In 2010 I continued my practice of reading through the Scripture using a different Study Bible. This past year I branched out a bit from the evangelical and reformed books that I usually read and decided to study the Bible from an ecumenical and “higher critical” perspective. Since I will be studying in 2011 to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America, I thought that familiarizing myself with the methods and conclusions of biblical higher critics would help prepare me for answering such questions on ordination exams. Besides, there are many things that evangelical and reformed believers can learn from secular and ecumenical scholarship. God’s common grace lands on unbelievers (and Christians whose approach to studying the Bible are based on secular scholastic presuppositions). As a whole, it was fun reading from the Harper Collins Study Bible (HCSB) that utilizes the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). But I wouldn’t recommend its use for everyone.
For one, the HCSB includes the Apocrypha and other Deuterocanonical books. These are books that some non-Protestant churches regard as useful enough to include alongside the undisputed 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. The Apocrypha and others books were mostly written before the New Testament and are from a Jewish perspective. Books written in a (heretical or non-inspired) Christian context, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Didache, are not included.
The HCSB tends to be the Bible of choice for the secular classroom and in many mainline seminaries. You probably won’t find it on the shelf at your local Christian bookstore, but it is possible to find it at large book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble. While it is the Study Bible of choice in many academic settings and mainline churches, it is curiously not a best seller. I wonder if this is because (statistically speaking) evangelicals tend to read (or at least own) study bibles much more than any other demographic.
The HCSB is useful if you already have a good grounding in biblical and theological teaching from a good Bible-believing church, Christian university, or evangelical seminary. But I can easily imagine an uninformed, novice believer having his faith assaulted by the perspective found in this study bible. For example, I took a class at my secular college on the New Testament, and the HCSB was my required textbook. Since I already owned a different Study Bible, I choose to not spend the money. After reading the HCSB years later, I can see that my choice was fortuitous, for I probably would not have been able to adequately handle the critical presuppositions and the hermeneutic of suspicion that manifest themselves in the commentary notes. But now with a seminary education under my belt and many years of mature Christian teaching that God has used to strengthen my faith, the HCSB was not a threat and turned out to be useful. In fact, it is full of insightful literary and textual notes that don’t usually make it into the better selling evangelical study bibles. You just have to be able to pick through the weeds and not get hung up on the chaff.
If you are a pastor or experienced Bible student, you should have the HCSB in your library to consult as a concise critical commentary. You may find that sometimes the critics pay closer attention to the biblical text than we do!
A portion of the HCSB is viewable online. You can get a sense of what the commentary and supporting articles are like. But if you don’t have the time and want a quick list of examples of the hit-or-miss nature of the HCSB, see my notes on most of the Bible books (and the extra books included).