Why I’m not a fan of study bibles

Picture the scene: a small group of people sat in someone’s living room, bibles open on their laps, a pot of tea on the little table in the middle and a plate of digestive biscuits somewhere to hand (or flapjack if you’re fancy).

The room is quiet, people staring at the bible passage in front of them, trying hard to come up with a half-reasonable answer to that obscure question that the group leader has just read out from their bible study group guide. And then one person (it will be the person with the fattest bible) says something like, “well my bible says that salt came from deposits from the Dead Sea, but was often mixed up with other chemicals that resembled salt but wasn’t really salt…”

What has just happened? The person with the fattest bible has read the answer from the bit under the biblical text in their study bibles. The effect is two fold. Either their answer will remove the need for any further discussion and the group will happily move on to the next question (‘just get through them so we can eat more flapjack’), or further confuse the situation by adding in even more obscure and unhelpful facts that really don’t have much to do with anything.

And so you see the problem with study bibles.

Why Study Bibles Aren’t That Bad

Just to be clear, I am all for people getting into the word of God as it is presented to us in the Bible. The world is in a mess because of sin (me included) and it needs to know about the Saviour Jesus who is the answer to all of our problems (and problems we don’t even know we have). We don’t find him anywhere else than as he is presented to us in the pages of the Bible. So anything that helps people read and understand the Bible gets the thumbs up from me.

So go and buy a study bible. There are loads on the market and many of them are by highly reputable scholars who also share a strong commitment to help people get into the Bible. We have an ESV Global Study Bible at home and it’s superb. I’m sure there are lots of other good ones out there (and probably some rubbish ones also).

Why You Should Learn With A Regular Bible

The problem with study Bibles is that they can make us lazy. Rather than think through the Bible text we have just read, meditate further on it, or read around the passage a little further, we are often tempted to go with the ‘expert opinion’ in the study Bible section, shut up shop and then eat that flapjack.

To do this is to do ourselves and the Bible a great disservice. As helpful as that additional material is, it isn’t God’s inspired word, only the biblical text is. So whilst it may be handy at times, it is not what will transform us.

In a small group bible study setting, simply quoting the study bible comment may deprive the rest of the group of the reward of figuring the meaning of the text and its implications out for themselves. We learn best when we have wrestled with the bible text and internalised it by thinking it through.

As the Psalmist puts it, ‘Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!’ Chew it over, enjoy the diverse flavours of God’s word, allow it to sink in and feed your soul! Spend time doing this; avoid the temptation to snack on a study Bible.

Am I discouraging people from going deeper into the bible by discouraging use of study bibles? I hope not. I know not everyone can afford a room full of theological text books and commentaries, and so a study bible may be the most they can get hold of.

But Jesus gives the gifts of teachers to his church, so why not chat through any bible quandaries with your pastor or church leader? Not that they have all the answers but they should be able to point you in the right direction. You never know, they may even lend you a helpful book.