A Guide to Bible Study Helps

By The Rev. Dr. Rodney A. Whitacre


(Note: Dr. Whitacre retains the full copyright to the material. Anyone wishing to quote it should obtain permission from Dr. Whitacre.)

If you have never studied the Bible seriously before don't worry. There is plenty of help available! Many of the books are written for the non-professional. Few bookstores stock a large selection of what is available so I recommend that you get on the mailing list of Christian Book Distributors (Box 6000, Peabody, MA 01961-6000, telephone 1-508-977-4550). They offer a good selection at discount prices. You can see what is available from their list and either buy it or get it from your local library on inter-library loan. In this way you can use it for a while and see if it is something you would like to own.

Before discussing the tools available I should note that every set of notes and every commentary is fallible. But if you use them properly, looking up the evidence for that which seems questionable, they are not dangerous and will, of course, provide a wealth of valuable information.

Now I will describe the sorts of helps available. Do not get overwhelmed! At the end I will recommend three books for those just getting started that will enable you to go a very long way in your adventure in the Word of God.


When studying the Bible it is helpful to use more than one translation. Some translations try to retain the form of the original language as much as possible (this is called "formal equivalence") and others let English style determine forms of expression (this is called "dynamic equivalence"). Both sorts of translation are valuable.
Among those which strive for a formal equivalence are the King James, the New King James and the New American Standard.
Among the dynamic equivalence translations are Today's English, the Revised English and the New Jerusalem.
Paraphrases go even further in the direction of dynamic equivalence. The paraphrase of the New Testament by Eugene Peterson entitled The Message (NavPress, 1993) is very good. The forthcoming revision of The Living Bible promises to be very good also.

Between formal and dynamic are the New International and the New American. The Revised Standard is a formal equivalence translation, but the New Revised Standard is a mixture. Using at least one from each of the three categories (formal, dynamic and in between) will help you understand the text better by hearing how different people have put it into English. The formal type is especially important since it tries to retain the original imagery and modes of expression, so for study purposes I recommend you use the Revised Standard or the New American Standard. The dynamic translations and paraphrases are especially good for "guzzling"; Scripture and for reading out loud. For general purposes the best Bible is whatever you find the most enjoyable, though if that is one of the more dynamic translations you will want to check your interpretations against the more formal ones.

Study Bibles

There are also a large number of study Bibles, with more being published each year. They offer different features, so you should compare several of them in a Christian book store to see which would be most helpful to you. The Christian Book Distributors list includes many of the study Bibles available.
I think the NIV Study Bible (Zondervan, 1985) is the best in general. Its notes and cross references are extensive and it includes a concordance, subject index and maps.
A more formal equivalent translation, The International Inductive Study Bible: New American Standard (Eugene, Or.: Harvest House, 1992) is also very good, though some of its notes are questionable. If you use a study Bible it is extremely important that you understand that the notes are not infallible! The danger of study Bibles is the temptation to spend more time in the notes than in the text, studying it for yourself.

Introductions to Bible study

A wide variety of books are available to help you study and meditate on Scripture. A very lively and practical place to start is Living by the Book by Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks (Moody, 1991). This is an excellent introduction to the basics, providing all you really need for beginning an exciting and life-changing study of the Scriptures.
Further insight is provided by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, revised and expanded 1992).
The role of the later Church in our interpretation of Scripture is extremely important, but omitted in virtually all books on biblical interpretation. A good introduction to some aspects of this topic will be found in David Bercot's, Common Sense: A New Approach to Understanding Scripture (Scroll Publishing, 1992).
Other aspects are found in the brief pamphlet by the Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, How to Read the Bible (Conciliar, 1988), and the more lengthy study, The Bible and the Liturgy (Servant, 1956) by the Jesuit scholar Jean Danielou.
William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard's, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Word, 1993) is a full-scale, comprehensive overview of interpretation. This is an outstanding guide to the theory and practice of Biblical interpretation.
Grant Osborne has also published a comprehensive guide: The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (InterVarsity, 1991). Like the book by Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, this covers all the bases, apart from the role of the ancient Church, but it is less user friendly than theirs. Osborne gives more help than they do, however, to those who want to understand modern theories of interpretation of the Bible.
A bit briefer and more user friendly resource is Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Bridgepoint, 1994). McCarntey and Clayton cover all the major aspects of the subject in an inviting way, though from a Reformed (Calvinist) point of view.

Along with these books that try to teach good methods for study there are also books that point up the errors one can get into when studying the Bible. James Sire's Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (InterVarsity, 1980) focuses on the cults, while D. A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984) points to errors to which we are all susceptible if we are not careful.


Concordances are available for different translations. I recommend getting an analytical one that enables you to get at the words used in the original languages. The best available is The Eerdmans Analytical Concordance to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, compiled by Richard E. Whitaker (Eerdmans, 1988). Those by Strong and Young, based on the King James without the Apocrypha, are thorough and much cheaper. Many computer programs do the work of a concordance, and more. Check your local Christian bookstore or the CBD catalogue for some of these programs. Christianity Today has an advertising section every so often that discusses some of these programs. The magazine Christian Computing also offers reviews and advertisements.

Guides for organic study

While many books offer help for the historical study of the Bible, there are few for the organic study. In fact I do not know of any comparable guides. Some help can be found in studies of the ancient Church's approach to Scripture. The two comprehensive guides mentioned above include brief descriptions, and there are larger studies such as David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now: Contemporary Hermeneutics in the Light of the Early Church (Baker, 1992). Patrick Fairbairn's Typology of Scripture (Kregel, 1989, originally published 1845-1847) presents examples of the Christocentric, organic unity of Scripture, while steering clear of the excesses of some of the allegorical interpretation. Saint Augustine's homilies on the Gospels and the Psalms, George Herber's poetry and C. H. Spurgeon's sermons in Christ in the Old Testament (AMG Publishers, 1994, originally published in 1899) are good examples of the organic view, using both typology and allegory.
Much of the organic approach is based in studying the web of allusions within the Bible. A good set of cross references is very valuable for this study and these may be found in many study Bibles. The most comprehensive set of cross references is The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, revised and expanded, edited by Jerome H. Smith (Thomas Nelson, 1992). Some of the author's interpretations are questionable, but the more than half million cross references are a gold mine.

Guides to meditation on Scripture

The organic approach is very closely related to meditation on Scripture. Study and meditation should feed one another, so I include some helpful resources for understanding and practicing meditating on Scripture. These include John Wijngaards, M.H.M., Experiencing Jesus: Scripture, the witness of saints and mystics, and a life of prayer show the way (Ave Maria, 1981); Thelma Hall, R. C., Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, with 500 Scripture Texts for Prayer (Paulist, 1988); chapter 5 of Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, (Fordham University, second revised and corrected edition 1977); and Peter Toon, Meditating as A Christian: Waiting Upon God (Harper and Row, 1991).

Guides to Biblical theology

Studies in Biblical Theology combine the historical and organic approaches, though there are many different views regarding the discipline of Biblical Theology. A good guide will be found in David L. Baker's Two Testaments, One Bible: A Study of the Theological Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, revised edition (InterVarsity, 1991). Two samples that show some of the richness of this study are The End of the Beginning: Revelation 21-22 and The Old Testament (Lancer Books, 1985, distributed by Baker Book House), and F. F. Bruce's New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes (Eerdmans, 1968). An excellent basic introduction is provided by Mark Strom, The Symphony of Scripture: Making Sense of the Bible's Many Themes (InterVarsity, 1990). Other good works include John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Abingdon, 1953), Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1948), Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption: The Story of Salvation from Creation to the New Jerusalem (Baker, 1988), and Walter Elwell, Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology (Baker, 1996).


There are many commentaries on individual books of the Bible, as well as one volume commentaries on the whole Bible. I do not have the room to suggest individual volumes. In general, however, the commentaries on individual books in the Tyndale Series (published by Eerdmans) and in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Frank E. Gaebelein, general editor, published by Zondervan) are very good. No commentary series is completely even, but these series usually offer good material for understanding the text and seeing its application to life. The commentaries by John Stott and Warren Wiersbe are high quality and very accessible to beginners. There are a number of advanced commentaries series as well, including the Baker Exegetical Commentary (Baker), the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans), the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans), the New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans), and the Word Biblical Commentary (Word), among others.

One volume commentaries are useful for seeing the general flow of a text and often offer articles on history, culture, chronology, etc. I think the best one available is The New Bible Commentary, Twentieth Century Edition, edited by G. J. Wenham, J. A. Motyer, D. A. Carson and R. T. France (Eerdmans, 1994). The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (IVP, 1993) by Craig S. Keener is a good resource for insight into the cultural and historical issues at work in a passage.


Two very good surveys, often used in introductory courses in college and seminary, are William S. LaSor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederick W. Bush's Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1982) and Robert H. Gundry's A Survey of the New Testament, (Zondervan, third edition 1994). These books are extremely valuable for an orientation to the history, background and content of the books of the Bible.

Encyclopedias and dictionaries

A major reference work containing a wealth of information on a large variety of subjects is The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, 4 volumes (Eerdmans, 1979), edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Another very large and very valuable work, less conservative than ISBE, is The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 volumes (Doubleday, 1992), edited by David Noel Freedman. For word studies there is The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 4 volumes (Zondervan, 1975-1978), edited by Colin Brown, with a separate Scripture index by David Townsley and Russell Bjork. Also helpful for word studies is Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (World Bible Publishers, 1992). Zodiates also has an edition of the New American Standard Bible that includes many brief word studies for both testaments, The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible (AMG Publishers, 1990). These word studies are usually sound, as far as they go, but the interpretations he offers are more questionable at times.

Atlases of the Bible.

The two best for general purposes are The NIV Atlas of the Bible (Zondervan, 1989) by Carl G. Rasmussen, and The Macmillan Bible Atlas, revised third edition (Macmillan, 1993) by Yohanan Aharoni, Michael Avi-Yonah, A. Rainey and Z. Safrai.

The nature and authority of the Bible

On the more general topic of the nature and authority of the Bible I recommend J. I. Packer's God Has Spoken (Baker, third edition 1994). This book discusses what the Bible has to say about itself. It deals with God's Word spoken, written and heard. Packer, as an Anglican, includes many references to Anglican sources. He also includes discussion of views which reject or minimize the authority of the Bible. Another especially helpful book is John W. Wenham's Christ and the Bible, third edition (Baker, 1994). Wenham describes Jesus' view of the Bible as the foundation for our own understanding of the Bible. For those concerned about the historical reliability of the Bible a good place to start is Craig Blomberg's work on the Gospels, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (InterVarsity, 1987). An interesting set of essays reflecting some of the diversity of modern views of the Bible is found in The Bible's Authority in Today's Church, edited by Frederick Houk Borsch (Trinity Press International, 1993). The essay by Stephen F. Noll¹, my colleague at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, presents a position similar to my own, and offers a valuable critique of the other positions.

Beginner's resources

I have barely scratched the surface of the resources available for those who want to study the Bible. As with your study itself, the best thing to do is start somewhere and patiently develop your skills and your resources. If you are just starting out you can go a very long way with just a good study Bible like the NIV Study Bible, since it includes a wide variety of helps. I would also recommend a copy of a more formal equivalence translation for comparison, as I mentioned above. A good choice would be The International Inductive Study Bible: New American Standard (Harvest House, 1992). This is a Bible designed for study on one's own. It includes a helpful introduction to the study of the Bible and many useful charts and maps, though some of the charts reflect Dispensational theology, which itself is undergoing revision at present. Finally, I would recommend the Hendricks' Living By the Book for instruction and encouragement in the study of the Bible. With these three books you will have all you need to get started digging deeply into the Bible and receiving the food you need for eternal life.

"Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Thy law" (Psalm 119:18).

The Rev. Dr. Rodney Whitacre is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry. He is the author of a commentary of St. John's Gospel, published by InterVarsity Press, "Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology" (Scholars Press, 1982), "Using and Enjoying Biblical Greek" and "A Patristic Greek Reader" published by Baker Academic.
"A Guide to Bible Study Helps" was originally published in The Evangelical Catholic.

¹ The Rev. Dr. Stephen F. Noll is now the Vice-Chancellor of the Uganda Christian University.

Dr. Rollinson

Station 19, ENMU
Portales, NM 88130

Last Updated : September 7, 2012

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