Study Bibles are hardly new inventions. The medieval Glossa Ordinaria on the Latin Vulgate, Martin Luther's prefaces and marginal notes in his German translation, and the Geneva Bible testify that for centuries, people have sought to combine the text of Scripture with words of explanation or other helps for the reader. Today, many people read study Bibles at home and carry them to church. Is this good or bad? It depends on how we use them.
How Not to Use Study Bibles
1. Do not read study Bibles upside down.
Study Bibles typically feature the text of Scripture on the top half of the page and the notes on the bottom half. Thus, the top presents the words of God, and the bottom contains mere human interpretations and applications. We read study Bibles upside down when we confuse men's words with God's words. No matter how much you admire the people who wrote the notes, never receive their words as the absolute truth from God. Only the biblical text is inerrant.
"Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar" (Prov. 30:5–6; KJV throughout). No study Bible should add to His words but should only explain and apply them.
2. Do not read study Bibles with your brain turned off.
The temptation can be to read a verse, then look down at the note and conclude, "I see; that's what that means," and quickly move on. God calls us to meditate prayerfully on His Word (Pss. 1:2; 119:18, 36–37). Do not short-circuit the process of thinking carefully about the Scriptures. By their nature, study Bibles can only offer brief answers to questions. Issues may be much more complex than can be explained in a short note. Therefore, do not assume that you fully understand a matter just because you have read a note in a study Bible.
3. Do not read study Bibles when the preacher seems boring.
Study Bibles are no substitute for the preaching of God's Word—even if the preaching leaves something to be desired. Don't stay at home on the Lord's Day and read your study Bible instead of attending corporate worship. Don't sit in church and read your study Bible when the pastor is preaching. This is not studying the Word, but avoiding it. Romans 10:17 says, "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." Hearing the Word of God preached (Rom. 10:14), not reading, is God's primary means to work faith. If the preacher is not declaring God's Word in a biblically faithful way, don't retreat to your study Bible—go and find another preacher.
4. Do not read study Bibles to puff up your ego.
The purpose of Bible study is not just to fill our heads with knowledge but to fill our hearts with love for God, the desire to do His will, and faith in His promises (1 Tim. 1:5). The alternative is reading to grow in pride. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1–3).
Should We Use Study Bibles?
Yes, indeed. What is a study Bible? It is the text of Holy Scripture with additional notes and articles written by pastors and teachers. But why should we read notes and articles by pastors and teachers?
1. Some things in the Bible are hard to understand.
The knowledge of the Bible can lead everyone, even children, to wisdom, faith, and salvation (2 Tim. 3:15). However, Peter wrote of Paul's epistles,
In all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16)
This warning should tell us that we may need help from others to understand the Bible and that false teachers will try to lead others astray through their ignorance. Christ gives teachers to His church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that the risen and ascended Christ gives pastors and teachers "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." Since Christ gives teachers to the church, it follows that their written notes and applications can greatly aid our understanding of Scripture both intellectually and spiritually.
2. The Holy Spirit works through teachers.
First Corinthians 12:4 says, "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit." Among these diverse gifts is the ability to teach (v. 29), and the body of Christ needs teachers (1 Cor. 12:21). Do not say that you don't need anyone else's help because you have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through other members of the body to teach us God's Word.
While a study Bible is no substitute for membership in a local church where you regularly hear the preaching of the Word, it is a great opportunity to learn from wise teachers whom God has given to the church. Study Bibles are not necessary for salvation or spiritual growth, but since God uses the ministry of faithful pastors and scholars to call and gather His church, their written ministry can help us understand God's Word better.
How to Use Study Bibles Well
1. Find help for obscure words and hard sayings.
When you are reading through the Bible in devotions and discover a puzzling statement, check to see if there is a note that helps you understand it better.
2. Study each book of the Bible intensively.
Focus your reading on one book of the Bible. Read through it multiple times. Read the introduction to it in a study Bible to learn about its author, themes, and circumstances. Walk through it slowly, reading one section of the text at a time. After reading and meditating on that section, read all the notes and cross-references. Locate cities and other geographical features in the map section. Write your own notes in a notebook.
3. Explore a particular doctrine or some aspect of Christian living.
If you want to learn more about a particular teaching of Scripture, you can read an article related to it in your study Bible. Look up particular verses cited in the article, and read them and the study notes with them. Look up the cross-references and use a concordance to find more verses until you have plumbed the topic in some depth. Since a basic principle of Bible study is to interpret Scripture by Scripture, it is helpful to look up as many verses on a topic as possible. By so doing, then reading all the articles and verses on that topic in a study Bible, you will eventually study most of the major topics of theology and ethics.
4. Consider specific applications for your life.
Some study Bibles have special sections for application, devotion, or family worship. After reading the text of Holy Scripture with prayer and meditation, read the notes for that passage. Give thought to what God is calling you to do in light of His Word. If you are doing this study with others, ask questions about the text and discuss its application to your mind, heart, and life. Resolve to build your house on the rock by obeying Christ in specific ways (Matt. 7:24–25).
5. Discuss the Bible with family and friends.
A study Bible is a great tool for leading family worship, a devotion for a small group, or a study with a friend.
6. Read the creeds and confessions along with Scripture.
Many churches have classes to study doctrinal standards such as a confession of faith or catechism. If your church has such a class, you can use a study Bible that includes the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions among the helps provided. Look up the proof texts attached to a confession of faith or catechism, and study those texts in their biblical contexts. Many study Bibles have several other helpful features such as articles on archaeology, church history, and other important topics. Take time to explore your study Bible's particular features.
7. Meditate on the sermon after you return home.
To maximize your profit from the preaching of the Word, make notes on the sermons you hear in church and review them at home as a form of meditation. Look up the texts your pastor referenced, and use the notes in your study Bible to augment your meditations. Pray for the assistance of the Spirit, and study with the intent to obey God's Word.
Having recently written for and edited a study Bible (The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible), I can say from firsthand experience that, joined with prayer and the Spirit's illumination, God blesses study Bibles as important means for our spiritual growth. The most important way to use any Bible, regardless of whether it has notes or other helps, is to read it in order to know, trust in, and love Jesus Christ better and to become conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29). The Pharisees turned Bible study into an art, yet it was a perverse art of avoiding the Savior. Christ rebuked them, saying, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39). May all our Bible study cause us to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).