Tag Archives: church and Israel

In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With John Nelson Darby

I just finished a book called The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church, by R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetham. I recommend the book. It is slightly repetitive at points, perhaps because of the joint authorship, and it might be more engaging if it offered more specific examples and fewer general observations. But it is a very informative and apparently fair discussion of both the Scofield Bible (1909) and the man who created it, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921).

Readers are sure to learn something new about one of the most powerful influences that have shaped the modern American evangelical landscape. I also noted parallels between Scofield’s project and the theological and publishing efforts of Mennonite fundamentalists of the same era, such as Daniel Kauffman. In both cases, I believe, the church was almost certainly better off thanks to the efforts of such leaders. Yet their best intentions and most helpful efforts were unintentionally marred by significant weaknesses only clearly visible after subsequent generations used their writings. This is both encouraging and sobering for writers today.

Scofield was a skilled Bible teacher, but rarely original. His many influences include the Geneva Bible (the first annotated English Bible, millenial in nature rather than ammillenial as Catholics of the time), James Ussher’s historical dating system (adopted by Scofield though modified by the “gap theory” in Genesis 1), European evangelicalism (perhaps including Isaac Watt’s musings on dispensations, which nearly match Scofield’s), John Nelson Darby (dispensational promoter of a two-stage return of Christ and a secret rapture), Southern Presbyterianism (turning from postmillenialism to the more pessimistic premillenialism after losses in the Civil War and advocating the curse of Ham—the idea that black people are destined to be servants), and the American fundamentalist-evangelical movement of which he was a part (which included prophecy conferences).

These are some of his most prominent influences, but I’m only providing a sample of examples of how these influences shaped Scofield.

For the rest of this post I want to focus on one of Scofield’s influences, J. N. Darby (1800-1882, a leader among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland), and on only one of his themes, the nature of the church—since this theme directly relates to a main theme of my blog.

In short, Darby’s beliefs about the church shaped his beliefs about prophecy. And what surprised me is that, while I disagree with many of Darby’s beliefs about prophecy, I identify with some of his thinking about church.

First, some excerpts from the book by Mangum and Sweetam:

One of the most interesting things about the way in which Darby’s interpretation of prophetic Scripture emerged is that his development of dispensationalism was a result of his disaffection with the ecclesiastical status quo. Especially in light of his later complaints that those he spoke to during his visits to the United States enthusiastically absorbed his prophetic teaching while ignoring almost entirely his views on church order, it is important to not that with Darby eschatology followed from (and was an implication of) ecclesiology. (pp. 65-66, bold added)

In the years following his conversion, Darby became increasingly disenchanted with the Church of Ireland… The primary cause is clear. While studying Scripture, Darby became increasingly dismayed with the Erastian nature of the Church of Ireland—its status as the established church of the state. (pp. 64-65, bold added)

Erastian: “of, characterized by, or advocating the doctrine of state supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). (The term is named after Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian theologian who died in 1583.)

As I read this, I’m thinking: Darby sounds like a budding Anabaptist! The Anabaptists also rejected the church-state union promoted by magisterial reformers such as Zwingli.

More from Mangum and Sweetnam:

The Church of Ireland during this period enjoyed a unique position. Like the Church of England, it was the church established by law enjoying a special relationship with the apparatus of the British rule in Ireland. (p. 65)

This special relationship between the Protestant Church of Ireland and the British government led to oppression of the Catholic majority in Ireland, causing growing unrest.

Darby’s disgust and anger grew when his archbishop directed that oaths of allegiance to the British Commonwealth be imposed on anyone joining the church. Catholic conversions [which had been plentiful under Darby’s gospel preaching] completely dried up as religious faith became conflated and confused with political allegiance. (p. 65, bold added)

It was ecclesiological concern that led to Darby’s rethinking of prophecy. Up to this point, he seems to have held to [a] sort of postmillennial scheme… His own evangelistic efforts were a key part of the global spread of the gospel, which would eventually bring about the millennial bliss and the conditions for Christ’s return. His archbishop’s action and its consequences were probably not the only thing that changed this. But they did prove to be the legendary straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of these events, Darby became deeply pessimistic about the future of the world and disillusioned about the prospects of global evangelization and the growing success of the gospel…

Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (1828) was Darby’s first tract, and it outlined his emerging understanding of the nature of the church. Christ’s church, Darby argued, was spiritual in nature. Its unity was not, could not, be the product of human effort—it was a work of the Spirit alone. The Church of Ireland was following a path well worn by the churches through the centuries, a path that led to involvement in human power and civil government and away from the pristine simplicity of dependence on the Holy Spirit. These churches had fallen from their original position because they had lost sight of their heavenly calling and had become mired in human mechanism…

Darby gave practical expression to these views by resigning his curacy… He was discovering an alternative ecclesiology shaped by insights similar to his own, which were emerging in the small gatherings of believers that were eventually to develop into the Brethren movement.

By the time Darby’s first writing on prophecy was published in 1829—Reflections upon “The Prophetic Inquiry” and the Views Advanced in Ithe had, in line with his pessimistic view of the health of the church, adopted a clearly premillennial position. (pp. 66-67, bold added)

Up to this point, Darby still sounds like he could be one of the early Anabaptists. They, too, insisted on separation of church and state, and at least some of them held premillennial understandings. (I am not informed enough to be more specific than this on Anabaptist prophetic understandings.)

But as Darby further developed his prophetic understanding, he developed views very different from the early Anabaptists—views which some Anabaptists today promote, however, thanks in part to the mediating influence of the Scofield Bible.

One of the most important features of the dispensationalism that developed from Darby and that would be embodied in Scofield’s notes is the recognition of a distiction between Israel and the church… The longer tradition of Reformed exegesis had postulated a supersessionist, or replacement theology, mode of exegesis. Broadly speaking, this suggested that Israel had been replaced by the church as the people of God, its promises and position handed over wholesale because of their failure of obedience. This understanding of the relationship between God’s people in the Old Testament and in the New Testament was a standard feature of most biblical interpretation from the medieval period, through the magisterial reformers, and down to the present day. (pp. 69-70)

While the Anabaptists agreed that it was now the church, not ethnic Israel, who were the people of God, they differed from the magisterial reformers in their understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the OT. The magisterial reformers looked to the OT to support practices such as military participation and infant baptism, but the Anabaptists insisted more strongly that Christ’s teachings superseded the Law of Moses.

Both the Anabaptists and Darby were concerned that the “flat Bible” approach of the magisterial reformers was a problem, and that it supported a state-church union, which was also a problem. The church did not hold exactly the same position as Israel had. But Darby’s theological solution to this misunderstanding was different from the Anabaptist solution.

In his view this conflation of two distinct groups [Israel and the church] whom God had dealt with in different ways was little sort of disastrous. It was this mistake that underwrote the Erastianism [state-church union] that had so concerned him in earlier years; it was this mistake that obscured the church’s heavenly calling and nature. Israel had been, continued to be, and eternally would be God’s earthly people—his purposes for them would be worked out on earth. The church was a heavenly entity, entirely separate from Israel, and with a prospect that was purely heavenly…

This distinction between the peoples of God and his deep pessimism about the prospects of the contemporary church led Darby to the dispensations that gave their name to dispensationalism. (p. 70, bold added)

In summary: For the Anabaptists, there was both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. The continuity was rooted in the church’s identity as the children of Abraham, trusting in Christ just as Abraham trusted in God’s promise, thus becoming heirs of the promises given to Abraham. The discontinuity was found in how Christ and the apostles interpreted these OT promises, with the kingdom of God (spiritual Israel) being now not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one. Like the magisterial reformers, the Anabaptists did not seem to see any special role for ethnic Israel after the coming of Christ. Unlike them, they did not believe that the church inherited the political and military role that national Israel had carried. (I am making generalizations here, and writing from memory as an amateur, so I invite your help if you want to add nuance to this historical summary.)

Darby’s solution to the church-state problem was different from either the Anabaptists or the magisterial reformers. Rather than positing an end to God’s special purposes for ethnic Israel, he separated the church and Israel entirely. God had contrasting but ongoing plans for both, so that the church and Israel run on separate but parallel tracks until the end of the age, each with different duties and hopes.

Thus Darby and the Anabaptists came to theological understandings that were very different. Yet both understandings accomplished one same result: the division of the church-state union.

I was familiar with Darby’s prophetic conclusions, but did not know about his concept of church. To complete this post, I’d like to share some excerpts I particularly enjoy from Darby’s first tract, Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (bold added):

It is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies [church denominations] that is desirable; indeed it is surprising that reflecting Protestants should desire it: far from doing good, I conceive it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognised as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to Romish unity; we should have the life of the church and the power of the word lost, and the unity of spiritual life utterly excluded. Whatever plans may be in the order of Providence, we can only act upon the principles of grace; and true unity is the unity of the Spirit, and it must be wrought by the operation of the Spirit… The Reformation consisted not, as has been commonly said, in the institution of a pure form of church, but in setting up the word, and the great Christian foundation and corner stone of “Justification by faith,” in which believers might find life… He is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” ought carefully to keep from such a spirit; for it is drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the word, and making a duty of its worst and antichristian results. This is a most subtle and prevailing mental disease, “he followeth not us [Mark 9:38],” even when men are really Christians. Let the people of God see if they be not hindering the manifestation of the church by this spirit. I believe there is scarcely a public act of Christian men (at any rate of the higher orders, or of those who are active in the nominal churches), which is not infected with this; but its tendency is manifestly hostile to the spiritual interests of the people of God, and the manifestation of the glory of Christ. Christians are little aware how this prevails in their minds; how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ; and how it dries up the springs of grace and spiritual communion; how it precludes that order to which blessing is attached-the gathering together in the Lord’s name. No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fulness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it—because its faith does not embrace it.

Where two or three are gathered together in His name, His name is recorded there for blessing [Matt. 18:20]; because they are met in the fulness of the power of the unchangeable interests of that everlasting kingdom in which it has pleased the glorious Jehovah to glorify Himself, and to make His name and saving health known in the Person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. In the name of Christ, therefore, they enter (in whatever measure of faith) into the full counsels of God, and are “fellow-workers under God.”… The Lord has made known His purposes in Him, and how those purposes are effected. “He hath made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, he should gather together in one all things in Christ, whether they be things in heaven, or things on earth, even in him, in whom we also have received an inheritance” [Eph. 1:9-11]—in one and in Christ. In Him alone therefore can we find this unity; but the blessed word (who can be thankful enough for it? will inform us further. It is as to its earthly members “gathering together in one, the children of God who are scattered abroad.” And how is this? “That one man should die for them.” [John 11:50-52] As our Lord in the vision of the fruit of the travail of His soul declares, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will drawn all men unto me: this he said signifying what death he should die.” [John 12:32] It is then Christ who will draw – will draw to Himself (and nothing short of or less than this can produce unity, “He that gathereth not with him, scattereth” [Matt. 12:30]); and draw to Himself by being lifted up from the earth. In a word, we find His death is the centre of communion till His coming again, and in this rests the whole power of truth. Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s supper – for we being many are one “bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Cor. 10:17] And what does Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever “ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” [1 Cor. 11:26] Here then are found the character and life of the church, that into which it is called, that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity. It is showing forth the Lord’s death, by the efficiency of which they were gathered, and which is the fruitful seed of the Lord’s own glory; which is indeed the gathering of His body, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” [Eph. 1:23]; and shewing it forth in the assurance of His coming, “when he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe.” [2 Thess. 1:10] Accordingly the essence and substance of unity, which will appear in glory at His coming, is conformity to His death, by which that glory was all wrought…

Unity, the unity of the church, to which “the Lord added daily such as should be saved” [Acts 2:47]…, was when none said anything was his own, and “their conversation was in heaven” [Phil. 3:20]; for they could not be divided in the common hope of that. It knit men’s hearts together by necessity. The Spirit of God has left it upon record, that division began about the goods of the church, even in their best use, on the part of those interested in them; for there could be division, there could be selfish interests. Am I desiring believers to correct the churches? I am beseeching them to correct themselves, by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to shew their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it – to shew their faith in His coming, and practically to look for it by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it. Let them testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct.

While the spirit of the world prevails (and how much it prevails, I am persuaded few believers are at all aware) spiritual union cannot subsist… For, let us ask, is the church of God as believers would have it? Do we not believe that it was, as a body, utterly departed from Him? Is it restored so that He would be glorified in it at His appearing? Is the union of believers such as He marks to be their peculiar characteristic? Are there not unremoved hindrances? Is there not a practical spirit of worldliness in essential variance with the true termini of the gospel – the death and coming again of the Lord Jesus as Saviour?…

Unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church, but confederacy and denial of the nature and hope of the church. Unity, that is of the church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit, and therefore can only be perfected in spiritual persons. It is indeed the essential character of the church, and this strongly testifies to the believer its present state. But, I ask, if the professing church seeks worldly interests, and if the Spirit of God be amongst us, will it then be the minister of unity in such pursuits as these? If the various professing churches seek it, each for itself, no answer need be given. But if they unite in seeking a common interest, let us not be deceived; it is no better, if it be not the work of the Lord. There are two things which we have to consider. First, Are our objects in our work exclusively the Lord’s objects, and no other? If they have not been such in bodies separate from each other, they will not be in any union of them together. Let the Lord’s people weigh this. Secondly, let our conduct be the witness of our objects. If we are not living in the power of the Lord’s kingdom, we certainly shall not be consistent in seeking its ends. Let it enter our minds, while we are all thinking what good thing we may do to inherit eternal life, to sell all that we have, take up our cross, and follow Christ…

So far as men pride themselves on being Established, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, or anything else, they are antichristian. How then are we to be united? I answer, it must be the work of the Spirit of God. Do you follow the testimony of that Spirit in the word as is practically applicable to your consciences, lest that day take you unawares?… Professed churches (especially those established) have sinned greatly in insisting on things indifferent and hindering the union of believers, and this charge rests heavily on the hierarchies of the several churches. Certainly order is necessary; but where they said, ‘the things are indifferent and nothing in themselves: therefore you must use them for our pleasure’s sake,’ the word of the Spirit of Christ says, ‘they are indifferent: therefore we will yield to your weakness, and not offend a brother for whom Christ died.’ Paul would have eaten no meat while the world endured, if it had hurt the conscience of a weak brother, though the weak brother was in the wrong. And why insisted on? Because they gave distinction and place in the world. If the pride of authority and the pride of separation were dissolved (neither of which are of the Spirit of Christ), and the word of the Lord taken as the sole practical guide, and sought to be acted up to by believers, we shall be spared much judgment, though we shall not perhaps find altogether the glory of the Lord, and many a poor believer, on whom the eye of the Lord is set for blessing, would find comfort and rest… Let believers remove the hindrances to the Lord’s glory, which their own inconsistencies present, and by which they are joined to the world, and their judgments perverted. Let them commune one with another, seeking His will from the word, and see if a blessing do not attend it; at any rate it will attend themselves; they will meet the Lord as those that have waited for Him, and can rejoice unfeignedly in His salvation…

Let me ask the professing churches, in all love, one question. They have often professed to the Roman Catholics, and truly too, their unity in doctrinal faith, why then is there not an actual unity? If they see error in each other, ought they not to be humbled for each other? Why not, as far as was attained, mind the same rule, speak the same thing; and if in anything there was diversity of mind (instead of disputing on the footing of ignorance), wait in prayer, that God might reveal this also unto them. Ought not those who love the Lord amongst them, to see if they could not discern a cause? Yet I well know that, till the spirit of the world be purged from amongst them, unity cannot be, nor believers find safe rest…

I would solemnly repeat what I said before – the unity of the church cannot possibly be found till the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord, who is the Author and finisher of its faith: a glory which is to be made known in its brightness at His appearing, when the fashion of this world shall pass away, and therefore acted up to and entered upon in spirit when we are planted together in the likeness of His death. Because unity can, in the nature of things, be there only; unless the Spirit of God who brings His people together, gather them for purposes not of God, and the counsels of God in Christ come to nought. The Lord Himself says, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” [John 17:21-23]

Oh that the church would weigh this word, and see if their present state do not preclude necessarily their shining in the glory of the Lord, or of fulfilling that purpose for which they were called. And I ask them, do they at all look for or desire this? or are they content to sit down and say, that His promise is come utterly to an end for evermore?

Yet will He surely gather His people and they shall be ashamed.

I have gone beyond my original intention in this paper; if I have in anything gone beyond the measure of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I shall thankfully accept reproof, and pray God to make it forgotten.


While I admit that I wish some of Darby’s prophetic teachings would disappear (including from among Anabaptists), I am thankful that this tract of Darby’s was not forgotten. I might nuance a few things differently. But what a powerful call to examine our own hearts! Are we conformed to Christ’s death in a manner that will make true Christian unity possible?

I invite your response. Did you learn anything that surprised you about Darby or Scofield? Do you resonate with Darby’s words about the unity of the church? Share your insights in the comments below.


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NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Review and Comparison with ESV Study Bible)

NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015). 2,880 p.  Publication announcement from ESV-loving Assistant Editor Andrew David Naselli. Official website with video and free sampler. (Amazon new price: $29.45 hardcover, $14.99 Kindle.)

As someone who rarely uses study Bibles, I may not be the best person to review one. But, since I got a free copy of the new NIV Zondervan Study Bible, here goes! Perhaps you will learn as much as I am learning as I write.

My approach in this review will be to compare the NIVZSB (NIV Zondervan Study Bible) with the ESVSB (ESV Study Bible). I do this for three reasons:

  • The ESVSB is probably the most highly-praised and widely-used scholarly study Bible among evangelicals today.
  • The ESVSB probably holds similar prominence among my readers (though some prefer various KJV study Bibles).
  • The ESVSB is the only other top-tier study Bible I own. (I own it on on Kindle; the NIVZSB I own in hardcover.)

These reasons make the ESVSB a good standard against which to measure the NIVZSB. If the latter reaches the stature of the former, it is certainly a general success.

I’ll divide the rest of this review into three parts:

(You may also jump ahead to my concluding observations.)

nivzondervan-study-bible-e1435947838560

Similarities with the ESV Study Bible

In short, the NIV now has a study Bible that is essentially equivalent in quality to the highly-praised ESV Study Bible. Both are massive works—2752 pp. for the ESVSB and 2880 pp. for the NIVZSB, placing them first and second in length among major evangelical study Bibles. (If you think this review is long…) Both stand firmly within the conservative evangelical tradition. Both are scholarly works with general editors bearing PhDs from the University of Cambridge—Wayne Grudem for the ESVSB and D. A. Carson for the NIVZSB. My incomplete manual comparison of the contributors to the two study Bibles revealed at least 9 people who contributed to both, including major scholars such as John N. Oswalt, Andreas Köstenberger, Robert W. Yarbrough, and T. Desmond Alexander—who wrote the Genesis notes for the ESVSB and then served as an Associate Editor for Old Testament and Biblical Theology for the NIVZSB, writing multiple introductions and articles. (I think I found only one female contributor in my non-exhaustive survey—Karen H. Jobes, a well-known commentary author, writing in the NIVZSB.)

Given their shared evangelical roots, both study Bibles affirm traditional authorship for contested books such as the Pentateuch (Moses with minor editorial shaping), Isaiah (Isaiah), Daniel (Daniel), Matthew (the apostle Matthew), Ephesians (Paul), the Pastoral Epistles (Paul), 2 Peter (the apostle Peter), and 1-3 John (the apostle John). Similarly, Job was probably an historical person (though the speeches reflect literary composition) and Jonah really did ride in a great fish (though his story is told for didactic purposes).

There are even typographical similarities: both volumes print the sacred text in a single column on each page, with cross references along the outside margins, and with commentary in double columns beneath. (The NIVZSB shades the commentary notes to more clearly distinguish them from the biblical text.)

Indeed, these two study Bibles are similar enough that the main factor that should influence your choice between the two is your preference in translations.

I won’t get into the translation debate here, except to say that I use the ESV as my “home” translation and the NIV as one of my favorite comparison translations. A good understanding of the differing goals of each will help you put both to good and appropriate use. And yes, both are suitable for a study Bible.

(For more on translations: See here for my advice about Bible translations and here for more comments about the NIV from me and from the chair of the NIV translation team. See here for a brief explanation of why newer translations such as the NIV and ESV “omit” some verses and see here for a defense of why you can still trust your Bible. By the way, Bill Mounce, who was the New Testament chair of the ESV translation, also works on the NIV translation team, and does not consider the NIV to be “liberal.” Here is one example of where a strength of the NIV helped me understand God’s word better. Here is one passage where I am less convinced they chose well.)

That said, there are some differences between these two study Bibles, and I’d like to focus on those differences next in this review.

ESVstudybible

Differences from the ESV Study Bible

It is a bit difficult to compare a Kindle study Bible with a hardcover study Bible (though I’ve been also using Amazon preview for the ESVSB), but it appears to me that the ESVSB is somewhat stronger than the NIVZSB in these areas:

  • Charts
  • Maps
  • Illustrations
  • Historical information
  • General apologetic or bibliological articles

The ESVSB, for example, has separate articles devoted to archeological topics, biblical languages, biblical doctrine, biblical ethics, and the perspectives that various denominations, religions, and cults bring to Scripture. This infographic from Tim Challies affirms that the ESVSB has more charts and maps (although I think it is somewhat misleading when comparing the number of articles).

A comparison of the introductions to Exodus shows that the one in the ESVSB is slightly longer (six pages to the NIVZSB’s five), with more attention given to the historical reliability of the book and to its literary features. But both cover title, author, date, a content survey, theological themes, and connections to the NT (called “salvation history” in the ESVSB and “biblical-theological trajectories” in the NIVZSB). And both include extensive and exegetically-valid book outlines.

Similarly, the NIVZSB introduction for Galatians is three pages long, while the ESVSB’s covers four pages, providing a little more historical data, a superior map, and more space devoted to charts rather than photographs.

The differences, I stress, are differences of degree; the NIVZSB also includes excellent timelines, maps such as “Assyrian Campaigns Against Israel and Judah,” charts such as “The Eight Signs of John’s Gospel,” and lots of full-color illustrations. Its Exodus introduction includes a helpful chart comparing arguments for early and late dates for the exodus from Egypt. The similarities outweigh the differences, but I give the ESVSB the blue ribbon for visual helps and breadth of topics addressed in articles.

The NIVZSB is stronger in at least one way: its emphasis on biblical theology. This makes sense, given the editors of the two volumes: Wayne Grudem’s most significant authorial effort is his massive and massively popular Systematic Theology, while D. A. Carson is better known for both his commentaries and his editorial work in books such as the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament and the series New Studies in Biblical Theology.

I haven’t read enough of the book introductions and running commentary in either study Bible to get a complete sense on how these differences appear throughout. A partial comparison of the 1 John notes suggests the ESVSB makes a few more systematic theology deductions (for example, on 1 John 2:19 which speaks of those who “went out from us” it says, “this implies that those who are truly saved will never abandon Christ”), while the NIVZSB sticks more closely throughout with what the text may have meant to its first readers (for example, if often refers to the “secessionists” who threatened John’s readers).

In its discussion of doctrinally-controversial passages (see below), the ESVSB is likewise slightly quicker to focus on systematic theology or ethical deductions for readers today. This is not a bad thing, of course (unless you disagree with the deductions!), just a difference in emphasis.

The NIVZSB’s focus on biblical theology is most evident in the twenty-eight articles found before the concordance. Most articles are two or three pages long; together they cover sixty-six pages. Since these articles are the most unique part of this study Bible, I will list them here, with their authors:

The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central – Timothy Keller
The Bible and Theology – D. A. Carson
A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible – D. A. Carson
The Glory of God – James M. Hamilton Jr.
Creation – Henri A. G. Blocher
Sin – Kevin DeYoung
Covenant – Paul R. Williamson
Law – T. D. Alexander
Temple – T. D. Alexander
Priest – Dana M. Harris
Sacrifice – Jay A. Sklar
Exile and Exodus – Thomas Richard Wood
The Kingdom of God – T. D. Alexander
Sonship – D. A. Carson
The City of God – T. D. Alexander
Prophets and Prophecy – Sam Storms
Death and Resurrection – Philip S. Johnston
People of God – Moisés Silva
Wisdom – Daniel J. Estes
Holiness – Andrew David Naselli
Justice – Brian S. Rosner
Wrath – Christopher W. Morgan
Love and Grace – Graham A. Cole
The Gospel – Greg D. Gilbert
Worship – David G. Peterson
Mission – Andreas J. Köstenberger
Shalom – Timothy Keller
The Consummation – Douglas J. Moo

Carson describes the goal of these articles in the Editor’s Preface:

We have tried to highlight the way various themes develop within the Bible across time… taking us to their climax in the book of Revelation… In this way we hope to encourage readers of the Bible to spot these themes for themselves as they read their Bibles, becoming adept at tracing them throughout the Scriptures. Such biblical theology enables readers to follow the Bible’s themes in the terms and categories that the Bible itself uses. (p. xxiii)

Some of these categories (see the article titles above) mirror categories common to systematic theology, such as harmartiology (study of sin) or eschatology (study of the end times).  Others cover similar ground but focus more on how themes unfold across time and different covenants, such as “People of God” versus ecclesiology (study of the church). Still others are unlikely to receive any meaningful treatment in traditional systematic theologies, such as “Exile and Exodus.” (And of course, some traditional systematic theology topics such as angelology are missing here.)

While I disagree with minor points in some of these articles, I find myself agreeing with a much higher percentage of what is said here than with what is said in most systematic theologies. That is the benefit of staying closer to the language of Scripture itself. Most of these articles are very useful and some (such as Keller’s opening one) are even moving. I have a niggling question about the place of such essays in a study Bible (how many readers will really find and benefit from this content in their specific moments of exegetical need?), but reading them can certainly make one a better reader of Scripture.

In sum, though the ESVSB and the NIVZSB have similar depth and quality of study notes throughout, the ESVSB has the edge regarding visual helps and breadth of topics in its extra articles, and the NIVZSB has the edge if you wish to think in the patterns of biblical theology.

bible battle eatliver

Handling of Controversial Scriptures

The most important factor in a study Bible is how it interprets the sacred text. A study Bible, like a preacher, can draw out the truth and beauty of God’s word with humility and boldness, or else it can hide the text behind an arrogant cloud of human opinions and qualifications. So, how well does the NIVZSB do? And how does it stack up against the ESVSB?

The subtitle of the NIVZSB is Built on the Truth of Scripture and Centered on the Gospel Message. I think it lives up to this title. On the central matters of the gospel, this study Bible is solid. For example, read the following excerpts from Douglas Moo’s study notes on Romans. (Moo is, significantly, both the head of the NIV translation team and Associate Editor of New Testament and Biblical Theology for the NIVSB.) First, from a study note on Romans 3:24:

“Grace” is a thread that runs throughout Romans. The display of God’s grace in the gospel is rooted in the character of God himself. As 4:4-5 makes clear, no human can ever make a claim on God because of anything they have done (11:5-6). A holy God can never be indebted to his creatures. Whatever he gives us, therefore, he gives “freely” and without compulsion (4:16). Not only is grace needed at the beginning of the Christian life, but believers “stand” in grace (5:2): we live in the realm in which grace “reign[s]” (5:21; see 5:15, 17, 20). (p. 2297)

If Moo stopped right there, I would fault him for teaching a wonderful half-truth. But this is the very next sentence:

That reign of grace, Paul hastens to clarify, does not absolve us of the need to live righteously before God; rather, it gives us the power to do so (6:1, 14-15, 17). (p. 2297)

Later, commenting on Romans 6:19, Moo speaks even more forcefully:

God himself sanctifies all those who believe in Jesus: they become “holy,” or “saints,” members of God’s own people (e.g., 1:7). But sanctification is also a process of becoming increasingly obedient to the will of God (1 Thess 4:3); believers need to engage in this lifelong pursuit of holiness if they expect to enjoy eternal life (v. 22; see Heb 12:14: “without holiness no one will see the Lord”). (p. 2303)

So the NIVZSB promotes the core gospel message well, along with the necessary human response to God’s grace. And, though it is generally Calvinistic throughout, it does not emphasize this interpretive lens in a way that overshadows the biblical message itself. Well done.

But how does the NIVZSB handle more controversial passages—texts which theologically conservative Christians sometimes disagree about? And how does it compare to the ESVSB in its handling of these texts?

Here are some examples for your review, arranged topically:

Creation: These study Bibles hold similar positions on Genesis 1-2: (1) The ESVSB presents five readings that “faithful interpreters” offer regarding the days of creation (“calendar day,” “day-age,” “analogical days,” “literary framework,” and “gap theory”) but refrains from assessing them. The NIVZSB says the mention of “days” “emphasizes the logical development of God’s creation more than it pinpoints the chronological development” (p. 20).  (2) The ESVSB says the word “kinds” does not correspond to our modern term “species” but could refer to a “more general taxonomic group.” The NIVZSB suggests (based on Ezek. 47:10) that “kinds” “does not emphasize limitation of each life form to its specific species but emphasizes the diversity of each general life form” (p. 20). (3) Both affirm that Adam and Eve were historical persons. There are no surprises here for either study Bible; both are taking currently-accepted “conservative” positions on creation, like it or not.

The Flood and Miracles: Both agree that the flood (Genesis 6-8) was “a real event” (ESVSB). The NIVZSB says that “a natural reading suggests a global flood, and some find this in 2 Pet 2:5; 3:6. The reference [‘all the high mountains… were covered’] may also imply a regional flood (nevertheless possessing tremendous severity) with impact affecting the whole human race, who may have remained in one area (Gen 11:1-9). In 41:57, ‘all the world’ refers to the eastern Mediterranean lands, so in chs. 6-8 the flood may have covered only the part of the earth where people lived.” At 6:15 we read, “estimates suggest that all the land animals could be accommodated in the ark with more than half of it remaining for other uses” (p. 37). The ESVSB makes no mention of the ark’s size, but likewise posits that “it is possible that the flood, while universal from [the] viewpoint [of ancient people], did not cover the entire globe.”

It is important to note, given this uncertainty about the extent of the flood, that the editors of the NIVZSB (and ESVSB) are not motivated by an anti-supernatural, anti-miraculous bias. For example, the NIVZSB says this of the Red (or “Reed”) Sea: “Whatever its exact location, it was a significant body of water—large (and deep) enough to drown the Egyptian army” (p. 136). It speaks even more clearly at Exodus 14: “As with the series of wonders in Egypt, naturalistic explanations of this event inevitably undermine its theological significance. Whatever ‘natural’ elements the Lord may have employed (as ‘a strong east wind’ blowing all night might imply), the timing of this phenomenon, as well as its depiction both here and elsewhere…, suggests that it was a supernatural display of the Lord’s ‘mighty hand’ (14:31). As such, this was not a purely natural event, however unusual. Rather, God’s ability to control this large body of water, like later similar events (e.g., Josh 3:14-17; 2Kgs 2:8,14), demonstrates his lordship over creation. Such lordship is likewise reflected when Jesus calmed the storm and demonstrated that ‘even the winds and the water… obey him’ (Luke 8:25)” (pp. 143-44).

Divorce and Remarriage: Both study Bibles hold similar positions on Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:1-12, underscoring that “Jesus is reaffirming God’s original intention that marriage be permanent and lifelong” (NIVZSB, p. 1970). They teach that both divorce and remarriage are “possible but never ideal” (NIVZSB, p. 1969) in cases where one marriage partner engages in “sexual immorality” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9, both NIV and ESV). It seems that the NIVZSB may interpret “sexual immorality” slightly more broadly, saying that the Greek term “porneia [is] the broadest term for sexual sin. It refers to sexual relations with any other person besides one’s monogamous heterosexual spouse” (p. 1939). The ESVSB, rather than speaking of “sexual relations,” specifies “sexual intercourse,” possibly a narrower term, giving as examples adultery, prostitution, incest, fornication, homosexuality, and bestiality.

On the other hand, the NIVZSB takes a more rigid stance on 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. On verse 11 it notes, “There are only two options for a divorced woman: (1) remain unmarried or (2) reconcile with her husband.” It acknowledges regarding verse 15 (“but if the unbeliever leaves… the brother or sister is not bound in such circumstances”) that “it is often suggested that this allows a deserted Christian spouse to remarry” but states that “this interpretation is not plausible,” listing four reasons. The ESVSB, while acknowledging this interpretation as possible, says that “the majority of interpreters now think that the phrase also implies the freedom to obtain a legal divorce (if that has not already happened) and the freedom to marry someone else.”

An additional difference between these two Bibles on this topic is that the ESVSB contains a lengthy discussion about divorce and remarriage in an essay called “Biblical Ethics: An Overview.” Here it attempts to synthesize the full biblical evidence—something the NIVZSB never does.

Homosexuality: Both study Bibles state clearly that homosexual relations are sinful. An NIVZSB comment on Romans 1:26-27 succinctly states that “in making humans [sic!] beings male and female…, God manifests his intention for human sexual relations” (p. 2293). (See also the specification about “heterosexual spouse” in the note on Matthew 5 above, as well as this article which shows that the updated NIV aims to speak even more clearly against homosexuality than the 1984 edition did.)

Gender Roles: It will surprise some readers to learn that the NIVZSB takes nearly the same stance on gender roles as the ESVSB does. If the NIV has a liberal agenda of actively undermining gender difference, as some claim (including some ESV promoters), then the editors of this study Bible missed the memo. I will trace the evidence in some detail, since this topic is of special concern to those uncertain about the NIV.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 both study Bibles agree that the passage is discussing husbands and wives, not men and women generally; both assume Paul is advocating a veil, not merely hair; both assert that “a wife’s respect for her husband… is expressed in different ways in different cultures” (NIVZSB, p. 2346); and both agree that “creational differences between men and women, husbands and wives… continue to have validity  since they come from God” (NIVZSB, ibid.). The study Bibles do differ in presentation: The ESVSB lists other interpretive possibilities besides a veil for what was to cover a woman’s head; it suggest modern cultural equivalents for a veil; and it uses the language of “headship” and “authority” to describe leadership role of husbands. The NIVZSB, in contrast, uses the equivalent but less embattled language of “preeminent status.”

In Ephesians 5:21-33, both study Bibles agree that “submitting to one another” (v. 21) does not advocate an egalitarian mutual submission but rather introduces the wife’s responsibility to submit to her husband (the NIVZSB calls this interpretation “more likely,” p. 2408). While the NIVZSB notes that “submit” is “frequently synonymous with ‘obey,'” it clarifies that “submission to another human is conditioned on the submission that one ultimately owes to God (p. 2408); the ESVSB that clarifies that “the submission of wives is not like the obedience children owe parents.” The NIVZSB says that “submission recognizes a divinely ordered set of relationships” (p. 2408) and the ESVSB says that “just as Christ’s position as head of the church and its Savior does not vary from culture to culture, neither does the headship of a husband in relation to his wife and her duty to submit to her husband” (bold in original). Both affirm that the Greek word translated “head” here and in 1 Corinthians “generally implies authority” (NIVZSB, p. 2401), though the ESVSB presents this assertion more strongly and with more evidence.

Both study Bibles agree that in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 “Paul is not issuing a general command for women to be silent” (NIVZSB, p. 2353, citing 1 Cor. 11). Rather, “Paul is likely forbidding women to speak up and judge prophecies… since such an activity would subvert male headship” (ESVSB). The NIVZSB does seem to read the prohibition a little more narrowly, as directed to wives rather than women in general, but cites valid textual evidence for this interpretation: “Paul is addressing married women (v. 35) who might want to be involved in the evaluation of their husband’s prophecy or who disrupt the service by speaking with their husbands” (p. 2353). (Incidentally, I’ve wondered why the ESV translates γυνὴ as “wife” in 1 Corinthians 11 but as “woman” here. The NET Bible notes suggest that there should be consistency, and that “in passages governing conduct in church meetings like this [cf. 1 Cor 11:2-16; 1Tim 2:9-15] the general meaning ‘women’ is more likely”—thus agreeing with the NIV text but not the NIVZSB notes!)

Similarly, both study Bibles interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15 to be giving instruction only for the gathered church setting. The NIVZSB presents “three general approaches” to these verses: (1) Paul is patriarchal and wrong; (2) Our understandings or circumstances are different from Paul’s, so his once-valid teaching no longer applies; (3) “Most Christians through almost all of church history, have understood Paul’s teaching to be that in general men are called to certain leadership responsibilities in the church that women under most circumstances are not.” It then specifies that “the following study notes are most consistent with view 3” (p. 2462). Later it clarifies that women were allowed to pray and prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5), that “quiet” applies to men as well as women in some circumstances (1 Tim. 2:2), that “it seems reasonable to assume women sang (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Jas 5:13),” but that “there are no clear examples in the NT of women serving as overseers (3:1) in apostolic churches,” a fact consistent with “the universal policy in early Christian generations and beyond” (ibid.). The ESVSB agrees, arguing even more strongly. The ESVSB argues that “teach” and “exercise authority” are “two different activities” (meaning that all teaching is prohibited, not just “authoritative teaching”). The NIVZSB, in contrast, says “Paul is not thinking of two separate, unrelated activities.” Thus they both agree that Paul is referring to the role of overseers, who exercise authority as they teach, while the ESVSB leaves the prohibition broader, excluding women from any act of teaching “Scripture and/or Christian doctrine to men in church.” Thus both study Bibles reserve the overseer (or elder/pastor) role for men.

And both Bibles are uncertain regarding the role of deacon. In 1 Timothy 3:11 the ESVSB leans toward women as either “deacons or assistants” (contra the ESV text which sees them as deacon’s wives), while the NIVZSB suggests “it is less likely that v. 11 refers to a separate order of women deacons” (p. 2464). In Romans 16:1, however, the study Bibles exchange stances: the ESVSB says “scholars debate” whether Phoebe is a “servant” or a “deacon,” while the NIVZSB concludes that since she is called “a diakonos ‘of the church,'” this “suggests that she holds some kind of official position” (p. 2321).

In all the gender texts I’ve surveyed thus far, the NIVZSB and ESVSB adopt nearly the same position—gender role difference in marriage and church are timeless principles, men are called to authoritative and loving leadership in home and church while women are called to submit, and women may not be overseers but may perhaps be (non-teaching) deacons. The NIVZSB does apparently leave the door open for women to teach men in non-authoritative positions in the church, but otherwise the differences between the study Bibles are differences of tone more than position, with the ESVSB giving a more rigorous defense of the position shared by both.

The differences between how the ESVSB and the NIVZSB approach gender roles may perhaps be seen most strongly in the study notes on Genesis 1-3. Here the ESVSB notes that while the image of God applies to both males and females (Gen. 1:27), the fact that the command to care for the garden (Gen. 2:15-16) was given to Adam “implies that God gave ‘the man’ a leadership role… a role that is also related to the leadership responsibility of Adam for Eve as his wife.” It specifies that God’s words “I will make him can also be translated ‘I will make for him'” (Gen. 2:18, bold in original), thus explaining Paul’s statement that God made woman for the man, and not the other way around (1 Cor. 11:9). It clarifies that “‘fit for him’… is not the same as ‘like him’: a wife is not her husband’s clone but complements him.” It says Adam’s taking of the fruit (Gen. 3:6) was “a failure to carry out his divinely ordered responsibility” to guard and keep the woman. It notes that God confronts Adam first (Gen. 3:9), thus “holding him primarily responsible for what happened, as the one who is the representative (or ‘head’) of the husband-and-wife relationship.” It describes how “the leadership role of the husband and the complementary relationship between husband and wife that were ordained by God before the fall… [were] deeply damaged and distorted by sin” (Gen. 3:16). In other words, the ESVSB reads Genesis 1-3 with an eye open for every detail that supports traditional gender roles.

The NIVZSB does not disagree with any of these ESVSB comments. (For example, it certainly does not suggest that gender role difference is a result of the fall.) But the only one it actually states (by implication) is the first one: that “the whole human race” bear God’s image, not merely males (p. 27). It does note that “the man is addressed first” by God, but does not draw any theological deductions from that bare observation. When it describes the results of the fall on husband-wife relationships, it simply frames it as “a breakdown in the original harmonious relationship between the man and the woman,” without any word of the gender roles that initially helped frame that harmony (p. 31). Its notes are focused primarily on other matters.

Similarly, at Galatians 3:28 only the ESVSB clarifies that “there is no male or female does not imply that there are no distinctions in how these groups should act” (bold in original); the NIVZSB simply vaguely states that “distinctions based on… gender characterize life in the old age” (p. 2389).

In summary, on gender roles these two study Bibles take nearly the same positions. Those who want a somewhat more rigorous defense of traditional gender role difference will probably prefer the ESVSB, but find little to fault in the NIVZSB.

Nonresistance and Relationship to Government: On Matthew 5:38-48 the NIVZSB says that “Jesus is prohibiting retaliation for wrongs experienced.” It explains that a slap on the cheek is “a common Jewish insult by a superior to a subordinate, not an aggressor’s blow.” (p. 1939). This brief interpretation leaves the door open for Christians to use force, even deadly force, in other circumstances, though it may be significant that the NIVZSB does not explicitly state this. The ESVSB, on the other hand, presents this interpretive position much more clearly: “Jesus is not prohibiting the use of force by governments, police, or soldiers when combating evil… One should not return an insulting slap, which would lead to escalating violence. In the case of a more serious assault, Jesus’ words should not be taken to prohibit self-defense…, for often a failure to resist a violent attack leads to even more serious abuse.”

At 1 Thessalonians 5:15 the NIVZSB makes a brief mention of “the principle of non-retaliation” (p. 2446) and at Romans 12:14-21 it rather softly says that “believers should feel no compulsion to right all wrongs themselves” (p. 2316). On the latter passage the ESVSB, in contrast, claims that “overcoming evil with good… may sometimes also include the ‘good’ (13:4) of the civil government stopping evil through the use of superior force (military or police), as Paul explains in 13:3-4″ (bold in original). (This is an unsubstantiated interpretation on two counts: it blurs the “you” of chapter 12 with the “they” of chapter 13, which doesn’t command Christians to engage in government activity, and it leaps from the police action described in chapter 13 to also affirm military action.) Thus, while neither study Bible affirms anything near an Anabaptist understanding of non-resistance, the ESVSB more strongly and repeatedly disagrees with it.

At Romans 13:1-7 the NIVZSB says that “believers must recognize the place of government in God’s providential ordering of the world.” It correctly makes no mention of military action, saying that “government has the right to use force to punish wrongdoing.” Somewhat surprisingly, given the context, it adds this: “whether this force includes capital punishment is debated” (p. 2316). The ESVSB speaks of the “responsibility” rather than “right” of the government to punish evil—a stronger word. Similarly, it says “the reference to the sword most likely refers to the penalty of capital punishment.” And, consistent with its comments on Matthew, it says that “even though Christians must not take personal revenge…, it is right for them to turn punishment over to the civil authorities.”

Spiritual Gifts: I haven’t found any clear statement where the NIVZSB strongly affirms whether or not the “miraculous” spiritual gifts continue to this day. This is remarkable, given that Sam Storms, a strong continuationist, was chosen to author an essay on “Prophets and Prophecy.” In this article he gives reasons why some say “yeah” and some “nay,” but only vaguely hints at his own position by some present-tense references to prophecy in the remainder of his essay. A note at Acts 2:4 says that “the Spirit comes in a variety of ways, sometimes accompanied by speaking in tongues… and sometimes not” (p. 2218). The notes on 1 Corinthians 12 seem designed to studiously avoid any controversial questions of present-day application, sticking with general statements like “Christians have different gifts, no one has all gifts, and no gift has been given to all” (p. 2349). The ESVSB is more forthright but adopts a similar stance in its comments on this chapter: “Bible-believing Christians disagree as to whether the gift of tongues ceased after the apostolic age of the early church, or whether tongues is a spiritual gift that should continue to be practiced today. In either case, there is no indication that speaking in tongues is a normative requirement that all Christians must experience.” Clearly, both Bibles are aiming to avoid a fight over this volatile topic.

Foreknowledge, Predestination, Election: At Romans 8:29-30 the NIVZSB gives two possible explanations for God’s foreknowledge: “Perhaps ‘knew ahead of time’…: God ‘foreknew’ who would believe in him and so predestined them. But ‘know’ probably has the biblical sense of ‘enter into relationship with’…: God chose to initiate a relationship with people ‘before the creation of the world’… and on that basis ‘predestined’ them” (p. 2307). The ESVSB only presents the second option, and emphasizes that “predestined” means “predetermined” and that God’s calling is “effective,” not merely an invitation.

The NIVZSB says Romans 9:6-29 could refer to national election, but “more likely” refers to “personal election.” While “Paul does not intend to deny human responsibility… God’s sovereignty over all things, including salvation and eternal judgment, is a foundational theme of the Bible” (p. 2309-10). The ESVSB is less equivocal: “Christians can be assured, therefore, that God’s promise will be fulfilled because it depends solely upon his will”; and God “remains just in not choosing everyone” for salvation.

At Ephesians 1:3-5 the NIVZSB speaks strongly: “Since this divine election of believers  occurred ‘before the creation of the world’ (v. 4), it is based solely on God’s gracious decision and not on any human merit.” A list of over a dozen references follows, along with a clarification that “predestined” means “predetermined” (pp. 2399-2400). The ESVSB strongly agrees, adding the idea that God’s will is “inexorable” (unstoppable).

There are too many verses related to this topic to survey them properly, but here are a few more: The NIVZSB makes no mention of the “all” in Titus 2:11, while the ESVSB says “it means… that salvation has been offered to all people (including all ethnic groups), not just to some.” The NIVZSB says that the “anyone” in 2 Peter 3:9 means “either (1) all humans without exception or (2) Peter’s readers, Christians… whom the false teachers influenced. If the first, then some view this as an example of what God desires as distinct from what God decrees” (p. 2556). Here a ESVSB note directs us to 1 Timothy 2:4, where it has a lengthy note that describes both Arminian and Calvinist interpretations without taking sides (surprise!), ending thus: “However one understands the extent of the atonement, this passage clearly teaches the free and universal offer of salvation to every single human being; ‘desires’ shows that this offer is a bona fide expression of God’s good will.” On this Timothy verse the NIVZSB suggests that “all people” “may mean ‘all kinds of people'” and that “what God ‘wants’ may be hindered by lack of human faith.” This last statement opens the door to non-Calvinistic interpretations (but does not demand them), as does the NIVZSB note on 1 John 2:2. This note suggests that “perhaps we may say Jesus’ death was sufficient to deal with the sins of the whole world, but it becomes effective only when people believe.” Similarly, the ESVSB here says that “Jesus’ sacrifice is offered and made available to everyone in ‘the whole world.'”

This extremely limited survey suggests that the NIVZSB and the ESVSB are both similarly Calvinistic regarding God’s choice and offer of salvation, but with occasional surprising flexibility.

Eternal Security: At Hebrews 6:4-6 the NIVZSB notes the “great difficulties for interpretation,” describes several common interpretations, and finally concludes that “those who do not hold on to faith in Christ show that their experience was superficial rather than genuine” (p. 2503). The ESVSB directs us to a note at Hebrews 3:14, which says “Scripture is clear… that true believers cannot lose their salvation.” On this verse the NIVZSB similarly asserts that “holding firmly to faith in God… despite day-by-day struggles does not qualify us for this status [of sharing in Christ] now or in the future; it reflects a status already gained. So this verse is not so much exhorting or admonishing (i.e., ‘we must endure in faith or we will not share in Christ’) as it is defining (i.e., ‘those who have come to share in Christ are the ones who will endure in faith’)” (p. 2499). Again, at Hebrews 7:25 the NIVZSB argues that the fact that Jesus “always lives to intercede for” believers “precludes their turning back” (p. 2507).

But such statements are relatively rare in the NIVZSB. At 1 John 2:19 the NIVZSB makes no clear theological deductions, while the ESVSB states that “this implies that those who are truly saved will never abandon Christ.” The ESVSB makes similar statements at John 6:40, John 10:28, 2Peter 1:10, and Jude 1:2—all places where the NIVZSB makes no clear assertions about whether believers can ever lose their salvation.

The Christian’s Struggle with Sin: At Romans 7:7-12 the NIVZSB suggests that Paul is describing his pre-Christian state, but also viewing “his solidarity” with both Adam and Israel. At Romans 7:13-25, it notes two common interpretations: Paul may be describing (1) his current experience as a Christian, or (2) his past experience as a Jew (again, in solidarity with Adam and Israel). No preference is given. The ESVSB presents two similar interpretations: “(1) unregenerate people who try to keep the law, or (2) believers who, despite being regenerated, find themselves still beset by sinful desires.” It discusses these options at some length, stating that “although good arguments are given by both sides, the most widely held view—beginning especially with Augustine and reaffirmed in the Reformation—is that Paul’s primary reference is to believers.” (For what it’s worth, I disagree quite strongly with the Augustinian/Reformational/ESVSB reading of this passage.)

Sabbath and Lord’s Day: These study Bibles take a similar stance on this topic. At Exodus 20:8-11 the ESVSB makes no Christian application, while the NIVZSB mentions that the Sabbath “anticipates the experience of rest through faith in Christ” (p. 155). At Colossians 2:16-17 the ESVSB says “it is debated whether the Sabbaths in question included the regular seventh-day rest of the fourth commandment, or were only the special Sabbaths of the Jewish festal calendar” while the NIVZSB does not discuss Sabbaths. At Galatians 4:10 the ESVSB repeats its uncertainty with the addition that some “believe that the weekly Sabbath command is not temporary but goes back to God’s pattern in creation.” The NIVZSB whispers (with dramatically different tone than Paul!) that “treating certain times as more sacred than others… is not an essential feature of Christian faith” (p. 2390). At Romans 14:5 the ESVSB declares that “unlike the other nine commandments in Ex. 20:1-17, the Sabbath commandment seems to have been part of the ‘ceremonial laws’ of the Mosaic covenant…, all of which are no longer binding on new covenant believers.” The NIVZSB simply affirms that the Sabbath is “probably” among the days Paul is describing as optional (p. 2318).

Regarding the Lord’s Day, at 1 Corinthians 16:2 the ESVSB describes that Christians gathered for worship on Sunday, not Saturday, while the NIVZSB adds that the Lord’s Day also refers to the first day of the week and that “Christian teachers at the end of the first century confirm the practice of Christians meeting on Sundays” (p. 2256). At Revelation 1:10 the ESVSB confirms the Lord’s Day/Sunday equation and the NIVZSB again looks to history, saying that “the majority of Christ’s followers see this passage as evidence that already in the first century this day was set aside for worship and fellowship” (p. 2589).

Thus, unlike the ESVSB, the NIVZSB apparently never suggests the Sabbath command may still apply. However, it seems a little more open to seeing Sunday worship as being normative. (For my understanding of this topic—which is a good test case for how Christians read the OT—see here.)

Israel and the Church: The NIVZSB is inconsistent on this topic. The “Exile and Exodus” article presents one perspective strongly: “As the only perfectly obedient Israelite (Heb 4:15; 5:8)—a faithful remnant of one—Jesus (not the unbelieving nation) is the sole heir of all of the covenantal promises made to Abraham, Israel, and David (Heb 1:2; cf. Matt 21:38; 28:18; Acts 2:29-33). Life everlasting, a land flowing with milk and honey, a posterity as numerous as the stars, a perpetual reign over all creation, and uninhibited access to the Father’s presence all belong exclusively to him. Others could join this new exodus and become joint heirs with Abraham’s ‘seed’ (Gal 3:16-20, 29), but not without embracing him as their Savior and Messiah (Acts 3:22-26; Rom 8:17; Gal 3:26-4:7; Eph 2:11-13; 3:6)” (p. 2661). (Here I say a hearty Amen!) Similarly, the article “People of God” says that “by choosing 12 apostles (Luke 6:13), Jesus reconstitutes the people of God. But this newly formed nation is no longer identified with a political entity or an ethnic group… Abraham’s true descendants, to whom God made the promise, consist of those who follow in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith” (p. 2673).

Again, a note at 1 Peter 1:1 says that Peter “implicitly claims that the church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ” (p. 2539). (For other affirmations of this position, see also Jer. 30:3, p. 1524; Jer. 33:22, p. 1534; Ez. 40-48, p. 1598; James 1:1, p. 2524.)

On the other hand, the article “Mission” says that Paul “taught that a future remains for ethnic Israel in God’s redemptive purposes (Rom 9-11)” (p. 2692).  In the introduction to Revelation, one of the multiple interpretive approaches that is described (without criticism) asserts that “after the tribulation, God will fulfill his promises to bless Israel during a one-thousand-year period that does not directly pertain to the church” (p. 2584). (For other passages that present this kind of interpretation as at least one legitimate possibility, see also Jer. 31:33, p. 1530; Ez. 40:1, p. 1672; Amos 9:11, p. 1783; Rev. 11:1, p. 2604; Rev. 20:9, p. 2622.)

The ESVSB shows similar diversity. On 1 Peter 1:1 it is even stronger than the NIVZSB: “Peter explicitly [rather than ‘implicitly’] teaches that the church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel.” (For a similar strong statement see James 1:1. ) However, at other places the ESVSB presents a future role for an ethnic Israel as a legitimate interpretative approach. For example, under “Millennial Views” in the introduction to Revelation, it says “many premillennialists, …believe that OT prophecies of Israel’s restoration to fidelity and to political and material blessedness will be fulfilled in this millennial kingdom.” (See also Jer. 31:31-34; Amos 9:15; Ez. 40:1-48:35; Rev. 11:1-2.)

Both study Bibles refrain from taking a position at Galatians 6:16 as to whether “Israel of God” refers to the whole church or to Jews only. But at Romans 11:26 they differ slightly, in a way that reflects where they each most often land on this topic. The NIVZSB simply lists interpretive options: “all Israel” could refer to (1) the church, both Jew and Gentile, (2) elect Jews throughout history, or (3) a significant number of Jews at the end of history. The ESVSB describes the same three options, but then concludes that the third view “seems most likely.” (For what it is worth, I am convinced the second view fits the evidence best.)

The Olivet Discourse: The NIVZSB sees Matthew 24:4-28 as describing “what must happen in the generation in which [Jesus] and his disciples are living” (p. 1982). Thus evidence is given for how all the prophecies in this section (including the gospel being preached in the whole world and the great tribulation) were fulfilled prior to Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70. Matthew 24:29-51, we are told, “describe[s] the return of Christ” (p. 1983). The ESVSB, in contrast, says that “the near event (the destruction of Jerusalem) serves as a symbol and foreshadowing of the more distant event (the second coming).” While both prophetic horizons are mentioned in the ongoing notes, verses 4 to 31 are primarily interpreted as providing “a generally chronological description of events preceding Christ’s return,” and some prophecies (including the great tribulation!) are specifically stated as not having been fulfilled prior to AD 70.

This difference, perhaps coincidentally, is consistent with how the NIVZSB is usually a little more focused on what the text meant to its original audience while the ESVSB spends a little more time elaborating what the text might mean for Christians today. (For what it is worth, I think the NIVZSB is definitely right to focus on an AD 70 fulfilment in the early part of the chapter, while the ESVSB may also be right to read that event as a foreshadowing of Christ’s final return.)

I think most conservative Anabaptists will find the NIVZSB slightly more agreeable on the topics of nonresistance and eternal security, while slightly preferring the ESVSB on gender roles. Most won’t be particularly happy with either study Bible on the topics of creation, divorce and remarriage, or predestination, and they will be as divided among themselves as both study Bibles are internally on the topic of Israel and the church. (Please note that I am not weighing doctrinal accuracy here, just drawing observations about doctrinal allegiances.)

(Bibliographic note: I have not provided ESVSB page citations in this review because I am focusing on the NIVZSB, I have only a Kindle ESVSB, and I wanted to reduce clutter. But most quotes can easily be traced by looking at the relevant Bible references or—in just a few cases—book introductions.)

Concluding Observations

My general sense is that the NIVZSB is slightly more careful than the ESVSB to avoid offending its readers—or, to state things more positively, that it is aiming to please a slightly larger readership.

On the one hand it is equally careful to adhere to the basic evangelical commitments (things such as traditional authorship and the historical reliability of Scripture), while also feeling equally free to adopt recent approaches to synthesizing the Bible and science (no firm stance on the days of Genesis or the question of evolution).

On the other hand, it seems slower to affirm some of the more fundamentalist ideas of evangelicalism (things such as capital punishment or a special plan for the future of ethnic Israel), it feels slightly more cautious as it affirms some points of evangelical doctrinal dispute (inability of true believers to fall from the faith, distinct gender roles in the church), and it is sometimes slower to pick sides at all regarding what the text means for today (the Christian and the military).

These tentative observations also seem to fit with the institutional affiliations of the study Bible contributors. For example, the ESVSB has more contributors affiliated with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Covenant Theological Seminary—both Reformed schools. But the NIVZSB has more contributors affiliated with Wheaton College, Denver Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School—schools that are more broadly evangelical in their affirmations and allegiances. (Many more schools are represented in both Bibles, including many that I am poorly equipped to place theologically.)

This infographic from Tim Challies describes the ESVSB as “Reformed” and the NIZVSB as “conservative evangelical.” While there is much overlap between those labels, I think they are generally correct. Of course, these labels also match the theological commitments of the publishers of each Bible: Crossway for the ESVSB and Zondervan for the NIVZSB. That said, D. A. Carson, general editor of the NIVZSB, is firmly and famously Reformed, and the two study Bibles are quite similar on this point.

The aim of the NIVZSB to please a large readership fits well with the NIV’s goals and market niche as a translation, since it is the fastest-selling—though not most widely-read—translation in America. (This despite the fact that a relative minority have loudly protested the NIV!)

There may be some irony in the fact that the translation which leaves a few more of the rough edges of Scripture uninterpreted (ESV) has a study Bible which is slightly more interpretative and firm in its theological positions, while the translation which tends to do a little more thought-for-thought interpreting (NIV) has a study Bible which sticks a little closer to the biblical text, making slightly fewer strong theological affirmations.

But such differences are comparatively minor when set within the widely diverse translations and study Bibles currently on the market. Both the NIVZSB and the ESVSB are solidly conservative evangelical and among the very best in their class. I am very happy to recommend both for your judicious use.

The NIVZSB is about as good as a study Bible gets.
I give it 4-1/2 out of 5 stars.


If you’ve read this far, congratulations!

Hopefully this review has given you a better sense of the strengths and theological perspectives of two of the most important study Bibles available today. If you own either one and think I’ve misrepresented something, please let me know.

Will I use a study Bible more often now that I’ve examined a couple more closely? I don’t know. On the one hand, there are still benefits to a simple, clutter-free reading Bible. And when I want to do serious study, I have much more detailed commentaries on my shelves and on my Kindle. That said, a good study Bible is certainly one way to carry a mini library of scholarly study helps. Yet the NIVZSB is a bit too bulky for me to want to carry it to church regularly. (I tried it yesterday!) Since it is my only print NIV2011, I will probably use it from time to time at home. At minimum, I do plan to finish reading the remaining biblical theology essays. They are good!

Now it’s your turn. Do you use a study Bible? Which one? Why? Have you examined its theological commitments closely? Based on this review, would you rather own an ESVSB or an NIVZSB? Why? Share your perspectives in the comments below.


Disclosures: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.


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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (5): Menno Simons

Menno Simons, had he foreseen it, would have been dumbfounded: today there are about 1.7 million people who belong to churches that bear his name. (He would have been doubly disoriented by the discovery that over 96% of them do not live in Europe!) As one of these Mennonites,  I have good reason to be curious about what Menno Simons believed about the Church.

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , and Calvin. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for William Tyndale and my conclusions and questions.)

Perhaps because I have personal stake in the quest, I have found this the hardest post yet to prepare for this series. I’ve had to cut out so much intriguing information! To manage length somewhat, I will focus on one theme in Menno Simon’s ecclesiology: the purity of the Church. Along the way, I’ll note other themes also worth exploring.

First, I’ll let Timothy George introduce the Radical Reformation:

The Radical Reformation…, was not merely a “wing,” a side effect that revealed a more extreme form of the Reformation; it was instead a movement that gave birth to a new form of Christian faith and life. As one scholar put it, it was a “reformation of the Reformation” or “a correction of the correction of Catholicism.”1 Precisely this, together with the fact that for the most part the radicals were forced to develop their model of the Christian life outside the confines of the official churches, gave their spirituality and church life a distinctive cast. (Kindle Locations 5827-5831)

George identifies three branches of the Radical Reformation–the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, and the Evangelical Rationalists.

Each branch of the Radical Reformation attached itself to a distinctive “root.” For the Anabaptists it was the Bible, especially the New Testament. They desired not merely to reform the church but to restore it to its pristine, apostolic purity. (Kindle Locations 5820-5822, emphasis added)

Menno’s early life and education were formative, but let’s leap ahead: What drove Menno Simons from being a Roman Catholic priest to becoming “the most outstanding leader” (George) of the Anabaptists?

Three important clusters of events and ideas are in Menno’s developing consciousness of the true church and his role in it… In 1525, the year that Grebel and Mantz were organizing the first Anabaptist congregations in Switzerland, Menno began to entertain doubts about the dogma of transubstantiation. “It occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord.” (Kindle Locations 5887-5894, emphasis added)

Menno might have quietly remained within the Roman fold had he not come to question another pillar of the established tradition, infant baptism… On March 20, 1531…, an itinerant tailor named Sicke Freerks was beheaded because he had been baptized a second time. Menno later commented, “It sounded very strange in my ears that one spoke of a second baptism.” …He began to investigate the basis for infant baptism. He examined the arguments of Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger but found them all lacking… Finally, he “searched the Scriptures diligently and considered the question seriously but could find nothing about infant baptism.” (Kindle Locations 5908-5917, emphasis added)

Possessed of new convictions on the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Menno nonetheless did not break with the Roman Church until he was deeply stirred by events surrounding the… violent, revolutionary kingdom of the two Jans at Münster… On March 30, 1535, a group of some three hundred violent Anabaptists captured the Old Cloister near Bolsward… On April 7 the cloister was retaken and the radicals savagely slain. Among them was Menno’s brother…

After this had transpired the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul… I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith. And I was one of those who disclosed to some of them the abominations of the papal system… I thought to myself—I, miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and do not live agreeably to the Word of the Lord, according to the knowledge of the truth which I have obtained; if I do not censure to the best of my little talent the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life, the erroneous baptism, the Lord’s Supper in the false service of God which the learned ones teach; if I through bodily fear do not lay bare the foundations of the truth, nor use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, to the true pastures of Christ—oh, how shall their shed blood, shed in the midst of transgression rise against me at the judgment of the Almighty and pronounce sentence against my poor, miserable soul! (Kindle Locations 5920-5936, emphasis added)

Let me draw two observations from this description. First, note the centrality of the Scriptures for Menno. They are, he realized, the ultimate guide both for discerning truth and for living rightly. Second, note Menno’s self-identity as a teacher. He was a teacher before he became an Anabaptist, and when he finally decided to become one, his decision was sealed by his sense that the Anabaptists needed a pastor-teacher “to direct the wandering flock… to the true pastures of Christ.”

Menno… felt a special compassion for the “poor misguided sheep” who wandered about without a shepherd. About a year after he had left the comfortable parish at Witmarsum to become an itinerant underground evangelist, …Anabaptist brethren near Groningen entreated him to accept the office of elder or chief shepherd of the brotherhood. After a time of struggling with this decision , he consented and so began “to teach and to baptize, to labor with my limited talents in the harvest field of the Lord, to assist in building up his holy city and temple and to repair the dilapidated walls.” Having been baptized earlier, Menno was now duly ordained… (Kindle Locations 5950-5956)

Menno Simons is reported to have said, …that nothing on earth was as precious to him as the church. For twenty-five years he labored throughout the Netherlands and northern Germany to establish fellowships of believers into organized congregations committed to one another and to their mission in the world. (Kindle Locations 6385-6387)

Most of those years were spent on the run for his life. And somehow, while on the run with his family, Menno wrote.

…Menno’s theology was situational; it emerged in the context of his active involvement in the life of the church… Menno never had the leisure to produce learned tomes or to develop a systematic theology. Yet he wrote with vigor and insight, drawing both on the earlier Anabaptist heritage and the wider Christian tradition but primarily on his own intensive engagement with the Scriptures. (Kindle Locations 5981-5984)

In Menno’s writing, as in his speaking, he was a teacher of the Church:

In 1540 Menno published what was to become his most influential writing…The Foundation of Christian Doctrine. In some ways this treatise is comparable to the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, published only four years earlier. It was at once a tract for the times and a sort of catechetical instruction for new believers. (Kindle Locations 5986-5989)

The Foundation was an apology for those Anabaptists who chose the way of the cross over that of the sword… Menno’s book had little if any impact on the rulers, who continued their unabated assault against all Anabaptists. Its real influence was on the believers, who found in it a succinct summary of Anabaptist theology and churchmanship. (Kindle Locations 5998-6002)

Menno’s beliefs about the purity of the true Church were shaped by his understanding of conversion:

As long ago as 1848, the historian Max Göbel recognized that “the essential and distinguishing characteristic of this [Anabaptist] church is its great emphasis upon the actual personal conversion and regeneration of every Christian through the Holy Spirit.”2 Although Luther described himself as “born again,” and both Zwingli and Calvin commented on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, Menno placed the greatest emphasis on the necessity for the new birth: “If now you desire to have your wicked nature cleared up, and desire to be free from eternal death and damnation . . . then you must be born again.” (Kindle Locations 6029-6034)

Conversion involved both faith and repentance:

Faith was the inward appropriation of the gospel, which Menno defined as “the blessed announcement of the favor and grace of God to us, and of forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus.” (Kindle Locations 6034-6036)

God radically transforms such a believing heart! But faith

was incomplete without the prior act of repentance… It will not “help a fig,” he averred, to be called Christians or boast of the Lord’s blood, death, merits, grace, and gospel, as long as believers were not genuinely converted from their wicked, sinful lives. (Kindle Locations 6044-6048)

If believers had the faith of penitent Zacchaeus , Menno claimed, then… “There would soon be a different and better situation because, it cannot fail, the righteous must live his faith.” (Kindle Locations 6059-6062, emphasis added)

Much could be said here about how Menno’s understanding of Scripture shaped his theology and ecclesiology. For example, his “severe pruning of the liturgical tradition of the church was based on a strict application of the principle that what the Bible does not expressly enjoin should not be permitted” (Kindle Locations 6169-6171).

It is significant that Menno quoted more from the New Testament than the Old at a ratio of 3:1… The thrust of the whole Scripture is to direct us to Christ… According to Menno, Jesus Christ really did bring something new. (Kindle Locations 6210-6213)

Thus Menno rejected the mainline reformer’s use of the Old Testament to justify infant baptism and church-state relationships.

Such topics are familiar to most amateur students of Anabaptism. But fewer people are aware of another theological topic that shaped Menno’s understanding of the church:

Menno obviously felt that his doctrine of the incarnation was worth defending in large treatises as he devoted more attention to it than to any other doctrinal concern… Menno could not allow that Christ received his human nature from Mary, else he would have been tainted with the Adamic sin that is common to all his descendants. (Kindle Locations 6325-6330, emphasis added)

More could be said here about Menno’s understanding of Adamic sin (he did not actually believe we are held guilty because of it) or of Roman Catholic and Reformed explanations for Christ’s sinlessness.

Menno set aside both of these explanations: The former elevated Mary to the status of a divine goddess, the latter split Christ into two parts, destroying the unity of his person. Menno sought to resolve the problem by pointing to the celestial origin of Christ’s entire being: “The entire Christ Jesus, both God and man, man and God, has his origin in heaven and not on earth.” (Kindle Locations 6335-6340, emphasis added)

[Menno’s] opponents… accused him of teaching a docetic Christology, the ancient heresy that Christ only appeared or seemed to be human… However…, Menno had no intention of denying the true humanity of Christ… He asserted that Christ “was truly human and not a mere phantasm… He was afflicted, hungry, thirsty, subject to suffering and death, according to the flesh.” Menno’s concern was to show how Christ remained unsullied from original sin, able to offer a perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. (Kindle Locations 6355-6364, emphasis added)

Many Anabaptists in Menno’s own time, and most since, have rejected Menno’s understanding of the incarnation. So why is it worth mentioning in this post about ecclesiology?

…During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Menno’s doctrine had important soteriological and ecclesiological implications for Dutch Anabaptism. The crucial importance of the new birth depends on the incarnation through which believers are made partakers of the divine nature. Menno’s concept of the church as a community without spot or wrinkle, feasting at Communion on the heavenly “manna” that Jesus identified with his body (John 6:51), is also related to the miracle of the incarnation. (Kindle Locations 6374-6381, emphasis added)

If true believers share in Christ’s pure divine nature, then purity, surely, is a distinguishing mark of the true Church. Menno’s words:

They verily are not the true congregation of Christ who merely boast of his name. But they are the true congregation of Christ who are truly converted, who are born from above of God, who are of a regenerate mind by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the divine Word, and have become the children of God, have entered into obedience to him, and live unblamably in his holy commandments, and according to his holy will with all their days, or from the moment of their call. (Kindle Locations 6390-6394, emphasis added)

Thus, with the other Anabaptists, Menno wanted to restore the Church, not merely reform it:

Unlike Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, who wanted to reform the church on the basis of the Word of God, the radical reformers were more concerned to restore the primitive church, which they believed had “fallen” or apostatized… New wine could not be stored in old wineskins. Rather the New Testament church had to be restored “according to the true apostolic rule and criterion.” (Kindle Locations 6418-6422)

Doctrinal and ethical purity marked the truth Church:

Menno’s favorite word for the church was Gemeente (cf. Gemeinde), by which he designated the living fellowship or community of believers, the true communion of saints. In his Reply to Gellius Faber Menno listed the following six characteristics by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word. It is significant that four of these six marks of the church are concerned with the ethical and moral dimensions of the Christian life. (Kindle Locations 6431-6436, emphasis added)

Menno’s understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper also featured this focus on purity. George summarizes Menno’s doctrine of baptism in three affirmations. Here is the third:

Baptism is the public initiation of the believer into a life of radical discipleship... For Menno baptism signaled a response of obedience to the gospel, a literal imitation and initiation taken by a novice upon his entrance to the monastic order. In the monastic tradition, such a vow implied a radical break with one’s past life and the assumption of a new identity within the community, symbolized by the receiving of a new name and investiture in new garments. Baptism among the Anabaptists was symbolic of a similar radical change in identity and lifestyle. (Kindle Locations 6475-6485)

In his Foundation Menno discusses four affirmations about the Lord’s Supper. Here is George’s description of the fourth:

…The Supper was the Communion of the body and blood of Christ… With connotations of the heavenly flesh of Christ, Menno declared that in Communion Christians were made “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.” (Kindle Locations 6545-6550)

Menno’s emphasis on the purity of the church was related directly to his “celestial flesh” Christology and to his view of the Supper as a marriage feast or fellowship meal with the sinless Christ. As Adam had but one Eve, and Isaac but one Rebecca, and even as Christ had but one body

which was heavenly and from heaven, and was righteous and holy in all its members, so also he has but one Eve in the Spirit, but one new Rebecca, who is his spiritual body, spouse, church, bride, namely, those who are believers, the regenerate, the meek, merciful, mortified, righteous, peaceable, lovely, and obedient children in the kingdom and house of his peace; pure, chaste virgins in the spirit, holy souls, who are of his divine family and holy flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone. (Kindle Locations 6585-6591, emphasis added)

If–as all the Reformers agreed–the sacraments form the boundaries of the Church, and if it is also true–as Menno emphasized–that personal and corporate purity are intrinsic to the sacraments, then the true Church must practice church discipline.

Despite the differences among themselves, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin agreed on two essential marks or characteristics (notae) of the true church: the correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments… The Anabaptists, on the other hand, insisted that discipline, carried out in accordance with the instruction of Jesus in Matt 18:15–18, was an indispensable mark of the true church… (Kindle Locations 6568-6573)

Menno wrote three treatises on the subject of church discipline.

So prominent did the role of excommunication become in the Dutch Anabaptist tradition that one historian has dubbed the entire movement as “Anabanism.”3 …In his later years Menno regarded the strict practice of discipline as one of the features that distinguished the peaceful Anabaptists from their violence-prone rivals: “It is more than evident that if we had not been zealous in this matter these days, we would be considered and called by every man the companions of the sect of Münster and all perverted sects.” (Kindle Locations 6579-6584)

Church discipline was essential, especially for a church without the governing “help” of magistrates. But it was also a point of great controversy among the Anabaptists. For example, should a wife sleep with her husband if he was under church discipline? Answers varied.

…The formal ban was, at least in theory, only a social confirmation of a severance from Christ that had already occurred in the heart of the unrepentant member:

No one is excommunicated or expelled by us from the communion of the brethren but those who have already separated and expelled themselves from Christ’s communion either by false doctrine or improper conduct. For we do not want to expel any, but rather to receive; not to amputate, but rather to heal; not to discard, but rather to win back; not to grieve, but rather to comfort; not to condemn, but rather to save.

The pastoral tone of this statement, which comes from Menno’s Admonition on Church Discipline (1541), was in fact often betrayed by the vindictive and harsh recriminations often involved in the shunning of expelled members. (Kindle Locations 6600-6607)

I don’t have time or space to reflect deeply here on this issue of the purity of the Church. It was a burning issue in Menno’s day, and it remains a burning one today. On the one hand, I resonate deeply with the Anabaptist insistence that Christ’s grace transforms individuals! I also heartily affirm their rejection of corpus christianum and their insistence on a believers’ Church.

That said, it is no secret that even Menno was distressed in his latter days by harsh applications of church discipline and the resulting church divisions. (Listen here to a fascinating talk by Chester Weaver which contrasts this Dutch Anabaptist experience with the Swiss Brethren emphasis on brotherly love.) Perhaps the strongest warning I would sound today is that it is deadly to retain the Anabaptist emphasis on the purity of the church while also forgetting Menno’s clear teaching about the gospel of grace and the regenerating power of the Spirit.

Let me end with three more quotes from George–one summarizing what we’ve already discussed, and two introducing more of Menno’s marks of the church:

Faced with persecution and hostility from without, the Anabaptist churches were especially on guard against corruption or laxity from within. Membership in an Anabaptist church was neither casual nor assumed; participation was perforce hearty and vigorous. A true, visible church was at once a rebaptized company of gathered saints, separated from the world in its autonomous polity and eschewal of all violent connections, and a squad of spiritual shock troops separating back to the world through congregational discipline those members whose lives betrayed their profession. (Kindle Locations 6622-6626)

Another mark of the Church:

Perhaps more so than with most other Christian groups, it is difficult to separate the ecclesiology of the Anabaptists from their ethics. Menno felt that genuine compassion for the poor was one of the marks that distinguished his movement from that of the mainline reformers. He criticized the “easygoing gospel and barren bread-breaking” of the established clergy who lived in luxury while their poor members begged for food, and the old, lame, blind, and suffering ones were shunted. (Kindle Locations 6780-6783, emphasis added)

And one final mark of the true Church:

Menno… believed the true church of Christ was characterized by the fact that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone. The gospel was to be preached to everyone, but no one was to be compelled by force to accept it. These principles are accepted as axiomatic by large segments of modern society. Yet we should not forget that they were first enunciated at great risk by the early Anabaptists. (Kindle Locations 6794-6797. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of William Tyndale.)

What did you learn from these excerpts of Timothy George’s survey of Menno’s ecclesiology? What do you think we should learn from Menno today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our early Mennonite ecclesiological DNA? Share your insights and questions in the comments below. Thank you!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” MQR 51 (1977): 176.
  2. Max Göbel, Geschichte des Christlichen Leben (Coblenz, 1848), 37.
  3. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 485.

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