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The Story of The Lutheran Study Bible

The story begins in 1521 in an isolated room at Wartburg Castle, a mountaintop fortress in Eisenach, Germany. Martin Luther had been taken there under protective custody by Elector Frederick the Wise after being declared to be not just a heretic but an outlaw by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick gave Luther safe haven and protection to prevent his arrest and execution, both very real threats and dangers imposed on Luther as a result of his bold confession of Christ and His Word. Consequently, Luther had nothing but time on his hands, and he put that time to very good use.

Among other projects during his exile at the Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament into German, which was published in September 1522 after his return to Wittenberg from the Wartburg in March 1522. Luther’s work of translating the Bible continued until the end of his life. He and a team of colleagues continued working on the translation of the Bible, including the entire Old Testament, and in 1534, the first complete “Luther Bible” was published. It was repeatedly updated in new editions until Luther’s death in 1546.

Already in the first complete edition of the Luther Bible, we see the beginnings of a great tradition in the Lutheran Church: providing an annotated edition of the Bible, with helps and notes for the reader. Why? In Acts 8, we read about an Ethiopian court official who was reading from the Bible, and when the Holy Spirit sent Philip to him, the Ethiopian asked Philip, “How can I understand this, unless someone guides me?” (v. 31). It is the desire to explain the meaning of the Bible that is the foundation for all the various study editions of the Bible that have been published in the Lutheran Church since 1534.

Early Lutheran Study Bibles

One particularly famous study edition of the Bible was an enormous three-volume work containing the entire Bible, as well as Luther’s notes and observations on every book of the Bible. This edition was prepared by the great orthodox Lutheran theologian Abraham Calov, and it is this Bible that was owned by J. S. Bach, the famous Lutheran church musician, who read and studied it carefully. The so-called “Bach Bible,” complete with Bach’s signature on the title page, is now part of the rare book collection at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Another large and very popular study Bible project was the Weimar Bible, which was begun by Johann Gerhard but completed in the later 1600s after his death. This Bible contained application notes for the reader.

Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the first president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, was particularly proud of the fact that the Missouri Synod was instrumental in the publication of an American edition, produced by the American Lutheran Bible Society that Walther and others had founded and whose rights and properties were eventually turned over to the Missouri Synod. The Altenburg Bible is a massive multi-volume work containing for each chapter of every book of the Bible devotional thoughts based primarily on the writings of Martin Luther and also a prayer. It is the most comprehensive study and devotional edition of the Bible ever produced in the Lutheran Church.

The German Lutheran study Bible tradition in the Missouri Synod continued into the early twentieth century, with each Bible containing Lutheran notes and studies. Concordia Publishing House sold more recent printings of the Weimar Bible and kept the Altenburg Bible in print as well. This tradition came to an end somewhat abruptly in the first few decades of the twentieth century when the Missouri Synod moved from being primarily a German-speaking church to an English-speaking church. Interestingly, also at this time the apocryphal books that had been in every edition of the Bible since the time of Luther no longer appeared in English editions of the Bible published by Concordia Publishing House.

English Study Bibles from Concordia Publishing House

The first study Bible in English published for Lutherans by Concordia Publishing House was a Bible with study notes borrowed from an edition of the King James Version by the American Bible Society. The notes were reviewed and edited by a professor from Concordia Seminary. Other English study Bibles came along, and in most cases they were not based on Lutheran editions of the Bible but on conservative Reformed or generically conservative Protestant Bibles. One exception was the publication of the Concordia Bible with notes, published by Collins for Concordia Publishing House in 1952, with a second edition published in 1971; however, this Bible was only the New Testament, with Lutheran notes prepared by Dr. Martin Franzmann of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

The most recent study Bible published by Concordia Publishing House is the Concordia Self-Study Bible. This project involved a general editor and three associate editors who worked through the notes contained in the New International Version Study Bible, a conservative Reformed/Evangelical edition of the Scriptures published by Zondervan (historically a conservative Dutch-Reformed publishing company, but which in recent years was acquired by the HarperCollins publishing company, itself a subsidiary of the Rupert Murdoch media conglomerate). For reasons of both expediency and finances, it was determined that this would be the most efficient way to provide a study Bible for Lutherans using the New International Version translation.

The modifications to the Reformed/Evangelical notes in the NIV Study Bible offered Lutheran insights, as noted in the text with a little cross symbol where there had been a change or addition to the Reformed notes. Introductions for the various books of the Bible were modified to include portions of Luther’s Bible introductions. The Concordia Self-Study Bible has been in print since 1986 and has served the Lutheran Church well.

The English Bibles with notes that were produced and offered by Concordia Publishing House all were carefully reviewed and approved by Lutheran theologians but were primarily making use of non-Lutheran notes, with additional content and modifications supplied by Lutheran theologians. There remained a longing for an English study Bible, prepared with exclusively Lutheran notes, commentary, and supplemental content, drawing upon the vast, rich heritage of Lutheran biblical study and reflecting throughout the unique Christ-centered, Law/Gospel, devotional, and comprehensive nature of the previous Lutheran study Bibles known and used since Reformation times. This longing is the foundation for the beginning of work on The Lutheran Study Bible.

Adopting the English Standard Version

In the early 1990s, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod began working on a new hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, and as was the case with the publication of previous hymnals, a decision had to be made about which translation of the Bible would be most appropriate. After years of careful study and evaluation of Bible translations available, in consultation with theologians and Bible scholars at both Missouri Synod seminaries, The Missouri Synods’ Commission on Theology and Church Relations, and the members of the hymnal’s translation committee, the decision was made to propose to the Missouri Synod that a new translation be adopted for use in all the Synod’s worship materials: the English Standard Version (ESV).

The ESV had been in development for a number of years at the same time interest was growing in the concept of a new hymnal for the Synod. Missouri Synod theologians were involved in the ESV translation project as consultants and translation advisors. The ESV is a conservative revision of the well-established and long-used Revised Standard Version of the Bible, itself a descendant of the English Bible translation tradition, beginning with the King James Version, which, ironically, was itself heavily influenced by the previous work of William Tyndale. Tyndale completed his translation of the New Testament while living in Wittenberg, Germany, in order to escape persecution from Roman Catholic officials. Tyndale borrowed heavily from the Luther Bible translation and sought the advice of Luther and his colleagues. Though Tyndale was eventually executed, his translation work was an important foundation of the great King James Bible project.

Plans for a New Study Bible

As it became increasingly clear that the ESV would be the translation of choice recommended by the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Worship, Concordia Publishing House began to talk with Good News Publishers, the parent company of Crossway, the publisher of the ESV. A productive partnership relationship developed. Right around 2001, when the ESV was finally released, Concordia Publishing House and Good News Publishers had agreed to consider the possibility of copublishing an ESV study Bible.

It was from that point on that the plans for The Lutheran Study Bible began to take concrete shape. Concordia Publishing House’s leadership team recognized that there was now a unique opportunity to produce a thoroughly Lutheran study Bible, making use of original Lutheran content, and for the first time since the Missouri Synod had moved completely to English, to offer the English-speaking Lutheran Church what it had enjoyed before while using the German language: a “from the ground up” Lutheran study Bible, making exclusive use of Lutheran notes, commentaries, articles, and annotations.

The Development of The Lutheran Study Bible

In early 2003, work began in earnest on The Lutheran Study Bible. The first step was a large Bible reading project to glean the most common questions people have as they read the biblical text. This project involved over 400 laypersons who volunteered to read assigned portions of the Bible and submit any questions that came to them as they read. It was on the basis of this project that work commenced on preparing original notes and commentary for the whole Bible.

The next stage of the project involved planning for the enormous amount of study, research, and writing required to produce this unique and new Lutheran study Bible. A plan was set in place to work first with consultants from various Lutheran seminaries. They provided extensive research notes and explanations for every book of the Bible. This research was handed over to a team of authors, consisting primarily of active parish pastors, who wrote the study notes for the Bible. The notes were edited by a smaller team of associate editors, with leadership and oversight for the entire editorial process provided by a general editor, whose supervision brought continuity and consistency to the content.

From 2003 to 2008, planning and work on The Lutheran Study Bible was underway, with the major research, writing, copyediting, proofreading, design, and layout of the notes completed in early 2009. By late spring 2009, the final files will be in place and will be sent to printers, with an anticipated delivery of the printed Bible to Concordia Publishing House in time for distribution by Reformation Day, October 31, 2009.

An important part of the story of The Lutheran Study Bible is the external doctrinal review process. When the time came to begin submitting materials to the Missouri Synod’s doctrinal review process, CPH leadership met with the Office of the President to discuss the unique demands of this large project. LCMS President Gerald Kieschnick appointed a special team of reviewers and assigned them the task of reviewing The Lutheran Study Bible. Specialists in the Old Testament and the New Testament were chosen and appointed by President Kieschnick, and by late 2008 they had completed their careful review work of the entire content of The Lutheran Study Bible, thus providing yet another solid layer of study, research, and thinking about The Lutheran Study Bible.

In total, there have been about 600 individuals involved in the project through its development, research, writing, review, and final editing and preparation. Never before in the history of English-speaking Lutheranism has there been a single-volume edition of the Bible produced like this one, and never before has there been this large a one-volume study Bible, with this many features and unique qualities, commissioned and completed by any church body. The aim and goal throughout the project, and what has animated and given shape to every aspect of this Bible’s preparation, has been to provide a resource for the lay reader that is comprehensive, devotional, and Christ centered.

One of the unique insights of the Lutheran Reformation and the key to the great Gospel rediscovery of the sixteenth century was the recognition that the Holy Scriptures are everywhere and always point us to the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the one sent to be our perfect substitute, fulfilling all the Law’s requirements and providing, in offering up His flesh and blood, the full forgiveness of the sins of the world. This wonderful Good News is the very soul and heartbeat throughout The Lutheran Study Bible as it sets forth the rich treasures of God's Word in both Law and Gospel, unfolding for the reader the comfort, peace, and power of God’s Word, which truly endures forever.

This is the story of The Lutheran Study Bible. It is a story that began with a pastor’s desire to help people understand God’s Word and the Gospel message that permeates it throughout. May God bless all who use The Lutheran Study Bible so that they “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).

Rev. Paul T. McCain
Publisher and Executive Director, Editorial
Concordia Publishing House

The Conversion of St. Paul
January 25, 2009

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