The Problem With Study Bibles

In my post on The Problem With Bible Translations, I decried the recent proliferation of translations (I should have also included paraphrases since many of the “translations” are actually paraphrases and not new translations). That effort started me thinking about the Word and how it is being used in our Christian culture and it reminded me of a concern I have had for a long time related to Study Bibles.

When I began my serious teaching ministry in the 80’s, I asked the students who attended my classes not to bring Study Bibles. If they did not have a plain text Bible (I preferred not even having cross-references on the page), I supplied them for anyone who needed them.

My concern then, as now, is that it is hard enough to get students to interact with the actual biblical text to begin with and Study Bibles tend to short circuit that effort by giving students quick and easy rabbit trails to follow out of the text. Rather than wrestle with the text, they lightly tussle (if that even) with the explanations of the text and cross-references supplied for them. I can’t tell how many times I have heard the maddeningly inaccurate, “Well, my Bible says,” referring to their Study Bible notes, explanations, or whatever. Their Bible said no such thing, but getting that point across with a Study Bible in their hand did nothing but succeed in moving the discussion further away from the actual text. So, I banned the things and not without reactions on the part of many of the students. They felt naked without their intellectual crutches.

I ran across a quote this morning that aptly illustrates the issue and my concern.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. Soren Kierkegaard HT Evangelical Outpost.

The only way to be, as Kierkegaard says, “alone with the New Testament,” is to read and study from a plain text Bible. So I have two issues that I think are keeping us from the necessary radical encounters with the Word of God: translations and Study Bibles.

In the classes I lead, whenever we dealt with a particularly difficult text, I would take several translations, put them together and print them out for the lesson. We would then use only that combined text for dealing with the issues. I usually used four or five versions, depending on the needs of the text: a Greek interlinear, the King James, the NIV, the New American Standard, and the Amplified. In the early days that was a cut and paste job. Today, computers make it easy, but I achieved my primary goal: to get them to interact with the unadulterated text. The multiple translations kept them from interacting with only one version of the text, since despite including the interlinear, they couldn’t read the Greek originals. The interlinear did help them to see the original textual flow and the literal meanings for the words involved.

You may agree or disagree with me, but if you disagree, please explain to me the legitimate reason for failing to first meet the text on its own terms before allowing the opinions of others, well-formed or not, to influence your thinking. Does not the Apostle John warn us:

I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything–and is true and is no lie, just as it has taught you–abide in him. And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 1 John 2:26-28

I believe the makers of Study Bibles and the producers of translations have good intentions and a heartfelt desire to facilitate the spread and study of the Word, but there are subtle deceptions in place. Our first teacher is the Holy Spirit, not Holman or Life Application or Renovare Spiritual Formation or any other filter for the Word. Like it or not, they short circuit the Holy Spirit’s effort, drowning the still small voice with their shouting from the page.

For those of you who argue that these are needed for the new Christian and those with limited education or skills, I point you to the significance of John’s last sentence in which he calls those whom he just admonished about teachers little children. Enough said.

May God grant us the wisdom and strength to approach his Word naked and unafraid, ever willing to fall into the hands of the Living God and be remade by him into the vessels he has designed us to be. Amen.

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