How did American Mennonites end up abandoning the early Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce? When and why did they reject the position that remarriage was permissible after a spouse had committed adultery? Months ago, I left my readers hanging, promising to answer this question.
I am sorry I have not done so. Here is why: As I dug into the question, I discovered there was a wealth of historical evidence to examine. In my first posts on the historical views of Anabaptists about remarriage after sexual immorality, I included virtually all the primary source evidence I could find (as an amateur historian working from home). If I were to do the same for the period beginning in the mid-1800s, however, I would end up with a book. This would require months of study to ensure I was treating the evidence justly.
After weeks digging into the evidence, I became overwhelmed. So, I crawled out of my hole and did other things, like make music and spend time with my family.
Recently, however, I received an email from a reader in the Netherlands. It included these questions: “Could you explain to me what happened that the Anabaptists changed their view about remarriage? When did this happen and what was the cause that made them change their mind?”
This email prodded my conscience, so I will attempt an answer.
I want to be clear that what follows (in future blog posts) is a series of informed propositions, not a publishable thesis. I am quite sure all the factors I will summarize played a role in why American Anabaptists changed their minds about remarriage after sexual immorality, but I do not know which of these factors was most important, and I am sure I am missing some factors I should include.
I will also make little attempt to document my claims here, because doing so would double my writing time. If you want references on a specific point, feel free to let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.
That said, here is what I think I know so far. I’ll address the when question in this post, and hopefully follow it up with one or more posts discussing why.
When did American Mennonites abandon the early Anabaptist position on remarriage after adultery?
It seems clear that this change happened over the period of many decades—probably a century or more. It was finally officially resolved for the Mennonite Church on November 18, 1905, in a General Conference meeting held at Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario. Here are the relevant lines from the meeting minutes:
Ques. 4. Is it scriptural to receive a person into church fellowship while he lives as husband with another woman before a divorced wife be dead?
Resolved, That in the light of the scriptures (Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:3; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-17:39 [sic]), we hold that a separation between husband and wife is allowable only for the cause of fornication. That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church. That we pledge ourselves to use all consistent efforts to convince humanity of the sin of divorcement and prevent further propagation of the evil.
This resolution may appear unclear on its own, but the historical context clarifies the intent. The Mennonite church had been publicly debating for decades now whether divorce and remarriage were ever permissible, and some of the most vigorous debate was over whether adultery was justification for remarriage. This resolution clearly stated the official position of the Mennonite Church: No one who was living in a second marriage while a first spouse was still alive could be part of the church. There were no exceptions.
Further, the language implied another conviction that was frequently taught at the time: in cases of sexual immorality (“fornication”), only “separation” was permitted, not divorce.
1905, then, is our end point to the when question. The topic of remarriage after divorce would be debated by Mennonites again in the mid-20th century (as more churches experienced firsthand the difficulties of divorce among their membership and as the fundamentalism of the prior generation came under general review). But, for the more conservative streams of the American Mennonite church, this 1905 resolution staked a position that has been firmly held as gospel truth ever since.
A start point is not possible to pin down, but the September 1867 issue of the Herald of Truth (the quasi-official Mennonite periodical edited by John F. Funk) provides an important window. In this issue, John M. Brenneman, an important bishop from Ohio, raised a question:
[In] Matt 19:9, it is said, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.” Query:—What is forbidden here? putting away one’s wife; or marrying another? or, in case of fornication, is it permitted to do both? An answer is required.
An editorial assistant provided an answer:
“Neither a prohibition nor a permission is expressed here. Simply what constitutes the crime of adultery is here explained… I do not think it can be shown anywhere in the Bible that it is right for a follower of Christ to put away his wife for any cause whatever, be it fornication or faithlessness in any respect.”
Later the same month, Brenneman raised his question at the Virginia Conference, and received a very different answer—one that matched the historic Anabaptist understanding: “It was also decided that for the same reason that a man is allowed to put away his wife, he is allowed to marry again.”
After the Virginia Conference decision was printed in the Herald of Truth, Funk reported, “We have received a large number of letters making inquiries and objections to the decision of the Virginia Conference.” Significantly, Funk himself declined to take a side in the debate. Instead, a flurry of exchanges occurred in the Herald, including a letter from Brenneman where he vigorously defended the Virginia Conference decision. Other writers disagreed, and the Ohio and Indiana Conferences adopted resolutions contrary to the Virginia Conference.
Finally, sensing he was losing the argument, Brenneman wrote a short and rather pitiful apology in the July, 1868 issue of the Herald:
It appears, I have given an occasion of offense to many beloved brethren by my awkward article on divorce and marrying again, according to Matt. 19:9… I am very sorry, that I have made known my thoughts on this subject through the Herald; but it is done now, and can not be undone… If the brethren do not esteem me altogether too unworthy, I would desire that they earnestly entreat the Lord to be merciful to me, and to give me understanding in that in which I am yet ignorant, and to enlighten me in that which is yet dark to me. Your humble, weak and unworthy brother, J. M. BRENNEMAN.
Clearly, as of 1867, there was strong disagreement within the Mennonite Church over divorce, including the more specific question of whether divorce and remarriage are permissible after sexual immorality. The strength of the opinions suggests that a variety of teachings may have existed in parallel in different conferences for some time, perhaps for decades or more. There were some church leaders who did not know how to interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9, some who believed remarriage was permissible after adultery, and others who were equally confident that remarriage was never permitted (and, according to some, not even divorce).
The more restrictive camp won out in this particular exchange, but it is important to note that intermittent discussion and a variety of views continued to be printed in the Herald in coming decades. Multiple examples could be cited. In an article written for the May 1, 1882 issue, we find this defense of the historic Anabaptist view:
Christ says in plain language that fornication is the only reason for which they could separate and marry another. These are not my words but the words of Christ, and the Old Mennonites so understand them. I refer you to the first part of the article on Matrimony in the Confession of Faith in the Martyrs Mirror…
A comment in the August 1, 1883 issue summarized the disagreement well:
“The Congregational ministers of Chicago have unanimously decided not to solemnize marriage where either party has procured a divorce on other than scriptural grounds.” Not only Congregational, but all ministers everywhere ought to occupy the same ground. In fact, the writer [probably editor Funk] doubts the propriety of the re-marriage of those who have been divorced on any grounds, but there is a difference of opinion upon this point. [Emphasis added.]
It was not until the 1905 General Conference that the question was officially settled for the entire Mennonite Church. Some disagreement undoubtedly remained, but official policy was–for the time–clear.
The why question is a little harder to pin down.
“What was the cause that made” American Mennonites “change their mind” and reject the historic Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ exception clause? I don’t think there was a single cause, but rather a cluster of reasons. I will aim to summarize several of those causes in forthcoming blog posts.
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.
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.
That said, there are some differences between these two study Bibles, and I’d like to focus on those differences next in this review.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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