Effective Bible study is essential for good discipleship. It teaches us what we should believe and who we should become. It provides the raw material that the Holy Spirit uses to build our understanding of mission and vision. And it is something that everyone can do.
In order to study the Bible well, we need to use the best resources available. Next week, we will discuss tools that pastors and other ministry professionals can use to improve their Bible study, but today we are going to focus on resources that everyone can use.
Where It All Begins
This may seem like an obvious statement, but it still needs to be said. Good Bible study begins with a good copy of Scripture. If you aren’t reading a modern translation based on the best available manuscript evidence, then you need to start doing that now. The science of linguistics has changed dramatically since the first English translations appeared over 400 years ago, and we know a lot more about Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic then we did then. Just as importantly, English has changed a lot in the past four centuries. There is no virtue in hanging on to an antiquated translation, and those who condemn modern translation efforts are nothing more than peddlers of fear and misinformation.
Actually, multiple modern translations would be best. This is because readers can learn a lot by comparing one translation of Scripture to another. Fortunately, apps like Youversion and websites like Bible Gateway and Blue Letter Bible have made the process of translation comparison much easier—and much less expensive.
This means that the average person only needs to concentrate on finding one printed copy of Scripture—the one that they will use as their primary tool for studying the Bible. A good study Bible can be a big help to those who really want to understand Scripture. When choosing a study Bible, you should avoid those that are produced by a single person or that emphasize devotional insights. There is nothing wrong with resources of this type; the people who write them often have some really good things to say. But devotionally-oriented study Bibles won’t help you interpret the Bible for yourself, and single-author study Bibles won’t expose you to different points of view.
Instead, you want to look for a study Bible that provides you with basic information about the background and structure of each biblical book. Look for a study Bible that gives you intellectually stimulating notes and that does not shy away from difficult issues. The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is one such resource, and there are others that you may be able to find.
Building a Foundation
There are at least two books that every Christian should read. The first is Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’s Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God. Who Needs Theology is a short, engaging book that introduces the lay person to the process of doing theology. It explains why and how Christians should think about God and responds to common objections to the theological task. In other words, it explains why we study the Bible. (How to Think Theologically by Howard Stone and James Duke does the same thing from a liberal Protestant perspective.)
The second book that every Christian should read is Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s classic work How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. Fee and Stuart provide an inexpensive and accessible introduction to the task of biblical interpretation. They explain why the Bible must be interpreted (i.e., why its meaning isn’t always self-evident) and explain how the Bible should be interpreted. They also point the reader to a wealth of resources that can help them study the Bible well.
Once a follower of Jesus has obtained a good study Bible and built a solid foundation for the study of Scripture, he or she is ready to embark on the life-long journey of studying Scripture. In order to facilitate good Bible study, there are a few books that most Christians should have in their library. A good Bible atlas is one of those books. The Bible covers a lot of time and space, and every reader needs a resource that will orient them within the wide expanse of biblical history.
There are several good atlases on the market today. I like Thomas V. Brisco’s Holman Bible Atlas. Brisco does more than just provide the reader with lots of maps, charts, and pictures. He helps the reader understand why the maps, charts, and pictures matter by providing a clear, concise narrative of biblical history and by providing more detailed information about topics of interest.
It is also important to have a good Bible dictionary. Unfortunately, this resource can be a bit difficult to come by. It needs to be large enough to actually inform the reader but concise enough to be both affordable and readable. Multi-volume dictionaries like the Anchor Bible Dictionary and the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible are too detailed for most readers and do not always reflect the theological convictions held by evangelical churches (New Interpreter’s is probably more reliable in this regard than Anchor). Many one-volume works are too brief or too poorly researched.
The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary is probably the best option out there right now (although I have not had the opportunity to review the new edition). It has 1,800 pages of information in a single volume, and it is produced by a reliably evangelical publisher. The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible might be a good option for lay people who teach on a regular basis (although, again, I have not had an opportunity to review this resource). Its five volumes are edited by scholars with world-class reputations, and Zondervan generally produces good quality material.
One final resource may be helpful for the average reader of Scripture. In addition to their classic introduction to Bible study, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have also written How to Read the Bible Book by Book. In my experience, one of the problems that Bible readers face is that there are some books that they just don’t know how to handle. How to Read the Bible Book by Book addresses that problem. It gives the reader confidence by helping her or him see “the big picture” and by applying the general principles of biblical interpretation to particular biblical documents.
More Advanced Resources
Most lay people do not have access to a research library and do not have the money to purchase a large number of books. Still, for those who do a lot of teaching in their church, it may be appropriate to purchase some more advanced resources.
Commentaries are the most popular and most usable advanced resource available, but the buyer needs to be careful about the commentaries in which he or she chooses to invest. One-volume commentaries are essentially worthless; they don’t contain enough information to be of any use, and their research is often of poor quality. Many multi-volume commentaries are too technical to help the average reader, and some do not reflect the theological convictions of a confessional Christian community.
For most lay teachers, I recommend the NIV Application Commentary series. Many of its volumes are written by well-respected scholars, and it is structured in such a way that it gives attention both to the original setting and purpose of each text and to the contemporary significance of each text. You do need to be aware that most of the volumes in this series are based on the old NIV translation, so the text in the commentary will not look exactly like the one in your (new) NIV Bible. Also, the series contains more than three-dozen volumes and will cost a little bit of money to purchase. Still, if you do a lot of teaching, this is an investment that you ought to make.
The other major classification of advanced resources is the monograph. A monograph is a book about one particular topic. Most academic monographs are not appropriate for the general reader, but a few scholars have begun writing at a popular or semi-popular level in order to be of greater benefit to the church.
Monographs don’t help you study a specific biblical text. Rather, they help you think more deeply about everything that you are reading. Your pastor, bishop, or other church/denominational officials can help you find good books to read, but some of the authors you might consider include John Stott, J. I. Packer, Ben Witherington, N. T. Wright, Craig Keener, Marva Dawn, John Piper, and Craig Evens.