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The Reformation Study Bible

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Bible is the world’s best selling book with an estimated 2.5 billion copies sold since 1815.  Tens of millions of Bibles continue to be sold every year.  Yet one cannot help but wonder how many of these Bibles are being read and understood by those who own them.  The Bible is an ancient book, or more precisely, a collection of ancient books.  The books of the Old Testament were written in the ancient Near East over a period of approximately 1000 years, with the last books being completed hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.  The books of the New Testament were written over a period of several decades two thousand years ago.  Many modern readers of the Bible have difficulty understanding these books because of the cultural and temporal distance that stands between the time these books were first written and our own day.  The difficulty of understanding the books of the Bible has led many to give up the attempt.

Because the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it is incumbent upon every human being to understand it.  Thankfully, the difficulty involved in understanding the books of the Bible is not an insurmountable one, and one of the means by which readers may overcome this difficulty is through the use of a good study Bible.  A “study Bible” is a particular translation of Scripture combined with various tools designed to help the reader understand the text.  Such Bibles have been produced since the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.  One of the earliest such study Bibles was the Geneva Bible, which was published in 1560.  This particular English translation contained notes in the margin that explained difficult texts.  The marginal notes were written by followers of John Calvin, and this study Bible helped spread the teaching of the Reformation across Europe and across the Atlantic.

The twentieth century witnessed an explosion of new translations of the Bible as well as numerous new study Bibles.  Two of the most influential study Bibles were published in the first years of the twentieth century.  In 1908, Frank Thompson introduced his chain-reference Bible, and in 1909 C. I. Scofield published the first edition of the Scofield Reference Bible.  Thompson’s chain-reference Bible enabled readers to do thematic studies of thousands of separate topics by providing links between all of the biblical verses that address each topic.  The Scofield Reference Bible took a different approach.  Scofield provided introductions to each book of the Bible as well as explanatory notes at the bottom of each page.  The explanatory notes provided an interpretation of Scripture written from a particular theological tradition, namely, dispensationalism.  The Scofield Reference Bible was instrumental in the rapid spread and popularization of dispensationalist theology.

Study Bibles usually include a variety of features.  Most include introductions to the individual books of the Bible.  These introductions generally include the kind of contextual information that is important to understanding any book.  They generally include, for example, whatever information is known about the author, his original audience, the date of writing, the reason for writing, the historical and cultural context, the genre of the particular book, and the major theological themes found in the book.  These book introductions also often contain outlines of the contents of the books.  These outlines assist readers in understanding the flow of thought in the book.  Some study Bibles also include informative introductions to the major sections of the Bible such as the Pentateuch, the historical books, the poetic books, the prophets, the Gospels, the epistles (letters), and the book of Revelation.  Since most of these sections of the Bible predominately consist of particular genres of literature, these section introductions provide information explaining how these genres should be read and interpreted.  The poetic books, for example, are not interpreted in the same way that the historical books are interpreted.

Many study Bibles also include various cross-referencing systems.  These cross-references, usually found in the margin or in a center-column, use a system of alphabetical and/or numerical superscripts to enable readers of a particular verse to find other biblical passages that deal with the same concepts found in the text he or she is reading.  They often refer the reader to other texts of the Bible where the same word or phrase is used.  In addition, these cross-reference systems often provide information about alternative translations of difficult texts as well as information about important Greek and Hebrew terms.

Among the features that are readily identifiable in most study Bibles are the explanatory notes at the bottom of each page of biblical text.  These notes are generally keyed to a particular verse or passage on the same page.  Depending on the verse or passage being explained, these notes may include information such as helpful historical context, explanations of ancient customs, and definitions of obscure words.  Because these notes are often quite detailed, readers who have questions about a given verse can often find the answer in the notes of a good study Bible.  

In addition to the explanatory notes, most study Bibles also contain maps, charts, and concordances.  The books of the Bible reference hundreds of ancient cities, rivers, nations, and empires.  These books also recount the journeys of numerous individuals and groups.  The maps provided in study Bibles help the reader to understand the real historical location of these places and events.  With the help of maps, the reader can trace the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan after the exodus or the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul after his conversion to Christ.   The charts found in numerous study Bibles present information found in the text in a visual format.  Such charts can often be very helpful to grasping the basic point an author intends to make.  Some study Bibles also include essays on various topics that may help the reader as he or she attempts to read and understand the Bible.

Good study bibles are helpful to the reader because they assist in overcoming the kinds of difficulties that lead many readers to give up their attempt to understand the Bible.  Many people attempt to read the books of the Bible with little or no information about their author, audience, context, or basic outline.  Good introductions to the biblical books provide that important information.  Additionally, when a reader encounters a difficult text that raises questions in his mind about its meaning, a good study Bible will provide in its explanatory notes the information that will allow the reader to understand what he has read in order that he may continue reading.

Since the publication of the first Thompson chain-reference Bible and the Scofield Reference Bible, numerous other study Bibles have been published.  Some of these study Bibles follow the lead of the Thompson chain-reference Bible in their attempt to be neutral and allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about the meaning of the text.  Most recently published study Bibles, however, follow a structure and method that is similar to that found in Scofield’s study Bible.  The wide variety of such study Bibles now available can be bewildering and confusing.  In order for the reader to choose the right study Bible, he or she must be aware of what distinguishes one from another.  In general, these study Bibles can be categorized according to the theological tradition represented by the editors.

The dispensationalist tradition represented by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) is also found in more recently published study Bibles.  An updated version of this Bible was published in 1967 under the title The New Scofield Reference Bible.  The dispensationalist theologian Charles Ryrie published his own Ryrie Study Bible in 1976 and updated it in 1994.  The notes in all of these study Bibles are written from a distinctively dispensationalist perspective, and since they are available in a variety of translations, they have become very popular.

A number of study Bibles are written from a generally conservative evangelical perspective.  One of the most popular of these is the NIV Study Bible (1985).  The 44 contributing editors to this study Bible represent a wide variety of generally evangelical denominations.  Another very popular evangelical study Bible is the Life Application Bible (1987).  This Bible, as its title indicates, is a study Bible with a focus on personal application.  The notes attempt to show the reader how a given text applies to his or her personal life.  Other generally conservative evangelical study Bibles include the Disciple’s Study Bible (1988), the Harper Study Bible (1964), the New Student Bible (1986), and the Quest Study Bible (1994).  

Some study Bibles are written from a more specific conservative evangelical tradition.  The editors of the Concordia Self-Study Bible (1986) write from an evangelical Lutheran perspective.  The Pentecostal and Charismatic tradition is represented by several study Bibles including Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (1963), the Full Life Study Bible (1992), the Spirit-Filled Life Bible (1991), and the Word Study Bible (1990).  The editors of the Wesley Bible (1990) write from the perspective of the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition.

Several study Bibles are written from the perspective of more liberal mainline Protestantism.  Among such study Bibles are the Cambridge Annotated Study Bible (1993), the HarperCollins Study Bible (1993), the New Oxford Annotated Bible (1977), and the Oxford Study Bible (1992).  The translation used in most of these study Bibles is the New Revised Standard Version.  Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has also produced a number of study Bibles including the New Jerusalem Bible (1985), the Catholic Study Bible (1990), and the Catholic Bible: Personal Study Edition (1995).

Until 1994, there were no study Bibles in print that were written from a distinctively Reformed perspective.  The publication of the New Geneva Study Bible was, therefore, a milestone.  The general editor, Dr. R. C. Sproul, gathered a team of more than fifty distinguished Reformed scholars including men such as James Montgomery Boice, Bruce Waltke, Moisés Silva, J. I. Packer, Roger Nicole, Edmund Clowney, Raymond Dillard, Tremper Longman III, J. Gordon McConville, Willem VanGemeren, Gordon Wenham, Sinclair Ferguson, Simon Kistemaker, Vern Poythress, and Leon Morris.  The various Old Testament and New Testament scholars wrote introductions, outlines, and explanatory notes for each book of the Bible.  These study tools were then combined with the New King James translation.  The result was the first study Bible with consistently Reformed study notes since the publication in 1560 of the original Geneva Bible.  The New Geneva Study Bible was later given a different title, the Reformation Study Bible, but the content remained the same.

In February 2005, the teaching ministry of Dr. R. C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries, published the Reformation Study Bible in a new translation, the English Standard Version (ESV).  This new study Bible combines the Reformed study tools of the New Geneva Study Bible with one of the most reliable modern English translations of Scripture.  The ESV was chosen as the text of the new study Bible because of the combination of its accuracy and its literary qualities.  

The translators of the ESV followed an essentially literal philosophy of translation.  Translators who adhere to this philosophy of translation aim to translate the precise words of the original text while also taking into consideration differences between the language of the text being translated and the language into which the text is being translated.  Such a philosophy of translation seeks to maintain as much as possible the structure of the original text, allowing the reader to discern the distinct styles of the different biblical authors while also retaining maximum clarity.  The goal of such a method is to provide a translation that is “transparent” to the original text—a translation that allows a modern reader to read what the original author wrote.

The Reformation Study Bible (ESV) contains a wealth of information to assist the reader in understanding the text of Scripture.  The English Standard Version translation itself contains a thorough center-column cross-reference system.  This cross-referencing system links the different verses of the Bible to other verses that contain the same words or phrases, and the same or similar themes.  If a particular verse is a quotation from an earlier text of Scripture, the cross-referencing system guides the reader to the verse or verses where the quotation was first written.  The ESV translation also contains numerous footnotes that provide information in many places regarding possible alternative translations of difficult Greek and Hebrew texts, explanations of obscure Greek and Hebrew words, and notes explaining why the translators chose a particular translation.

The Reformation Study Bible also contains the special tools written originally for the New Geneva Study Bible.  It contains numerous in-text maps to provide geographical context when such context is especially necessary to understand a particular passage.  It contains several charts to help readers visualize certain biblical teachings.  The study Bible contains introductions to all of the major sections of the Bible: the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, Hebrew Poetry, the Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, the Gospels and Acts, and the Epistles.  It also contains a detailed introduction to the Intertestamental Period in order to provide readers with information about what happened in the four hundred years between the writing of the last Old Testament book and the birth of Christ.

The Reformation Study Bible includes detailed introductions to every book of the Bible.  Each introduction discusses what is known about the authorship of the book, the date and occasion for the writing of the book, the distinctive characteristics and themes of the book, and a detailed outline of its contents.  The introductions of some books also contain a section discussing special interpretive difficulties found in those books.  This study Bible includes explanatory notes at the bottom of each page of the Bible that are keyed to the text for easy location.  The notes provide a running commentary on the entire Bible.  These notes were written by some of the most respected Reformed Old and New Testament scholars living today.  A unique feature of the New Geneva Study Bible and the Reformation Study Bible is the collection of 96 essays on a variety of biblical and theological topics.  These essays were all written from a distinctively Reformed perspective and cover topics such as the Image of God, God’s Covenant of Grace, the Law of God, Providence, Angels, the Kingdom of God, the Atonement, Justification, and the Return of Jesus Christ.  These essays provide the reader with a much more detailed explanation of certain key doctrines than is possible in the briefer explanatory textual annotations.

Using the Reformation Study Bible is like always having more than fifty of the most respected contemporary Reformed biblical scholars and teachers at your side to help you understand the meaning of the inspired Word of God.  There is no greater need for mankind than to hear and understand and believe the Word of God, but the distance between the time of the writing of the Bible and our own day has made such understanding of the Bible more difficult.  The Reformation Study Bible was produced in order that readers of the Bible might overcome those difficulties, hear the Word of God clearly, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed in that Word, and glorify God forever.   

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