Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reading the Bible -- Part II: Tools, Helps, and Resources

In Part I of this series (click here) I discussed how the Daily Office and its lectionary can be used as a devotional tool in reading Scripture. A resource such as the Daily Office, or any other daily devotional routine with a set pattern for reading Scripture, can be of great assistance in building a spiritual understanding of the text through the discipline of daily reading and meditating on the word of God. However, it must always be remembered that the Biblical text is an ancient text, created over a lengthy period of time by and for specific groups of people. Unfailingly, we will come across words, idioms, place names, political structures, religious concepts, and other cultural and historical details that simply befuddle us and make no sense. Fortunately, there are many study helps available that help us “crack the code” and enable us to reinterpret the text in order that it may continue to speak to us today.

Study Bibles

First and foremost, every reader of the Bible should own a good Study Bible. While there are many excellent Study Bibles that are edited from a devotional point of view, I tend to discourage people from using these. They often represent the doctrine or theology of either a single individual (or a particular) faith group rather than seeking to unlock the historical, cultural, socio-economic, historico-religious details of the text. The biblical translation you choose will be a matter of personal choice (I will outline the differences of modern translations in the next volume of this series), but I strongly recommend the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version), as the best Study Bibles are available in this translation. Three different Study Bibles come to mind: The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The HarperCollins Study Bible, and The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Again, the choice will be a matter of personal preference. Each contain “critical” study notes on each passage of Scripture. When I say critical, I mean scholarly notes (not notes criticizing the text) rather than devotional notes. Each contain introductions to the books of the Bible, stating the scholarly consensus/lack of consensus on matters regarding the dating, authorship, location of authorship, situation-in-life/time, of the text. Also included are maps, general introductions to various types of biblical texts (e.g. articles on the various genres like apocalyptic, prophetic, wisdom texts, the gospels, letters, etc.), charts and graphs. The New Oxford Annotated is the traditional favourite, having gone through three editions and having long served clergy and scholars alike. Steadily gaining in popularity and usage is the HarperCollins Study Bible, a project of the scholarly guild, The Society of Biblical Literature, and is especially good on social history. Finally, the Interpreters’ Study Bible is based on the multi-volume commentary series of the same name and is a fine new addition.

When choosing which Study Bible is right for you, I suggest the following method: Pick two or three of your favourite passages, look them up and compare the notes on the text. Which do you find the most accessible, the most challenging, which invites further questions and study? Do not simply choose the one that “pleases” you the most, but the one that will draw you deeper. After you have done this with at least a couple of passages you will begin to get and idea which Study Bible you wish to use regularly. Also, examine the maps, introductions, and articles. The average cost of a Study Bible is probably about $60.00-$90.00 Canadian (depending on whether or not you want one with the Apocrypha). Some of the above have been released in soft cover and are less expensive, but I can guarantee that they will not stand up to continuous use. It is better to spend the money and have something that will last.

Bible Dictionaries

A Study Bible is essential and provides a good starting place for a deeper understanding of Scripture. However, you may also wish to have a good Bible Dictionary on hand. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, and The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary are both excellent resources and cost about $75.00 each, Canadian. Many public libraries and most university libraries will have these in their reference sections. When choosing a Bible Dictionary use the same method as choosing a Study Bible, look up the subject (e.g., “parables”) and compare the treatment. Another resources is the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, which at about $65.00 per volume is beyond the means of most, but is the best of the best. You can find it in some larger public libraries and in university libraries. It is intended for in-depth or academic use.

Bible Commentaries

Again, when choosing a Bible Commentary use the same method of selecting a series of favourite passages and comparing the commentary accordingly. A good one-volume Bible Commentary can be procured for about $75.00-$100.00. Once again, Eerdmans and HarperCollins lead the pack with excellent one-volume editions (The Eerdmans Bible Commentary and The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, respectively). To this I might also add the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, which has been for many generations the preeminent one-volume commentary for Roman Catholics. Like the aforementioned one-volume commentaries, The New Jerome is not a devotional commentary but an academic commentary and goes into greater depth than either the Eerdmans or HarperCollins. It is a favourite amongst seminarians and clergy. Any of these editions would be appropriate for someone leading a Bible Study or anyone who wishes to probe more deeply into the historical-critical issues of the text.

There are numerous multi-volume commentary series available. Some are geared to personal study while others are intended for in-depth scholarly work on the biblical texts in their original languages. For devotional use, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series (published by Westminster/John Knox Press) has long been a favourite. It has been updated to some degree, but is beginning to feel a bit dated. The Barclay volumes cover the entire New Testament, while volumes on the Old Testament were later added by noted preachers and scholars. In a similar vein, but more recent and up-to-date, is N.T. Wright’s excellent The Bible for Everyone (titles are Matthew for Everyone, Luke for Everyone, etc.), also published by Westminster/John Knox. Both series run approx. $20-$25 per volume.

Taking it up one level, and useful for leading Bible Studies, preaching, or teaching Bible classes is Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Westminster/John Knox). Each volume divides the text of the particular book of the Bible into chunks that roughly resemble the text as it appears in the liturgy and offers some historical background with ideas for preaching and study. The Interpreters’ Bible (Abingdon Press) also falls into this category. A similar commentary, slightly more academic, is Sacra Pagina from the Liturgical Press, and is intended for Catholic readers. Volumes in these three series run anywhere from $50-$100 ea., depending on size. Eerdmans also has a three-volume commentary on the lectionary readings entitled The Lectionary Commentary available as a set or as individual volumes (aprox. $30 ea). Many churches have a lectionary-based Bible Study and this is an ideal resource for leaders of such studies. The first volume is the first reading (typically from the Old Testament), the second volume is the second reading (mainly the Epistles), while the third volume is the third reading (The Gospels). I have used this resource in my own preaching.

There are a wide selection of in-depth multi-volume academic commentaries that require knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. My favourites are Hermeneia (Fortress Press) and the Anchor Bible (Doubleday) – aprox $75-$125 per volume.


There is an abundance of study material on the web for study of the Bible. While there is much of value, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Frotunately, a Duke University New Testament Scholar has done just that. Mark Goodacre’s New Testament Gateway is a portal site that contains links to the best New Testament sites on the web. You will find all sorts of resources for study at any level. He also runs an informative Blog in which he keeps up with academic and popular developments in biblical studies.

The Oremeus Bible Browser is an online collection of Bible translations and is handy for printing out a portion of the text for study or for the public reading of Scripture.

The Text this Week is an online lectionary resource that provides commentary and study helps of varying quality. It also contains worship and Sunday school aids.

Finding Resources

Many of these resources will be available at your local independent religious bookseller, new or second hand. The web is also a great way to find used copies of otherwise expensive commentaries. Local libraries may have some of these resources and university libraries will certainly have many of them.

When purchasing any resources I strongly recommend avoiding either big box stores or online mega-stores. While you may be able to find some of these resources at these locations, there is nothing better than building a relationship with a knowledgeable independent specialty bookseller who is passionate about the trade. Consider using Augsburg Fortress/Anglican Book Centre or any one of the excellent Diocesan Book Rooms across Canada. For locating out-of-print or used religious texts I can think of no better resource than The Anglican Bibliopole whose proprietors have helped me and many colleagues in ministry on numerous occasions. Please support your local independent religious booksellers – they are your colleagues in ministry!

Next: Choosing the right translation.

Text copyright The Rev. Daniel F. Graves, 2008. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

Monday, February 4, 2008

One Holy Catholic and Apostolic

“Catholic?! I thought we were Anglicans!” This is a question that I hear and am asked from time-to-time. Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds (which may be found on page 188 and 189 of the Book of Alternative Services) affirm our faith in the “holy catholic church.” This affirmation is an important aspect of our Christian faith, and yet understood by so few. The question of “what do we mean by catholic?” often comes up in the context of baptismal preparation classes in which we examine the content of the Creed. As many will know, I was recently ordained to the priesthood. The invitation to that event can be found elsewhere on this site, but in brief, it cited my ordination to the “sacred order of priests in Christ’s Holy Catholic Church.” As a result, I had a number of individuals pose the question again: “Catholic Church? It thought you were going to be an Anglican priest!”

This whole thing has made me think about how we in the Church often use terms that generate confusion, rather than clarity. It must be very hard for newcomers to “crack the code” as they come through our doors. At the same time, there are so many cradle Anglicans who have been dying to ask some of these sorts of questions for years, but feel afraid to ask what they perceive to be a “dumb questions.” Well let me assure you, the frequency with which this particular question is asked certifies that it is not a dumb question. I hope that the following will go some way to offering some clarity and explanation.

According to F. L. Cross’s Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1st ed, 1957), catholic “is a word derived from the Greek, catholicos, and meaning ‘general’ or ‘universal’. It goes on to indicate, “…of the universal Church as distinct from local Christian communities. It is applied thus to the faith of the whole Church.” Thus, when we confess our faith as “catholic Christians” we are expressing a belief in the Church as one body, and not simply our own little community, much less our own denomination. This is why we refer to our bishops, priests, and deacons as bishops, priests, and deacons “in the Church of God,” or of “Christ’s holy catholic church,” rather than as Anglican bishops, priests, or deacons (although we may use the adjective “Anglican” colloquially to describe them or differentiate them from Roman Catholic or Orthodox clergy).

Another way of thinking about this is with respect to our baptism. Sometimes, when I do baptismal preparation, people will say “I was baptized Anglican,” or “I was baptized Roman Catholic,” or “I was baptized Presbyterian.” Well, none of these statements are actually true. While you may have been baptized in any of these churches, or using rites (or services) according to the tradition of these different denominations, your baptism is Christian baptism. You are baptized into the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church, which is the body of Christ. You are not baptized Anglican, Presbyterian, RC, or anything else – you are baptized Christian, and are members of the body of Christ. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6, NRSV).

The Roman Catholic Church is a Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome (the pope), which chooses to self-identify as “catholic” as part of its name. It sees itself as the Universal Church, from which all others have fallen away. There are Eastern Catholics, also in communion with Rome, who use Orthodox (Byzantine or Eastern) rather than Roman forms of the liturgy (church services). However, most denominations, including Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, the United Church, and the Reformed Churches, recognize baptism in each others’ traditions as valid. Most mainstream Protestant Churches will allow any baptized Christian to receive Communion in their Church. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, while recognizing baptism in other denominations as valid, are more restrictive and require reception in to their denomination as a precursor to receiving Communion and some other sacraments.

I suppose what is at stake in all of this is that most denominations, with the exception of some conservative evangelical groups, believe that we are all in this together as the body of Christ, that we are all part of one Church, and hence the use of the word “catholic,” or “universal,” to describe that belief. In practice, we may be somewhat divided. Many Christians reject each other, judge each other, and condemn each other. The history of Christianity is certainly filled with examples of one denomination thinking that they had it right at the expense of all others. This is truly a sad statement. And yet, as we recite either of our Creeds (Nicene or Apostles’ – creeds that are accepted by most mainstream Christian Churches), and profess to be part of the Holy Catholic Church we choose to “dream big” and “believe big.” We choose to claim the reality that we are one in Christ, and hope and pray for the day that Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one,” is manifested not just in hope and prayer but in visible and tangible signs of Christian brotherhood, sisterhood, and friendship in Christ.

Text copyright 2008, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part without the express written permission of the author.