Do We Really Need To Take Notes?


In all honesty, a post like this can be counterproductive. I’ve argued for two posts that there should be some theological methodology for taking notes and that there are some goals while taking notes. In this post, I want to point out that none of this is really necessary and that might wind up cancelling the previous two posts.

Here’s why: we moderns tend to think that if something isn’t necessary then it isn’t really important and might not even be helpful. We Evangelicals happily point out that liturgy isn’t necessary and then often condemn liturgical churches while ignoring our own liturgies (Open in Prayer; Make announcements; sing three songs; introduce the speaker with a benediction; Prayer before speaking; the message; Close in Prayer). I’ve seen the same thing done to sports, movies, exercise, and voting.

And then, things that we want people to do, we underscore as “necessary” and add a guarantee to the thing (ie: note-taking is guaranteed to increase your love for the Lord). So here are 8 reasons why note-taking isn’t necessary.

Note-taking is not a guarantee to Spirituality. I don’t care how many notes you take; or how often you take them; or how big your digital files of notes are—none of them promise that you will grow in Christ.

Note-taking is not a guaranteed mark of maturity. I’ve been taking notes since I was in High School and the main reason then was to stay awake while someone was preaching.  Indeed, it is still a great way for me to stay awake. Think about that next time you see me clacking away on the keyboard during a service.

Note-taking is not the fast track for bearing fruit. Sure, note-taking might be a practice in discernment but that doesn’t make it the reward of discernment.

Note-taking can be distracting. You might distract yourself when you’re focusing on how you’re taking notes, and you might very well distract others who are near you: typing is sort of loud!

Note-taking has the danger of pride-inducement. Let’s be honest here: anything we do has the danger of pride-inducement. Preaching, teaching, writing on a blog, not-taking-notes, and taking notes. Moreso when you look around and see no one taking notes…

Note-taking can be a useless endeavor. The only good that might come out of it is if you die, someone else might get them and learn something. That being the case, we should try to do Something with our notes. Maybe start a blog. Or print them out and hand them to your local elders / pastors. Or (crazy talk) study them.

Note-taking won’t increase your love for the Lord. Oh it might help, but so would looking at a sunrise, or going on walks through the park, or visiting an art-show at the Museum, or listening to Mozart. No, note-taking isn’t an additive thing. As I said in my first post, it is closer to an expressive thing. I take copious outlined notes because I love God and what He has said in Scripture; others jot down notes because they love God and what He has said in Scripture; and yet others give rapt mental attention because they love God and what He has said in Scripture.

Note-taking isn’t for everybody. Yeah, there, I said it. Now I’ll have seventy-five percent of my readership (three of you) walk off agreeing that you don’t have to take notes. Go back a couple millenniums and you’d find a culture that was so deeply oral that listening was note-taking and examination would come later. Some people just can’t take notes and need to focus on smaller bits to the capacity of their mind (like kids). Others might draw the message after the fact and you realize that their brains were engaged. For most of us, I think that note-taking is the way to go. We do it with school, our jobs, and even our spouses before we go shopping—why exclude this helpful tool within the walls of the church? Even so, some people just can’t.

(Crossposted at The Bible Archive)





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How To Take Notes


So with my previous post on the theological methodology for note-taking in mind, and as part of a textually minded culture, I think we should be taking notes—no matter the tool (computer, notepads, mp3 recorders, stenography). In this post I want to six goals for taking notes.

1. Note the verses used.

If the preacher is speaking on a specific text, note what that text is. If you’re recording an mp3, label it according to that text (if that helps) or put that information in the meta-data. If you’re taking notes highlight the main text (maybe in the heading, maybe in the color, or maybe even in the document name). If the preacher cites verses, write them down and tie why they’re being cited. Most of us will not remember these things but this process will help us examine the thought flow in the light of the text.

2. Note the main points.

If the speaker is emphasizing something, it is likely (though possibly not) important to the message: list it as a point. You might not want to spoil your mp3 recording with you whispering “important” at key points, but it might mean you jot down a time mark with the key point that is being made. Likewise here, you shouldn’t be inserting what you expect to be the main point. If it takes a while for the point to become clear, leave the heading blank and insert after the point is made.

3. Note point substantiation.

Usually (though admittedly, and sadly, not always) the speaker substantiates his or her points with either verses, or a logical argument, or an illustration, or an example. Take note of how that point is substantiated. Here you shouldn’t be running off and adding further [, that is, your own] substantiation. [We’re simply noting what logic or verses the speaker uses to substantiate the point; or if he assumes the point note the assumption. This is note-taking, not helping the preached message.] 

4. Summarize the general message.

Break down the entire message into a basic thrust or three. What was the important take home point? What did it teach about God? What was mandated of the listeners? Why was this all important. I usually do this close to the end of the meeting, after the concluding points and closing prayer while the whole thing is still fresh in my mind. For you it might mean doing it later.

5. Ask how it relates to the Gospel.

If the Scripture points to Christ and the Gospel, we should rightly ask what the preacher unveiled about the Gospel in a positive way (yes, the message clearly reflected Christ and God’s Gospel in this point here, there and the other) or negatively (no, the message laid on me a demand—something I had to do—when I know that I don’t have the power to do it. It preached “law”). If “no” was there ever a solution found in the Gospel or was it strictly demand and command?

6. Ask how it relates to the rest of Scripture.

Look up the text and the immediate context—does it support the speaker’s point? Read commentaries and equipped teachers—do the given translations match what is actual? Is it supported in the text (all of it) which preaches God’s Gospel? With so many tools on our e-Bibles I’ll offer a warning: don’t do this while the message is being preached!

Next I’ll answer if note-taking is necessary. Yikes!

(Crossposted at The Bible Archive)





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How To Think Theologically About Note-Taking

In the How to Study Your E-Bible series, I listed digital tools for note-taking with respective methods (recording mp3’s, outlines, ipads, etc). I mentioned that the process should be easy, accessible, and personal but in this first of three posts I wanted to highlight seven points of a theological methodology for note-taking.

One. Reject passivity with the preached Word of God. If we believe that God is speaking the text (notice my phrasing and check out my argument if you need convincing) or at the very least speaking through the text (a weaker claim though still valid enough for this point) then we would do more than just hear what is being said.

Two. Listen to the preached word as an expression of loving God (Luke 10:27). Now get this: the ancient Jews didn’t think the heart was the seat of emotions like we moderns do. So we read the text and think “ah, love the Lord with all of your feelings.” They thought the seat of emotions was the kidneys (or the bowels it reads in some places). The Heart was more like the seat of personhood—what we often mean by Mind. Likewise, what we moderns mean by soul is usually “My Immaterial Self” but the ancients saw Souls as “The living person”—more like the living body. God says “Love me with all of you!” Not just emotions. Volition. Strength. Body. Mind.

Three. Intentionally seek obedience opportunities (Acts 17:11). As the Bereans weighed what was said, so should we—but that shouldn’t be the end of the process. The Bereans were nobler not because they only researched to see if those things were true, but upon seeing them as true they acted on them by believing.

Four. Have more care with Scripture than the compiled message. The compiled message includes a whole mess of things that the preacher is relying on: style, humor, illustrations, etc. But these things are all within our realm of generating. God’s wisdom is above us (Isaiah 55:8-9; see also Job 28:12-28; Jeremiah 51:15-17) and against the Sinful Us (1 Corinthians 1): we must realize that he alone is wise (Rom 16:25-27) relying on the message over the messenger.

Five. Acknowledge the weight of the wisdom of God. By this I don’t mean listen to intangible inner feelings or urgings to authenticate the message; what I mean is that if Scripture is the Word of God, we must realize that they are the words on which we live—its potency, sufficiency and necessity is vital. The preacher up front is not vital (which is why I really don’t like when preachers say that God has laid this message on their hearts) but his Word definitely is.

Six. Give ear while trusting the Holy Spirit. By this, I still don’t mean some internal intuition, like a Spiritual Spidey Sense, that warns you of the mishandling of Scripture: the Holy Spirit isn’t the Force.  What I mean is that God speaks Scripture, and we must trust what He has said (and is saying) over against what an individual is saying no matter how flashy he or she says it. We might find this confirmed in church history or by Bible commentators as the Holy Spirit also worked in history illuminating people throughout Church History.

Seven. Plan to do hard thinking. Too often modern-day Christians make arguments for ignoring swaths of Scripture in favor of “meditating” on a three word subset of a verse. This is merely setting up our own imaginations as the final authority while using the Word of God as a springboard. It’s dangerous, foolish, and unabashedly childish. With this meditative/devotional approach we sacrifice the explicit teaching of Scripture with a thin veneer of something we call Spirituality but is merely modernity’s romanticism having sway—in other words, we’re enthroning emotions like the rest of the world and think we’re Spiritual Jedi’s while doing it. And unfortunately, this comes out with how we treat preached messages. We walk away with a take home bit that we “meditate” on and think we’re being spiritual.

Next I’ll look at how to take notes.

(Crossposted at The Bible Archive)





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Best Commentaries For Studying Romans: Case Study on Bible Study Tools

I’ve been doing this series on Bible Study tools and was focusing on commentaries. In this post, I am going to list my commentary methodology, and a recommendation, with one book of the Bible: Romans.

I’ve read it quite a few times. Repeatedly. Taken notes on my perfect Bible and backed them up. Each time I find myself thinking “well, still don’t fully get it!” Paul had quite the brain.

But Paul was also in a certain culture. And Paul was also writing to a people in that culture. And he used words that were distinct to that culture.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve done hard work in the text. I’ve got an idea of the thought-flow. I have some fifty posts on Romans—and those are just the ones I’ve taken a chance to organize and post online! But there are some debatable things that stop me while I’m reading. Since I want to be faithful to what the God is saying in the inspired text, I get nervous. I had better consult my teachers with the questions that stop me.

For example: what was the socio-cultural milieu when Paul wrote Romans? How would they understand that whole section on the Law and divorce in Romans 7? What have other believers in Church History believed about the text? How would they struggle with Romans 3 and the justification by faith passages? How have they read Romans 9-11? Has the treatment of the passage always been the same? What would this mean today? How can it be properly applied?

Then I consult my Romans Collection (here’s a link to WorldCat if you wanted to try picking them up at the library or store: there are about 60). Witherington’s Socio-rhetorical commentary is self-explanatory. Newell tries to deal with the text verse by verse but seems to focus more on summarizing. Luther reflects the fire of the reformation. Calvin underscores a careful exegesis. MacArthur is constantly applying after dealing with the text. Barth looks like he’s responding to something (when you can understand him). Cranfield deals with the text as it stands. Hodge gives you a strong post-reformation exegesis. Augustine, Chrysostom and Origen reflect how the early church dealt with the text. Ironside tries to encourage the regular reader; Darby meditates on what the text is saying and tries to apply it.  Wright and Dunn give you another way to read the text if their historical references are right.  Moo counteracts many of their uncareful exegesis by upholding the traditional reading.

Now I’m careful. I take more care with the ones that make assumptions with the text, or with history, or with the original languages. The devotional ones, or the ones that are talking to the Regular Joe, might say things confidently without defending them and that’s a road fraught with error. I think it’s better to focus on what the text says than to focus on some flowery application that someone has made on the text. But I’m also careful with the ones who spend their time hovering over the text and creating a culture that changes the reading of the text. No good telling me the text doesn’t say what it says just because of some hypothetical historical drama.

All these commentators—giants of Biblical exegesis, theology and church history—sit around my office and discuss the text. And I let them talk.

So if you had to buy two commentaries on Romans, Moo and Cranfield are the best. Moo is easier to read and up to date with its argumentation; Cranfield often writes in Greek without bothering to translate but I think he’s more faithful with the text even if he doesn’t deal with New Perspective on Paul stuff.  If you only had to buy one, I’d say buy Moo since Cranfield’s is two volumes.

I didn’t recommend anything for the other books of the Bible since you should now have a tool for that. But remember this: if you’re going to study Scripture, especially if you plan to teach it, you had better be doing some serious work with the text and that should include consulting those people that have spent lifetimes struggling with it throughout Church history.We’re not alone.

Crossposted at The Bible Archive.





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How Do You Use a Bible Commentary?

I’ve been saying that when we study our bibles digitally we need to be reading our Bibles. Repeatedly. Exegesis requires reading. Recently, I’ve added the need to consult commentaries. In this post I want to list a few ways to use a commentary when studying the Bible digitally:

  1. Use multiple commentaries on a single passage. Almost all Bible software today lets you do this by either clicking a tab or doing a search in all resources. Plus, this makes the commentators argue with each other instead of non-expert you trying to come up with an argument against them.
  2. Read different levels of commentaries. Some commentaries are exceedingly technical and probably only need to be read by Academia. But others might be Evangelical and Semi-Technical offering great rewards for the persistent student. And yet others are very devotional and allow a person to think on a passage and how it reflects this or that. Most free programs offer a lot of devotional commentaries—which tend to be the older commentaries—while the more expensive programs allow you to purchase commentaries of different skill levels. Remember to check the last post on how to buy a commentary before diving in.
  3. Use the ones that have been recommended. In the last post, I made sure to highlight four guides that were essential to offering recommendations. Use them. You don’t want to dive into purchasing commentaries that will be of no spiritual benefit for you. You can use them both in print and digitally.
  4. Use them for what you need them to do. In other words, don’t just use devotional commentaries and don’t just use exegetical commentaries. If you’re studying your Bible, you’re going to want to study the original meanings, the meaning of the text as it stands, how the text stands in history, how others have understood the text, how the text stands in redemptive history, what it means to you, what it means to the Church as a whole, and what it says in simple terms. Right there is a whole mess of different commentaries and you’ll want to have the right tools for the right job. If you have a digital version, this could incorporate nicely into your program to aid in your overall study.
  5. Use them after you’ve done hard work but before you are convinced by your work. You don’t want to be a mere parrot for what the commentaries say, but you do want to ensure that you haven’t hardened into some faulty position before deciding to go off and consult them. That point is different for different folk.
  6. Use them consistently. Commentaries are not a one-time use sort of thing; they are an investment in your spiritual development and potentially the spiritual development of others. So ensure that you use them often, against each other, in your studies. Digital versions are easier to carry around and might aid in this respect.
  7. Use them in a quest for God’s message. It’s real easy to get caught up in reading commentaries so as to be more impressive when you teach but that misses the point of studying the Bible altogether. The Bible is, if you allow the metaphor, a love letter from God. When we’re studying the Bible we’re poring over this note from the lover of our entire being who condescended to write to us after orchestrating history for our good. So a commentary should really be an aid in trying to understand that love letter.

Crossposted at The Bible Archive





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How To Buy A Commentary for Bible Study

I’ve been posting about using digital tools and we started talking about commentaries. Here’s the rub: there are a whole mess of Bible commentaries.

It’s not enough that we have the printing press and modern theologians writing a whole mess of them; we also have 2,000 years of church history filled with commentaries.

But not only that, we have the commentaries by unbelievers, agnostic believers, people who are closer to deists than anything, heretics, heterodox, and people who just have a pet agenda to push forward.

For the person who is studying their Bible, who has put in some sweat and tears on exegesis, I think it’s smart to invest good money on solid commentaries while simultaneously avoiding all the garbage that’s out there.

At this point, some folk might be quick to recommend a digital version of William MacDonald’s two volume commentary on the Bible. Yeah, it’s good for what it is—a quick hitting devotional through the Bible. But a main source for commentary it is not (sorry—neither is Matthew Henry’s.).

And frankly, no single volume commentary will be. Not even a single publisher of commentaries. If you want some real commentary tools for studying your Bible, you’re going to have to approach it like a stock portfolio: diversify.

So here are some links to resources that let you broaden your horizon on what commentaries to look for when shopping:

Free: Check out Best Commentaries for reviews on, well, commentaries. The site compiler picks up his information from some books that you should definitely buy but also touches on some writers that are on the web (like Keith Mathison over on Ligonier Ministries or Jeremy Pierce, a Chrisitan philosopher who blogs over at Parableman). For those strapped for cash, this is a great place to start but definitely think about investing in the Not-Free section.

Not Free but Must Own: pick up D.A Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey. He’s a solid evangelical and reformed professor, pastor , and exegetical expert and this book will save you loads of money. He reviews commentaries, rates them based on skill level, but unfortunately only stays within the realm of the New Testament. The Kindle edition is roughly seven bucks which you can spend just by skipping Starbucks tomorrow.  But don’t let your heart be troubled, Tremper Longman III has an Old Testament Commentary Survey which does essentially the same thing as Carson but for the OT. For 8 bucks Kindle version, you can’t go wrong with this two stepper. And lastly, you should consider also picking up John Glynn’s Commentary and Reference survey. It’s the most expensive of the two since it’s not only commentaries, but it helps the commentary purchasing endeavor.

Note: you might not want to purchase commentaries in only digital versions. Digital versions are great, in that you can take them anywhere in your computer (especially if you purchased the Perfect Electronic Bible) but you’ll more often never get the discount you might find on a print version. I’ve bought print versions that are marked up with highlighters for under three bucks; I could never buy a digital version for that low.

So consider if you need to buy a digital version of any commentary before buying one. In fact, you might even want to use inter-library loans to get your hands on commentaries without buying them—it’s a great way to try before you buy.

Next post, how to actually use a commentary.

Crossposted at The Bible Archive





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Why You Should Use A Commentary For Bible Study

I’ve been posting about using digital tools to aid in a Bible Study. I’ve repeatedly mentioned reading the Bible, and that’s no different at this point where I want to merely state (without substantiating it very much—really can’t do all that in under five hundred words) that you should be using commentaries.

First, why you should be careful with commentaries:

  1. Some of them take a non-Christian approach to studying the text.
  2. Some take an agnostic approach about God’s work in history.
  3. They can be perverted to give a sense of secret knowledge.
  4. They might take you afield from the text if you refuse to stick with the text.
  5. They can be expensive.

But now, why you should use them:

  1. The best authors have studied history; you most likely haven’t.
  2. The best authors are expert in original languages; you mostly likely aren’t.
  3. The authors have interacted with other authors and have had their ideas scrutinized by experts in their field; you most likely haven’t.
  4. They’ll provoke you to think about the text outside of your normal ways of thinking.
  5. The Holy Spirit wasn’t only given to you: he was given to all Christians. Including the very smart ones who write commentaries.
  6. The Holy Spirit works in time so that means that very old commentaries might be just as helpful to you as modern ones.
  7. They provide a way to check your understanding of Scripture against the broader community.
  8. They predicate their work on a lifetime of studying a passage; you most likely haven’t
  9. Because  they give you hard work to provoke your brain for hard thinking.
  10. Because Spurgeon said so: “In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

Next I’ll deal with how to buy a commentary.

Crossposted at The Bible Archive.

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How To Do A Word Study With Digital Tools

I’ve been highlighting tools that can be used to do an effective Bible Study and so far we’ve underscored reading the text. Repeatedly. And taking notes while reading. But now I want to highlight how a person might want to examine the meanings of words.

One of your better tools is the English dictionary. If you’re using the KJV, this winds up being more difficult but the point here is that words mean something and sometimes our misreading can be predicated on what we think a word means.

  • Free: Dictionaries are readily available online at several sites (m-w,, the Free Dictionary).
  • Not-Free: More expensive programs have dictionaries but I find it easier just to hop over to Websters online.

Sometimes, folk want to see the meaning of the original language by examining a word, like the word love or church (for example).

I don’t think that this is the best way for most of us to study the Bible.

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How To Digitally Discover Bible Headings

We’ve been looking at this idea of studying the Bible using digital tools and we left off with tips on note taking. At this point I want to combine all the things we have thus far (reading the text of alternate versions across translation methodologies finally settling on a parallel work screen with note-taking tools on hand) and start examining the text.

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How To Take E-Notes

We’ve been highlighting features for digitally studying Bibles and in this post I wanted to touch on note-taking. Admittedly, everyone has their own method of taking notes. I personally love outlines. Others need to record jottings of whatever stood out to them. Yet others need to record entire messages as mp3’s and use those as their go-to-guide. I’ve been highlighting tools that can be used for bible study and I wanted to list a few for taking notes during the entire process.

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