In Defense of Study Bibles: Why Dave Could Be Wrong

So, we have a good discussion going on about the pitfalls of Study Bibles over at this post. I did chime in on the pitfalls that I found, for me, when preaching out of a Study Bible. My first pastorate I had a tendency to chase rabbits, even in the pulpit, and given my restricted prep time as a bi-vocational pastor, there were weeks that my outline was so skeletal that He-Man would have taken pity on it. At times, I would preach out of my NASB Study Bible and see notes that I hadn’t caught before, and then go off on that tangent—then I learned better. Now, I transfer all the rabbits into my outline and chase them while preaching from a plain-text Bible.

Does that mean, though, that we ought to set aside the Study Bible? I would offer a counterpoint to the dangers that were highlighted in the first post.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that not every one has access to top-level hermeneutics courses. Unfortunately, too much of our time in church is spent on program promotion, fundraising, and internal strife rather than equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. And that equipping should be more than just the end results of pastors, teachers, and authors doing the Biblical study. Every church should be training Christians to read and understand the Bible for themselves–even if that means congregants reach different conclusions from church leaders. It won’t hurt you to have an amillennialist, a Calvinist, or a dispensationalist in your pews even if you aren’t one.

Since we haven’t done a great job with this, really and truly we have left our fellow Christians with two options: rely on preachers, teachers, and authors to do the hard work or drift through Scripture and hopefully hit on something.

Now, at this point, a word of note about the work of the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit can and does illuminate Scripture and you can grow as a follower of Christ with your Bible, the Holy Spirt, and precious little else. However, the isolated Christian is an anomaly in the New Testament and we should note that a fair bit of the material in the New Testament itself was written in correction of people’s misunderstanding of what God had already said (cf. Paul’s rebuke of Judaizers and James’ rebuke of idle, dead ‘faith’). God works not only directly but through the one-anothers of the Body of Christ.

So, what does this have to do with Study Bibles? While we must acknowledge that the authors of study notes are just as likely to make mistakes as pastors in pulpits and teachers in Sunday School classes, there is value in having the observations of men and women who have diligently studied and examined the text of Scripture fresh and at hand. There are many who God has enabled to dedicate a lifetime of study in His Word, and we would be poorer for neglecting that gift.

Therefore, I would suggest that not only are Study Bibles helpful, but they should be recognized as useful tools for those who are working to understand the Bible themselves. The strengthening of a person’s understanding of Scripture benefits if they are gathering information and being challenged by more than just one or two sources–a Sunday sermon and a Tuesday night fill-in-the-blank discipleship course will help some but being able to, day-in, day-out, see extra insight into the Word of God is invaluable. And the stronger the individual believers are in the Word of God, the better off the church will be.

Now, this is not to say that some Study Bibles are better than others–and that some are really just awful and should never have been made. I have several on the shelf right behind me, and a few more here and there in the study at church. I recommend the Bibles by reputable scholars that provide textual insights above most others–the newer Zondervan NIV Study Bible (edited by D.A. Carson) is a good one, though I’d love to see it with the NASB or CSB. The ESV Study Bible is another good one, and I liked my old HCSB Study Bible. I haven’t seen the new CSB one (yet). There’s an older NASB Study Bible which I loved, and I’m enjoying the full-color Faithlife Study Bible and NLT Study Bible.

There are also some specialty ones, like the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible and the Archaeological Study Bible that, really, should have just been one-volume commentaries. The information is useful but not primary in most of these. As to “bad” Study Bibles, none come to mind at the moment, but I know they exist.

So, without being too blunt, it’s possible that Dave is wrong and we should all dust off our Study Bibles and read a few extra insights from others alongside what we can find ourselves.