I recently finished reading the ESV Study Bible. Here are a few thoughts about it, and about study Bibles in general.
I don’t have a lot of experience with study Bibles. I have an old (Compact) NIV Study Bible, which I bought in the late 1990s. It served as my day-to-day Bible for perhaps a year or two, and it has been a useful reference tool since then. The ESV Study Bible was published in 2008, and I was given a copy soon after that. I regularly dipped into it, but decided to start reading it in earnest in 2019.
All study Bibles should come with a health warning. They are heavier than normal Bibles, which is itself a health and safety risk. They make it far too easy to ‘look up the answer’, instead of patiently thinking about the biblical text. (For this reason, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were banned from small-group Bible studies.) And they are invariably imperfect. I will happily use a study Bible as a reference tool, but for day-to-day reading of God’s word, I much prefer a standard Bible.
There’s a bewildering array of study Bibles available for every season of life. (I’m sure there’s a Men’s Mid-Life Crisis Life Application Devotional Study Bible out there somewhere!) For some reason, there’s a much bigger market for study Bibles than there is for single-volume Bible commentaries or Bible companions. Why is that? Perhaps we have the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) to blame? Or perhaps the Geneva Bible (1560)? Bible commentaries tend not to include maps, illustrations and articles about theology and ethics, so most of the best all-purpose companions to the Bible will probably be study Bibles.
As for the ESV Study Bible, people will have their own opinions about the ESV as a Bible translation. I don’t think it would be my first choice. It gives a certain amount of transparency to the underlying Hebrew and Greek, but sometimes at the cost of not really being in English. And, personally, I do find the use of masculine pronouns to refer to women somewhat jarring.
Apart from the text of the Bible itself, what about the rest of the contents? There is a stellar cast of contributors, and there is much that is of value.
- The introductions to each book of the Bible are very helpful.
- The maps and illustrations are very good too.
- The notes themselves are worth looking at if you have a specific question in mind, or if you want some useful background information. But a surprising amount of space is devoted to simply repeating what the verse plainly says. The notes also seem to avoid saying anything too exciting (perhaps to avoid controversy). And there is little that would touch the heart. (Studying the Bible as a Christian should always touch the heart, right?)
- The articles are very helpful too, and cover a wide range of topics: on theology, ethics, all sorts of things about the Bible, and then a slightly random selection of topics from a biblical perspective. Some are scattered throughout the book (such as ‘Introduction to the Prophetic Books’ and ‘The Time Between the Testaments’), but most are placed at the end, where they fill over 130 pages. I can’t say I recall many references in the notes pointing to these articles, which strikes me as something of a missed opportunity.
In terms of its theological perspective, with Wayne Grudem as the general editor, it is no surprise to find a clear conservative evangelical perspective throughout, with an American focus. But space is given (perhaps too much space) to a wide range of views held by (American) evangelicals (e.g., on the end times). Generally, things are expressed carefully and sensitively. But there are some problems, particularly in relation to the Trinity:
(1) Lack of eternal generation. Do the Father and the Son merely (eternally) relate to each other as Father and Son? Or is the Father, in some sense, really the Father of the Son? The ESV Study Bible has plenty of the former, but appears to avoid the latter. See notes on the ‘only[-begotten] Son’ verses (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) and on John 5:26 (‘so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself’), and the article on the Trinity. (For an explanation, read what Fred Sanders had to say about the welcome addition of eternal generation to the second edition of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.)
(2) Eternal functional subordination of the Son. If ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ is not about eternal generation, then what is it about? The ESV Study Bible repeatedly advances the view that the Son is eternally submissive to the authority of the Father (i.e., not simply in his incarnation, as orthodox Christology holds).
(3) Eternal relations in the Trinity as a model for marriage. The Father and Son are described as being equal but having different roles. This is taken as a model for marriage. For example, in the article on marriage (p. 2545):
In addition, such ‘equality in value’ but ‘difference in roles’ between husbands and wives reflects the equality in deity but differences in roles between the Father and the Son in the Trinity (see note on 1 Cor. 11:3).
… which includes the following:
The head of Christ is God indicates that within the Trinity the Father has a role of authority or leadership with respect to the Son, though they are equal in deity and attributes (see notes on John 5:19; 14:28; 1 Cor. 15:28). Paul applies this truth about the Trinity to the relationship of husband and wife. In marriage, as in the Trinity, there is equality in being and value but difference in roles (see Eph. 5:22–33).
These views are, at the very least, extremely controversial.
I have minimal experience of the alternatives to the ESV Study Bible. I suspect the closest ‘competitor’ would be the NIV Bible Theology Study Bible (2018), edited by D. A. Carson, and previously published as the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (2015). There’s also a new NIV Study Bible (2020). An alternative from this side of the Atlantic would be the NIV Bible Speaks Today Study Bible (2020). I’ve also frequently seen The Lion Handbook to the Bible (5th edition, 2017), but I’ve never given it a serious look. If I had a study Bible-shaped gap on the shelf, I’d probably be looking at one of those, in preference to the ESV Study Bible.