ESV Study Bible: Why not?

26 11 2008

Last month the ESV Study Bible was published amidst widespread acclaim and euphoria. The combination of a modern formal equivalence translation and the best that evangelical scholarship has to offer in terms of notes and introductions has proven a winning formula – with the first 100,000 copies selling like proverbial hot cakes. So great is the interest in the release of this Bible version that certain bloggers have even posted photographs of them opening their new arrival!

Given all of the popular rush and flurry around the ESV it might come as a surprise that I’ve opted not to make a purchase. I thought that I’d share some of my reasons here, both as a means of raising discussion about study Bibles generally, and the ESV Study Bible more specifically. I’ve grouped them into two categories:

1. Personal Reasons
A Surplus of Bibles
At the moment we’re packing our home and life into cardboard boxes in anticipation of leaving for Peru. This has served to focus the mind and to distil a number of priorities. One of the really challenging things is a box marked ‘Bibles’ which is currently hiding under our study desk. These are editions of God’s Word which we have been blessed through in the past, and that we can’t bear to part with for a variety of sentimental reasons. (This is not even to mention the bag of other Bibles now going to the charity shop as well!)
Then there are the study Bibles! My brother and sister-in-law bought me a copy of the MacArthur Study Bible when I commenced my ministry in Armagh in 2002, and in this past year my father-in-law bought me an NIV Study Bible. Both of these are wonderful resources, and provide insights from differing perspectives on God’s Word.
In the light of all of these, buying another Bible represents a major decision which at present I can’t justify.

An Excess in Size
Everything is viewed by us with an eye to weight at the moment. Will it fit in a box? Will it add to our payload of goods being transported in January? The ESV Study Bible is simply ENORMOUS. This is not a problem if you’re keeping it on your coffee table or study desk, but for our needs it’s just a bit too big.

A Lack of Self-Discipline
Recently I’ve moved away from using a study Bible as my main Bible for daily readings. The reason is that my eye is too often tempted to the notes while I’m working my way through a passage, making it all too easy to accept the author’s ideas about the meaning of a difficult section, rather than taking the time to meditate, dig in, and find out for myself what the passage is saying. Such a temptation is basically inherent in the concept of a study Bible, and it takes a disciplined mind indeed to resist it. I now keep my study Bibles near at hand so that I can read through them at my leisure, at a time separate from my devotions. For an excellent post on this issue please see here.

2. Doctrinal Reasons
All of the foregoing is merely personal preference, and can (and perhaps should) be written off as such, but the doctrinal issues I have with regard to the ESV Study Bible are arguably more serious. It is incumbent on me to preface what I say here with a balancing statement: much if not most of what is located in the notes of this Bible will be of tremendous benefit to the reader and will deepen their love for God and faith in Him. In other words, I’m not writing the ESV Study Bible off completely. That being said, however, I still harbour a few concerns.

As bloggers began to receive their copy of the Bible in the post I read their reviews and initial responses with great interest. No-one can possibly give an exhaustive account of the ESV Study Bible’s benefits and drawbacks, given the quantity of time required to work through the biblical text and notes, but a couple of unsettling observations have been made about its Genesis sections. A sample can be read here. Among difficulties being identified are the lack of affirmation of six literal days of Creation, and the favouring of the flood of Noah’s day being a local rather than a global event.

The problems inherent in these positions are obvious. I’m aware that there is a division of opinion among evangelicals about how best to reads Genesis 1-2, and what is meant by the six days. I’m a literal six day Creationist and can see no warrant for moving away from that position in favour of a supposedly scientific position, but I can live with the differences which arise in interpretation in this regard. The issue of local or global for the Flood casts a much longer shadow across how one reads the remainder of the Genesis account, and the entirety of Scripture. Having gone through the notes in the ESV Study Bible on this whilst browsing in a Christian bookshop I was surprised to find that the reason for positing a local Flood are explained by the more ‘limited’ view that ancient people had of what constituted the whole world.

At best this teaching is partisan, at worst it is thoroughly unbiblical. In denying the global nature of the Flood are we not in danger of discrediting the statements made in 2Peter 3:5-7, where a universal flood is shown as proof positive of God’s impending judgement on all ungodliness? How do we account for the specificity of the narrative of Genesis 7, in which we are told that ‘the water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered'(7:19)? Questioning this seems to place scientific concerns above those of plain biblical scholarship.

This is not to say that the ESV Study Bible is to be written off, or that it will not richly bless many who use it. But the problem with assertions like these in the notes is that many who read this Bible will not perhaps use a wealth of commentaries, or have the resources to balance the opinions given in it with that of other biblical scholars.

It seems a shame that what appears to be an excellent resource for Bible Study is somewhat sullied by such a controversial perspective in Genesis.




2 responses

27 11 2008

I really like your excellent observations about what is clearly wrong with being wishy-washy on a world wide flood. Thanks.

27 11 2008

Glad you decided to post this!

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