I often feel conflicted about study Bibles. When I first started this blog, I was recovering from being heavily influenced by fundamentalist revival, prayer, and holiness movements. I have been greatly blessed by leaders within these movements. However within these movements a certain type of religious pride can infiltrate. Some took serious offense at those who were using something other than a simple King James Version Bible and seriously disliked study Bibles. They made such resources seem "carnal," suggesting that study Bibles inhibited the reader from hearing the Holy Spirit, understanding the Scripture for themselves, or interpreting the Bible without worldly compromise. When the A.W. Tozer Bible came out I heard many protestations from those who appreciate Tozer's writings, arguing that he would have been appalled by such a thing. While Tozer may not have appreciated his name on the front of a Bible, I doubt he would have condemned study Bibles as a whole. Breaking free from that kind of judgment opened up a world of Scripture knowledge and new avenues to explore and enjoy the Word of God.
Study Bible reviews have become a popular part of this blog, and I browse study Bibles often. When I want more insight on interpreting a verse from an external resource, the first thing I grab is a study Bible. Study Bibles are great because they contain the entire Bible text. The notes come surrounded by the full context of the Word of God. I don't have a full commentary set and being able to compare study Bible notes has been enormously helpful to me.
I do not use study Bibles on a regular basis, nor do I use a study Bible for my daily reading. I use them exclusively for reference, and I am extremely cautious about giving them to new believers. Though I love biblical resources, christian books, sermons, and teaching, I am convinced that new believers should focus on the Bible itself. My feelings were recently reinforced while reading Neil Cole's book Ordinary Hero:
I used to get a little offended by some study Bibles that have a famous teacher's name on the cover, as if that author wrote the book. Then one day I opened one and realized the author did write at least half of it. It used to be that when you opened a Bible in the middle, you would be in Psalms or Proverbs; today you are in Leviticus! There are so many notes explaining everything that in some of these study Bibles half of every page is Scripture and the other half is some scholar's interpretation of what it all means. What ends up happening is that the scholar's words become as important as the Scriptures for the Christian's growth and understanding of God's voice. I am sure the Scholar would object to this idea, but the subtle reality of the situation is that Christians are trained to think that the Bible is too difficult to understand without help. As a result, many would not venture to try to read it without a theologian's notes.Western Christian culture has largely succumbed to an unhealthy trend where knowledge has become more important than obedience and even faith relationship with Jesus. We feel that if we know our doctrines and are learning new things about the Scripture that we are growing in our relationship with Jesus. 1 Corinthians 8:1 says that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. We are meant to be in a love relationship with our Creator, Lord, and Savior and that goes far beyond academic knowledge. We might have a leg up walking into a relationship with a detailed knowledge of a person's history and character, but we will have a far shallower relationship than someone who spent years with the person learning those same facts. Sometimes we need to struggle to learn and discover things for ourselves. We need to know that we can really know Jesus for ourselves. This process of walking with Him and knowing Him is more valuable than having all of our biblical interpretations correct. Going to Jesus with our questions will do more for us than reading all the answers in the study Bible notes.
I am all in favor of study helps and study Bibles, but we have unintentionally separated people from a simple approach to God's Word. We have placed so many filters between God's voice and God's flock that they can no longer simply hear and obey. They need others to supply definition, application, and illustration. We need to make sure that the Scriptures stand alone. All the helps are indeed useful but only after people have spent time in God's Word without anyone aiding their understanding. It seems that Christians are no longer able to listen to God's Word without help. They need others to take in the nourishment, digest the meal, and regurgitate the understanding for them in simple language.
-Neil Cole, Ordinary Hero p. 181
In the end, study Bibles are not the problem. I like study Bibles, and I use them. The question is who are we depending on for understanding? We must be dependent on His voice and His Spirit, not on scholarship. You can understand the Bible. Not because you have the wisdom or the knowledge or the understanding, but because the Author is with you.