My Disappointments with the ESV Study Bible

So far, the ESV Study Bible has been a huge success for Crossway; the last I heard, they had sold out and the Bible was only available via 3rd parties that hadn’t sold all their copies. I was hoping that the ESVSB would be a helpful resource that I would be able to recommend to hungry Christians within my church.

My Background with the ESV

Since I first picked up an ESV in 2006, I’ve enjoyed it. My first reading of it corresponded with my second year of Greek, and the combination helped the New Testament to come alive again for me. Since the ESVSB came out, I have enjoyed reading through parts of it as well. The background information, especially for less-familiar OT books, has been helpful, even more so than some of the exegetical notes. The charts, maps and pictures are simply amazing and are a great tool for Bible students.

However, this brings up a couple interesting questions. What is the target audience for a study Bible? What is the target audience for this particular study Bible? Is it designed for pastors with a seminary background, for Sunday-school teaching lay-people, for all believers, for new believers, for Reformed and non-Reformed, for liberal and conservative, or for all the above? 

My observations below may outrage some. However, I hope it will serve as a friendly heads-up for those who may want to use it in their church, but would be uncomfortable endorsing this study Bible for the following reasons: 

Observation #1

Although opposing views are usually noted and presented with fairness, the notes are “in-your-face-Reformed.” When I say Reformed, because of the impact of our pop-theology-blogging culture, many immediately think, “Calvinism, he’s upset because it’s Calvinistic.” Let me just state that’s not what Reformed means; it refers to a specific hermeneutic that equates Israel with the Church and often leads to the denial of a future for national Israel in a literal 1,000 year Millennial reign. For example, John MacArthur’s study Bible is Calvinistic and dispensational, but not Reformed. There’s a difference.

To illustrate my main point, I was reading through 1 Peter recently, notes compiled by Thomas Schreiner, the New Testament scholar from Southern Seminary. Concerning 1 Peter 1:1-2, Schreiner notes,

Since the recipients of his letter were primarily Gentiles, Peter explicitly teaches that the church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel — God’s new chosen people. Emphasis mine.

It’s not that I have a problem with Schreiner’s taking this view (although I strongly disagree); it’s that he says this text explicitly teaches replacement theology. Then, in the bottom of the note, there is a parenthetical which acknowledges another position, the dispensational one. It reads: 

Another view is that these verses show that the church is like Israel but that the ultimate fulfillment of these OT prophecies pertains mainly to future ethnic Israel rather than to the church…

If the text explicitly teaches that the church is the new Israel, then why the need for a note that shares an alternative position? Perhaps the above note was a bit overstated? 

Observation #2

The notes make it appear that a literal, six-day creation does not really matter. In a note entitled “Genesis and Science,” we read:

Faithful interpreters have offered arguments for taking the creation week of Genesis 1 as a regular week with ordinary days (the ‘calendar day’ reading); or as a sequence of geological ages (the ‘day-age’ reading); or as God’s ‘workdays,’ analogous to a human workweek (the ‘analogical days’ view); or as a literary device to portray the creation week as if it were workweek, but without concern for temporal sequence (the ‘literary framework’ view). Some have suggested that Genesis 1:2, ‘the earth was without form and void,’ describes a condition that resulted from Satan’s primeval rebellion, which preceded the creation week (the ‘gap theory’). There have been other readings as well, but these five are the most common. Emphasis mine.

Observation #3

The notes give too much credit to redaction criticism. For instance, in the Deuteronomy notes the author comes to an excellent conclusion, valuing the internal claims of the text more than any secondary sources. However, I’m uncomfortable with the time and space given to liberal views:

If Moses is the author, then the two issues are more or less the same. However, another widely held view is that the book should be dated long after Moses. Some would date the book to the time of King Josiah in the latter part of the seventh century B.C…

If you don’t want to waste time in your personal devotions interacting with liberal scholars who want to discredit the inerrancy of the text, and if you certainly don’t want your average church member to spend time weeding through this stuff, then the ESVSB is not for you or your church. Honestly, I’m more interested that church members know what the text means and how it applies to their lives than whether or not they are aware of the alternate views to the authorship of the Pentateuch. 


There is much to commended in the ESVSB within an academic context; its notes are compiled by scholars who, in the big picture of Biblical Studies, are quite conservative. However, for the above reasons, I could not recommend it for use in the context of my local church.

  1. #1 by Sam on February 11, 2009 - 1:31 pm

    Thanks for pointing some of those things out. I was considering getting an ESV Study Bible, but I probably won’t after reading this. You’re right, the creationism/liberal scholar stuff is completely unnecessary.

  2. #2 by Kevin Williams on February 16, 2009 - 3:29 pm

    I’m personally not a fan of study Bibles, I think too many jump straight to the study notes, instead of mulling over the text themselves.

    But I could not buy any study Bible that was not sound on the creation and had liberal study notes.

    That said, I’m not a fan of the ESV either. ;0)

    The question one might ask is: Why are so many others staying silent on these bad points and trying to whitewash it?

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