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The ESV Study Bible: A Confessional Lutheran Response

October 15th, 2008
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There is potential for confusion among Lutherans now that Crossway has released its ESV Study Bible. Here are some key points and facts. Feel free to share this information with whomever you believe would benefit from it. Many Lutherans have heard about the new forthcoming study bible: The Lutheran Study Bible.

•    The Lutheran Study Bible is not the ESV Study Bible, with Lutheran content.

•    The Lutheran Study Bible has nothing to do with the ESV Study Bible, nor does it make any use of the ESV Study Bible.

•    The Lutheran Study Bible uses the English Standard Version translation, but all the study notes, introductions, articles, etc. are uniquely Lutheran and were developed exclusively and entirely for The Lutheran Study Bible. There is nothing borrowed from the ESV Study Bible or any other non-Lutheran study Bible.

•    The Lutheran Study Bible is the first-ever, from the ground-up, completely Lutheran study Bible in English.

•    The Lutheran Study Bible is on schedule for delivery in October 2009.

We need to say, with all sincere and due respect to our friends at Crossway, that while we honor and respect their devotion to Christ and their commitment to basic historic Christian truth, we need to recognize the significant difference in theology and understanding of Christian truth that continue to separate Reformed and Lutheran churches to this day, which are quite apparent throughout the ESV Study Bible. And we are sure they would also acknowledge and recognize these differences, which, in fact, we know they do.

While the ESV Study Bible will, no doubt, serve well as a reference resource, it certainly can not, due to its very serious theological flaws, serve as the study Bible of choice for Lutheran Christians interested in a study Bible that is genuinely faithful to the whole counsel of God and to those truths as properly set forth in the Lutheran Confessions. Here are reasons why this must be said.

Defining Evangelicalism
The goals set for The ESV Study Bible are very good (p. 10) and clearly helped guide the development of the project. Overall, the notes are scholarly and evangelical. However, the description of the book’s doctrinal perspective as “classical evangelical orthodoxy, in the historic stream of the Reformation” (p. 10) raises some points of concern. The reality is that the ESV Study Bible is a presentation of classic Zwinglian/Calvinist doctrine, the so-called “Reformed” theology, with the very strong influence of decision-based American Evangelicalism.

The historical article on interpreting the Bible characterizes Luther as an important “German reformer” (p. 2564). Wycliffe and Calvin are not characterized nationally; Wycliffe is presented as the font of faithful Reformation interpretation and Calvin is presented as the pinnacle of the tradition, whose works remain popular today. So the article sequesters Luther geographically and historically.

The description of modern “Evangelicalism (20th Century)” in “The Bible in Christianity” includes no references to Lutherans, when the struggles of the Preus brothers certainly merited national attention. Of the “95 evangelical Christian scholars and teachers” (p. 9) who contributed to The ESV Study Bible, there are two Lutherans who wrote for Obadiah and Nahum. Their contribution totals 15 pages in the book.

Perhaps the oddest point in the book is the description of the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper in notes for Lk 22:19 and 1Co 11:24. The notes state:

Lutherans hold that the literal body and blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine (something like the way water is present in a sponge).

This sponge analogy is totally unfamiliar and does not seem to derive from a Lutheran teacher. The source seems to be the general editor of The ESV Study Bible, Wayne A. Grudem, who may be adapting an analogy used in Christian mysticism. In 1999 Grudem wrote:

The example sometimes given is to say that Christ’s body is present in the bread as water is present in a sponge . . . In response to the Lutheran view, it can be said that it too fails to realize that Jesus is speaking of a spiritual reality. (Wayne A. Grudem. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Contributions by Jeff Purswell. [Zondervan, 1999] p. 391.)

Use of this analogy is at the very least insensitive. These characterizations and descriptions show that Lutherans did not have a voice in the editorial direction of the project and were not considered to be a premier audience.

The first article in the book, “Overview of the Bible: A Survey of the History of Salvation” by Vern S. Poythress, reflects the best elements of the Reformed tradition; However, it lacks explicit description of the traditional western interpretive distinction between the Law and the Promises or “Law and Gospel,” as Lutherans commonly put it today. This should alert Lutheran readers to the fact that a different approach to the Bible will follow.

As Lutherans know, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is a “particularly brilliant light” that “serves the purpose of rightly dividing God’s Word and properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles. We must guard this distinction with special care, so that these two doctrines may not be mixed with each other, or a law be made out of the Gospel” (Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration; Article V.1). The ESV Study Bible does not properly distinguish between Law and Gospel.

The next article, “The Theology of the Old Testament” by C. John Collins, begins well with God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6–7. However, there is a Reformed emphasis on covenant theology. The article stalls when it states, “The OT is thus the story of the one true Creator God, who called the family of Abraham to be his remedy for the defilement that came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve” (p. 30). Israel rather than Christ remains the focus of the article. So, salvation is described as sanitation rather than justification. Collins emphasizes, “The Big Story tells us that God’s purpose is to restore our humanity to its proper function” (p. 30) and God is interested in “restoring the image of God in human beings” (p. 31). Mankind and moral perfection are the heart of the approach, rather than the Messiah and justification (cf first paragraph, p. 29).

The “Doctrinal Perspective” states that the interpretations “represent fairly the various evangelical positions on disputed topics” (p 11). This is not the case, as the section on Sacraments below will reveal.

Some Features
The best feature in the Bible is the plentiful presentation of maps—wonderful geographic awareness. However, there are fewer notes than in the NIV Study Bible or the Concordia Self-Study Bible, even though there are many more pages in The ESV Study Bible. The difference is in the layout. A single column layout eats more space; between each footnote there is also a full line of spacing. These features of the layout help with readability but a larger print edition of a Study Bible would offset this advantage. In the end, this much thicker book presents fewer notes and insights for the reader.

Weak Handling of Messianic Prophecies
Many of the notes on Messianic prophecies are hesitant to affirm that Jesus is the undisputed fulfillment of OT expectations and that the NT interpretation of the passages is normative. (This approach sadly contradicts the good emphases in Poythress’s “Overview of the Bible.”)

Notes on passages connected to the promise given to David seem stronger than passages that are not about David. Here are examples of weaknesses:

Gn 3:15. “Some interpreters have suggested that by saying ‘he’ and ‘his,’ the intended meaning is that one particular offspring is in view.” Paul’s interpretation of the passage is not affirmed.

Gn 12:3. Though Christ is mentioned in the note, He is not clearly described as the fulfillment of the promise to Abram.

Gn 17:19. “This line eventually leads to Jesus Christ, through whom God’s blessing is mediated in a saving way to others.” Tepid affirmation of Christ as the point of the prophecy and its fulfillment.

Gn 22:5–8. “It is unclear whether Abraham is speaking ironically here (Isaac is the ‘lamb’), or whether he is expressing faith that somehow God will preserve his son.”

Gn 22:13. “The fact that the ram died in the place of Isaac has led many Christian interpreters to see introduced here the principle of substitutionary atonement . . . .”

Dt 18:15–19. “In the first century A.D., Jews expected a final prophet whom NT writers identified as Jesus . . . .”

1Sm 2:35. “The faithful priest with a sure house is probably Zadok . . . The wording here is similar to that in 2 Samuel 7, where David is promised a ‘sure’ house (2 Sam. 7:16).”
The promise of an eternal priesthood should finally point to Christ.
Jb 19:25–27. There is no direct connection to Jesus.

Ps 2:7. Hebrews 1:5 . . . assumes that Jesus is the messianic heir of David . . . Paul portrays the resurrection of Jesus as his coronation, his entry into his David rule.”

Ps 16:9–11. “If the apostles meant that David’s words were a straight prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is difficult to know what function the psalm could have played in ancient Israel . . . .”

Ps 22. “Many Christians have taken it as a straight prediction of Jesus’ sufferings . . . .”

Ps 45. “The psalm has sometimes been taken as directly messianic . . . .” The interpretation of messianic passages improves with Ps 110 and following.

Two things are striking.

First, the notes usually use circuitous language to say that “this OT passage was seen by NT writers” or “has been interpreted by Christians” as fulfilled in Christ. While that kind of statement is true, it leaves you in the realm of opinion and interpretation, not in the realm of objective history and factual truth. It would be much better to say, “Christ fulfilled this OT passage, period. This fulfillment is stated/explained in the NT in (passages), and has been recognized by Christian interpreters.” If the notes stated the fulfillment in Christ as a fact, they would be Creedal and confessional. They would also affirm that the NT is the normative interpretation of the OT. But by leaving r
eaders in the realm of opinion, the notes leave as an open question whether or not the NT writers were correct, and whether the OT was in fact fulfilled by Christ.

A second, related issue is that the notes often have a “loud silence” about the corresponding NT passages. For example, regarding the protevangelium (Gen 3:15) and the 5-fold Genesis promise that all peoples of the earth shall be blessed in Abraham and his Seed (Gen 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:3-4; 28:14), the OT notes obviously should have cited the interpretation of the singular “Seed” as Christ by St. Paul in Galatians 3.

How can the notes not cite NT passages that directly refer to the OT passages? That silence gives you the impression that the NT interpretation of the OT is optional, or possibly not relevant. It allows for thinking that the NT is a later construal of an OT passage that originally had some other meaning. This is also the case in, e.g., the notes on Psalm 16. St. Peter quotes from Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 in Acts 2:25-36. The notes should state factually something like, “Psalm 16 was fulfilled by the resurrection of Christ. In Acts 2:25-33, Peter points out that Christ has already risen from the dead, whereas David remains buried, although he and all believers shall be raised to everlasting life on the Last Day.” The same is true for Psalm 22. The notes should have pointed out that Christ himself quotes from this Psalm in the cry of dereliction from the cross, and that it contains many specific prophecies, including “they have pierced my hands and feet” (Ps 22:16), “for my clothing they cast lots” (Ps 22:18), that are fulfilled literally only by the passion of Christ. Again, the notes are silent about the NT quotations from the OT and they give you the impression that whether or not the Psalm is a direct prophecy of Christ is an open question.

There is an article on “How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament” (pp. 2605–2607). But what happens in the notes is most important for the day-to-day reader.

Lack of Sacramental Theology
Despite the promise to “represent fairly the various evangelical positions on disputed topics” (p 11), sacramental theology is not presented or is dismissed at virtually every point. The comment from the introduction seems to mean that the notes will sometimes acknowledge theological positions that differ from those of the editorial board.

The notes consistently emphasize an individual’s need to make a personal commitment but fail to emphasize the sacraments as acts of God, who in mercy commits Himself to us. As a consequence, the “theology” of sacraments is human-centered rather than Christ-centered. One note that presents a sound sacramental theology is found at Gal 3:27.

Mt 26:28. No comment on “for the forgiveness of sins.”

Mt 28:19. No mention of what God accomplishes in Baptism by placing His name upon us.

Mk 1:4. “Baptism was not the means by which sins were forgiven.”

Mk 14:22. “Jesus declares this is my body while he is still in his body, thus establishing a particular connection with bread as representing . . . .”

Mk 14:22–24. “The communion wine corresponds to the . . . shed blood of Jesus.”

Lk 22:19. Various views are presented. The characterization of Lutheran teaching is odd and the analogy used is unfamiliar. A Zwinglian interpretation is clearly asserted.

Jn 3:3–6. Water here does not [likely] refer . . . to baptism.”

Jn 6:53. “Unless you eat the flesh . . . cannot be intended literally, for no one ever did that.”

Jn 20:23. “The idea is not that individual Christians or churches have authority on their own to forgive or not forgive people . . . .” The thought here seems to contradict the interpretation of Mt 16:19.

Ac 2:39. “For the promise is for you and for your children” receives no comment.
Rm 6:3. “Baptism is an outward, physical symbol of the inward, spiritual conversion of Christians.”

1Co 6:11. “Spiritual cleansing . . . that is symbolized in the ‘washing’ of baptism.”

1Co 10:16. “Participation . . . Paul probably means that those who eat the Lord’s Supper align themselves with Jesus.”

1Co 11:24. Various views are presented. The characterization of Lutheran teaching is odd and the analogy used is unfamiliar. A Zwinglian interpretation is clearly asserted.

1Co 11:29. “Without discerning the body is usually understood in one of two ways . . . the bread represents.”

This description illustrates that the writer/editor is working within the Reformed tradition and does not even acknowledge the views held by Lutherans, sacrament-minded Anglicans, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox.

Eph 5:26–27. “This might be a reference to baptism.”

Col 2:12–13. “In a second metaphor . . . Paul says that the Christian rite of baptism represents identification with Christ in his death.”

Ti 3:5. “Human deeds are clearly downplayed . . . The ‘washing’ described here is the spiritual cleansing, which is outwardly symbolized in baptism.” A confusing note: is salvation an act of God or a matter of personal commitment symbolized in one’s submission to baptism?

Heb 10:22. “Likely a reference to baptism.”

1Pt 3:21. “Baptism saves you because it represents inward faith.” This is classic Zwinglian/Calvinist doctrine on the nature of the sacraments.

Weak or Confusing Eschatology

Jb 19:25–27. Job’s hope of the resurrection is weakly asserted.

Rm 11:26. A dispensational view is asserted.

Lay readers will not readily understand the “Schools of Interpretation” and “Millennial Views” (pp. 2456–2460) in the introduction to Revelation. As in other places, they will be left wondering, “Which is the right interpretation among the many that are presented?” Lack of clarity on issues concerning the end of the world is not useful and leaving these questions up in the air does a disservice to the reader.

Date of the Exodus
In an article on p. 33, the traditional date of the Exodus (1446 BC) is presented on equal footing with a “later date” (c. 1260 BC).

Readers who are looking for a scholarly presentation of Zwinglian/Calvinist doctrine and interpretation will find The ESV Study Bible a helpful reference tool. Lutherans seeking a study Bible for their general use will be disappointed. The contents of the ESV Study Bible are such that they stand in marked contrast, and contradiction to key and essential truths of God’s Word.

We repeat what we said at the beginning of these comment. We hold our friends at Crossway in high regard and esteem, but in this situation we must respectfully put forward our opinions about the ESV Study Bible and make clear why we regard it as incapable of serving Lutheran Christians as their study Bible of choice. Clearly, Crossway did not intend the ESV Study Bible to be such for Lutheran Christians, for the many reasons indicated in these comments.

Rev. Paul T. McCain
Concordia Publishing House

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  1. October 15th, 2008 at 16:25 | #1

    This was fascinating. Thank you.

  2. phw
    October 15th, 2008 at 17:49 | #2

    I still bought it because I hate the NIV because of how it distorts the translation from Greek to English….and I’ll upgrade to the LSB when it comes available….too long from now.

  3. Chris E
    October 15th, 2008 at 19:31 | #3

    Thanks – I am guessing that the ambiguity in the way that the NTs use of the OT is addressed is an attempt to keep dispensationalists on board (at whatever level of nobility that is construed).
    Just a question though – I would have assumed that Lutherans would generally still take the covenantal theology approach, and yet you seem to indicate otherwise. Would it be possible for you to point me at some resources that might help me understand the Lutheran view a little better.

  4. October 15th, 2008 at 20:05 | #4

    Thanks for this article Paul. I bought my copy today and haven’t had much of a chance to look through it thoroughly. I prefer to use an ESV when leading Bible study and I got it simply for background information, historical information, etc. I’ve missed having that as with the Concordia Self-Study Bible, so I’m banking on this as a weak substitute until October ’09.
    My only debate is that members seeing me use it will regard it as an endorsement and therefore purchase one themselves. Maybe I’ll need to start each Bible study with a disclaimer: “Beware of this Bible!” =)

  5. Randy Keyes
    October 15th, 2008 at 20:52 | #5

    Thank you for an incredibly detailed review. I find it sad that for far too many Christians a “Reformation understanding” means “Zwinglian/Reformed.” After all, we Lutherans are viewed as “far too medieval.” They may not say it, but they think it, and you did a most excellent job of pointing that out. I do hope you keep that post around and available for some time to come as I wish to refer others to it.
    Thank you
    R Keyes
    Lansing, MI

  6. TLA
    October 15th, 2008 at 22:21 | #6

    Thank you so much. I was curious about the ESV Study Bible, and you answered my questions.
    I am eagerly awaiting The Lutheran Study Bible!

  7. October 15th, 2008 at 22:55 | #7

    Nicely done. Thorough and even-handed throughout. Thank you for providing this comparative commentary.
    The only downcheck is that it makes me want The Lutheran Study Bible in October 200*8* not 2009! ;^)

  8. Grasshopper
    October 16th, 2008 at 06:27 | #8

    Thank you for the post, Pr. McCain.

  9. Rev. Joel Kuhl
    October 16th, 2008 at 08:50 | #9

    Thanks for the update and information. My first ESV Bible is falling apart already (unfortunately cheap binding) and am in need of a replacement. I was thinking of a single column format for note-taking and was torn between the regular single column without notes and the Study Bible since it also was in single column. I am grateful for the review as it has solidified my concern.
    As I understand from your brief comments on the formatting, the Lutheran Study Bible will be in double column format, presumably with cross-references in the centre margin with notes at the bottom of the page as was done with the Concordia Study Bible, is this correct? What kind of binding will be used to keep it all together? What font and size will be used for this edition? Will the illustrations and maps be identical to the Crossways edition or has Concordia got some new and cool stuff up their sleeves? Am I asking too many questions about this project? I am waiting, though as others have said, not too patiently! ;-) From a Canadian brother in Christ’s service.
    OK, let’s take these questions, in order.
    First, let me repeat: There is NO similarity between the ESV Study Bible and the TLSB other than using the same translation, oh, yes, and we do use the same alphabet. No content was borrowed from the ESV Study Bible.
    Format: Yes, double column, and center cross references, using in fact a more robust cross reference system than is in the Crossway ESV.
    Binding: Will be a sewn binding in a sturdy cloth cover for the regular edition. A bonded and genuine leather option will also be available. And, simultaneously, we will release a “larger print” edition as well.
    Typeface and size: What one would expect in a densely annotated study Bible.
    Maps: We did our own, and they are truly superb.
    Color: No color. It is eye candy and already we believe, having looked at the ESV Study Bible and how thin the paper is they use, there are serious “bleed through” issues, both color bleeding to the other side, and the text on the other side bleeding. But the color graphics in the ESV Study Bible are nifty, though they do consume a lot of space, hence lending to the appearance that it is a larger book than it actually is.
    Are you asking too many questions? Do you want me to answer that? Is there really any such thing as a rhetorical question?

  10. ben
    October 16th, 2008 at 10:29 | #10

    Thank you for the thorough walk-through, Pr McCain. This Catholic will be waiting for something more catholic: The LSB! PS: Not too late to add the apocrypha! :)

  11. Chris E
    October 16th, 2008 at 11:10 | #11

    Reverend Joel -

    Format: Yes, double column, and center cross references, using in fact a more robust cross reference system than is in the Crossway ESV.

    Could you define the what you mean by ‘more robust cross reference system’ please? Just curious not offended :)
    McCain: “More robust” means…better than the ESV Bible’s cross references, more than, better focus on Christocentric nature of the Scriptures. Gooder than.

  12. John Meade
    October 16th, 2008 at 11:14 | #12

    Mr. McCain,
    I’m speechless at this post because it is positively one of the best examples of sectarian and denominational thinking around.
    Why focus on the differences between denominations all the way down to which study Bible one uses?
    BTW will the Lutheran Study Bible Notes be inspired?

  13. October 16th, 2008 at 12:29 | #13

    I got the Concordia deluxe ESV Bible when it came out. Will this be that Bible with the Concordia Self-Study NIV Bible footnotes added, or something all together new?
    [[McCain: The Lutheran Study Bible is NOT an edition of the ESV Study Bible. It is not an edition of any other Bible. It is a brand-new, from-scratch, from-the-ground up, stem-to-stern, exclusively and completely and uniquely new Lutheran Study Bible. It is not an edition of any other existing Bible: NIV, CSSB, ESV or any other V or B or whatever. Brand new means truly brand new, never before done, first-ever. Previously, all English study bibles for Lutherans have been "ports" of existing non-Lutheran study Bible materials. That is not the case here.]]

  14. ben
    October 17th, 2008 at 00:43 | #14

    Will the LSB have quotes? I mean from Luther, Chemnitz, Melanchthon? Patristics like Iraneus, Chrysostom, Augustine etc? More recent like Krauth and Walther? This “stem to stern” business sounds quite exciting!
    [[McCain Response: Yes, not sure about Krauth, but church fathers, Luther, etc. yes.]].

  15. jim_claybourn
    October 17th, 2008 at 10:04 | #15

    Can your notes above be prepared and linked as a .pdf document? I guess maybe you’ll do something similar as a “sell sheet” as the pub date gets closer?
    I’d love to have it available to give to fellow members who don’t see that there might be a difference between and among different Bibles.

  16. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
    October 17th, 2008 at 13:57 | #16

    Thanks for the information and congratulations to CPH for the release of some excellent resources. On a lighter note, what will the next project be that uses the letters L-S-B? We have the Lutheran Service Book, and the Lutheran Study Bible, what’s next?

  17. Ed Weise
    October 17th, 2008 at 15:52 | #17

    Excellent summary, Pr. McC. Despite those who seem to think that denominations don’t matter, or translaions don’t matter. (Does Lutheranism still matter? You bet your sweet bippy it does!)
    But I’m a bit confused. At the outset you say that the LSB will use the English Standard Version, but above you say that it is NOT “an edition of any other existing Bible.” I presume you mean “not any other exising STUDY Bible”, which it appears from the rest of your comments. Just to clarify.
    Good work!

  18. October 17th, 2008 at 19:00 | #18

    The only thing bad about this is that we have to wait a whole year. This sounds like an incredible bible! I can’t wait.

  19. Rob Franck
    October 18th, 2008 at 17:32 | #19

    A very interesting review.
    While many of the points raised by this review probably wouldn’t be problematic for certain confessional Reformed Christians, others (like the weak references to Christ in the Old Testament) certainly would be.
    I wonder if there are any reformed reviews that have noticed these points.

  20. October 20th, 2008 at 10:26 | #20

    Thanks so much for your review. Excellent critique! I have made reference to it on my own little blog, and enjoy passing on such great projects from CPH.
    I too cannot wait, and wish that it was October 200*8* that it was ready.
    Pass on to all who are working on this our great appreciation and anticipation!

  21. Jay D
    October 20th, 2008 at 14:30 | #21

    However, the description of the book’s doctrinal perspective as “classical evangelical orthodoxy, in the historic stream of the Reformation” (p. 10) raises some points of concern.
    That is indeed strange. If I were to describe Lutheranism, I might say it is “classical evangelical orthodoxy.” I don’t really know what “in the historic stream” is supposed to mean.
    The word “evangelical” has changed meaning in modern times. The phrase “classical evangelical” would be useful to distinguish how “evangelical” was originally understood. I really wonder why they chose to phrase it that way.

  22. October 21st, 2008 at 12:07 | #22

    I’d like to add my thanks for this helpful, informative post to the many already registered above.

Comments are closed.