Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Lutheran Study Bible

I've had my Lutheran Study Bible (TLSB) for a few days now. I have not read every study note and every article. But I have been jumping around various parts of the Bible and comparing it to the ESV Study Bible (ESVSB) in the course of my readings, sermon preparation, and Bible study. At this point, there are things I like very much about TLSB, and there are things I think are not so good. On the whole, I think it is above average, and so far, I give it a B.

"B" is not a bad grade by any means - although in our day and age of grade inflation, it might seem like a slight. It isn't. In fact, I give the most recent efforts by CPH very high marks. I have been using the Pastoral Care Companion (PCC) for a couple years now - and I give it an A+. It has been invaluable for giving pastoral care to the dying, for funerals, home and hospital calls, baptisms, house blessings, and (above all) private pastoral care in ordinary and extraordinary situations. The PCC is not just a home run, but a grand slam, hands-down.

Second, I am very pleased by the Lutheran Service Book (LSB). There are things I don't like, to be sure (some of the hymns selected are a big disappointment, and having five settings of the Mass is, I believe, a hindrance to unity, etc.). But on the whole, the book is remarkably well-done, laden with good features, laid-out in a logical and user-friendly way, and has proven itself to be a source of unity among liturgical congregations in our synod. It is an especially remarkable achievement given the political climate of the LCMS and the hoops those who worked on it had to jump through in order to bring us a synodical hymnal this good. After using it for a few years, I give LSB an A.

Third, the Treasury of Daily Prayer (TDP) is another home run. Again, I can pick nits about this and that, but over all, this is just what laypeople and pastors in our synod need - a common resource for liturgical and biblical prayer and devotional reading rooted in the offices of the historic church. I give the TDP an A (almost an A+, but not quite).

Again, these are just my opinions based on my own use of these resources. Obviously, many people will disagree considerably.

So, given CPH's report card (according to me) of 2 A's, a B, and an A+, that is a GPA of 3.83. And that is not bad at all. That is dean's list material, and as much as I gripe about some of the stuff CPH puts out, when it comes to the serious churchly resources, it would be hard to make better marks than this.

In my opinion, the weakest link is TLSB.

I don't think it has lived up to the promotional materials. And given CPH's latest outstanding efforts, I would be lying if I didn't say I was somewhat disappointed. I should have known something was up when I saw the marketing materials, such as way that two of the twelve "features" CPH made use of to sell TLSB are the facts that the chapter and verse numbers are indicated. Are they serious? Do any other Bibles (all of which have chapter and verse numbers) claim these as "features"? Such marketing is usually done to cover weaknesses.

And there are weaknesses. But in spite of the many features I don't like about TLSB, I still give it a B, based on the strength of the study notes and articles.

But having used the ESV Study Bible (ESVSB) for about a year, here is what I see about TLSB as inferior to ESVSB:

Paper Quality
- I have had TLSB for less than a week, and already some of the pages are getting wrinkled. The pages are almost gossamer-thin, and this results in some ugly bleed-through - especially with the black-and-white charts in TLSB. Some of the pages are difficult to read as a result. By contrast, a thin but robust paper was used for the ESVSB. The bleed-through is minimal. The physical book itself is holding up extremely well as I have used it over the past year.

Ink Quality - The print is too light in TLSB. And especially the red ink for the words of Jesus (something about TLSB that I find annoying in and of itself that is not in the ESVSB) - which are so light as to be a nearly unreadable pink in some places. The ink quality (black and red) is really poor and inconsistent. Maybe this is an intermittent problem. But I bought two copies of TLSB and they are identical. I did hear the same complaint from another TLSB purchaser.

Typeset - The ESVSB is easy on the eye, and uses contrasting sans serif fonts for the study notes. Also, its use of bold in the notes makes it easy to navigate, while italics are used only for emphasis or for foreign words. The typeset is crisp and clean. Notes that are of a heading in nature are given a light greenish highlight color. TLSB's notes are in a serif font (which does not contrast with the biblical text), and italics are overused in a non-standard way.

Maps - I find maps to be extremely helpful in studying the Bible, and the ESVSB has over 200 sharp, color relief maps inset right into the texts. Nearly every book of the Bible has a map in the introductory materials. And, in the back, there is an additional section of 15 beautifully detailed full-page maps - including the large maps of Paul's missionary journeys in bold color. Take a look at them here. By contrast, TLSB has a paltry four color maps (not even one with St. Paul's journeys, nor of the tribal allotments of Israel). Only one of these is related to the New Testament. The rest of the maps are awful black and white drawings that are terribly behind the times as to what is possible and standard for today. This is a huge disappointment - especially in a day and age where we are used to pulling up images from the internet. Somehow, I doubt that the folks at CPH have monochrome computer screens sitting on their desks.

Charts - The ESVSB is chock full of color charts that make it easy to read them. They do not bleed over into the next page, and it makes comprehension of the material quick and easy. TLSB's charts are all black and white. There are also some charts in ESVSB that are really helpful for Bible study that have no corresponding charts in TLSB (such as the chart showing all the citations of the OT in the NT, and the side-by-side lists of all the kings of divided Israel and Judah).

Illustrations - The ESVSB also uses full-color in all of its 41 illustrations (such as the temple, tabernacle, ark of the covenant, etc.). The pictures are detailed and professional. The TLSB's pictures are black and white and simply look tired and dated. It is my personal opinion (I know others disagree vehemently) that the use of the throwback black and white line drawings from an 1860s era Bible was not such a great idea. Instead of sending a message of continuity with the past, they just look cartoonish to me in the context of a modern study Bible.

Timelines - The ESVSB's chronologies and timelines are more user friendly and easy to follow with the eyes - both in layout and in use of color and graphics.

Many Articles - Many (though not all) of the articles in ESVSB are scholarly and helpful, and there is no equivalent in TLSB for many of these. There are no longer or more detailed articles in TLSB as there are in ESVSB. Some of the articles are extremely well-done - but of course, it must be kept in mind that the articles are going to reflect a wide swath of Christian traditions beyond Lutheranism only.

Now, here is what I like about TLSB over and against ESVSB:

Lutheran Doctrine - When the study notes address doctrinal issues, it does so from an unabashedly Lutheran perspective. The ESVSB is a more ecumenical Bible that tries to represent historical Protestantism, including Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Reformed-ism (we really need a word here, don't we?), and neo-Evangelicalism. In some cases, it is helpful to know the various distinctions between the interpretations of these groups. But the ESVSB often drops the ball when trying to explain uniquely Lutheran theology - especially of a sacramental nature. If Lutherans are looking for an exclusively Lutheran interpretation (as opposed to a comparative study of biblical interpretation), they will certainly appreciate the notes in TLSB more than those of the ESVSB.

Patristics - Reflecting Lutheranism's continuity from the ancient church as well as Lutheranism's catholicity, TLSB cites the early Latin and Greek fathers much more frequently than the ESVSB does in the study notes and articles.

Lutheran Sources - TLSB makes use of the Reformation fathers, the Book of Concord, and hymns from LSB in its study notes. While the vast majority of the study notes do not contain these (or the patristic citations), it is helpful and commendable when they do.

Exegetical notes - I give a slight nod to TLSB in what I have studied so far. TLSB often points out wordplay, and carefully explains when it happens - a literary device that speaks volumes, but the meaning of which is lost in translation. The ESVSB often has the same notes when it comes to the Hebrew and Greek - and in some cases the ESVSB has more exegetical notes than TLSB in the same passages - but again, from what I have read so far, I give a slight advantage to TLSB for volume and consistency.

Dates at the Top of the Page - this simple chronological device is a great aid for study! It was a brilliant idea to revive this once-common practice among older Bibles in TLSB.

On the whole, I find a lot of similarity between the study notes of the two Bibles - except (as I said above) where the notes specifically address doctrine. Obviously, a Lutheran Study Bible is going to reflect a Lutheran perspective in matters of systematic theology. But there are times when it is helpful to know about other interpretations and the hermeneutics used by other church bodies. Whether or not one wants only the Lutheran view, or wishes to compare various views, will determine which study Bible one prefers.

I'm not impressed with the "Law and Gospel" notes in the study notes of TLSB. Maybe I will warm up to them later, but so far, I don't find them very helpful. I'm also not a fan of the methodology of the little icons in the study notes - but that is just a personal preference of my own. I also find the inclusion of the Small Catechism to be superfluous - as it is already in LSB and TDP.

I also prefer the ESVSB's lack of columns over TLSB's two-column setting. And again, it is just a personal bias, but I think it allows the poetic structure and paragraphing of the ESV to stand out better, and makes better use of white space. The center column cross-references are still there in the ESVSB - they are simply off to the side instead of in the middle.

The ESVSB also has a couple of helpful features that TLSB could perhaps adopt:

1) a web-based version that allows for a user password and the creation of personalized notes - included with the purchase of every ESVSB at no extra charge (which is a great feature for use in Bible class as we do have a flat-screen TV with internet hookup in our parish hall). The ESV Online Study Bible includes all of the study notes, articles, and maps of the print version - and all of the biblical references are hyperlinked together at the click of the mouse. It also has streaming in order to listen to whatever passage one chooses read by a narrator. Here is a video demonstration.

2) a Palm-device version - which serves as a commentary linked to my Olive Tree Bible software on my Palm TX. I would imagine iPhone users would also appreciate having an application so as to access TLSB and link it to their Bible apps.

In spite of its overall weaknesses, the strength of TLSB's study notes and the articles save TLSB from being a flop. And though I'm not as enthusiastic as others about TLSB, I am encouraging parishioners to buy it - especially if they are still using the cobbled-together Concordia NIV Study Bible. TLSB is far superior.

How I plan on using TLSB (and I do indeed plan on making extensive use of it) is not as a study Bible per se, but as a commentary. That is what I'm doing now, and that is working out well. I read the actual English text of the Bible in the ESVSB - with its maps, charts, illustrations, and with its admittedly ecumenical study notes - followed by looking up the explicitly Lutheran study notes and articles in TLSB. This provides me with the best of both worlds.

Maybe CPH could release a version of the TLSB without the Bible - just a set of study notes and articles. If they did that, I would use it as a supplement to the ESVSB (which is how I plan on using TLSB anyway).

You can buy your own copy of TLSB here at CPH.


Bryce P Wandrey said...

Thanks for this review of both bibles. As I have been reading about TLSB for the last couple of months I have been wondering over and over, "What would I want a Study Bible for?" After reading your comments on the ESVSB I am almost convinced to buy it.

BalaamsAss51 said...

Finally, a critique which points out the cons as well as the pros. Pastor, you have touched on very important flaws in this new Bible, while at the same time presenting a balanced view.

I admit I am one of those who prefers several specialized works over one which tries to be all things at once. As I go through the Concordia Commentary series I have been marking up my ESV. I think I'll stick with that Bible for a while.

Matt Heady

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Pr. McCain has said that they are working with Olive Tree to produce a TLSB for Palm and iPhone. He anticipates it coming out early in 2010, but it's not set in stone.

Christopher D. Hall said...

Nice thorough reviews!

Pr. Lehmann said...

I have to admit that my first thought when reading this review was, "If I had money to waste on anti-sacramental study bibles, would I?"

Answer: No.

I could barely afford the TLSB...

Actually, I couldn't afford it at all. Got it through the generosity of a financially blessed friend.

But I'm VERY happy I have it.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Charles:

One solution would be to buy both the ESVSB and TLSB, save your receipts, compare them, and if you can only afford one, send the other back based on what you think of them.

You don't have to take my word, CPH's word, or anyone's word. And, of course, everyone is going to use the Bibles differently. Some people don't care about maps and charts, while others will. Some will rely heavily on the study notes, while others won't. I think it all depends on what you want out of the book.

Considering that our laypeople will be using TLSB, I think it would be foolish for a pastor not to have a copy.

I do find it helpful to have multiple references, though. It was Dr. Gard who turned me on to the Oxford RSV Ecumenical Study Bible (his own heavily-marked copy was stolen in a carjacking in Haiti - don't you hate when that happens?) - even with its deficiencies.

As far as buying books none of us can afford, it seems to be an occupational hazard. Erasmus quipped that he buys books, and if there is anything left over, he buys food. He was definitely a clergyman. ;-)

Dear Dan:

Thanks for the info. That's perfect. I will be able to access both on my Palm, and I will be able to use the physical ESV Study Bible and its electronic edition, but also pull up TLSB's notes on my Palm and use it as a supplemental commentary without having to tote two large Bibles around.

Dear Bryce:

Ha! I'll bet I'll never see a dime from Crossway. ;-)

Dear Christopher:


Past Elder said...

Well, I wouldn't want to say it so loud PTM could hear me or anything, but CPH is one of the three reasons I went LCMS.

Before these books started coming, it started for me with "My First Catechism" for my kids and for me to use with my kids. Couldn't find bupkis like it in my previous synod's publishing house. Couldn't find TLH either. Couldn't find a straight-up LC like the '43 and '91 LCMS editions either.

Then these books started coming. The Concordia Reference ESV, the Concordia BOC, great stuff. Not being a blackbird the PCC I don't know about. And even with LSB and TDP, neither of which I like nor use, I completely agree wrt to LSB that given the current environment that something so good could happen at all is damn near a miracle, and it stands head, shoulders and torso above other current service books, and even TDP, while I myself am completely unenthusiastic about it, if one is starting with no experience of daily structured prayer, and unfortunately anything approaching a daily office is one of many American casualties in Lutheranism, it ain't a bad place to start.

I'm happily awaiting my TLSB which I ordered last night online. I've used a lot of "study Bibles" over the years and found only two worth the money I paid for them: the Jerusalem Bible (the 1966 original, not that PC later one) and the Hertz Chumash, from which more than any Christian thing I ever read I saw the Gospel as the fulfillment of the Law, which I don't suppose was Rabbi Hertz' intent but that's what happened for me.

Anonymous said...

It was Dr. Gard who turned me on to the Oxford RSV Ecumenical Study Bible (his own heavily-marked copy was stolen in a carjacking in Haiti - don't you hate when that happens?) - even with its deficiencies.

Whoa, unbelievable! I still have my RSV copy from my ELCA days and I've found it very helpful it finding out how other Christian traditions view certain texts.

I do like some of the layout I see in the ESVSB and may add it to my collection at some point. Thanks for the highlights, Father Hollywood.

I also like the Lutheran emphasis in TDP very much.