When Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah (Acts 8), he asked a question that would dog Bible readers for the next two millennia: “Do you really know the things that you are reading?” Anyone who has seriously explored the biblical texts, has known, at times, what it feels like to be lost in a jungle on a moonless night. The Bible is like the physical universe—comprehending the whole and inspecting the details can both overwhelm. The text is just too loaded with historical obscurities, linguistic ambiguities, and spiritual mysteries. When we step into this book, we are confronted with, what one theologian called, “the strange new world within the Bible.”
The Ethiopian’s response to Philip points to the need of external aids and interpretive guides when reading the Bible: Understand? “How could I unless someone guides me?” With texts like the Bible, reading alone will not suffice; just like tasting alone will not do for eating—chewing, swallowing, digestion, and assimilation must follow. Study Bibles are a must, and they have been the church’s heritage since the first one, the Geneva Bible, was published in 1560. It contained, as the title-page states, “most profitable annotations of all hard places,” and it initiated a new era of Bible reading and understanding in which “critical study is invited.”
NIV Quest Study Bible Features
The NIV Quest Study Bible is another addition to this living heritage. It contains many standard features of study Bibles—study notes, articles, book introductions, timelines, charts, maps, a subject index, a dictionary-concordance, etc. Below I review a few of its most notable aspects.
One conspicuously absent feature is cross-references (some answers do reference other verses, but this is not quite the same thing). I imagine the publishers simply ran out of space, but this is a major drawback. My other NIV, the Ultra Thin Reference Edition, which is not a “study Bible,” contains cross-references. This means that if I really wanted to study the Bible with the Quest Study Bible, I would need to use two Bibles.
In my mind, this lack alone would prevent the Quest from becoming my go-to study Bible, as one of the most fruitful aspects of studying the Bible is discovering the intricate fabric of its inner connections. Cross-references allow for the two testaments to be in constant, fruitful dialogue, revealing the New in the Old and explaining the Old by the New. They allow the Gospels and the epistles to interface, activating a kind of apostolic director’s commentary on the significance of the gospel’s motion picture.
Take Matthew 14 for instance. Jesus walks on water, a well known story that gets bogged down in scientific discussions on whether or not it’s possible. Matthew’s point lies elsewhere—Jesus’ deity and our discipleship, as we follow Him in the storms of life. Cross-references reveal the backward and forward horizons of the text. They reveal the significance of the action (Job 9:8—Jesus displays and declares His deity) and the doctrinal application for believers today (2 Cor. 5:7—disciples must walk by faith, not by sight). And this is only the tip of the iceberg here.
Book introductions are standard fare for study Bibles. They contain information about the author, the date of composition, and the intended audience. The Quest Study Bible adds a category here that appeals to readers’ felt needs and demand for relevance: “why read this book?”
I like this idea. It’s an intriguing question to add here. I usually ask something like this when beginning a new Bible study. People want to know what they’re going to get out of it or why we’re studying it.
How this actually plays out in the Quest Study Bible is sometimes less than desirable. Some of the “why” reasons seem to generalize a book’s particular divine revelation into a therapeutic abstraction that could be applied almost anywhere. Here are a few examples.
If you’ve ever wondered what God wants, or if you’ve felt you might have missed his purpose for your life, you’re in good company. Jeremiah was a young man who struggled to know God’s plan for his life. Even after he had made his choice, additional pressures made him wonder if he had done the right thing. But what Jeremiah discovered can give us insight and perspective when we feel stressed out about serving God during difficult times.
You can learn lot by overhearing one side of a telephone conversation. Even if you don’t hear the other side of the conversation with its many details, you can often detect emotions that color the conversation. Reading 2 Corinthians is something like that. Though some specifics aren’t known, the feelings come through loudly. In this letter, the apostle Paul wrote about the joys, sorrows, ambitions, frustrations and assurances he had for the believers at Corinth. Examining his emotions—evident by what he said and how he said it—can be helpful in developing our own relationship with God.
Have you ever been surprised to discover something new about a friend you thought you knew well? That’s one of the exciting things about a relationship with Christ: there’s no limit to the things you can learn about him. Reading Colossians is one way you can discover a few more things about Jesus and learn how you can honor him.
To be fair, there is more to the introductions than this. And some of the other sections, like “what to look for” and “why was it written,” sharpen these overly general paragraphs with more site-specific truths. But still, since this is the only place in each book devoted to an overview, I want more from it.
A Q&A Study Bible
The bulk of the study Bible comes down to the notes. Two main things distinguish the notes in the Quest. The first is that the study notes appear in question and answer format. The introduction compares this to a “press conference.” The prepared statement is read (the text of the Bible), and then reporters (readers) “address their most pressing questions to the spokesperson.”
The second distinguishing factor is that the questions have been essentially crowdsourced through research, surveys, and focus groups. Over 1,000 people were sent sample passages of Scripture and were asked, “What questions do you have about this portion of the Bible?” Articles answer “the top 100 questions people ask while reading the Bible.” “These questions were developed based on research information provided by readers like you.” And so, the cover announces that this study Bible “answers thousands of your questions about the Bible [emphasis added].”
Benefit and Limitation
There is an obvious benefit to this approach: unanswered personal questions can become roadblocks to continued reading. Someone who doesn’t understand what’s going on in the text will be frustrated and discouraged. People won’t walk very far in this strange new world if all is dark and obscure. If you know what questions people typically have, you can set up some street lamps to light the way for them.
But I see a limitation to this approach as well. If deeper study is guided by questions, then the kinds of questions asked will determine the value of this study Bible. And if the questions are crowdsourced there is the added risk that the right questions won’t be asked. Imagine an English professor teaching through Goethe’s Faust. What if the professor came to class and only answered the students’ questions? What if he never developed lessons of his own? The questions people ask aren’t always the most important ones. The unfamiliarity or the depth of the subject might preclude the most salient points from ever coming up. If that is true of Faust or The Scarlet Letter, it certainly is more true of the Bible.
Another limitation with a Q&A only approach is that it fosters a very local treatment of the text. I didn’t find any section overviews or explanations of how neighboring passages are connected or how they tie into the overall subject of a book. This approach may answer a lot of questions, but it doesn’t address the big picture.
Examples of Questions
The bulk of the study material in the NIV Quest Study Bible is the roughly 7,000 notes and 350 articles. These contain quite a range of questions, stemming from the childish (“Did Ezekiel see a UFO?”) to the classic (“Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?”).
Here are a few of the common questions people often ask that are addressed:
- How could there have been light before God created the sun and the moon? (Gen. 1:14-16)
- Where did Cain find his wife? (Gen. 4:17)
- Who were the sons of God? (Gen. 6:2)
- Why did testing come to Job? (Job 23:10)
- Why did Jesus need to pray? (Matt. 14:23)
- Did God actually forsake Jesus? (Matt. 27:46)
- Can Christians lose their salvation? (Luke 8:13)
I hear college students asking these questions all the time. Although many of the questions the Quest Study Bible addresses are good, the answers provided sometimes don’t do justice to the questions. This is either due to the shortness of the answer or the content of the answer.
I’ve only had the chance to flip through the Bible, checking select passages, but here are some of my initial impressions about the questions and answers.
Most answers are short, to the point, and address who, what, why, or how questions in the text. When multiple interpretations are possible, balanced summaries of the options are given. For the most part the Q&A stays on the surface level of the text or provides simple doctrinal soundbites. Not much room is given to the deeper spiritual significance of passages. To me, some answers are shallow or problematic and don’t capture the theological depths of what’s going on (ex. Gen. 1:26; 2:9; 3:2-3; Isa. 54:5; Ezek. 1:5-10; Matt. 16:18; John 3:3, 14; 14:2; 19:26-27; 20:22; Rom. 5:10; 1 Cor. 3:14-15; 14:26; 2 Cor. 5:8-9; Col. 1:27). A number of passages lack a study note where I would have expected one. These passages are areas of profound truths (ex. John 1:14, 51; 6:35; 7:38-39; 12:24; 15:1; 19:34; Rom. 8:2; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:16-19; 4:16; Phil. 1:21). Many of the answers I looked at are good and right answers, but remain on the level of “oh, ok” and seldom rise to the level of “wow.”
We all need a Philip to come along side us to guide us in our reading. Study Bibles are interpretive guides, but it’s important to ask where our guide is leading us and what our guide can give us. The NIV Quest Study Bible has much helpful material to commend, but in the end it doesn’t deliver on the most important matters—a deep understanding of the Bible, a vision of God’s eternal purpose, and the way to experience Christ as life for the building up of the church. The quest here seems to be the quest to have all our questions answer, which may not always be the most important ones.
Karl Barth’s comments on the kinds of questions we pose the Bible are a good reminder here:
What is there within the Bible? …What is there behind all this, that labors for expression? It is a dangerous question… For we are sure to betray what is—behind us! The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek—nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek.
Don’t get me wrong, much in here is helpful. But there is an upper limit to how far you can go with this study Bible before you’ll need to upgrade to another one. Or you might keep it on hand as a first stop for basic answers to questions. The NIV Quest Study Bible can bring clarification, but not much revelation, light, or life.
I received a review copy of the NIV Quest Study Bible for free as a member of the Bible Gateway Blogger Grid. #BibleGatewayPartner