Using study Bibles: Two dangers to avoid

MSC1401AI’m a big fan of study Bibles. I’ve written about them before and shared many of the benefits of using a study Bible. These resources are especially helpful for those just beginning to study the Bible for themselves. It’s like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand more of the background and the context for biblical books and passages. Study Bibles can be invaluable when beginning to more deeply understand the meaning of Scripture.

But, as with many other useful tools, there are potential dangers when using study Bibles. It’s good for people to know how to use study Bibles in a proper, healthy way—and how not to use them. Here are two danger we want to avoid:

Referring to the study notes every time we read the Bible.
The notes in study Bibles can be incredibly helpful. When we’re having trouble understanding what a certain passage is saying, we can turn to the corresponding note and get more insight into its meaning. But these notes are so helpful, we can begin to automatically stop after each verse and read its note. That’s not a bad thing if we’re studying a certain section in depth, but we need to remember that the Bible is meant to be read. We’re supposed to get a feel for the whole book, to follow the author’s flow of thought. This is really hard to do if we get bogged down reading each study note.

I was recently reading Don Quixote. This classic book was written in the early 17th century, and it refers to things that would have been meaningful to people living in the same time and place as the author, but didn’t mean anything to me now. The edition I was reading included a lot of footnotes. These footnotes were helpful in explaining the historical meaning and significance of these references. The problem was the more I checked the notes, the more I fell out of the rhythm of the story and language of the author. I began to lose the “forest” of the author’s story for the “trees” of the historical references.

So what do we do? Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or choice. We need to do both! Let’s say you’re going to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here’s one way to approach it: Read the introductory information in your study Bible so you have a good, basic understanding of who is writing, to whom they’re writing, the historical and spiritual context of the letter, etc. After that, read through the actual letter without stopping to read the study notes. There will probably be much you don’t understand, but you’ll begin to get a feel for the whole letter and how it fits together.

Dense-forestAfter this, go back and read the letter bit by bit, especially digging into the passages you don’t understand. The study notes can now help you clarify what these passages mean and what they don’t mean. Once you have a fairly solid comprehension of the shorter passages in the book, read the whole letter again in one sitting. You’ll then see even more clearly how it all flows togethers. But remember, we don’t learn everything about a passage of Scripture by studying it once (or a hundred times!). Studying the Bible is a lifelong process of gaining understanding and wisdom. The Scriptures continually draw us closer to God and help us grow more like him.

Using a study Bible as our authoritative standard for what is right and true.
[This builds on my previous post.] Have you ever been part of a Bible study, and every time a question was asked someone in the study simply read the note in their study Bible? (Or maybe you’ve been the person doing this!) Sometimes we assume that the notes in our study Bible should settle the discussion. After all, they were written by experts, right?

I said above that a study Bible was like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand the context and meaning of the Scriptures. And this is true. But remember, no human teacher is infallible and free from error. The Bible itself is divinely inspired and inerrant—but the study notes are not! They’re very helpful, but they’re not part of the inspired text of Scripture. We need to keep this distinction clear.

Once we know this, it won’t throw us for a loop when people have two different study Bibles with two different views on a particular passage! The study Bible notes are written by people, and sometimes people disagree about what a biblical passage means. Even more importantly, sometimes people can be wrong.  Study Bible notes are there to help us understand the meaning of Scripture; they’re not there to determine for us the meaning of Scripture. We shouldn’t arrogantly think we can study the Bible in isolation and just ignore what all other Christians have studied in the Scriptures for the last 2000 years. But we do still need to do some thinking for ourselves!

The more experienced we become in studying the Bible, the more we’ll be skilled in comparing and sorting out the different views on certain passages. We need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11:

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Notice these people listened eagerly to the message, but then did the work of studying to confirm the truth of what they’d been taught. This is how we can find balance when we’re taught or when we read things like the notes in our study Bibles. We need to ‘listen eagerly,’ but then ‘search the Scriptures to see if what we’re taught is the truth.’ Study Bibles provide many wonderful resources, but be careful not to turn them into some kind of idol or absolute authority. A note in a study Bible is a helpful tool for studying the Word of God, but it’s not itself the Word of God.

And, once again, this ‘listening eagerly and searching the Scriptures’ is an ongoing, lifelong process for the believer. Learning how to use a study Bible is really just the beginning. Welcome to the adventure!

2 thoughts on “Using study Bibles: Two dangers to avoid

  1. Yes, I agree. Why not just let the Holy Spirit open up the the word to us? That is one of His many functions, to guide us to all truth. Personally, I love it when the Holy Spirit has joined me when I study the Word because His teaching is so deep and powerful!

  2. Hi, Daphne. Thanks for the comment. This reminds me a bit of people who question why we need the Bible at all: Why not just trust the Spirit of God to reveal truth to us directly? I’m guessing you would agree that isn’t an either/or issue, but a both/and one. Of course the Holy Spirit can directly reveal truth to us, but he has also chosen to reveal truth to us through written Scripture, and to make this Scripture an infallible standard and guide for our spiritual lives. We don’t want to falsely contrast the Spirit and the Spirit’s Book.

    I would see this question in a very similar way. Can the Holy Spirit directly open the Word to us and teach us what it means? Absolutely. But it’s this very same Holy Spirit who gives us leaders to shepherd us (Acts 20:28) and teachers to teach us (1 Corinthians 12:27-29). Part of the way the Spirit teaches us is through the gifted teachers given to the church.

    Something I see over and over again in Scripture is an expectation that we live out the new life Christ has given us in community as part of his body, and this would include interpreting Scripture. We don’t do theology in isolation but as part of the body of Christ, including believers in other times and places and cultural settings. Interpreting the written Word and the illumination of the Spirit both have a subjective element to them; it’s easy to mistake my insights as coming from the Spirit. Studying in community provides the accountability of other Spirit-illuminated students and teachers of the Word—iron sharpening iron—and this helps me guard against potential error in my own subjective conclusions.

    So we don’t want to discount the teachers of the church who write study Bible commentary. This is part of the Spirit-given life of the church. We honor and cherish this spiritual ministry in the same way we do others. But, as I wrote in the post above, we don’t want to make any single resource the voice of the Holy Spirit, the standard by which we evaluate everything else. We listen to these voices as part of the universal church with whom we live out our faith and study the Word of God in community as the Holy Spirit has taught us in his Word and has appropriately gifted us.


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