The Warning of an Old Christian
One of the great, but forgotten, books of Christian spirituality is The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Soul by the Bohemian reformer John Comenius. The book is an allegory (like Pilgrim’s Progress) that describes a man who explores all of the various professions at large in the world in order to discover his calling. At one point the main character meets a group of scholars, people who dedicate their lives to study and learning. Upon meeting them, he makes two observations that need to be pondered by every Christian man. The first is that scholars tend to carry their knowledge in their rucksacks and on their bookshelves rather than in their hearts and on their minds. This behavior, though normal, is risky. There is always the liability that a book will be out of reach the moment a man needs a particular piece of truth.
The second observation regards the ridiculous nature of pride – that people often care more about owning books than gaining knowledge. In the story the scholars frequently stare at the beautiful covers of their books and only pull them off the shelf to read their impressive titles or to show off their excellent bindings. Sadly, the criticism is as valid for everyday Christians as for professional scholars. Do we not feel a surge of pride when completing a one-click purchase of the latest Tim Keller book even if the book itself is never actually opened? Guilty as charged.
The Danger of a Study Bible
There is no denying the usefulness of a good study Bible. Right now I am staring at a copy of the remarkable ESV Study Bible published by Crossway. It is hard to think of a more valuable tool for reading the Word of God. This study Bible contains careful introductions for each book of the Bible, insightful notes explaining the meaning and application of verses and key ideas, margins full of cross-references to compare similar passages, and even a book-end of essays covering the basics of theology, ethics, and apologetics. If a Christian could only own a single volume to aid their spiritual growth, I could not recommend a better resource than this tool. And yet...
And yet there is a distinct danger in owning a study Bible that parallels the observations made by Comenius so long ago. Most importantly, there is the danger of becoming content with a kindergarten understanding of the Bible because we know that, if needed, we can always rely upon our study Bible to bail us out in a moment of ignorance. Since all of the information is there (on the page), we don’t need it here (on our hearts). Therefore, we grow lax in Bible study because someone else has studied the Bible for us. With great relief, we can just jump to the answer key without needing to do any homework.
How to Avoid Abusing a Study Bible
So, men, how do we avoid the peril of becoming overly dependent on a study Bible? Here are three bits of advice.
First, always keep the end goal of Bible study in mind. The goal of reading and studying the Bible is for the Word of God to be chewed, digested, and assimilated by the soul as carefully as food is chewed, digested, and assimilated by the body. A man in the modern world has wasted his life if after 25 years of being a Christian he does not have the story of the whole Bible, the teaching of the New Testament, and the prayers of the Psalms engraved upon his heart. What a tragedy if on his death-bed a man can recite pages of sports facts, retell the history of current events in politics and pop culture, and offer careful explanations of the rules and principles of financial institutions and yet does not have a thorough grasp of Romans, the gospel of John, or the Psalms. All Bibles – including study Bibles – are printed for one purpose: to be downloaded as the basic software of life so that we can think, live, and relate for the glory of God.
Second, don’t allow owning a study Bible to replace Bible study. The problem with study Bibles is that all the work is already done for us. Chapters have been summarized with headings. Cross-References have already been linked. Words are defined in the notes. Observation, interpretation, and application have already been processed and printed. In truth, a personalized study Bible ought to be the life work of every Christian, the outcome of a lifetime of thoughtful study. But sadly instead of feeling an urgency to do this long-term project we simply purchase the labor of someone smarter than ourselves. Yet, the results are never adequate. Just as you cannot pay a fitness guru to work out for you, you cannot pay a scholar to do Bible study on your behalf. Growth always requires sustained effort, and by cutting out the effort in Bible study, for many, study Bibles end up impeding growth.
Third, use your study Bible like you would use an answer key to a workbook. If the aim is learning, never skip to the answers until you have finished the assignment. Always observe first for yourself, then check to see what observations the study Bible makes. Always interpret first for yourself, then use your study Bible to make sure you are not missing some key truth. Always apply first for yourself, then see if your study Bible has further applications that are worthy of prayerful consideration.
In short, don’t cheat when it comes to Bible study. Cheaters only cheat themselves.