A Real Danger in Using Annotated Study Bibles*

by Doug Kutilek

In an electronically published letter of July 12, 2008, our friend Bob Ross of Pilgrim Publications, publisher of everything Spurgeon, wrote--

"In recent years, it seems that every Tom, Dick, and Harry and his Grandpa, who has a 'following' of some description, has been coming out with his own 'reference Bible' or 'study Bible'."

In addition to the old standbys of the past -- such as Bullinger, Dickson, Scofield, Newberry, Thompson, and others -- beginning at some point in the last century, there has been an influx of "reference Bibles" attributed to the likes of Ryrie, Dake, Rice, Falwell, MacArthur, Sproul, Stanley, Kirban, Swaggart, Hagee, LaHaye, Meyer, Copeland, Hinn, Swindoll, Hayford, Zodhiates, Lucado, Blackaby, and somebody called "Rainbow." There may be others, of course -- I am no "Google" on the matter.

I think much of this influx is due to the Publishers and/or Printers who are willing to capitalize off the vanity of "popular" ministers who for some reason believe their comments will inform the reader in the "more excellent way" of understanding the Bible. 

Though mentioning several editions unknown to me and several others long-forgotten, Bob here gives a decidedly incomplete listing.  In fact, just a few days ago, I received by mail the announcement of a new study Bible based on the ESV, which, judging from the sample pages shown, was about two-thirds notes and one third Bible text (more on this below).  I would agree that in part the flood of heavily-annotated study Bibles is driven by the twin motives of a profit-seeking marketing opportunities, and a perverse sense that the ordinary Bible reader dare not be trusted with “just the Bible text,” without the sure guiding hand of some “big name” preacher, televangelist or teacher to help him believe “correctly.“  In short, the annotator’s notes are essential, if the mere Bible reader is to be “protected from getting the “wrong idea” by just reading the Bible itself, “merely” enlightened by the Holy Spirit alone (by contrast, see John 14:26; I John 2:20-21; I Corinthians 2:12).

I freely acknowledge that I did most of my earliest Bible reading from an original Scofield reference Bible a friend gave me less than a year after I was converted.  And yes, I did learn much of real value from the notes, but I must also say, I had to unlearn a considerable amount that was simply not so.  Scofield’s advocacy of the gap- and day-age theories in Genesis 1 misguided me (and others) for years; and many other matters of greater or lesser detail though once readily and trustingly embraced had to be rejected as my understanding grew.  Indeed, whole books correcting Scofield’s manifold errors of interpretation, explanation and understanding have been written, and deservedly so.

But Scofield’s human fallibility is not at all unique to himself.  A close scrutiny of the annotations in every study Bible listed above would reveal many false steps in understanding, interpretation, explanation or emphasis (though some would naturally be more culpable in this regard than others).  And therein is the problem--study Bible annotators, as with Bible commentators, are hindered in their work by ignorance, prejudice, misinformation and a thousand and one other foibles.  Far better, in my opinion, to read the unadorned, unaccompanied and unexplained, raw Bible text, and let it speak for itself, as it can indeed do.  The famous 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the “perspicuity” (intelligibility) of Scripture, thusly:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. Westminster Confession, I. 7

I’m not sure that the Westminster divines had in mind, among the “ordinary means” the regular and exclusive use of study Bibles that were more notes than text, and which stifle the Scriptures from speaking for themselves.

And while it might seem an unnecessary admonition--one of those “self-evident truths” of which philosophers write--, there is the very real danger of the reader supposing that the study notes are “Bible,” that is, that the interpretation given to the text by the editor/annotator is as true as the text itself.  “No one would confuse them!” you might reply.  To the contrary, I recall an incident from a quarter century ago and more.  Two preacher friends of mine were having a theological discussion with a third preacher.  That preacher asserted that the Bible taught some particular point--now long forgotten by me.  Both of my friends immediately replied, “It doesn’t say that!”  So the preacher went and fetched his annotated study Bible, turned to a particular page, and showed them, from the footnotes, that the Bible did in fact teach what he had affirmed!  I know from my own experience, that as a young Christian when I first used my Scofield Bible, I accepted unquestioningly and uncritically everything the notes said; after all, they were printed right there in the Bible, right?

It seems that every theological faction, group, sect, and denomination is hesitant to let people read the plan, unadorned Biblical text, unaided by the “spin” necessary to interpret the text from the same point of view as the annotator, and to arrive at the same “sound” opinions.  There are Catholic and Orthodox study Bibles, with notes to explain away anything in the text that contradicts official dogma (one Catholic-produced edition of a Romanian NT in my possession has more notes than text!) or the “right” explanation.  There are charismatic study Bibles that propagate and reinforce the many errors of that movement.  There are annotated Bibles from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) which teach and re-enforce their Arian and other heresies).  There are Reformed study Bibles that explain away anything evidently contrary to Reformed dogma.  And on and on it goes.  And it seems, the more recent the study Bible, the more extensive the notes, and the less able the reader is assumed to be to read and think for himself, even though enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

While a study Bible or two may come in handy as a reference work--commentary--on particular points, I think it best, and follow as my regular practice, reading a text-only Bible.  My usual reading (besides in the originals) usually involves a Spanish or Romanian or Latin version, but with occasionally others thrown into the mix.  Were I an English-only reader, I would make it a point to read at least two or three good, unannotated modern English versions (for my recommendations of which to read, see “Which Bible for Today?” As I See It, 10:3).  Yes, I like a Bible with lots of cross references to other passages, variant translations in the margin, variant manuscript readings (as needed), with occasional notes on matters of weights, measures and such, and the words of Christ in red, some maps and a brief concordance.  But I want no long and detailed notes on this doctrine or that, from this theological point of view or that--which are as apt to prejudice the reader as they are to assist.   In fact, I have not regularly read an annotated reference Bible since I laid aside my old Scofield in the mid 1970s.  When I need additional information on a passage, I turn to one of several Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, commentaries, or topical works.  But I seek to let the inspired text alone instruct my mind, by deliberately not using a heavily-annotated study Bible of any kind.

Use heavily-annotated editions as you would a commentary--and only as a commentary--but with the conscious and deliberate recognition that they are very much the work of uninspired men, be they ever so learned or popular or widely-published, that they are not always right, and indeed, liable to frequently be wrong.

But as for me and my house--give me the straight text only.  I shall do my own thinking for myself, thank you.

Doug Kutilek

* Extract from an article by Doug Kutilek at: http://www.kjvonly.org/aisi/2008/aisi_11_8_08.htm. Published in "AS I SEE IT", Volume 11, Number 8, August 2008. Used with permission.

For further information on the use and mis-use of Study Bibles see: Article on Study Bibles, List of Study Bibles, The Bible Without Comment by William E. Cox.