The standard argument against study Bibles replete with notes and commentary is that the notes attain equal footing with the text. I have had a half dozen or more different study Bibles through the years, and I don’t think I have ever even remotely equated a study note with the text. I am sure that problem has occurred, but study Bibles are no different than other man-made and added tools for Bible study.
Bible commentaries influence our understanding of Bible texts and doctrines. That is why they are written. Preaching has the same effect. Our sermons mold and shape the way we understand certain verses, whole books, and the totality of the Bible itself. In earlier centuries, someone had the remarkable idea of putting chapter numbers and verse numbers into our Bibles. Think about it: From the received text as such, there is no such thing as John 3:16. The chapter divisions and verse divisions are study devices. Usually, they are incredibly helpful. Sometimes they distract us from the larger context and lead to misunderstandings. (Some number divisions are badly placed.)
The Bible being translated into languages was also a study tool. In the older confessions, this is referred to as translating the Bible into “vulgar languages.” One of the bigger objections to the King James Bible in 1611 was its common everyday language. Plain speaking English people wondered if it were proper to put God’s Word in the very same language that playwright named William Shakespeare (or that other guy who wrote the plays) was using for stage plays.
God gave us an inspired and infallible text, but in His good Providence, He then commissions uninspired (and sometimes uninspiring) and fallible people to communicate the text. As an apostle, Paul had certain credentials and credibility in instructing people in God’s Word. He tells Timothy to take what he has heard from him (Paul), and then to conduct seminary classes with faithful men who will then teach Sunday school classes and home Bible studies. (I refer to 1 Timothy 2:2 and acknowledge being a bit loose or expansive in my use of the verse.)
The Bible is a big book with many different parts. It covers a wide range of years and extends over several major culture groups, many cultural and religious traditions, and many different times and circumstances. The Bible contains poetry, history, dramatic narratives, sermons, legal codes, biographies, and letters. With little explanation, it nudges in along side the ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. Although the Alexandrian Hellenistic culture rose and fell and seeped into the contours of thought during the time between the Old and New Testaments, there is much about that culture that is backdrop and assumption in the Bible.
While The Iliad and The Odyssey reveal bits and pieces of the Greek legacies, mythologies, and mores, the Bible reveals even more patterns and ideals of the Hebrew people. While Livy’s History of Rome gives lots of details about the earlier stages of Roman history, the Bible includes even more in-depth studies of the history of the Twelve Tribes from the Exodus through the Exile.
If the Bible had been given to us in modern electronic form on the Internet with links, it would be filled with such. In short, both the extra-Biblical material that can enhance Bible study and the applications of Bible study are more than any one man or church can possess. For that reason, since the earliest days of the Faith, pastors and others have written letters and commentaries on the Bible. Each age or era of history opens the doors to new insights and understandings.
Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens the countenance of a friend.” There are two vital reasons for sharpening iron. One is for defensive purposes. A sword needs sharpening. The process can mean life or death. The other reason is for agricultural reasons, for building a culture of survival. Dull tools and implements limit the ability of the farmer or the craftsman to do his work. The friend who is the “iron sharpening iron” is any one who spurs our minds, directs our thoughts, and disciplines our understanding.
None of us are adequate to understand and apply the Bible. By the way, the Bible was not given to any one of us. The Bible is given to the community of God’s people. Most often that community is congregated as a church. The concept of the covenant community or the church can be seen in both the local church, usually known by a mailing address, and the larger body of God’s people.
A strong case can be made, and this blog often makes it, that Christians need to read and be instructed. The range and number of books is almost unlimited. Pastors and teachers in the church will need the more specialized and labor-intensive study tools, but all Christians will need some works that provide instruction, exhortation, and direction. Hence the need for bookshelves, perhaps lots of them.
But the case can be made for the compact, easily transportable, self-contained library consisting of a Bible–with study notes.
In this case, I am recommending the new Gospel Transformation Bible, recently released by Crossway Books. This study Bible was udner the general direction and editorship of Bryan Chapell. The list of contributors includes many well-known Bible scholars and writers.
This study Bible has two main goals in its textual additions. The first is to emphasize the unity of the message of the Bible. As Dr. Chapell says in the Introduction, “Christ’s grace does not wait until the last chapters of Matthew to make its first appearance, but rather is the dawning light increasing throughout Scripture toward the day the Savior came.” He later refers to the “creation-fall-redemptionpconsumation perspective” as the map or tool to help unfold, unify, and explain the Bible.
I remember struggling for years with a vital disconnection between Old and New Testaments, prophets and apostles, Jesus’ sayings and those of the apostles. If the Gospel Transformation Bible had been in my hands in 1972 instead of The Living Bible and Good News for Modern Man, I could have been fast-tracked toward a much better understanding of the Bible. Although God providentially used weak versions of the Word to awaken me to the Word, the case can be made for using the sharper iron.
The unity issue and Christ-centered nature of Scripture is life-changing and exciting. Pastors should not only preach Christ from all the Scriptures, but the congregation should read Christ in all the Scriptures.
The second goal of the Gospel Transformation Bible is for readers to apply Gospel truths to their everyday lives. Without application, there is not Christianity. Often application tells us to do something different, but more important, it tells us to think something different. Bible application redirects our perspective. Just asking the question, “What does this verse or this chapter mean for me?” is life-changing. The Bible doesn’t merely contain some interesting details and some speculative thoughts. It tells us how to think and live.
Like most new Bibles, the Gospel Transformation Bible comes in a variety of styles and formats. What benefits you the most can only be decided by looking at the various options on-line or in a bookstore. I think this Bible would be especially good for new Christians and new students to Bible study. Being a believer now for about 42 years and comparing that with eternity, I put myself in that category as both a new Christian and new student to Bible study.