Is the ESV Study Bible a Reliable Study Bible?
September 26, 2023, 3:43 PM

Question: I told my dad that my ESV Study Bible was composed of study notes agreed upon by 100 scholars or so. He said 100 scholars don’t agree on the same thing! They go to a liberal church. Is this response based on the concepts/teachings of post-modern deconstruction, and how can I answer back?

Answer: Let me fist say that I believe the ESV Study Bible (ESVSB) is the finest study Bible on the market today. First published in 2008, it still, in my opinion, remains the finest study Bible on the market 15 years later. I use it for my personal study as well as an aid in biblical research and sermon preparation. There are a lot of fine study Bibles available (by the way, what a blessing from the Lord to have so many good biblical study tools available), but the ESVSB remains at the top.

Now you didn’t ask for an endorsement of the ESVSB, and I don’t get paid to promote the ESVSB, so let’s get to your question. I don’t know your father, so I cannot speak to whether this is due to some “post-modern deconstructionist” teaching of his “liberal church.” In general, our culture is a “post-modern” culture, this much is true. We are also a “post-Christian” culture, in my opinion. By that, I mean, you cannot assume that your average American today knows anything about Christianity, the Bible, Jesus, the Church, sin, etc. They no longer even have the categories to engage in a fruitful discussion about such things. We are, again, in my opinion, in what I call an “Acts 17” world. If you recall the outline of the Book of Acts, Paul is on his second missionary journey, and due to persecution in Thessalonica and Berea, he finds himself in Athens. He goes to the Areopgaus, where all the philosophers of the day went to discuss the “next, great, new thing.” On the way there, he sees statues to pagan gods and notices a statue to the “unknown god.” When he’s invited to speak, he doesn’t begin talking about the Scriptures and the coming of Messiah. He begins by proclaiming to them who the “unknown God” is (Acts 17:22-24).

The point being, this is the kind of world in which we live, so it doesn’t shock me that your father would say, “100 scholars don’t agree on the same thing.” That sounds like a typical “there’s no such thing as objective truth” point of view. However, in one sense, your father is not wrong. You’re probably not going to find 100 people who agree on everything. Even in conservative, Christian scholarship, you’re not going to find 100 biblical scholars who agree on every point of doctrine. But, if you can bring together 100 conservative Christian scholars and they can agree on some things, now you have my attention.

It's called consensus. Even secular scholars in non-theological fields recognize the power of consensus. For example, you may have heard the statistic that 95% scientists believe in the human causes of climate change. Let’s leave aside the issue of climate change and just focus on the 95% numbers. That means if you take 100 scientists who have studied the issue, 95 of them agree with the conclusion. Do you think that every single one of those 95 scientists agree on every single point of the issue? Of course not. They may disagree on the extent to which human beings are responsible. They may disagree on the extent to which the globe is warming. They may disagree on any number of details, but they all agree on the general conclusion. That’s the power of consensus. Why should that principle not be applied to 100 theologians and Bible scholars who have collaborated in putting together a study Bible?

In my copy of the ESVSB, I have a list of contributors. These are men who provide the study notes found in the body of the ESVSB. If you look at the institutions these men hail from, you have Presbyterians, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptists, Evangelicals, etc. In the introduction, the publishers of the ESVSB have a section titled “Doctrinal Perspective.” That section reads, in part, “the doctrinal perspective of the ESV Study Bible is that of classic evangelical orthodoxy, in the historic stream of the Reformation…Within the broad tradition of evangelical orthodoxy, the notes have sought to represent fairly the various evangelical positions on disputed topics such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, the future of ethnic Israel, and questions concerning the millennium and other events connected with the time of Christ’s return.”[1] In that statement, the publishers themselves acknowledge that there are differences within their contributors, but the consensus of everyone involved is that this product falls within classic evangelical orthodoxy in the historic stream of the Reformation.

You may ask, “What does that mean ‘classic evangelical orthodoxy in the historic stream of the Reformation?’” Well, I think that would mean each of the contributors would all affirm the classic, historic creeds of the Church (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian, Chalcedonian). These creeds all affirm the following: Trinitarian doctrine; the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ; the hypostatic union (that the two natures of Christ are contained in one person); the virgin birth; the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the bodily return of Jesus Christ; the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic; Christian baptism; the bodily resurrection of the living and the dead at Christ’s return; and the eternal state. Furthermore, by adding “in the historic stream of the Reformation,” I believe the publishers are saying that their contributors all affirm the Five Solas of the Reformation: Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), Soli Deo Gloria (to God’s glory alone), and Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). This is the classic doctrine of salvation that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone all according to the authority of Scripture alone.

When you put this all together, you have a study Bible that incredibly strong on what could be called Core Christianity. While at the same time being fair and balanced in areas where Christians can have good faith disagreements (e.g., baptism, spiritual gifts, millennial views, etc.). Whether you agree with classic evangelical orthodoxy in the historic stream of the Reformation or not, you cannot deny the powerful witness of consensus on these matters by scholars from all kinds of backgrounds and traditions.

I hope this helps.

~ Pastor Carl


[1] ESV Study Bible, 2008 Edition, p. 11. (Emphasis added).

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