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The purpose of this essay is to analyze the new CSB Study Bible (Nashville: Holman, 2017) in light of a significant theological discussion among evangelicals, namely Calvinistic theology. (Note: CSB stands for Christian Standard Bible, a new Bible translation.) Several remarks are in order before beginning this review.
First, I am writing from a friendly perspective. I consider Trevin Wax, the general editor of the CBS Study Bible, to be a friend. Several years ago, I wrote a lesson at his invitation for the Gospel Project curriculum, which he edited. I respect his scholarship and appreciate his measured tone and wisdom he has demonstrated when addressing potentially contentious theological matters. Also, I have a professional relationship with B&H Publishing Group. I have signed three writing contracts (two for books and one for a book chapter) with B&H Academic. Trevin currently serves as the Bible and Reference Publisher for B&H, and his area published the CSB Study Bible.
Second, I am addressing the study notes only, not the text of the Bible. New Bible translations deserve appropriate scrutiny. What is the philosophy of the translation, and did the translators follow that philosophy consistently? How does the translation render key theological terms and deal with gender-inclusiveness? Although related textually to the HCSB, the CSB is a new translation and thus deserves a fair and thorough examination. However, that is not my aim in this essay. I have read approximately half of the CSB in my personal devotions this year, and have found it to be a faithful and readable English Bible translation. In this essay, I am dealing with the study notes only, not the biblical text. Readers should distinguish between the two. Although study notes can aid readers in understanding the background or meaning of a biblical text, God inspired the Bible—not the study notes.
Third, despite the title of this essay, I am addressing only one doctrine, salvation. Much could be said about the theological content of the study notes related to doctrines such as the Trinity, the church, the divinity of Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, I will focus on the interpretive notes on key biblical texts which are often raised in discussions of the doctrine of salvation.
Fourth, in this review I am not arguing for or against Calvinistic theology. Rather, I am analyzing selections of the newly-published work to determine whether the study notes are consistent with the interpretations of Calvinists only, non-Calvinists only, or both groups.
Fifth, the CSB Study Bible boasts an impressive list of theologically-conservative contributors. In many cases, individuals who provided study notes for a Bible book have written entire commentaries on the book, such as NOBTS colleague R. Dennis Cole (on Numbers) as well as Eugene Merrill (on Deuteronomy) and Ray Clendenen (on Malachi). Other authors, some who have made extensive contributions in the fields of biblical and theological studies, include Kenneth Mathews, Tremper Longman III, Walt Kaiser, Chuck Quarles, Stan Porter, Malcolm Yarnell III, and David Dockery. In addition, the study Bible includes helpful essays such as “How to Read and Study the Bible” (by George H. Guthrie), “The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Event—Mark 1:6” (by Gary Habermas), “Messianic Expectations—Luke 7:20” (by Craig A. Evans), and “Salvation in the Old Testament—Romans 4” (by Paige Patterson).
Sixth, some of the study notes I will address were originally written for the HCSB Study Bible, published in 2010, and simply imported into the new CSB Study Bible. After circulating an earlier version of this essay among several friends for feedback, I was pointed to this post written by one of the contributors to the HCSB/CSB notes who also raised concerns in 2010 about the study note on Rom 8:29–30. Perhaps some (even many) of the study notes addressed below first appeared in the 2010 edition. Although it would be interesting to compare how the study notes might have changed between the HCSB and CSB editions, such a task is beyond the scope of this review. Regardless, I will address study notes as they appear in the 2017 edition.
With those preliminary remarks in mind, I will proceed with the review.
In order to analyze the work in light of Calvinistic theology, I examined the study notes of six key texts, three which are often cited by those arguing for Calvinistic theology (Acts 2:23, Rom 8:29–30, and Eph 1:3–9) and three texts which are often cited by those arguing against Calvinistic theology (2 Pet 3:9, 1 Tim 2:4–6, and 1 John 2:2). If the study notes of other texts were selected, the results of the study might be different. These texts, in my estimation, arise frequently when evangelicals discuss the doctrine of salvation in light of Calvinistic theology.
Study Notes on Bible texts often cited when arguing for Calvinistic theology
The study note on Acts 2:23 states: “Peter’s declaration articulates a major paradox of the Christian life: Jesus’s death occurred as a result of the plan and foreknowledge of God, but it was the free (and sinful) acts of human beings that executed that plan. The Bible often affirms the reality of both divine sovereignty and genuine human choice without explaining how the two can possibly work together without conflict.”
Analysis: The study note on Acts 2:23 refers to both “the plan and foreknowledge of God” as well as “the free (and sinful) acts of human beings.” Although many people wrongly import the concept of divine determinism into the phrase divine sovereignty, the study note attempts to clarify the meaning by citing “genuine human choice” rather than the commonly used phrase “human responsibility.” Because many Calvinistic interpreters understand genuine human choice to be compatible with divine determinism, they will probably not object to the explanation of this verse.
In conclusion, the study note on Acts 2:23 should satisfy all evangelicals, both Calvinists and non-Calvinists.
The study notes on Rom 8:29–30 include these remarks (The bold font appears in the original): “Those he foreknew refers to those whom God set his electing love upon in eternity past. Predestined means that God planned from eternity that ‘those [whom] he foreknew’ would become like Christ through spiritual rebirth. Called is the effectual call in which God opens our heart so we can hear his voice (cp. Ac. 16:14). ‘Calling’ in Paul’s writing never means just an invitation. It is a sovereign summons that draws the sinner from death to life.”
Analysis: Every sentence in the quotation above from the study notes contains theological definitions and presuppositions affirmed by Calvinists only. First, the word “foreknew” (proginōskō) can mean either to know in advance or to choose in advance. (For support, consider these remarks in Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, “‘those whom he had chosen beforehand, he had already decided should become like his Son’ Ro 8:29. In Ro 8:29 proginōskō may also be understood as meaning ‘to know beforehand’” (p. 362).
Second, the concept that God in eternity past set his “electing love” on some people but not on others is consistent with Calvinistic presuppositions of eternal decrees and election to salvation. Other Christians, however, affirm that God knows in advance all things (including who will respond in repentance and faith to be saved as well as those who will not respond in repentance and faith but will be condemned) but they reject the view that God selects only some people and passes over others for salvation.
Third, verse 29 states those foreknown were predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. If foreknown means “to know beforehand” (against the explanation of the study notes), then predestination refers to the sanctification of believers, not the salvation of unbelievers (against the study notes, which refers to “those whom God set his electing love upon in eternity past”).
Fourth, the last three sentences assume a theological distinction required by Calvinistic theology but rejected by other Christians. Calvinists believe the “general call” occurs when the gospel is heard by all people, but the “effectual call” is the work of the Holy Spirit on the hearts of only some unbelievers to irresistibly call and save them. According to this view, it is not enough for a person to hear the gospel to be saved. The logic is that since not all people will be saved and the Bible refers to believers as “called,” only some people are saved because only some people receive an “effectual call.” Other Christians simply believe that some people hear the message of the gospel and are also drawn by God’s Spirit to repent and believe, but they resist the conviction of God’s Spirit and refuse to repent of sin and believe in Jesus; the failure is on their part because they resist God’s conviction of sin and call to repent, not on God’s part for failing to convict of sin and draw sinners to himself.
In conclusion, the study notes on Rom 8:29–30 are filled with Calvinistic definitions and presuppositions.
The study note on Eph 1:4 states: “He chose us in him: The idea of divine election flows out of the important theme of spiritual union, for election is ‘in Christ.’ The doctrine of election is one of the most central and one of the most misunderstood teachings of the Bible. At its most basic level, election refers to God’s plan whereby he accomplishes his will. The meaning of election is best understood as God’s sovereign initiative in bringing persons to faith in Christ, resulting in a special covenant relationship with him. This theme serves as a foundation for the entire opening section of Ephesians, which includes the phrases God ‘chose us’ (v. 4); ‘predestined us’ (v. 5); and ‘predestined according to his plan’ (v. 11). Paul’s focus on the Christ-centered character of election is vitally important. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. This indicates the centrality of the gospel in God’s plan for history.”
Analysis: Christians should not debate whether God chose believers in Christ, but they should explore the possible meanings of such a concept. The emphasis in this explanation on God choosing believers “in him” is appropriate due to the appearance of that phrase in verse 4 as well as in Paul’s other writings. Also, emphasizing God choosing in Christ is appropriate since God the Father referred to Jesus as “my Son, my chosen (eklegomai) one” (Luke 9:35).
The study note explains that “election refers to God’s plan whereby he accomplishes his will.” Such an explanation should satisfy Christians, regardless of whether or not they define election as God’s selection of individuals for salvation (a Calvinistic interpretation).
The next sentence in the study notes was written in way that all Christians, including Calvinists, can interpret to be consistent with their view of God’s work in salvation: “The meaning of election is best understood as God’s sovereign initiative in bringing persons to faith in Christ, resulting in a special covenant relationship with him.” The sentence mentions “God’s sovereign initiative,” which all Christians should affirm because such a view does not require either (although it is consistent with) the compatibilism or the determinism required by Calvinistic theologians. Also, the comment mentions God’s work of “bringing persons to faith in Christ,” which is another carefully worded statement which could be affirmed by most Christians, because those who affirm Calvinistic theology will read the phrase with monergistic regeneration in their mind while other Christians think of an offer by God of salvation which can be freely accepted or rejected.
Finally, the mention that God’s choice of believers before the foundation of the world can be affirmed by Christians who affirm election as God’s choice of a group (corporate election) or distinguish election from salvation (election to service) as well as those who define election as God’s choice of individuals for salvation (Calvinistic interpretation). (Note: For a recent study which raises doubts that Paul conceived of election as God’s eternal choice to save certain individuals, see A. Chadwick Thornhill, The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015].)
In conclusion, the study notes on Eph 1:3–9 can be affirmed by those who affirm Calvinistic theology as well as those who reject Calvinistic theology.
Study Notes on Bible texts often cited when arguing against Calvinistic theology
1 Tim 2:4–6
The study note on 1 Tim 2:4 includes this remark: “This verse implies the universal offer of the gospel.”
Analysis: Why state an implication rather than a plain restatement of the verse, which is that God wants all people to be saved? All Christians should affirm that the gospel should be proclaimed to all people. This study note fails to restate the proposition clearly contained in the verse, that God wants every person to be saved. Such an omission is consistent with the Calvinist presupposition that God desires to save all kinds of people rather than every person.
The study note on 1 Tim 2:5–6 states: “These verses provide the theological basis for the preceding statement that God wants people to be saved.”
Analysis: The comment on those verses omits one significant word: all. This study note, consistent with Calvinistic interpretation, fails to affirm God wants all people to be saved—despite the Bible itself stating in verse 4 of the CSB that God “wants everyone to be saved.”
In conclusion, the study notes on 1 Tim 2:4–6 fail to restate plain propositions in the verses in favor of an explanation consistent with Calvinistic theology.
2 Peter 3:9
The study note on 2 Peter 3:9 states, “The Lord has not yet returned, says Peter, because he is patient with you, not wanting any to perish. ‘You’ is variously interpreted as a reference to the letter’s Christian recipients (identified in 1:1) or else more broadly as all people. In chap. 1 ‘you’ and ‘your’ both refer back to the recipients identified in 1:1 (see 1:2,4–5,8,10–13,15–16,19–20). Peter’s later use of ‘dear friends’ (3:1,8,14,17) seems also to point back to those identified in 1:1.”
Analysis: The study note on 2 Peter 3:9 distinguishes itself in two ways. First, the note mentions God not wanting a group to perish, but fails to quote the rest of the verse, which states “but all to come to repentance.” The word perish is not discussed in the note. Is this a reference to physical, spiritual, or eternal death? Perhaps more insight could be gleaned if the rest of the verse had been quoted. Second, the note makes a strong case that the group addressed in the letter should be identified as believers. This is important for those who want to argue that the statement that God does not want any to perish refers to the same group. If that is the case, then it could be argued that this verse should be understood as a promise of security for believers (Calvinist interpretation) rather than God’s desire to save sinners (non-Calvinist interpretation). The study note includes the phrase “or else more broadly as all people,” but that does not account for the non-Calvinist interpretation, which would interpret the group God does not want to perish as sinners, not all people (which would include believers, who would not be at risk of perishing [defined in any way] at the return of Christ).
In conclusion, the study note on 2 Peter 3:9 seems to favor the Calvinistic interpretation in two ways. First, the study note fails to address a key phrase in the verse, which would strengthen the case for the non-Calvinist interpretation. Second, the argument for the group’s identity favors a Calvinistic interpretation but fails to provide a non-Calvinist interpretation. Even so, the study note does not provide a clear interpretation either way. For that reason, I am willing to grant that one could affirm the interpretation of the study note whether or not one affirmed Calvinism.
1 John 2:2
The study note on 1 John 2:2, in part, says: “The phrase for those of the whole world does not mean the salvation of all people. It does mean that, in keeping with God’s promise to bless all the nations through Abraham and his descendants (Gn 12:3), Jesus’s saving death extends the offer of salvation to all nations.”
Analysis: This explanation of 1 John 2:2 supports particular atonement (that Jesus died the sins of only the elect) rather than general atonement (that Jesus died for the sins of every person). Particular atonement, also called limited atonement, is rejected by many people who affirm other points of Calvinist theology. This study note refers only to the extent of the offer of the gospel rather than extent of the death of Christ. Those who believe Jesus died for the sins of the world (meaning every person) will not find their belief affirmed in the study notes on 1 John 2:2. Instead, the idea that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world is described as not affirming universalism. No room is given for the non-Calvinist interpretation (general atonement). Like the explanation provided for 1 Tim 2:4, this study note affirms the universal offer of the gospel—an idea which is not disputed by most evangelicals.
In conclusion, the study note on 1 John 2:2 provides an interpretation consistent with Calvinistic theology but fails to present an interpretation consistent with non-Calvinistic theology.
At the risk of simplifying a lengthy essay on a complex discussion into a chart, the work above can be illustrated as follows:
The study notes on selected texts in the CSB Study Bible are consistent with which theological interpretation?
| CSB Study Bible notes
||Evangelical Non-Calvinist Interpretation
||Evangelical Calvinist Interpretation
|1 Tim 2:4–6
|2 Peter 3:9
|1 John 2:2
More work can and should be done on this topic. For example, additional texts on both sides of the issue could be examined (such as Rom 9, John 3, and John 6). Perhaps if the study notes of other verses were examined, or if another person analyzed the study notes, then the study notes might appear to be more balanced in their interpretations. Also, some of the biblical word studies could be examined. The study Bible includes brief treatments of hundreds of Hebrew and Greek words, including some terms relevant to this discussion, such as “decree,” “foreknow,” and “predestine.” Although this essay is only a start, my hope is that the examination of these selected study notes will aid readers interested in the theological leanings of this new study Bible.
In conclusion, any theologically conservative resource should be welcomed and appreciated by the church. The work under consideration fits that category. Even so, those who affirm that God loves every person, Christ died for every person, and God desires to save every person will be disappointed in some of the study notes in the CSB Study Bible.
 For more on the extent of God’s love, Christ’s death, and God’s desire to save, see my article, “Is the Gospel for All People or Only Some People?” Journal of Baptist Theology & Ministry 11.2 (Fall 2014): 16–33, available here.