Christians, who take serious their faith, no matter what their denomination background is, will have some sort of study Bible on their bookshelf. Whether it gets used or not or used properly is another matter.
A regular Bible minimally contains the basic text of God’s Word. A study Bible offers a lot more background information on the Bible, books of the Bible and the content of all those Bible verses. It may seem intimidating for some, and perhaps a bit distracting for others who may find themselves spending more time in the notes than in the actual text of God’s living word for us.
The purpose of a study Bible is to help you understand Scripture more clearly as you read it. It usually contains notes for biblical interpretation, book introductions to provide context, and maps to help visualize locations.
There are a number of suggestions in using a study Bible:
- Distinguish the Bible from the notes…The most important feature in a study Bible is the horizontal line that divides the biblical text from the biblical interpretation. Everything above the line is inerrant and infallible. Everything below the line offers assistance in understanding what is inerrant and infallible, but is itself neither inerrant or infallible, but simply faithful. Like the noble Bereans of Acts (Acts 17:11) we also need to continue to discern the teaching of these notes with the authoritative Word of God (1 Thess. 5:21). As someone once paraphrased Galatians 1:8-9, “Even if we or a bestselling study Bible should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let it be accursed.”
- Don’t just check out the notes…My study Bible not only has faithful notes, but also excellent introductions to each book and amazing articles covering various topics.
- Should you use more than one study Bible?…Not all study Bibles are created equal. There are some I would highly recommend and others I would highly discourage Christians from using. Don’t pick a Bible that looks good or even popular. Choose a study Bible that reflects your church’s theological position. To help you in this matter ask your pastor and if you want to get a second study Bible, look for one that will offer a good supplement to what you already have and is not diametrically opposite in theology.
- See your study Bible as a conversation with the the larger church… Some people object to study Bibles. They believe that God can directly speak to them. Well, yes God can speak through His Word to you but “God has also appointed in the church … teachers” (1 Cor. 12:28). A study Bible offers you the gift of wise and seasoned teachers to guide you in listening to God speak in the Holy Scriptures.
Which Study Bible?
As noted above, the best study Bible is the one that fits your confession of faith. I hold to a Lutheran confession of Christianity and I am a confessional Lutheran, that is, conservative. This means that the best study Bible for me is The Lutheran Study Bible. Below are some possibilities from various Christian confessions:
There truly are no generic “Christian” study Bibles, as much as some people may try to claim. Every study Bible carries some kind of denominational, confessional theology behind it that will be conservative or liberal or some hybrid attempt. Even one that claims to be “evangelical” is slanted in some direction. My point is that you ought to know your confession of Christianity before picking a study Bible or talk to your pastor. If you just go out and buy any old study Bible you may have someone wonder what a Lutheran Christian is doing carrying a Joel Osteen study Bible. And if you don’t get that little joke, Joel Osteen and Lutherans are truly miles apart in their understanding of the Christian faith.
There are also many big publishers who produce varieties of study Bibles under various sub-groups like women, men, apologetics, you name it. I would stay away from such specializations because these study Bibles may only be useful for that time in one’s life when these issues seem important. A good study Bible, however, will help you wherever you are in life.
Translation. In choosing a study Bible you will also have to select a translation of the Bible. There are more than 450 English translations of the Bible although very few are used for study Bibles. In 2020 the top ranked translations were:
- New International Version (NIV)
- King James Version (KJV)
- New Living Translation (NLT)
- English Standard Version (ESV)
- New King James Version (NKJV)
The above translations are all very accurate to the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. Translations, however, will seem easier or more difficult to read and understand because of how they are translated. Some like the ESV are more literal in translation and can be more challenging to read while translations like the NIV seek to make the Bible easier to read. The easier the translation is to read, however, may also allow someone’s interpretation to enter it. My own translation choice has been the ESV but as a pastor I have discovered that this translation is not always the best in every passage. That is the case for all translations.
Again, the study Bible you are considering may limit which translation you can have. One word of advice though, DO NOT CHOOSE A PARAPHRASE! Perhaps the most popular Bible paraphrase is The Message. This is one man’s interpretation and although it is quite fun to read, it is filled with one man’s interpretation. So stick to translations where you have groups of people working together on the translation and checking for bias.
A study Bible is an excellent companion in reading and understanding God’s Word.