Scofield’s Abominable Study Bible

I love the Bible, but I’ve hated reading it this past year, and the reason for my hatred has been C.I. Scofield.

By my count, I’ve now read through the entire Bible five or six times. I’ve read through the New International Version two or three times—once in High School when my faith came alive, once (I believe, but I’m not certain) in College, and once again in Seminary. When I was ordained I read it again, but this time for variety I read the New Living Translation. Afterwards, I read through the New American Standard, which is the version I personally use for preaching today. Last year, wanting to read still another translation, and always planning to spend time in the most famous of translations, I set myself to read the King James. The experience has been most miserable.

Scofield_Handsome VolumeThe edition I’ve read was a gift from my grandparents back in 1998 (likely a graduation present) and is quite handsome to look at—a hefty, burgundy leather volume with gold edges. It feels nice to open, and sits nicely in the lap, and looks impressive on my shelf, although its bulk rendered it inconvenient for travel so that I quickly found myself reading it only at home during my morning devotions. Devotions are meant to be a time of stillness before the Lord, a daily period of attentiveness to the word where we seek to hear His voice and attune ourselves to His presence throughout the day. They are not, as a rule, a good time for experimental reading, and yet into my efforts to engage the King James text an unsolicited voice kept inserting itself, noisily, bombastically, irritatingly. It was the voice of C.I. Scofield.

ScofieldCyrus Ingerson Scofield was a civil war veteran who came to Christian faith as an adult, later pastoring churches in Dallas and Massachusetts. Affiliated with D.L. Moody, Scofield later began work on his reference Bible, through which he popularized a new system of theological interpretation called “Dispensationalism,” developed by an Anglo-Irish man named John Nelson Darby. When Scofield’s Bible was published in 1909, at a time of great expectation about the end of the world, his interpretive matrix took fundamentalism by storm, quickly becoming one of the best selling Bibles in history. This is the Bible that created “The Thief in the Night,” Hal Lindsay, Christian Zionism, and Left Behind. In other words, it is the Bible which has dominated a very visible portion of the Christian imagination for the last 100 years.

In full knowledge of this, for over a year I pressed through with my reading—once through each book, four times through the Psalms, 1377 pages in total, countless marginal notes and footnotes. I read every word (and whether I’m a fool or a glutton for punishment has yet to be determined), and I read the whole thing partly because my dear deceased grandparents had given me the Bible. Ditching it felt a bit like ditching them.

The first of my problems with the Bible were its invasive edits into the text. Scofield (or possibly 1967 editors) had taken it upon himself to update a selection of language in the King James. But rather than offer marginal notes explaining difficult language, the text has forcibly replaced the “difficult” words with edits, and the reader must look to the margins to find the original. Many of these are completely unnecessary—for example, “nigh” has been replaced with “near,” “suffer” with “permit,” and “rent” with “torn.” These alterations are unnecessary, and have the effect of reducing some of the majesty of the text. After all, I’m not reading the King James because I want it to be a modern book. But every five to ten verses or so there was notation that indicated a word had been changed. This made reading a constant battle between the text and the margins.

Scofield_Text DetailBut Scofield’s Reference Notes are where the real grievances emerge, and I’ll narrow my vast,  overwhelming, and yearlong discontent to three categories of offense. A first offence is that the notes reveal an agenda other than opening the text. Scofield’s notes, by and large, don’t illuminate the text (which is the primary purpose of a Bible with study notes, as far as I’m concerned). There is a spirit of defensiveness in Scofield’s notes—he comes out swinging at a number of imaginary opponents, eager to defend the text against all foes. Notes then exist to engage in a fight to which the reader may or may not have any awareness. Just now, flipping through at random, I opened to Micah 4, where the footnote from verse 1 says the following:

Micah 4:1-3 and Isa. 2:2-4 are practically identical. The Spirit of God gave both prophets the same revelation because of its surpassing importance. It is impossible to prove that either prophet was quoting the other.

Here we can easily imagine Scofield’s perceived nemeses—those who would claim that the Bible is not, somehow, perfectly inspired (because Micah might have borrowed from Isaiah). So the note exists not to illuminate what Micah might be saying in chapter four, but to argue with an imaginary opponent who might claim that because there is a similarity between Micah 4 and Isaiah 2 the Bible is somehow falsified. Scofield’s way through this difficulty is to appeal to the Spirit’s revelation to both men—which certainly might be the case, but also does not have to be the case. And yet anchoring the Bible in Spiritual authority fits within Scofield’s underlying program of rendering the Bible impervious to various “modern” attacks. The agenda for the vast majority of notes is similarly cantankerous and argumentative, and regularly fails to open the text for interpretation. The dominant spirit is one of protection, not illumination.


Scofield_Nice on the Shelf

It looks so nice on the shelf. I guess you can’t judge a book by its formatting.

A second offence is that the notes reveal a fundamentally flawed methodology. When Scofield does interpret the text, he interprets it quite badly. As one example, consider his comments on Leviticus 2:1-11, where Moses describes the “recipe” for grain offerings in the tabernacle. Scofield writes:

The meal offering: (1) fine flour speaks of the evenness and balance of the character of Christ, of that perfection in which no quality was in excess, none lacking; (2) fire, of His testing by suffering, even unto death; (3) frankincense, of the fragrance of His life before God (see Ex.30:34, note); (4) absence of leaven, of His character as ‘the truth’ (Jn.14:6, cp. Ex.12:8, marg.); (5) absence of honey—His was not that mere natural sweetness which may exist quite apart from grace; (6) oil mingled, of Christ as born of the Holy Spirit (Mt.1:18-23); (7) oil upon, of Christ as baptized with the Spirit (Jn.1:32; 6:27); (8) the oven, of the unseen sufferings of Christ—His inner agonies (Mt.27:45-46; Heb.2:18); (9) the pan, of His more evident sufferings (e.g. Mt.27:27-31); and (10) salt, of the pungency of the truth of God—that which arrests the action of leaven.

This is an interpretive attitude that operates under the assumption that no text has value if it does not somehow point to Christ. The recipe in the text cannot be, simply, a recipe for a grain offering—it has to be something else. And while there might be a kind of devotional benefit in meditating on what the different elements of the grain offering represent, this interpretation stretches the bounds of reason by forcing the reader to interpret the text artificially. Meaning is in this way critically divorced from context.

An even clearer example is in Psalm 40, where David sings about waiting for the Lord and experiencing His salvation. To this Psalm Scofield offers the following interpretive comment:

The 40th Psalm speaks of Messiah, the Lord’s Servant obedience unto death. The Psalm begins with the joy of Christ in resurrection (vv. 1-2). He has been in the horrible pit of the grave but has been brought up. Verses 3-5 are His resurrection testimony, His “new song.”

Let’s be clear—Psalm 40 might be speaking about Jesus, but it most certainly is speaking about David first. This kind of “interpretation” places the whole meaning of the Psalm on its fulfillment in Christ, but it also by proxy eliminates our own engagement with the song. By being purely about Jesus, it can no longer be about us, and this is one of the effects of Scofield’s readings—when he interprets a text, his meaning eliminates personal application. Knowing what it’s “about” reduces our own responsibility to read the text devotionally. It is a kind of knowledge that replaces obedience.

A third offence is that the notes expose a theology that reads the Scriptures. This is one of my greatest pet-peeves, especially because I have such a great love of the Word. It is the attitude of a reader or interpreter who has forfeited his capacity to read the text for itself in favor of reading it through the lens of his preferred theological construct. In this, theology reads the Scriptures, rather than Scripture governing theology. This has a double effect on the reading of the Bible—on the one hand, when such a reader approaches the Bible, he is often looking, not for a fresh hearing of God’s voice, but for a confirmation of his preexisting theology. On the other hand, when such a reader encounters passages that don’t fit his or her preconceptions, those passages are often ignored or explained away. The lens of the theological construct, in other words, blocks the reader from perceiving God’s word as it is.

In Leviticus 16:6, where the text makes mention of atonement, Scofield offers the following note and comment about the theological principle of atonement:

Atonement. The Biblical use and meaning of the word must be sharply distinguished from its use in theology. In the O.T., atonement is the English word used to translate the Hebrew words which mean cover, coverings, or to cover. Atonement is, therefore, not a translation of the Hebrew but a purely theological concept.

What does it mean to “sharply distinguish” the Biblical use of a word from its theological use? Is that even possible? Doesn’t the theological use derive all of its meaning from the word’s use in Scripture? But here theology reads the text, rather than the text informing theology, and this kind of reading encourages a student to establish his own theological framework and then apply that liberally to the text. We believe what we think, then we read the text accordingly.

And, of course, the single greatest, ongoing, overarching element of this in Scofield’s Reference Bible is the issue of Dispensationalism, which is a massively unhelpful, thoroughly human, unhistorical, and false theological construct into which Scofield’s Scriptures are made to fit no matter what. The chief problem with Dispensationalism, however, remains one of methodology—it is a theology that reads the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures reading the theology.

Dispensationalism Chart

The chart reads the text, rather than the text critiquing the chart.

I still love the Bible—in fact, it is precisely because I love the Bible that I hate what Scofield has done to it. And, as a matter of fact, I should say, in an attempt to separate the King James from Scofield’s foibles, that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the King James Version. And yet after a year in the text I can’t say that there’s anything particularly commendable about it either. For my part I am unconcerned about archaic language, and I find that alternative wordings very often illuminate texts in fresh ways. The single biggest problem I have with the King James itself is versification and the lack of paragraphs. Paragraphs, not verses, are the primary unit of thought, and when a Bible decontextualizes its own text for the sake of an artificial and arbitrary versification, this inhibits the proper reading of the text. In other words, when I approach a passage visually and expect that each verse is a unit of meaning, I from the start am not attending to the contextual meaning. Yet context is king, and therefore the versification of the King James militates against meaning. This is a fairly serious problem, and we see its continuing influence in modern theology today. In part, it makes a thing like Dispensationalism possible.

As far as readability goes, the Psalms are the litmus test of a translation for me. They have been my constant devotional companion for more than ten years now, and so even as I read straight through the rest of the Bible, I would work my way through the Psalms again and again. The first reading was wretched, the second was unmemorable, but I found that by the third reading through the Psalms I was enjoying them in the King James again. One key was my ability, after the first readings, to willfully ignore Scofield’s notes. Another was my increasing familiarity with their language. But four read-throughs is a steep price to pay for general comprehension, and I see no good reason to recommend the KJV to any new Christian.

Scofield_Top ViewThe past year has been difficult devotionally, and I can say with confidence that the Scofield Reference Bible is by far the worst Bible I have ever experienced. Will I read the King James again? Quite possibly–in fact, I’ve chosen to work my way through the Psalms again, and am reading the Sermon on the Mount as well. But I will purposefully avoid all those abominable notes at the bottom of the page, and thus save myself from further angst, frustration, and despair.

Those Pesky Scriptures

In one of the many fantasy novels I read when I was young(er), a young wizard and his grandfather together attempt to decipher a prophetic text.  Consistently, as they read it, they come across a difficult passage—specifically a difficult word—in the prophecy.  The difficulty has a strange effect upon them.  They are tempted to brush past it and look for information elsewhere.  It seems to resist their attempts to decipher what’s going on.  When they begin together to focus on the difficult place they are brought to an argument.  Finally, with the help of a magic orb, their eyes are opened to see that the difficult place in the text was actually a lengthy passage, hidden by magic in the space of one word, and warded to prevent improper eyes from gazing upon it.

Although I don’t remember a great deal of what I read, this moment came back to me the other day when I was reading the Bible.  Recently I’ve been reading through the New Living Translation, a version of the scriptures I’ve never read before.  I chose the NLT, in part, because at this point in my life I’m familiar enough with the Bible that I’m not really interested in a more accurate translation.  Instead, I wanted a fresh take, if you will, and I thought that the NLT, with its more interpreted nuance on translation, might give me some new insights into the text.  I was rewarded in a few places, but in others I was quite disappointed.

One such place of disappointment was early on in the book of Genesis.  There, in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God all night long.  In the morning, he must face the potential wrath of the brother he had wronged years before, and this is both personally and spiritually a night of reckoning.  After a whole night of struggle, Jacob still hasn’t given up, and as a reward for his tenacity God blesses him with a new name: Israel.  “For you have struggled with God and with men,” says the being with whom he wrestled, “and have overcome.” What’s the problem? Well, in much of the Genesis text, Jacob from this point forward is referred to as Israel.  God has given him a new name, and that new name takes effect on Jacob/Israel’s life.  But in the New Living Translation, the editors have made the decision to retain the name “Jacob” throughout the rest of Genesis, footnoting the change. Why would they do this? Well, no doubt the editors were attempting to ease the difficulties for a reader—after all, who can keep track of all the names in the Bible, let alone people with more than one name? The editors presumed (perhaps rightly) that a person picking up the Bible for the first time would struggle between the Jacob/Israel change in the book of Genesis.  They may be right about the confusion, but in resolving it they have stepped into error.

The reason this is an error, and a significant one, is because the change in Jacob’s name signifies an important theological and historical moment in the Bible.  God is actually saying something by changing his name.  You are no longer the cheater ‘Jacob’ who strove for advantage against anyone and anything in life; you are now blessed by God as ‘Israel.’  To change this name back for the sake of readership is an alteration that strips the text of meaning.

The editors of the New Living Translation, in pursuing simplifications of the text for the sake of readability, have given implicit voice to an unfortunately common belief about the scriptures.  And that belief is that we approach difficult texts as liabilities.  We feel the urge to explain them, or, rather, explain them away.  People accuse the bible of inconsistency, or outright error, and we balk.  “Why are there four gospels?” they ask.  “Why are Jesus’ words different here than they are there?” they accuse.  And we in response become confused and concerned.

This is what brought my mind back to that fantasy story I had read so many years before, because we ourselves, like the characters in the fantasy novel, grow frustrated when we read a passage the meaning of which is obscured on our first go-through.  We may argue with one another.  The meaning may escape us—our eyes may crave simplicity where there is complexity.  And against these trends, the fantasy story provides a surprisingly good picture of how the scriptures are composed—not that they have been written to be intentionally obscure, or lead insincere believers and searchers astray, or that we require a kind of magic to explore them rightly—but that it is in the difficult passages that the meaning is truly stored.  That far from being liabilities in the text, these places of difficulty are actually the storehouses of divine meaning.  The so-called ‘difficult’ texts of scripture are where God has stored many of His most significant thoughts.

Let’s consider for a moment the question of the Four Gospels—why are there four, and why do they disagree at certain points? For example, why does John place Jesus’ crucifixion during the hour of preparation—while the Jews were sacrificing the Passover Lamb—and why do the other three gospels have Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples? We can attempt to explain away the difficulty—we can argue for the likelihood that there was more than one Passover Lamb sacrificed on account of the crowds (entirely possible).  We can try to fudge and shift Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem to make sense of the timeline.  Or, we can look more intently at what John is doing in his gospel—at who Jesus is in John’s gospel.  And with our new attention we can see that John has most likely changed the time of Jesus’ crucifixion to make a theological point.  That point? That Jesus is the Passover Lamb.  Throughout John’s gospel Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts—Tabernacles, Dedication, Passover.  And John arranges the material of Jesus’ life to fit this schema.  He’s making a profound point about who Jesus is and what Jesus means for us by linking his crucifixion to the Passover sacrifice.

Has John lied? By no means! He has interpreted.  And whenever a biblical author engages in interpretation it is because he is attempting to communicate something of substantial meaning to us.  If we de-interpret John’s gospel we are guaranteed to miss his point.  Each of the four Gospels, then, are an interpretation of the life of Jesus.  They each, through editing and selection, present a unique theological picture of who Jesus is.

Consider, as a second example, Paul’s quotation of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4.  There, beginning at Ephesians 4:7, he says the following, “However, he [God] has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ. That is why the scriptures say, ‘When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives, and gave gifts to his people.'” Then, shortly thereafter, Paul lists the gifts—Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers—all for the edification and strengthening of the Church.  The difficulty with this text is that Paul hasn’t quoted the passage from Psalm 68 accurately—in Psalm 68:18 it clearly says that God received gifts from men.  But Paul has changed it to given.  Why would he do this? Once again we can explain it away—Paul made an error; Paul is careless when quoting the Old Testament; Paul feels the freedom to change the Old Testament in order to make his points.  But by opting for any of these we will miss the true intention of Paul’s quotation.  Paul has, we see again, interpreted the text, and we must attend to the interpretation if we’re going to understand him.

Read Psalm 68 and you will see that this is a Psalm about God’s victory, specifically about God bringing into unity the people of the world—both the rebellious and the godly.  A key moment in the Psalm is the people ascending, after God has ascended in victory, to offer their gifts to God.  What becomes clear, then, as we gaze intently at the book of Ephesians, is that Paul sees in the Church of Jesus Christ the fulfillment of Psalm 68.  God is victorious in Christ, and has unified the people of the world in subjection to Christ.  And here is where his change of the text gets interesting, because the people of God have received gifts from God for the edification of the Church.  And Paul knows, as do we all, that all gifts, objectively speaking, come from God alone.  But when we read Paul’s quotation, and as our minds go back to Psalm 68, then the force of Paul’s rhetorical implication is pressed upon us: these gifts are not for us to keep, but ones that we are meant to return to God.  The gifts God has given us for the edification of the Church are gifts meant to be returned to God in service.  Paul’s change of the Psalm 68 text is not a difficulty to be explained away, but an interpretation of the text through which we can discover a storehouse of meaning.

It’s worth taking a moment to say that every New Testament quotation of an Old Testament text is such a storehouse of meaning.  These are passages so often dismissed as difficulties when in fact they are treasure houses of biblical interpretation.

How do we learn to read this way? I would like to suggest three basic principles for the reading of the Scriptures:

1. When confronted with a difficult text, we must give it our sustained attention.  Resist the urge to skip over it, or dismiss it, or explain it away.  Consider it carefully and prayerfully.  Look at the passages around it and the overarching messages of the book you are reading.  There is usually a larger framework at work which can make sense of the text at hand.

2. We must read the Scriptures canonically. And that means, firstly, that our primary resource for interpreting scripture must be scripture itself.  The book contains most of the answers about what is going on in the book.  Secondly, a canonical reading of the bible will necessitate a belief in the inherent edification and worth of the scriptures.  These are words written for our benefit, to instruct and not confuse us.  If there are difficult places, they are probably there for a reason.

3. We must keep in mind that difficulty is an invitation to know God better.  When Paul says that “we see as in a glass darkly”—that the picture is muddled from our gaze—he doesn’t mean we should give up looking.  Rather, he is framing obscurity in its ultimate reality; that is, as an invitation to a clearer vision of God.  The difficult places in scripture always invite us to explore God more.

Confronted thus with a difficulty in the bible, the editors of the NLT chose (on this occasion and in a few others as well) to edit the difficulty. They came upon a difficult word, and rather than allowing the reader to discover the meaning embedded in the difficulty, they have removed the difficulty entirely.  Their choice has robbed the reader of an opportunity to experience and know God more.

This temptation toward simplification is not new—in the early church a man named Marcion, who was frustrated with the ‘discrepancies’ of the gospels, sought to harmonize them into one book.  Notably, he also took issue with the Hebrew scriptures and sought to exorcize them from the text entirely.  His goal was to create a Bible that was ‘free from error.’  He was also, notably, condemned as a heretic.

Yet the enduring truth of the matter is that against all these urges to avoid, or explain away, the text, we must strive instead to reaffirm it.  We must resist, like Marcion, the urge to choose some parts of the Bible over others, and skip over the places with which we are uncomfortable.  And, of course, it is not that ‘explanation’ is in itself wrong, but that we must avoid all forms of explanation that void the text of its inherent meaning.  We must face our difficulties head on—and this is the only way, in the end, that we will come to experience the depth of insight that God has in store for us.

(NB: the NLT is not a bad translation overall, so please don’t read this as a dismissal of that translation.  I plan to review it as a translation in the near future.)

Related Post: F.F. Bruce The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes