“Of making many books, there is no end.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
To read this, you’d think the Teacher was perusing a recent publishing catalogue, skimming through the “study Bible” section. Each year it seems that another one, or two, or ten are printed by the same publishing house, aimed at an ever narrower slice of the Evangelical consumer base. First, it’s the “Patriots” Bible. Then, it’s the Eco-study Bible. Or the Student’s Study Bible. Or the Red-headed, Left-handed, Immigrant’s Study Bible. And the standard-issue, ESV Study Bible for New Calvinists looking to up their game. The longer (and more cognizant) I’ve been around the Evangelical world, the easier it’s been to become cynical about the whole industry and the concept as a whole.
But then I remember my own study Bibles and I have to tap the breaks on my cynicism ever so slightly. You see, I’ve had three study Bibles in my time, each quite crucial in my spiritual and intellectual development.
First, when I was a sophomore in high school, I started a break-time Bible study with my friend. Initially, we just began to meet at one of the tables to read the Psalms together and pray. Then, more and more people began to join us, so we had to move inside to a classroom to read. Pretty soon, I got the idea to actually start reading a bit and saying something about what we read. Novel idea, I know. That’s when I asked my parents for a study Bible–because as many sermons as I heard, when I got to Romans and Paul started dropping “circumcision” all over the place, I knew I was out of my league.
So my parents got me the NIV Life Application Study Bible. Of course, being a life application Bible, it wasn’t very in-depth on doctrine or massive exegetical insights. All the same, for a high schooler looking to learn enough to share some insights with 10 other high schoolers at break, it was eye-opening. I knew the Bible was the Word of God, but who knew so much of it could speak to my daily issues? In any case, that was my Bible all through the rest of high school and served me well.
Then, came college. Without going into a lot of details, college started out as a dry time for me. Even though I was still in church, I was frustrated at God for some goods I thought he had failed to deliver even though he never promised them. Which is typical. In any case, around Christmas, I knew something had to change, so I started going to a new church and asked my parents for the straight NIV Study Bible that focused more on historical and intertextual notes. And they came through and bought it for me. And I started reading it every day. I’d pray, read the text, and the notes and even began looking up the cross-references. I’d make my own illegible, incorrect notes as well. And things started to come alive for me.
Of course, there were a variety of factors involved at the time including the new church, an iPod (no joke), and a Bible study with some caring dudes. All the same, when my life caught fire again, along with a call to ministry, one of the things it involved was a mass consumption of Scripture. I basically tore through that study Bible. Thankfully, at the time, I was hungry for the Bible as the Bible, so I wasn’t just skipping to the study note section (which is all too easy to do for some). All the same, I learned so much just by reading the text and all the helpful explanatory notes.
I’m older now, a bit more theologically-experienced, and I get the dangers of printing text alongside the text. But seriously, when I was younger, with no access to a theological library, or commentaries, or articles the way I was later in seminary, at church, and now back in seminary, those notes were an entry-way into a new exegetical world. And so, by the end of college, my second study Bible was tore up. I had to shelve it because of how jacked up it had gotten from overuse and carrying it around everywhere.
Finally, when I hit my MA, I got a third kind of study Bible. As it was more of an academic degree, I had to purchase an SBL approved NRSV one. So I snagged myself a HarperCollins Study Bible—which I preferred to the New Oxford Annotated one—and I got to work. This was a different experience, of course. There was almost no life application. Nor was an overly-“theological” approach to commentary the norm. All the same, it proved a trusty entry-way as well, into a more historical and academic approach to the text (with some of the common, boilerplate, historical-critical assumptions) that I would have to master if I was going to get through the degree. So I put some mileage on that one, as well.
Why go into all this? Well, for one thing it’s nostalgic for me to remember. Second, I suppose it’s to remind myself that a number of the things that it’s easy for me to get cynical about the more I press on in my faith (simple, Evangelicalish things that are easily distorted and vulgarized through marketing), had some positive purpose for people. And they probably still do. Taste-wise nor in theological temperament, I don’t connect to some of the worship anthems I used to, but there are a great many of them that are theologically sound and spiritually-salutary songs that I’d be wrong to scorn or write off.
For that reason, I can imagine another young man headed to the ministry deriving great insight from his first study Bible. Or the mom and dad without time to take a class in advanced hermeneutics, still looking to grow in their knowledge of Scripture in order to instruct their children in the Word of life. Or the small group, Bible study leader. Or the missionary without a book budget who needs a teaching aid through the Old Testament contextual issues. And so on.
So, I suppose, for all their possible flaws, I’m saying I loved my study Bibles and I’d caution against the sort of easy scorn those of us with a stack of commentaries on our shelves might be tempted towards. Though there are real dangers to be avoided and some egregious marketing practices to be condemned, there is real, spiritual value in a good study Bible.
Soli Deo Gloria