We love our study Bibles. Many of us spend our daily reading time with a study Bible in hand, stopping at trickier passages to glance to the bottom of the page for help with interpretive difficulties. And we make progress---our reading plans stay on schedule, and we find that we reach the end of a passage with greater understanding than when we started. But are study Bibles as helpful as they seem?
Several years ago I moved from Houston to Dallas. Having lived in Houston for 13 years, I could drive its streets with ease. I had no idea how to navigate Dallas, so I used a GPS to get everywhere I needed to go. It was a great feeling---knowing almost nothing of the city, I could map a route to my destination instantaneously. I never felt lost or wasted time wandering around on the wrong roads.
But three years later, I still didn't know my way around Dallas without that GPS. If its battery died or if I left home without it, I was in big trouble. And then another strange thing happened: I took a trip back to Houston. In a city I knew well, I found that my GPS didn't always pick the route that made the most sense. It still spoke with the same tone of authority it used in Dallas, but I could tell that it was choosing the obvious route over the most direct one.
The Benefit of Getting Lost
When I got back to Dallas I knew what I had to do: I had to allow myself to get lost. I had to wander around a bit, plan extra travel time, miss some exits, and make wrong turns in order to learn for myself the routes my GPS had spoon-fed me. And in some cases, in order to learn better routes.
This is the same lesson I have learned about study Bibles. If I am not careful, they can mask my ignorance of Scripture and give me a false sense that I know my way around its pages. I do not labor for understanding because the moment I hit a hard passage, I immediately resolve my discomfort of feeling "lost" by glancing down at the notes. And hearing their authoritative tone, I can grow forgetful that they are, in fact, only man's words---commentary, an educated opinion, profitable but not infallible.
My intent is not to question the value of commentary. Sound commentary is invaluable to the Bible student. My intent is to question its place in the learning process. Unless we consult it after we attempt to comprehend and interpret on our own, we tend to defer completely to its reasoning. The problem is not with our study Bible; the problem is with our need for instant gratification and our dislike of feeling lost.
In short, if I never allow myself to get lost, I never allow the learning process to take its proper course. If I never fight for interpretation on my own, I accept whatever interpretation I read at face value. And that's a dangerous route to drive.
So what is the right use for a study Bible? I would suggest the following:
So use your study Bible as it is intended to be used: as a reference point for your own conclusions, but not as a substitute for them. And get lost a little bit. Allow yourself to feel the extent of what you don't understand. It's a humbling feeling---but if your destination is wisdom and understanding, humility makes an excellent starting point for the journey. Seek with all of your heart, trusting the promise that those who do so will find that which they seek.
- Don't throw it away, just put it away. Keep your study Bible on the shelf when you read. Get a Bible with only cross-references to use as your primary copy. Investigate cross-references to help you comprehend and interpret.
- Treat study Bible notes as what they are: commentary, and brief commentary at that. Remember that they are man's words, subject to bias and error. Read them respectfully but critically.
- Consult multiple sources. Study notes should be a starting point for further inquiry, not a terminus. Once you have read for personal understanding in a note-free Bible, consult not just one but several study Bibles and commentaries from trusted sources. Look for consensus and disagreement among them.
- Ask the Holy Spirit for insight. Humbly ask the Spirit to reveal truth to your heart and mind as you read for understanding on your own, and as you compare your own discoveries to those of trusted commentators. Even if you find you have drawn the wrong conclusion from a text, you are more likely to remember the better conclusion because you have worked hard to discover it.
Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom to four great kids, and an advocate for women to love God with their minds through the faithful study of his Word. She writes, speaks, and teaches women the Bible. She lives in Flower Mound, Texas, and her family calls The Village Church home. Jen is the author of Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds (Crossway, 2014). You can find her at jenwilkin.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter.