Monday, 9 January 2006

I have this Thing against Study Bibles

MacArthur (in this 1998 sermon) recounted an incident which is very encouraging but also, well, more on that after:
I was flying across the country this week—a long flight—all the way to the east coast and the Lord always makes things serendipitous, always has a surprise or two; I was sitting next to a man who eventually took out a Bible and started reading it and as he was reading it, I said to him, "That’s a Bible you’ve got there." He said, "It is," and I said, "Do you understand what you’re reading?" I thought I’d just play Philip for a while. I said, "Do you understand what you’re reading?" and he said, "Well, some of it. I know one thing: that there are many ways to God." I said, "Keep reading. You’re not done yet." He said, "Well, it’s kind of hard to understand." I said, "Well, would you like to be able to understand the Bible?" and he said, "I really want to be able to understand the Bible — I really do." So, I took out my MacArthur Study Bible and I opened this thing and he said, "This has all the answers!" Anyway, I had the opportunity to expose him to the gospel and I’m going to send him one of those Bibles.
Praise the Lord for arranging such meetings. Praise the Lord for using John MacArthur to share the gospel with this man. :) It really is great to see how God does that; we've seen it in the international work here in Brussels.

But my stomach squirmed at one point in this encouraging account: "This [MacArthur Study Bible] has all the answers!" Because [cue confession] I have this Thing against Study Bibles, precisely for the reason that that is the impression that they give: 'You can't understand the Bible by itself - but look we've explained it for you.' So the impression left from MacArthur's account was not so much, "Look how God arranged for his servant to meet someone who wanted to understand the Bible and he could help in telling him of the gospel", but "Look how God arranged for his servant to meet someone who wanted to understand the Bible so he could give him a MacArthur Study Bible so he could understand it, rather than one with just the Bible text."

Caveats: Yes I do believe that God graciously uses his people to proclaim his gospel to others, and that includes the words that his people have committed to writing in books, commentaries, etc. I'm sure that as he used MacArthur's spoken words setting forth the gospel to this chap, he also used his written words in the Study Bible. No I don't disagree with Peter that some of the Bible is hard to understand. It takes hard work, parts are harder to understand than others and commentaries can be a helpful resource. And for a final caveat, no I'm not being black & white on this: since we use translations which use various manuscripts, it makes sense that most Bibles are printed with some translation and manuscript related notes.

But I do have an issue with presenting man-made helps as if they were essential to understanding the Bible, which is the record of God's revelation inspired by his Holy Spirit. He inspired all that was necessary to understanding (with the eye-opening work of his Holy Spirit) his gospel savingly. We are not in the time of Philip, when his 'explanatory notes' were God's ordained means of the Ethiopian hearing what was necessary to salvation. We now have the NT to reveal Jesus' fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

Having Study Notes in a Bible gives the impression (at least to an unbeliever) that they are essential to understanding the Bible. To a believer, having study notes in a Bible encourages the temptation to look to the helps for understanding rather than prayerfully looking to the text for understanding - it encourages the idea that, "You probably won't be able to understand this bit from the text - here we've explained it for you." This in itself is harmful.

But what really gets me is that this technique (producing Bibles with integrated study notes) has been used time & time again to propagate false teaching and heresy - or, being most generous, to impose the writer's theological system on the Bible. The Papists use(d) it. The Local Church use it. The JWs use it in the form of their Watchtower notes. The Scofield Bible does it! All these groups have the idea, "You won't be able to understand this properly on its own - but here, we've explained it for you. :)" Otherwise put, "This has all the answers!" Even if notes are good, it is better to teach people how to read the Bible well (one might say simply how to read well) than to hand them 'all the answers'. I want to be able to open my Bible with someone and say, "Forget about using X's notes to see what the Bible says - here, read it yourself", as God gave me opportunity last year with someone who had been studying with JWs.

I consult commentaries when I need to - see the caveats above. Sproul & co's notes may be great, and I may consult similar at a late stage of Bible study or in general reading. I would avoid thinking that I have all the answers! But I won't use a 'study Bible' as my main Bible.

10 comments:

Ant said...

Phew! Hard hitting stuff.
I'm with you though.

Caleb W said...

I mostly use two Bibles - a "standard issue" NIV translation of the Bible, and a larger NIV with a chain reference, concordance and some other helps. I don't think things like the chain reference and concordance are too much of a problem, since they're reference tools for finding your way around the Bible rather than dispensing The Real Meaning Of The Text, which even if it is right, is not developing maturity in understanding the Bible.

Of course, the headings and topics in the topical chain reference do still reflect some of the biases of the person who wrote it to some extent. I'm not a fan of the headings/short explanatory glosses in the margin, and wouldn't want one of those Bibles that have big wodges of text "With all the answers!" every few pages. I'm not even a big fan of the subheadings you get in many Bibles, since they can distort interpretation of the text and encourage a "Bite-size" approach to the Bible.

So I'd make a distinction between explanatory helps - helps that try and give you The Answer - which I'm not a fan of, and reference helps - helps that help you find stuff in the Bible - which I do think are helpful.

Mikey C said...

I agree with you from my own experience when I've had a Study Bible -
It's very tempting to read the footnotes rather than the text I find. It's a quick, solid, easy answer that will get you points in a Bible study. (unless of course someone else has the same edition...)

Ant said...

I don't cart it around to every meeting, but I like using a wide margin bible where I can scribble stuff that I have worked through etc. Sometimes it includes quotations from other people, but at least I put them there! It has been useful at times when coming back to a book, to have a reminder what I thought when I read it before. Sometimes I end up crossing out previous comments I put!

étrangère said...

Thanks for that Caleb, I would make that distinction too - reference helps are indeed helpful and I can't see any problem with them. I rather like my ESV concordance and cross-references, although occasionally I don't see why they've cross-referenced a particular verse. And the subheadings can indeed be frustrating in dividing the text where it is all part of an argument, and trying to tell you what the main point is before you read the passage - but of course they are useful for finding your place! It's annoying when they get read out during a Bible reading - but you can't blame whoever's doing it - how's anyone to realise they're not Bible text unless someone's mentioned it to them?!

Ant, I'm with you on the personal notes thing - it's clearly different to someone else looking at it. Although it's not wide-margin (now that would've been a good idea) my main Bible's full of my scribbles in margins and underlinings in the parts I've worked through, but I think that is no problem to opening it with someone and saying, "Here, this is the text of the Bible - apart from my pencil notes, ignore them!" :) That's very different to opening your Bible and having someone else's 'Answers' as part of the printed text.

-bb- said...

haha 'caveats' that's my new favourite word...i learnt it last week from a friend...it's weird how when u first hear or see something you never had before, you start seeing/hearing it everywhere!!

étrangère said...

lol Becci - I find that phenomenon happens in Bible study/reading too!

Sojourner said...

I think MacArthur was probably using humor when he said that the man exclaimed that this study Bible has all the answers, but I understand the squirms that such a comment brings.

The entire crossing out your own comments thing is hilarious. I have done that myself. I have preached sermons that I hope people have forgotten about. I know I am doing my best to drive them from my mind.

mama said...

Elisabeth Elliot is very scathing about reading your Bible through 'a web' of previous notes. As a note-maker, this is THE ONLY THING (well, nearly)on which I dare to disagree with my very fave author. Because there are two different types of notes you can write in the margin of your Bible:
1. things the Holy Spirit has led you to see in that text that day,
2. meanings of stuff where you've looked something up and found the answer.

I only note the second ones, because I know I won't remember it otherwise, and it's such a waste of time looking it all up again. I gave up noting the first, because like EE implies, it makes you come to a passage already influenced by what you learned last time, which doesn't give the HS much chance to take you on from there.

Jonny:) said...

HI
I do find the foot notes useful for adding historical and cultural refences that you would have to use a commentary to gain otherwise, e.g Roman status of Philipi was a Colonea, that means its a VERY important city with trade routes and a good place for the word to spread from. Dates for events and whats going on in the world around the story is very useful.
Aslo they do have very pretty maps that help visualise whats going on e.g ocupation of Isreal

Yes not at all importnat for undestanding the scriptures, tht is the realnm of the holy spirit, but can be of use if used in the right way