Oh no, not another one....

One of the strangest aspects of American Christian culture to a foreigner like myself is the popularity of dispensationalism.  There are probably many reasons for the large numbers of supporters this system commands in the New World but high among them is surely the role of the Scofield Reference Bible.   There is, after all, a psychological aspect to the book: the notes are printed on the same page as the biblical text, which thereby gives them an (almost) inspired authority, at least from the point of view of the reader.

It is one reason that I have become gradually less and less keen on Study Bibles.  King James I was right when he knew that the Geneva Bible's marginal note on Exodus 1, justifying the deception of the Hebrew midwives, was profoundly seditious.  A tough exegetical issue was rendered simple by the editor and the rest, as they say, was history.  Or radical Presbyterian history, at least.   The visual impact of the aesthetics and arrangement of the page does have theological significance, for it can capture the imagination of the reader in unhelpful and damaging ways.

My heart thus fell when I saw that yet another study Bible has recently emerged, this time from Zondervan, under the general editorship of D. A. Carson.  Coming on the back of Ligonier’s rehashed and repackaged Reformation Study Bible, I kept getting flashbacks to a childhood Christmas where I received the same unwanted present from two different relatives.  And then I thought of all the innocent trees that have died to make all this possible.  Think of the trees, people. Does nobody think of the trees?

There are many comments one could make about the plethora of such Bibles.  The most obvious is that, to any with eyes to see, it is a publishing racket, designed to reinvent markets and thus invigorate income streams.  It helps establish the dominance of particular individuals within the evangelical world. It meets no real need in the church.  It is simply a part of the economy of finance, control, and promotion that characterizes today's Big Evangelicalism.  Study Bibles create a need which they then generously fill, a bit like the Apple iPhone, whose constant but trivial evolution keeps the gullible customer permanently dissatisfied and thus willing to shell out cash for whatever comes next.   But perhaps that is too harsh.  At least this one is ‘centered on the gospel message’ which is good and praiseworthy, if completely inane as a statement.  In my experience, the best Bibles I have ever read have generally been centered on the gospel message.  Indeed, if you have a Bible in your possession which is not centered on the gospel message, I suspect you may find that it is not actually a Bible at all but something else entirely -- a novel by Tom Clancy, for example.

It also seems that there is a certain oddity to the endeavor, a kind of incipient megalomania, even if such is not actually intended.  I used to take a copy of whatever Study Bible came immediately to hand into my Reformation class, the one on the Protestant notion of the uniqueness and sufficiency of scripture, open it up to the inside page and say ‘The Holy Bible: Written by God.  But edited by Top Man.’

Well, perhaps I am being too harsh after all.   I have to admit -- I’ve never been edited without improvement.  So maybe there is a place for such things.



Endnote: I am grateful to Phil Johnson for pointing out that the Geneva Bible justified the disobedience, not the deception of the midwives.  I was aware of this but regard the distinction made at that point as rather specious, and certainly lost in the way the note was received.  In any case, the larger point about marginal notes still stands.