weight of the full meaning of the text.
4. The danger of short-circuiting the exegetical and observational process.
Point 4 is basically an encapsulation of all the points; a summary.
I am Hendricksian in my philosophy of Bible Study. Observe the text. Do correlation (or outlining, or arcing, or whatever you call it) based on textual clues. THEN, consult the authorities to check your work. “Do-it-yourself” comes first. That’s not arrogance, it is a recognition of the illuminatory (is that word?) work of the Holy Spirit within the believer. Again, I am not saying you should never read a commentary or consult a study Bible, just don’t do it first. Do your main study from a simple text. Grapple with the text between you, the text, and the illuminating power of God’s Spirit first. Once you are done, get your other books off the shelf (or click the links).
It’s pretty simple. Get a bare text (nothing but the Bible and perhaps a few notes about textual variants and such), and do your own work. First.
If you disagree with me, it’s okay. You have the right to be wro…oh, wait. Never mind. That humility thing.