What is a Study Bible and How Do I Use It?

Liz Kanoy

Senior Editor
Updated Oct 01, 2015
What is a Study Bible and How Do I Use It?
When we desire to learn about God's Word for His glory, He will grant us clarity and discernment.

Most Christians, no matter their denomination, will have some sort of study Bible on their bookshelf. Whether it gets used or not or used properly is another matter. A study Bible may seem intimidating, maybe you find it distracting because you spend more time in the notes, or maybe you don’t want to use one at all because you feel that you can’t trust the interpretation.

The purpose of a study Bible is to help you understand Scripture more clearly as you read it; it usually contains notes for biblical interpretation, book introductions to provide context, and maps for visual pictures of locations. But there are 4 things you should know before reading or purchasing a study Bible. Justin Taylor, senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway, has shared 4 Tips for Using a Study Bible Well on his Gospel Coalition blog. His blog stems from a recent article he wrote for Ligonier’s Tabletalk magazine.

1. Take notice of the horizontal line:
Taylor points out that the first thing you may notice about a study Bible is that there is a horizontal line separating the biblical text from the interpretive notes below. He explains,

Everything above the line is inerrant and infallible. Everything below the line is filled with good intentions but may not be true. We are to be like the noble Bereans who cross-checked the teaching they received with the authoritative Word of God.”

Taylor’s point is valid—we should read the notes but be careful not to give the notes the same authority that Scripture has. It’s also good to know the editors of your study Bible; look up their names, and check to see if their beliefs align with what you or your church believes. You may also want to ask your pastor for a few suggestions of different study Bibles.

2. Do more than just read the notes:
The second tip Taylor shares is to “use your study Bible for more than just the notes.” It’s easy to get caught up in the notes section, but the notes should not take away from time spent in the Word. Yet, there are other benefits in a study Bible besides the notes, such as book introductions. Taylor states,

I am convinced that the most underutilized and yet important parts of a good study Bible are the introductions to each biblical book. A careful reading of the introduction will help you see the big picture. Use study Bible introductions well, and you will be less likely to take a passage out of context.”

Book introductions can provide us with historical information about the author of the book, the original audience, the setting/location of events in the book, and the theme and purpose of the writing. Understanding the context of a biblical book or passage can greatly aid us in our understanding of the original meaning and application for today.

3. Look at more than one study Bible:
The third tip Taylor relays is to “use more than one study Bible.” You may find one study Bible that you really like, and you may want to use it as your only source to interpret biblical text. But while that may be convenient, it will not give you more than one view. Taylor writes,

Not all study Bibles are created equal. There are some I would highly recommend and some I would highly discourage Christians from using. …do some research to find out the theological position of the study Bible, who wrote and edited the notes, and whether there is a focus or theme that it is trying to advance.”

Teachers can provide godly wisdom, but just because you have a study Bible doesn’t mean you need to figure everything out yourself. Don’t forget that the Holy Spirit is there to guide you and help you in your understanding.

4.  Good interpretation will bring glory to God:
Lastly, Taylor recommends that we use our study Bibles to interpret Scripture in the communion of saints. He continues,

Some people object to study Bibles. After all, do we need all these notes to tell us what Scripture really says? But…As C.H. Spurgeon noted, ‘It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.’”

Because according to Taylor,

The best study Bibles don’t present startling new interpretations. They put you in dialogue with the best interpreters—teachers who are gifts of God to the church—to help us rightly handle His Word. When they do, we can truly say: all glory to God alone.”

Taylor brought up a great point…if your study Bible is giving you a brand new piece of information that you have never heard before and that doesn’t seem to line up with the text or causes you to question or doubt, consult the Holy Spirit who is with you and ask Him to help you discern what is true.

Scripture is not a puzzle to figure out; there is no secret to uncover. God has given you His Word to speak clearly to you, His Spirit to guide you and give you Wisdom, and teachers to offer interpretations.

You can read Taylor's full blog at the Gospel Coalition and his article in its entirety at Ligonier Ministries.

Albert Mohler, wrote an article on Study Bibles for Christianheadlines.com that ties in well. He advises,

Of course, it is the Bible itself that is inspired, inerrant, and infallible—not the study materials included in study Bibles. Therefore, judge the notes by the biblical text, and never the other way around.”

In conclusion, don't be afraid to use a study Bible but take the proper precautions to choose the right one and use it well. When we desire to learn about God's Word for His glory, He will grant us clarity and discernment.

Liz Kanoy is an editor for Crosswalk.com.

Publication date: September 28, 2015