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ESV Study Bible (Black) Leather Bound – October 15, 2008
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The ESV Study Bible was created to help people understand the Bible in a deeper way--to understand the timeless truth of God's Word as a powerful, compelling, life-changing reality. To accomplish this, the ESV Study Bible combines the best and most recent evangelical Christian scholarship with the highly regarded ESV Bible text. The result is the most comprehensive study Bible ever published--with 2,752 pages of extensive, accessible Bible resources.
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In this review I will note similarities between the two, describe some differences, and survey their approach to 10 controversial topics/texts. (For a much fuller version of this review, covering more topics/texts, visit my website by searching for "Dwight Gingrich" and "NIV Zondervan Study Bible.")
Both are massive works, first (NIVZSB) and second (ESVSB) in length among major evangelical study Bibles.Both stand firmly within the conservative evangelical tradition. Both are scholarly works with general editors bearing PhDs from the University of Cambridge—Wayne Grudem for the ESVSB and D. A. Carson for the NIVZSB. My incomplete manual comparison of the contributors to the two study Bibles revealed at least 9 people who contributed to both.
Both affirm traditional authorship for contested books such as the Pentateuch (Moses with minor editorial shaping), Isaiah (Isaiah), Matthew (the apostle Matthew), the Pastoral Epistles (Paul), and 2 Peter (the apostle Peter).
There are even typographical similarities: both volumes print the sacred text in a single column on each page, with cross references along the outside margins, and with commentary in double columns beneath.
Indeed, these two study Bibles are similar enough that the main factor that should influence your choice between the two is your preference in translations.
It appears to me that the ESVSB is somewhat stronger than the NIVZSB in these areas: Charts, maps, illustrations, historical information, and general apologetic or bibliological articles. The ESVSB, for example, has separate articles devoted to archeological topics, biblical languages, biblical doctrine, biblical ethics, and the perspectives that various denominations, religions, and cults bring to Scripture.
A comparison of the introductions to Exodus shows that the one in the ESVSB is slightly longer (six pages to the NIVZSB’s five), with more attention given to the historical reliability of the book and to its literary features. Similarly, the NIVZSB introduction for Galatians is three pages long, while the ESVSB’s covers four pages, providing a little more historical data, a superior map, and more space devoted to charts rather than photographs.
The differences, I stress, are differences of degree. The similarities here outweigh the differences, but I give the ESVSB the blue ribbon for visual helps and breadth of topics addressed in articles.
The NIVZSB is stronger in at least one way: its emphasis on biblical theology. This makes sense, given the editors of the two volumes: Wayne Grudem’s most significant authorial effort is his massive and massively popular Systematic Theology, while D. A. Carson is better known for both his commentaries and his editorial work in books such as the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament and the series New Studies in Biblical Theology.
The NIVZSB’s focus on biblical theology is most evident in the twenty-eight articles found before the concordance. Most articles are two or three pages long; together they cover sixty-six pages. Since these articles are the most unique part of this new study Bible, I will list them here, with their authors:
The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central – Timothy Keller
The Bible and Theology – D. A. Carson
A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible – D. A. Carson
The Glory of God – James M. Hamilton Jr.
Creation – Henri A. G. Blocher
Sin – Kevin DeYoung
Covenant – Paul R. Williamson
Law – T. D. Alexander
Temple – T. D. Alexander
Priest – Dana M. Harris
Sacrifice – Jay A. Sklar
Exile and Exodus – Thomas Richard Wood
The Kingdom of God – T. D. Alexander
Sonship – D. A. Carson
The City of God – T. D. Alexander
Prophets and Prophecy – Sam Storms
Death and Resurrection – Philip S. Johnston
People of God – Moisés Silva
Wisdom – Daniel J. Estes
Holiness – Andrew David Naselli
Justice – Brian S. Rosner
Wrath – Christopher W. Morgan
Love and Grace – Graham A. Cole
The Gospel – Greg D. Gilbert
Worship – David G. Peterson
Mission – Andreas J. Köstenberger
Shalom – Timothy Keller
The Consummation – Douglas J. Moo
While I disagree with minor points in some of these articles, I find myself agreeing with a much higher percentage of what is said here than with what is said in most systematic theologies. That is the benefit of staying closer to the language of Scripture itself. Most of these articles are very useful and some (such as Keller’s opening one) are even moving. I have a niggling question about the place of such essays in a study Bible (how many readers will really find and benefit from this content in their specific moments of exegetical need?), but reading them can certainly make one a better reader of Scripture.
On the central matters of the gospel, both study Bibles are solid. They promote the core gospel message well, along with the necessary human response to God’s grace. And, though both are generally Calvinistic throughout, they do not emphasize this interpretive lens in a way that overshadows the biblical message itself. Well done.
But how does they handle more controversial passages—texts which theologically conservative Christians sometimes disagree about? And how does the NIVZSB compare to the ESVSB in its handling of these texts?
Creation: These study Bibles hold similar positions here: (1) On "days": The ESVSB presents five readings that “faithful interpreters” offer regarding the days of creation but refrains from assessing them. The NIVZSB says the mention of “days” “emphasizes the logical development of God’s creation more than it pinpoints the chronological development” (p. 20). (2) On "kinds": Both suggest this is a general term that (so they imply) leaves the door open for theistic evolution. (3) Both affirm that Adam and Eve were historical persons.
Divorce and Remarriage: Both study Bibles underscore at Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:1-12 that “Jesus is reaffirming God’s original intention that marriage be permanent and lifelong” (NIVZSB, p. 1970). They teach that both divorce and remarriage are “possible but never ideal” (NIVZSB, p. 1969) in cases where one marriage partner engages in “sexual immorality” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). It seems that the NIVZSB may interpret “sexual immorality” slightly more broadly, saying that the Greek term “porneia [is] the broadest term for sexual sin. It refers to sexual relations with any other person besides one’s monogamous heterosexual spouse” (p. 1939). The ESVSB, rather than speaking of “sexual relations,” specifies “sexual intercourse,” possibly a narrower term. On the other hand, the NIVZSB takes a more rigid stance than the ESVSB on 1 Corinthians 7:10-16: “There are only two options for a divorced woman: (1) remain unmarried or (2) reconcile with her husband.” It acknowledges regarding verse 15 ("the brother or sister is not bound in such circumstances”) that “it is often suggested that this allows a deserted Christian spouse to remarry” but states that “this interpretation is not plausible.”
Homosexuality: Both study Bibles state clearly that homosexual relations are sinful. An NIVZSB comment on Romans 1:26-27 succinctly states that “in making humans [sic!] beings male and female…, God manifests his intention for human sexual relations” (p. 2293).
Gender Roles: It will surprise some readers to learn that the NIVZSB takes nearly the same stance on gender roles as the ESVSB does. In all the gender texts I survey, the NIVZSB and ESVSB adopt nearly the same position—gender role difference in marriage and church are timeless principles, men are called to authoritative and loving leadership in home and church while women are called to submit, and women may not be overseers but may perhaps be (non-teaching) deacons. The NIVZSB does apparently leave the door open for women to teach men in non-authoritative positions in the church, but otherwise the differences between the study Bibles are differences of tone more than position, with the ESVSB giving a more rigorous defense of the position shared by both.
Nonresistance and Relationship to Government: On Matthew 5:38-48 the NIVZSB says that “Jesus is prohibiting retaliation for wrongs experienced.” It explains that a slap on the cheek is “a common Jewish insult by a superior to a subordinate, not an aggressor’s blow.” (p. 1939). This brief interpretation leaves the door open for Christians to use deadly force in other circumstances, though the NIVZSB does not explicitly state this. The ESVSB presents this position much more clearly: “Jesus is not prohibiting the use of force by governments, police, or soldiers when combating evil… One should not return an insulting slap, which would lead to escalating violence. In the case of a more serious assault, Jesus’ words should not be taken to prohibit self-defense…, for often a failure to resist a violent attack leads to even more serious abuse.” This difference is also evident in places like Romans 12-13, where the NIVZSB gently questions whether governments have the right to administer capital punishment, while the ESVSB suggests one way believers can "overcome evil with good" is through military or police force.
Spiritual Gifts: I haven’t found any clear statement where the NIVZSB strongly affirms whether or not the “miraculous” spiritual gifts continue to this day. This is remarkable, given that Sam Storms, a strong continuationist, was chosen to author an essay on “Prophets and Prophecy.” In this article he only vaguely hints at his own position by some present-tense references to prophecy. The ESVSB adopts a similar stance: “Bible-believing Christians disagree as to whether the gift of tongues ceased after the apostolic age of the early church, or whether tongues is a spiritual gift that should continue to be practiced today.” Clearly, both Bibles are aiming to avoid a fight over this volatile topic.
Foreknowledge, Predestination, Election: At Romans 8:29-30 the NIVZSB gives two possible explanations for God’s foreknowledge: “Perhaps ‘knew ahead of time’…: God ‘foreknew’ who would believe in him and so predestined them. But ‘know’ probably has the biblical sense of ‘enter into relationship with’…: God chose to initiate a relationship with people ‘before the creation of the world’… and on that basis ‘predestined’ them” (p. 2307). The ESVSB only presents the second option, and emphasizes that “predestined” means “predetermined” and that God’s calling is “effective,” not merely an invitation. At Romans 9 comments are similar. At Ephesians 1 both are strongly Calvinistic. At 1 Timothy 2:4, the ESVSB has a lengthy note that describes both Arminian and Calvinist interpretations without taking sides (surprise!), ending thus: “However one understands the extent of the atonement, this passage clearly teaches the free and universal offer of salvation to every single human being; ‘desires’ shows that this offer is a bona fide expression of God’s good will.” On this Timothy verse the NIVZSB suggests that “what God ‘wants’ may be hindered by lack of human faith.” This last statement opens the door to non-Calvinistic interpretations (but does not demand them). The NIVZSB and the ESVSB are both similarly Calvinistic regarding God’s choice and offer of salvation, but with occasional surprising flexibility.
Eternal Security: At Hebrews 6:4-6 the NIVZSB notes the “great difficulties for interpretation,” describes several common interpretations, and finally concludes that “those who do not hold on to faith in Christ show that their experience was superficial rather than genuine” (p. 2503). The ESVSB directs us to a note at Hebrews 3:14, which says “Scripture is clear… that true believers cannot lose their salvation.” At Hebrews 7:25 the NIVZSB argues that the fact that Jesus “always lives to intercede for” believers “precludes their turning back” (p. 2507). But such statements are relatively rare in the NIVZSB. At 1 John 2:19 the NIVZSB makes no clear theological deductions, while the ESVSB states that “this implies that those who are truly saved will never abandon Christ.” The ESVSB makes similar statements at John 6:40, John 10:28, 2 Peter 1:10, and Jude 1:2—all places where the NIVZSB makes no clear assertions about whether believers can ever lose their salvation.
Sabbath and Lord’s Day: These study Bibles take a similar stance on this topic. At Exodus 20:8-11 the ESVSB makes no Christian application, while the NIVZSB mentions that the Sabbath “anticipates the experience of rest through faith in Christ” (p. 155). At Colossians 2:16-17 the ESVSB says “it is debated whether the Sabbaths in question included the regular seventh-day rest of the fourth commandment, or were only the special Sabbaths of the Jewish festal calendar.” At Galatians 4:10 the ESVSB notes that some “believe that the weekly Sabbath command is not temporary but goes back to God’s pattern in creation.” The NIVZSB whispers (with dramatically different tone than Paul!) that “treating certain times as more sacred than others… is not an essential feature of Christian faith” (p. 2390). Thus, unlike the ESVSB, the NIVZSB apparently never suggests the Sabbath command may still apply. However, it seems a little more open to seeing Sunday worship as being normative (see description of the practice of the early church at 1 Cor. 16:2 and Rev. 1:10).
Israel and the Church: Both are inconsistent on this topic. The NIVZSB's “Exile and Exodus” article presents one perspective strongly: “As the only perfectly obedient Israelite...—a faithful remnant of one—Jesus (not the unbelieving nation) is the sole heir of all of the covenantal promises made to Abraham, Israel, and David... Life everlasting, a land flowing with milk and honey, a posterity as numerous as the stars, a perpetual reign over all creation, and uninhibited access to the Father’s presence all belong exclusively to him” (p. 2661). Both agree that at 1 Peter 1:1 Peter “implicitly claims that the church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ” (NIVZSB, p. 2539; ESVSB says "explicitly"). However, both Bibles (perhaps especially the ESVSB) also suggest multiple times that seeing a future role for an ethnic Israel is a legitimate interpretative approach.
My general sense is that the NIVZSB is slightly more careful than the ESVSB to avoid offending its readers—or, to state things more positively, that it is aiming to please a slightly larger readership.
On the one hand it is equally careful to adhere to the basic evangelical commitments (things such as traditional authorship and the historical reliability of Scripture), while also feeling equally free to adopt recent approaches to synthesizing the Bible and science (no firm stance on the days of Genesis or the question of evolution).
On the other hand, it seems slower to affirm some of the more fundamentalist ideas of evangelicalism (things such as capital punishment or a special plan for the future of ethnic Israel), it feels slightly more cautious as it affirms some points of evangelical doctrinal dispute (inability of true believers to fall from the faith, distinct gender roles in the church), and it is sometimes slower to pick sides at all regarding what the text means for today (the Christian and the military).
But such differences are comparatively minor when set within the widely diverse translations and study Bibles currently on the market. Both the NIVZSB and the ESVSB are solidly conservative evangelical and among the very best in their class. I am very happy to recommend both for your judicious use.
The ESVSB is still about as good as a study Bible gets. I give both 4-1/2 out of 5 stars.
This is a great quality study Bible!
The lettering aligns with the lettering from the page behind. (Ghosting is at a minimum)
The leather is very high quality.
The font is easily readable.
The graphs, maps, and study aids are clean and helpful.
Two ribbons is a nice feature.
It is a truly beautiful Bible!
The Bible is absolutely MASSIVE. I mean...massive.
The leather, though flexible, seems to be two pieces sewn on top of one another rather than one large piece. I may be wrong so I attached a picture of the inside of the leather.
It is a GREAT Bible! The only reason I wouldn't recommend it to a friend is so I can have one of a kind ;)
In any edition the ESV Study Bible looks great. It is contemporary in its coloring (white is dominant with orange accents in the hardcover) and in the rectangle which shows up throughout (on the cover, to mark headings, and even as a bullet for lists of information). The rectangle has no deeper significance than a simple design element. In an interesting but effective design decision, the TruTone editions have this triangle stitched to the cover. The leather editions have "ESV" in large gold letters on the spine with "Study Bible," "English Standard Version" and "Crossway" in smaller gold type. The TruTone has the same text but with the "ESV" embossed. The hardcover features black and orange backgrounds on the spine with the text printed over top. The standard ESV guarantee applies to these Bibles, meaning that a customer who discovers manufacturing defects during normal use can return the Bible to have it replaced with one of equal or greater value.
The Bible is made to be durable. It is smyth sewn which is the binding process considered by many to be the best and longest-lasting method. It allows the Bible to lie flat even on page one and on page 2,752 (at least in the TruTone). It is printed on "high-opacity, high-quality French Bible paper" and in a single-column format with the cross-references in the inside margin. The paper is thin and light but still sturdy. My two year-old put the Bible to the test when she inadvertently stepped on it while it was lying open. The page wrinkled under her heel but did not tear. I also learned from her that chewing gum can be removed from the cover of the TruTone while permanent marker cannot. The fonts are very dark and easy to read with a heavy black serif font for the biblical text and a thin black sans-serif for the notes and cross-references. The page headings are in a bold gray with page numbers in a thin gray. Chapter numbers are a large gray serif font while headings are italicized black sans-serif. The pages display a fair bit of bleed-through where, when you look at a page, you can see the ink showing through from the previous page or two. Most of us are accustomed to this bleed-through in our Bibles. Where it is a bit more apparent and distracting is where it shows through on the maps and illustrations.
One feature that has received much attention in the ESV Study Bible is its use of color. Most study Bibles offer maps and illustrations only in grayscale. The ESV Study Bible, though, offers full-color illustrations and maps. This is quite a nice feature. The splashes of color throughout, including colored highlighting and shading, are unexpected to my eye but very effective. Though the standard glossy maps in the back of the Bible are superior in quality to the ones scattered throughout, even the smaller maps are nicely done and provide important geographical context without having to slip to the Bible's final pages. The illustrations, commissioned specifically for this project, are very well done and nicely supplement the notes.
ESV Study Bible Online
The ESV Study Bible is one of only a couple of study Bibles to offer an extensive online component to accompany the Bible. Included with each Bible is a registration code that will allow the customer to access the ESV Online Study Bible. There they will find the complete text of the Bible along with all of the study notes, articles, maps, and all the other features of the Bible. Unique online features include the ability to create and save personalized online notes; to search and follow interactive links between notes, maps, articles, charts, timelines, illustrations, and cross-references; and to listen to audio recordings of the ESV. It adds interactive features that are only possible in a computer-based environment. While the online component is a useful addition to the Bible (and a free one!), at this time it seems under-developed and I suspect many readers will find that they do not refer to it very often.
Each book of the Bible begins with an extensive introduction. This may include sections dealing with Time, Date and Title; Author; Theme; Key Themes; Purpose, Occasion and Background; Literary Features; Outline; and so on. Particularly important is the History of Salvation Summary which sets each of the books within the context of the wider body of Scripture and hence within the history of salvation. Introductions may also include timelines, maps, and notes on literary features specific to that book. In every case, the reader will receive a thorough explanation as to the book's authorship, purpose and context in God's plan of salvation.
The text notes vary in density but typically comprise about half of each page in the New Testament and perhaps a third in the Old Testament. They focus primarily on explanation and rarely on application. In one handy feature, highlighted notes correspond to primary points in the outline while highlighted verses and headings within the notes correspond to secondary points in the outline.
The ESV Study Bible has been produced by as good a group of scholars as any study Bible. The General Editor is Wayne Grudem, the Theological Editor is J.I. Packer, the Old Testament Editor is C. John Collins and the New Testament Editor is Thomas Schreiner. The study note contributors represent a broad cross-section of reputable Evangelical scholars. The articles included within the Bible have been contributed by some well-known pastors and scholars, including John Piper, David Powlison, Darrell Bock, Leland Ryken, R. Kent Hughes, Daniel Wallace, and many more.
One concern people are likely to have when considering a new study Bible concerns the theological perspective offered in the notes. Does this particular study Bible take a Reformed or Arminian position on salvation? A complementarian or egalitarian perspective on gender roles? An amillennial or premillennial position on the end times? I looked through many of the notes seeking what this Bible says on some of the more common controversies: end times, spiritual gifts and soteriology. I found this an interesting comparison with the Reformation Study Bible. It seems to me that the Reformation Study Bible came from a much more narrowly-defined theological position; it was Reformed, it was cessationist, it was amillennial. The ESV Study Bible, on the other hand, offers a wider or less-defined perspective. Where the doctrine is clear and undisputed among Evangelicals, so too are the notes. But where doctrines are controversial and within the area of Christian freedom or disputable matters, the notes tend not to take a firm position, even when the author or editor is firmly in one camp or the other. Whether this is positive or negative may well depend on the individual reader.
To satisfy my curiosity, I opened my NIV Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, MacArthur Study Bible and ESV Study Bible and compared their notes on several areas of controversial theology--spiritual gifts, predestination and spiritual gifts. None of these Bibles offered notes that were unbiblical so I was left looking for the differences in perspective. In general I found that the MacArthur Study Bible offered the most defined position. This makes good sense as it represents the position of a single individual. This was followed by the Reformation Study Bible which offers the position of many individuals but each of them drawn from a very consistent theological position. The ESV Study Bible came next, offering a charitable but open view on most of these issues. The NIV Study Bible seemed almost to shy away from some of the issues. So while it is clear that the ESV Study Bible is not distinctly Reformed in its position, neither is it Arminian. It is not cessationist or continuationist and is neither amillennial nor postmillennial. In fact, it seems as if it emulates the parent who tells one of his children to cut the last piece of cake in half and the other to choose the first piece. In many cases a person from one perspective wrote the notes while a person from the other perspective screened them. This ensures the notes maintain both charity and some degree of objectivity in those areas of dispute.
Having looked at the areas of dispute, I would not hesitate to recommend the ESV Study Bible to either new or mature Christians. The matters at the heart of the faith are described and defended while the matters of lesser importance are presented charitably and non-dogmatically.
I suspect that many of the people reading this review will already be owners of at least one study Bible. I feel it is important to affirm that there is nothing innately wrong with the Reformation Study Bible, The New Geneva Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible and many of the other similar products. If you are currently using one of these Bibles and are happy with it, there may be few compelling reason to rush out and purchase the ESV Study Bible. I have used the Reformation Study Bible and its predecessor for many years with great benefit. I have no doubt that I will continue to refer to it.
With that said, I think the ESV Study Bible is an incredible resource. A long list of endorsers have expressed their excitement for its theological faithfulness, its accessibility, its insight, its scholarship, its practicality and its sheer excellence. I would simply append my name to this list. I agree wholeheartedly with C.J. Mahaney who writes, "I can't imagine a greater gift to the body of Christ than the ESV Study Bible. It is a potent combination indeed: the reliability and readability of the ESV translation, supplemented by the best of modern and faithful scholarship, packaged in an accessible and attractive format. A Christian could make no wiser investment for himself, a pastor could recommend no better resource for his congregation." This is a powerful resource and one that can aid any reader of Scripture. It is one I recommend wholeheartedly.
Early in this review I wrote, "Today, if you drop by my home in the early morning, you are likely to see me reading from the Literary Study Bible." I think it's safe to say that, if you drop by my home early tomorrow morning, you are likely to see me reading from the ESV Study Bible.