[Updated from the archives.]
I like to read. A show of hands for those who are like-minded.
I like to read reference books. Another show of hands please … waiting for those hands to go up … still waiting … ok, how about with every head bowed and every eye closed … now let’s see those hands go up … hmm, still waiting … .
Reverence for Reference Books
The reference books I’ve read have mostly been on language and writing. My first was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It has its shortcomings, but in college it had a permanent place on my bedside table as I read and re-read it in hope of improving my writing.
Others I’ve made my way through include The Oxford Companion to the English Language (cover-to-cover 1184 pages), The Quotable Lewis – an encyclopedic selection of quotes from the complete published works of C.S. Lewis (encyclopedic is right), and Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (which I won at a seminar he gave in the late 80s).
This predilection for reading reference books applies to my Scripture reading as well. Some people would even say the Bible itself is a type of reference book, like the fundamentalist preacher who, hearing I wanted to study history in college, bellowed “The Bible is the best history book there is!” (Yes, and no. It’s a book with passages of history. And poetry. And genealogy. And travelogue. And much more. As a whole, it is God’s revelation of who he is, not a history book.)
I’m not talking about the Bible as reference book, though. I’m talking about study Bibles. They combine Scripture with a running commentary of the text, and have been my usual mode of personal Bible study for years now.
Studying Study Bibles
The first Bible I read through from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 was a regular NIV I’d bought back in 1984 in a little Christian book shop in Brighton, near the University of Sussex where I was going to school.* It had no study notes or commentary to guide me.
It was captivating.
After a few years I decided to give a study Bible a try so I read through the NIV Study Bible. I bought one of the earliest editions and read it through, along with all the study notes along the way. I thought it was the greatest thing since Guttenberg used movable type. Imagine reading a passage and having the commentary right there on the same page. This was wild stuff for me 25 years ago.
Then I read the NLT Life Application Study Bible. That was an interesting tool. All the study notes, as you might have guessed, went to how the passage applied in one’s life. I can’t say I followed a lot of their specific application advice, but I can say that the notes opened up new understanding for me on a lot of passages.
I then went back and re-read the NIV Study Bible, mostly because I hadn’t found another one to pick up yet.
I took a short break from study Bibles and read the one-year HCSB. I’d never before done one of those one-year plans where you read a bit from several books of the Bible each day. There’s something about reading passages in a different order for being able to see things you’ve missed before.
I’ve used the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, too. If you want solid Reformation doctrine from a solid theologian, then this will fit the bill. Did I already lean toward Reformed doctrine before reading this? Yes. But even those who are not can learn much from the solid teaching in this study Bible.
Reading the Bible I Stole
I recently read through the Archaeological Study Bible. My daughter had been to Israel a couple of times and wanted this for herself so we picked up a copy for her. She hadn’t taken it to school with her yet and I got to where I needed to start a new study Bible and there it was. I’ve been enjoying the notes and articles and maps and charts. Again, new ways of understanding Scripture opened up all the time with this one. And I didn’t even blink when I got to the passage about “Thou shalt not steal”.
The version I just finished is a chronological and narrative Bible. It’s chronological in that it sets the passages out in order of the events recorded, or in order of when it was written. It’s narrative in that the editor has insightful mini essays periodically inserted between Scripture passages to introduce, link, or summarize what you’re reading. It’s designed to read through in a single year, and reading the passages in this order opened up new understanding of God’s word.
Back to the Beginning
Now I’m reading the Bible through the way I did the first time, not with a study Bible but just the Scripture text itself, reading from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. And I’m using that same Bible I bought in the little book shop in Brighton.
God’s word is amazing. Does the Holy Spirit need commentaries to guide us in understanding that word? Of course not. But he is able to use them to open up our understanding of God’s wonderful story, and that’s something worth studying.
*I became a Christian while studying in England: My Salvation Story.