Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)*
Choosing a Bible can be a complicated task. With a plethora of versions and editions to choose from, with an equal number of study/reference editions, along with bindings. It seems like a daunting task.
The primary consideration is first picking what translation to use. Although there are Christians who, due a lack of information and reasoning skills, venerate the King James Version in a manner which even the translators who brought this into being would find objectionable, I am not one of them. Although it was a great translation in its time, our knowledge of the original languages of the Bible has increased in the four centuries since it was initially published. Moreover, the English language itself has changed such that: (1) some phrases which were perfectly acceptable in English as it was used four hundred years ago are considered vulgar and obscene by today’s standards; (2) many of the terms common to Elizabethan English are obscure today; (3) many terms have changed in meaning in the past four centuries.§
For these reasons, I advocate that one consider a contemporary translation of Scripture. While one can have fruitful study using an archaic translation, that is the equivalent of tying weights onto a baby’s ankles when he is just beginning to walk.
In choosing a translation, the first consideration is the theological background of the translation/translators: (1) Protestant v. Catholic v. Eastern, (2) Conservative v. liberal, (3) multi-denominational v. denominational. All translators bring a certain bias to the task. Some conscientiously work to insure their biases do not affect the task of translation. Others are blatant in their intentions—their express purpose in translation is to promote their theological view. Examples of translations in which the translators have let their personal theological views override their obligation to translate accurately are the ESV [hyper-Calvinism], and the NAB [Roman Catholicism—not to be confused with the NASB, which is a multi-denominational translation from the conservative protestant perspective]. Coming from a conservative protestant background, I admittedly reserve my recommendations for those translations which also represent a conservative protestant theology. So you will not find me recommending such translational travesties as the NRSV, or the REB, both of which are liberal to the extreme.
The second consideration is choosing a translation according to the theory of translation followed: formal [literal] equivalence v. dynamic [functional] equivalence v. paraphrase. For a more detailed explanation of these distinctions, I refer readers back to my previous blog: “Scripture Pt. 4 – Translation Theory,” which is found at: https://davestheology.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/scripture-pt-4…slation-theory/
There are other considerations as well which are minor but still merit consideration: (1) text format [verse v. paragraph], (2) binding [genuine leather v. bonded v. imitation leather v. hardcover v. paperback], and (3) other features.
Other features include such things as study notes, cross references [marginal v. center-column v. read-along], concordances, maps, charts, tables, outlines, thumb-indexing.
Just to let you know how my recommendations are weighted:
1: In terms of translation, my highest preference and recommendations are for a conservative protestant, multi-denominational, formal equivalence translation [such as the NASB or NKJV]. While I will refer to other translations occasionally, such as dynamic equivalent translations like the NIV, ESV, or HCSB, my use of them is limited as more of a commentary and to examine how others may draw different conclusions of the meaning and application of a text based on their translational choices. I have absolutely no use whatsoever for paraphrases such as The Message, the Good News Bible, or the Contemporary English Version.
If it comes to a choice between the two, I will prefer the NKJV over the NASB. I have touched on this issue in two previous blogs: “Scripture Pt. 3a” and “Scripture Pt. 3b.” For the reasons stated there, I prefer a translation based on Byzantine priority concerning the manuscript evidence over a translation based on Alexandrian priority concerning the manuscript evidence. The NKJV, while not strictly based on Byzantine priority theory, does carefully note the instances where the Textus Receptus deviated from the Byzantine text, and the Alexandrian text deviates from both the Byzantine and the Textus Receptus. No other translation does this.
2: In terms of text format, I prefer a verse format over a paragraph format. Bibles which follow the verse format are becoming fewer as new editions of versions which appeared originally in a verse format [the NKJV and NASB] are now being issued in paragraph format. Unfortunately, these are getting harder to find. [See paragraph which follows]
3: In terms of bindings, while genuine leather is the gold standard [with morocco leather being the platinum], there is a new synthetic being used by many publishers called “LeatherSoft” which not only looks genuine, but has a better feel than bonded leather. It has more flexibility than genuine leather [so Bibles stay open in your lap better], plus it appeases the animal rights crowd. In addition, one can purchase [if available] a Bible bound in LeatherSoft, in many cases, for less than half of what the same edition would cost bound in genuine leather. I would only recommend a hardcover if one plans to use the Bible for a second Bible, and not one’s primary study Bible. I would never under any circumstances recommend a paperback Bible.
4: Study notes are helpful, with some cautions. I know there are some Christians who take the viewpoint that it is some form of blasphemy to put study notes in a Bible. I am not one of them. The Geneva Bible had copious notes of commentary included with the text when it was first published in the mid-1500s. Those notes, or more precisely, King James’ loathing of those notes, were the primary reason he acceded to the Puritan’s insistence on a new translation at the Hampton Court conference in 1603. At the same time, while the principles of translation being followed insisted that it be published without any form of notes, when the KJV was first published in 1611, it contained over 6,000 notes noting variant readings, alternative renderings, and explanations of texts the translators had difficulty with.
The cautions when using a Bible with study notes are: (1) The notes are not to be equated with the text, (2) consequently, they are not inspired or inerrant, and (3) they should never replace original research in Bible study. I have known believers who thought the study notes somehow represent an infallible interpretation of Scripture. They don’t. They represent that particular writer’s or editor’s best understanding of a text at the time. And many editors/writers of a particular study Bible have no qualms about emending their notes as their understanding of a particular Scripture matures. For an example [if the reader can find it], I encourage readers to compare John MacArthur’s notes on 1 Timothy 3 from the first edition of the study Bible which bears his name with current editions.
5: I prefer marginal or center-column cross references over read-along references. I think having the references inserted into the text itself is just plain confusing.
So with that groundwork, let’s proceed to the review.
First, a word about the abbreviations/codes indicated in the review:
CC = Center-column references, a system in which cross references and certain notes appear in a center column between two columns of text [as used in the MacArthur Study Bible and the NKJV Study Bible].
C/P = Charismatic/Pentecostal theological slant, which is the belief that certain manifestations of the Holy Spirit are not merely normal, but mandatory for the church to experience today.
Cs = Cessationist theological slant, which is the belief that certain manifestations of the Holy Spirit ceased being normative after about 100A.D.
D = Dispensational, a theological perspective which teaches that God has revealed Himself successively via different covenants and has instituted different economies dictating how faith is properly demonstrated/expressed within those economies.
Ec = Evangelical conservative, a theological perspective which asserts that Scripture is authoritative because it is fully inspired by God and is without error in all it affirms.
El = Evangelical liberal, a theological perspective which asserts that Scripture is authoritative based on church traditions and creeds, but questions/denies that Scripture is fully inspired by God. This perspective also asserts Scripture is infallible on matters related to faith, but may be in error in matters of history or science.
SC = Side-column references, a system in which cross references are placed in columns to the sides of the text. The text itself may be formatted as either a single column [as in the “classic” format of the reference edition of the NASB], or in double columns [as found in the Scofield III editions of the Scofield Reference Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible, and the Thompson Chain Reference Bible].
P = Paragraph, the format in which text appears in paragraph style, this is the format followed by the ESV, the HCSB, the NIV, and the NLT.
R = Reformed, although proponents identify themselves as Calvinists, this is distinguished from proponents of dispensationalism [who also identify themselves as Calvinists] by also adopting an ecclesiology called covenantalism because of the proponents’ assertion that there has only been one covenant/dispensation since the Fall. This theology is also known as “Replacement” theology because proponents also assert that the Church has displaced/replaced ethnic Israel as the chosen people of God.
Rr = Read-along references, a system in which cross references appear in the text itself following each verse [as used in the Open Bible].
V = Verse, a format in which each verse is structured as a separate thought unit. This is the format followed by the KJV and, until recently, almost every edition of the NKJV and NASB.
I will be following each review with a rating between 0 and 5, 5 being the highest and 0 [zero] being the lowest.
In no particular order:
Scofield III Reference Bible [Ec-D-Cs Perspective]: The cross references found here are more similar to the topical chains found in the Thompson Chain Reference Bible. However, because the Scofield has different doctrinal emphases than the Thompson, and the chains do not cover the same subject matter, I think one can safely conclude that, although Scofield and Thompson shared the same perspective on how to approach Scripture in allowing it to be its best interpreter, Scofield did not copy Thompson’s work since Thompson’s first edition was published in 1908 and the first edition of the Scofield Reference Bible was published the following year. The Scofield is unashamedly dispensational in his ecclesiology and eschatology, which makes it suspect to many detractors. The only problem I have with the Scofield Reference Bible is its notation on Genesis 1:2, which, in the original edition, espouses a theory called the “gap theory”–which taught that all prehistoric life was destroyed in a cataclysm [believed to be Satan’s rebellion] and that what follows is not actually the creation of the earth, but its re-creation. The Scofield III corrects this. While at one point this was available in six different English translations [the ESV, the NASB, the HCSB, the KJV, the NIV, and the NKJV], it is now only available in the KJV, the NIV, and the NKJV. The NIV follows a paragraph format while the KJV and NKJV use a verse format. In addition, I feel the topical chains are much easier to follow in this than in the Thompson. The references are SC. This is also available in Spanish. Rating: 4.5
Holman Study Bible [Ec-D-Cs perspective]: This Bible is rather surprising coming from the Southern Baptist publishing concern. My recent encounters with members of the denomination had led me to believe that many of their distinctives were being cast aside–especially the tendency to abandon reformed soteriology [the Biblical view] in favor of a people-pleasing pelagianism. A review of the notes shows a very consistent view of reformed soteriology, coupled with a dispensational view of eschatology and ecclesiology. The page formatting is the most eye-pleasing of any study Bible I’ve ever encountered [advertising itself as “The Only Fully Color NKJV/KJV/HCSB Study Bible”], and it contains many full-color photographs, maps, and illustrations. In addition, the text features verse numbering and links to cross references and marginal notes in blue–which makes it a bit less confusing than verse numbering and links which appear in black lettering. The only negative I can find with the formatting is the red-ink used for the words of Christ is a bit too bright, almost garish in hue–but this is minor. The text is formatted as paragraphs instead of verses–another negative, albeit minor. The cross references are center-column. As indicated, this is available in the KJV, NKJV, and the HCSB. A Spanish version is available in the RVR. While it is a hard choice, and I can strongly recommend this, I still find my main preference in currently available study Bibles to be the MacArthur Study Bible. Rating: 4.5
Ryrie Study Bible [Ec-D-Cs perspective]: Although it shares a similar theological perspective to the Scofield III Reference Bible, the notes in the Ryrie are more detailed, and it uses a conventional cross-referencing system rather than a topical chain system. Many who espouse covenant theology also deride Charles Ryrie because they accuse him of advocating a heresy called antinomianism. A careful reading of Ryrie’s teachings shows the accusations to be false, but I would concede that he is not careful or nuanced in drawing a distinction between justification and sanctification in his soteriology. Moreover, his views on what he considers to be “false additions to faith” in the “Synopsis of Bible Doctrine,” are contrary to what is expressly taught in Scripture. Because he promotes a poorly-expressed view of salvation, along with his continued refusal to accept correction on the issue, I cannot recommend his study Bible. While not as egregiously heretical as Dake’s Reference Bible and The New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, it lacks the merits of stronger offerings from the MacArthur Study Bible and the NKJV Study Bible. This is currently available using the KJV, the NASB(95), and the ESV. Rating: 3.0
MacArthur Study Bible [Ec-D-Cs perspective]: This edition is more stridently cessationist than either Ryrie or Scofield. This is available in the ESV, the NKJV, the NASB(95), and the NIV. In addition, MacArthur is more polemical in his notes. On the plus side, the notes are more detailed and prevalent than in either the Scofield or Ryrie. MacArthur is also more consistently reformed in his soteriology, while remaining avowedly dispensational in his eschatology. I have to mark this edition somewhat lower on my evaluation because the abundance of notes, the small type and the paragraph format combine to create a somewhat crowded looking layout which can be overwhelming. The referencing system is CC. Also available in Spanish. Rating: 4.6
Reformation Study Bible [Ec-R-Cs]: This is an updated and revised version of what was formerly known as the New Geneva Study Bible. While the former edition used the NKJV text, this uses the ESV. Stridently cessationist, Calvinistic and anti-dispensational, the tenor of the notes are not explanatory or expositional, but polemical. The goal of this edition appears not to be so much promoting growth in Christian character as it is arming amateur theologians with ammunition for debates with non-Calvinists and dispensationalists. As with the MacArthur Study Bible, the small type size, the format of the text, and the abundance of notes makes the page layout daunting and confusing. The referencing system is CC. Rating: 2.0
Thompson Chain Reference Bible [Ec]: This is available in the KJV, the NASB(77), the NIV, the NKJV, and the ESV. All editions except for the NIV and the ESV follow verse formatting. The NIV and ESV editions format the text in paragraphs. Frank Charles Thompson, a Methodist minister in the late 1800s, spent over 20 years developing this Bible, which does not use any type of expositional or explanatory notes, or promote any type of theological slant. Instead, his efforts were expended in developing topical chains to promote the premise of allowing Scripture to explain Scripture—that the Bible itself is its own best commentary. The fact that this has now been in print continuously for over 100 years, with only minor revisions, speaks to its enduring usefulness. The topical chains, while not exhaustive, are superior to most cross referencing systems which simply note similar words or phrases occurring in other texts or reference to parallel passages. That said, while the philosophy behind the Thompson Chain Reference Bible is outstanding–its execution is, at times, inconsistent–at least in the NKJV and NAS77 editions. One copy of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible I had was so poorly bound, I had to replace the cover less than two months after purchasing it. In addition, while Thompson did not use his topical chains to advance a theological agenda, his successors in the work have appended several articles dealing with theology in the back of the Bible and those articles tend to promote a Wesleyan-Holiness soteriology in a curious blend with something approximating [but not openly advocating] replacement theology. Finally, the formatting shows a lack of editorial discernment, at least in the NKJV edition. The font is too small to be read comfortably, and in many cases the layout looks amateurish and sloppy– words are not divided between syllables when necessary at the end of a line of type, but simply run from one line to the next. To their credit, however, the editors welcome informed and constructive criticism and are working on the defects as they come to their attention. The topical chains are SC. So, even with its flaws, it can still be a quite useful study Bible. This is also available in Spanish. Rating: 4.1
NKJV Study Bible [Ec-D-Cs]: As the name suggests, this is available in the NKJV only. The text uses paragraph formatting. Although the editors/writers on this promote a cessationist view of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, their comments in this area tend to be more irenic than those of Ryrie or MacArthur. If this edition has any theological weakness, it is that regarding doctrines such as election, the writers/editors tended to equivocate and did not really indicate which view they thought to be correct. The same weakness is seen in terms of eschatology and how it effected their notes covering the book of Revelation. As with the MacArthur Study Bible, the small print size, abundance of notes, and text formatting all contribute to a page layout which can be daunting and confusing. I consider the MacArthur Study Bible to be better simply because MacArthur does not equivocate on those issues of election and eschatology. In 2014, this edition was revised to put some of the notes and charts in color, and it is now called the NKJV Study Bible, Full Color Edition. The use of color, while a pleasant formatting addition, is still not as extensive as that shown in the Holman Study Bible. The cross-referencing system is center-column. Rating: 4.2
Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible [Ec-D-Cs]: This is available in the KJV, the NASB(77), the ESV, and the NIV, and, as of November 10, 2015, the NKJV. The KJV, NKJV, and NASB(77) editions use verse formatting of the text, while the NIV and ESV editions use paragraph formatting. All editions underwent major revisions in 2008. Imagine if you will a Bible which contains English text, with parsing codes to the Greek in the NT and Strong’s numbering codes for key words in the Old and New Testaments and appended in the back are expository dictionaries for the coded Hebrew and Greek words. While this puts language tools into the hands of those who have not been trained in the original languages, this Bible tends to prove the old adage that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The parsing codes [which basically show how the word was used grammatically in the Greek NT] are not explained adequately. While there is a key [and a bookmark] which state what the codes mean, they do not explain how the grammar affects the translation or meaning of the text. For example, the Greek preposition en has a different meaning when used with a noun in the genitive case than it has with a noun in the dative. [For an example of this, see my blog “Where’s Junia/s?”] It would also have been more helpful if the editors had provided some parsing keys for the Old Testament. For these flaws, it is still quite useful as a basic tool for researching the original languages. The 2008 edition of the KJV updates some of the obscure archaic usages and changes the Greek forms of Old Testament names [such as Isaias and Jeremias] in the New Testament to their Hebrew forms [Isaiah and Jeremiah] for the sake of uniformity–although this may be a moot point since they have now issued this study Bible in the NKJV. It also provides a quick reference for word studies when I am pressed for time and don’t wish to dig out my lexicons and grammars to look up the information. It would also be more helpful if the NASB edition used the 1995 updated translation instead of the rather wooden and lesser regarded 1977 edition. I do not know how the NIV edition will fare now that Biblica [the organization which succeeded the International Bible Society as the copyright owner of the NIV] is telling licensees that if they do not upgrade to the 2011 politically correct revision of the NIV, they will lose their licenses to publish that version. Cross references are Center Column. Rating: 4.5
Life Application Bible [El]: Available in the KJV, the NASB(95), the NIV, the NKJV, and the NLT. Only the NASB(95) uses verse formatting of the text. The other versions use paragraph formatting. While acknowledging the authority of Scripture, the notes display a clear rejection of the doctrine of inerrancy by their denials of such events as a literal six-day period of creation and a global deluge. By inference, the editors suggest that Jesus was a liar for teaching that the creation and fall of man and the flood were historical events. My personal view is that Christians are better served without reference Bibles like these. Rating: 1.0
The NIV Study Bible [also the NASB Study Bible] [El]: Only slightly less liberal than the Life Application Bible, but the annotations still show a dismissal of key events in the Old Testament as not being historical events. Rating: 1.2
NKJV New Spirit-Filled Life Bible [Ec-C/P]: In English, this is available only in the NKJV. [It is also available in Spanish.] The annotations promote the heresies of dominionism and “word/faith” [aka “name-it/claim-it] theology. Given the editor of this edition is Jack Hayford, and his standing as a minister in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which rejects such teachings, it is difficult to comprehend how and why he allowed his name to be associated with this project. Rating: 0.5
Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible [C/P-D]: Available in the KJV and the NKJV. Finis Jennings Dake was a pentecostal teacher/preacher who asserted that the layout of this Bible was given to him directly from God. The claim is difficult to reconcile with the teaching in 1 Corinthians 14:33, that God is not a God of confusion, but of peace and order. The layout is not only confusing, the typeface is so small as to require a magnifying glass to read it. Annotations may start on one page and then the reader is directed to another page elsewhere to finish reading the annotation. It is also difficult to reconcile with the fact that when the NKJV edition was released in 2013, the page formatting and layout was completely different from the KJV edition. It would seem to me that if the page layout was dictated by God–wouldn’t the publisher in effect be committing blasphemy by adopting a different format and layout? Also troubling is that Dake was a segregationist and racist who believed that the unforgivable sin was integration. Moreover, he held heretical views with regard to the Godhead, teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were each separate gods [as opposed to the Christian doctrine that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three distinct Persons in one Godhead] and that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each possessed a supra-physical body, soul, and spirit, each having all the attributes and fullness of Deity. The fact that this Bible continues to be sold 50 years after its initial publication is an indictment on the lack of sound teaching, sound thinking, and gullibility of some who call themselves Christians. Rating: 0.0
And there it is, my picks of study Bibles which are beneficial—with a few which I simply include as examples to be avoided at all costs. And if someone gives you a Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, the best recommendation I can give you is to burn it.
Although there are many other study Bibles out there, I have chosen to include only the ones with which I have had experience, and which are still in print. You will notice that no study Bible currently in print merited a 5.0 rating in my reviews. While those which received Ratings of 4.0 or better are excellent, and those I have given ratings of at least 3.0 to 3.99 can be useful, there is only one edition I would unreservedly give a rating of 5.0, and it is, regrettably, no longer in print. Suffice to say if one has the opportunity to obtain a copy of what has been published as the Believer’s Study Bible or the Holy Bible, Baptist Study Edition [they are the same Bible, published at different times under different names], s/he will have a great treasure indeed: doctrinally sound footnotes in a page layout which is not cluttered and easy on the eyes.
*Except as noted, all Scriptures are from the New King James Version (NKJV). Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
†The NASB was initially published in its entirety in 1971 and underwent revisions in 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and most recently in 1995. Although most study Bibles which use the NASB text use the 1995 edition and are noted as NASB(95), a couple, having originally been issued prior to the 1995 revision, did not renegotiate licenses with the Lockman Foundation to use the 1995 edition and are designated as using the 1977 edition with NASB(77).
§For example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, the English verb “letteth” meant to hinder, prevent, or restrain. Now the verb in English means to allow or permit—a meaning which is totally the opposite of its meaning four hundred years ago. Another example is the verb “prevent” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 in the KJV. Four hundred years ago it meant to go before, to precede. The current meaning of “prevent” is to hinder or stop something from happening.