Recalculating: How Study Bibles Can Limit Bible Study

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.

Right Use

So what is the right use for a study Bible? I would suggest the following:

  • 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.

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.

  • Dane

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jen.

    Many valid points here (consult multiple sources; make the sacred text primary; etc) but I confess I’m not tracking with the main point of the post. E.g. I wonder if others would resonate with your experience of ‘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 would have guessed that the experience of the majority of readers of study notes is to strengthen their actual understanding of the text, not give a false sense of strengthening. Am I off here?

    But perhaps it is ME who is in the minority! Either way, thanks for the thoughtful post and for all your work for the gospel and the Lord.

    Dane Ortlund

    • Jen Wilkin

      Hello Dr. Ortlund,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and civil response. I would say that the main point of the post is this:

      “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.”

      I agree that readers of study Bibles gain a strengthening of their understanding, just as those who hear sermons and listen to teaching increase in understanding. As a teacher of the Bible, I am not advocating for students to study without these additional helps – I am advocating for them to do so initially, until they have read carefully (and repetitively) what the text says and attempted their own premise of what the text means.

      In short, I want them to work a little harder on their own before consulting other sources. I do find that when an interpretation of a knotty passage is too easily available, students tend to either accept it without question or forget it shortly thereafter. The point of the post was to ask students to honor the learning process.

      I am grateful for your contributions to ensure students of Scripture have good sources to turn to.

      Jen Wilkin

      • Dane

        Jen, that is excellent. Thanks for this very helpful and instructive reply. We are of one mind!

        With my gratitude for your work and ministry…

        • Luma

          Jen and Dr. Ortlund,

          I was also a bit puzzled over those same statements Dr. Ortlund brought up. Jen, thank you for that clarification. I agree completely. Excellent work on this article.

          Many thanks to both of you for the gracious sharpening.

          Luma Simms

          • Mel

            The bible study that I attend asks that we not use a study bible when answering the questions or any outside sources until after we complete it. We then get together and answer the questions together. Often I find that if there is a question that I cannot get there will be someone else in the group that the Holy Spirit has given something special. And we all benefit.

  • Bill

    About six months ago, I put aside my study Bible and purchased an ESV cross reference Bible for much the same reasons. For me, it wasn’t just to aquire the benefit of getting lost, but realizing I relied too heavily on comentary that is bias towards the doctrine of the publisher. This is especially noticable with the book of Acts and the epistles when the commentary tries to “fill in the blanks” as to whether or not the whole family believe, or just head of household, etc etc, you get the idea.
    I still LOVE to read commentary whether its in a book or on this webste. I just would rather not have it IN the Bible where I am seaking pure truth.

  • Garry Lay

    This is a much needed perspective and excellent advice. Many years ago I attended a seminar on personal Bible study given by Dr. Howard Hendricks from Dallas Theological Seminary. His advice regarding the value of not relying on outside sources such as commentaries, and concentrating first on laboring through the passage with just your Bible, note paper, pencil and dependence on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, included all the points you have made. His teaching caused me to make a personal commitment to this type of Bible study which has sustained me over the past 40 years and given me a deeper understanding of the scriptures than I would ever have attained in any other way. Your advice regarding the use of study Bibles in right on.

  • Kim

    So true, thanks for sharing this! That is one thing I am passionate about is using the study guides, etc.. as tools to help. It is amazing when we are in the Word for ourselves and allowing God to teach us.

  • Natalie

    Thanks for this post. I have only recently been employing your suggestion. I will not go back! I’ve been studying 1 Samuel lately, using a Bible with only cross references. It’s been pretty enlightening, especially with a book that I’m so familiar with–or one that I thought I was so familiar with, either due to sermons I’ve heard or study notes read. I’m now forcing myself to do long observation, and only after that do I go on to interpretation. It’s after attempting to discern what the text says that I employ commentaries. I’ve learned so much more this way, and it’s delightful when the commentaries that I’ve purchased suggest that I’m not off. On the other hand, when they suggest I’m off, it forces me to rethink things and reexamine the text, which is also a good thing. Thanks for your faithfulness in encouraging people to engage the living God through the study of His Word.

  • Bill

    I want to add that despite my previous comment, every sermon is a commentary, every Bible study involves commentary, every time we listen to a Christian radio program, have a discussion, etc.

    Commentary can be helpful, I just would rather not have it in my Bible anymore.

  • Mark Soni

    Yes, I agree that I too can get swept up with a Bible’s commentary as the authoritative stamp “this is what it means, therefore there are no other interpretations for discussion.” As Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit, commentary is not.

    With that said, I never had a study Bible until a few years ago. I think that it has helped me understand some nuances about passages that I really didn’t get before. It has helped me with how a book is written, and there are some analyses of terms in which may make not a whole lot of sense in an English version.

    But I am trying to come to terms that the commentary is not my guide for communion with the Lord…the Holy Spirit is. It is a living, breathing Word, not one just to be analyzed and grasped right off the bat like its a educational text.

    I like the comment Jen made about “being lost.” As one who has backpacked before and figuring out a map but knowing the frustration of getting my streets crossed, one of the intriguing things about getting lost is to be in awe of your surroundings and running into neat surprises on side streets. While knowing that the end of the day I will still reach my destination somehow, you may never know how you will get there. With Scriptures, being guided by the Spirit doesn’t mean always straight forward answers. It needs chewing, meditation, thoughts, pondering, but with the pursuit of truth on my own, I know I will see the Glory of God in a passage in remarkable ways.

  • Rebecca Carrell

    Brilliant, Jen!!! LOVE IT and will borrow it (quoting you of course)!

  • Sally Sturm

    Thank you for this great insight. It is a helpless feeling to start a study with out “help”, but from your Bible Studies I understand that that helpless feeling is a good one and one that will produce better understanding of the Word. Thank you again.!

  • Gabe

    This is one reason why I like the NET Bible. The notes are more like “This is why we chose this word.” rather than the more typical study Bibles that try to interpret the verses for you. For a non-Greek-and-Hebrew scholar this can really help in understanding and protect the reader from drawing the wrong conclusions.

  • perfectnumber628

    I like this post- I have always had a study bible, until this year when I got one that had both English and Chinese (I speak Chinese and I had wanted a Chinese bible for a while), so no room for those study-bible notes.

    I think study bibles can be good for understanding some of the background/culture- maybe they are good for Christians with less knowledge of the bible. But we shouldn’t look at it as having all the answers- it’s there to help, not to tell you what everything means.

    And it’s good to struggle with a weird passage, instead of seeing if you can find “the answer” in the little commentary on the bottom of the page.

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  • Todd Van Voorst

    A great reminder to be humbled by what we do not yet know and to preach faithfully that which God has revealed by His Spirit in the Person and work of Christ!

  • Dan

    Hey, great post that I thought was well written, practical, and helpful!

    I did have a question, after thinking through some of this however, and wanted to hear some different voices. I am a huge fan of putting notes, dates, cross references, or whatever in my Bible (often they end up similar to what the publisher had put, but not always) – what’s your take on this? Is this a bad idea?

    It often brings my mind back to that certain train of thought, and even underlining makes certian words or phrases jump out while others seem more “quiet”. Is there a good balance to this? (I do have my opinion, but I’m curious what you all think.)

    Thanks :)
    Dan :)

    • perfectnumber628

      Dan- I am also totally a fan of writing in my bible. I think having reminders of how different passages have spoken to me in the past is really cool/useful.

  • Josh Breffle

    Great article; thank you for articulating some thoughts I have had for quite awhile. I am guilty of often times defaulting to the study bible or commentary before giving a tough text a thorough thought process of my own. I think prayerfully wrestling with scripture ultimately benefits us as readers far more than too quickly turning to a commentary for the answers. Thank you again, great article!

  • Bebe Clasen

    Study Bibles

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  • Sheryle

    Thank you for your insight – I look forward to following your blog and keeping in touch. Have shared some great nuggets of yours on my FB page to my brothers and sisters in Christ! :)

  • Lisa

    never heard of commentaries in a study bible. I love the cross reference, esp going back to the old tetament. I need the historical settings, especially history about the authors. to me that is not commentary.

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  • AJ

    You bring up a good point, but I feel like my study Bible “gets me lost” all the time – With all the cross references and further studying points it offers before I know it I’m paging across multiple chapters reading other things and totally forget what I was reading in the first place.

  • Jim Haw

    Great article, Jen. I was teaching a class once on how to read the Bible at my church. A new believer came up to me after the first class and showed me her brand new study Bible. She said, “I am confused. I don’t know which part of this page I am supposed to read.” She did not understand that the top fourth of the average page in her Bible was actual scripture and the rest was commentary or other study notes. I wanted to take her study Bible away from her, even though it was a great one, and just hand her a pew Bible. I love to see people immerse themselves in reading the Bible in its entirety using a systematic reading plan. Over time then they will begin to have the confidence to actually argue with the commentator’s notes.

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