A study Bible is a book that includes the full text of the Bible plus additional features that help readers better understand and apply the Bible. How should you use a study Bible? Here are some suggestions for what to do and not do.
1. Don’t use poor study Bibles.
In general, it’s better to use an all-purpose study Bible rather than a niche study Bible, such as one that targets cat lovers or sixteen-year-olds who like skateboarding and grunge music. So as a general rule, if the title of the study Bible is something like The Winnie the Pooh / Thomas Kinkade Study Bible, take a pass.
2. Use quality study Bibles.
I just finished about five years of work on a study Bible that recently released: the NIV Zondervan Study Bible. (Don Carson is the general editor.) As I helped to edit this study Bible, I consulted many other study Bibles. In my view, these were the four best study Bibles at the time: ESV Study Bible, NIV Study Bible (which is remaining in print), HCSB Study Bible, and NLT Study Bible. Now I think that the top two study Bibles available are the ESV Study Bible and the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.
3. Don’t use the notes as a crutch or shortcut instead of wrestling with the text itself.
There is no substitute for the primary text. One hour carefully reading and meditating on the Bible itself is worth ten hours of reading study Bible notes.
4. Don’t combine the authority of the God-breathed text with the notes.
God inspired the Bible. He didn’t inspire the commentary on the Bible.
5. Use a study Bible in the same way that you would responsibly use other resources that help you better understand and apply the Bible.
There are five theological disciplines, and a good study Bible helps you with all of them — especially the first.
Exegesis draws the meaning out of a text (that’s good!), and “eisegesis” reads a meaning into a text (that’s bad!). In other words, exegesis interprets a text by analyzing what the author intended to communicate. Exegesis is simply careful reading. The text means what the text’s author meant. Exegetes are concerned primarily with interpreting a text; that is, discovering what the author meant. What does this involve?
- Genre. Establish rules for interpreting a passage’s style of literature.
- Textual Criticism. Establish the original wording.
- Translation. Translate the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text, and compare other translations.
- Greek Grammar. Understand how sentences communicate with words, phrases, and clauses.
- Argument Diagram. Trace the logical argument by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing.
- Historical-Cultural Context. Understand the situation in which the author composed the literature and any historical-cultural details that the author mentions or probably assumes.
- Literary Context. Understand the role a passage plays in its whole book.
- Word Studies. Unpack key words, phrases, and concepts.
A good study Bible takes all of this into account and highlights what is most significant for understanding books of the Bible and particular passages. The introductions to each book of the Bible explain the broad literary context and relevant historical-cultural context, and the study notes explain individual parts in that larger context.
When the text is the Bible, we must never stop with exegesis: We must also do theology — biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology.
2. Biblical Theology.
Make organic connections with the whole canon on its own terms, across the storyline of the Bible, especially regarding how the Old and New Testaments integrate and climax in Christ. (I try to show how Harry Potter illustrates biblical theology in the four-minute video below.) This is a main distinctive of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.
3. Historical Theology.
Survey and evaluate how significant exegetes and theologians have understood the Bible and theology.
4. Systematic Theology.
Discern how a passage theologically coheres with the whole Bible. This is a major strength of the ESV Study Bible.
5. Practical Theology.
Apply the text to yourself, the church, and the world.
Quality study Bibles are one of the most helpful all-around tools you can use to better understand and apply the Bible. So by all means use them (responsibly) as you focus primarily on the God-breathed text.
Four Prayers for Bible Reading (article)
How to Read the Bible for Yourself (article)
What Is Biblical Theology and Why Do We Need it? (interview)