The Most Famous Study Bible of Them All: The Scofield Reference Bible

Whether counted by sales, by persistent devotion of readers, or by longevity in print, Scofield’s Reference Bible is undoubtedly the most famous—and infamous—study Bible in all of Protestantism. This now hundred-year-old Reference Bible became a trademark of Fundamentalist Orthodoxy, and made John Nelson Darby’s Dispensationalism the principal guide to Bible prophecy.

Contents of the Review

The Movement
The Man
Editions of the Scofield Bible
General Character of Scofield’s Bible
Features of the Bible
Additions in the 1917 Edition
The Dispensations
Scofield’s Legacy
Conclusion

The printed Bible came to the English-speaking world in stages:

  • King Henry’s Reformation put the Great Bible (1539) in every parish church;
  • the Puritans’ Geneva Bible (1560) found a place in every Calvinist’s home;
  • King James’ “Authorized” Bible (1611) became the public Bible for the whole English-language world; and,
  • Cyrus I. Scofield’s self-teaching Bible (1909) was soon found in the hands of every individual believer.

Among extravagant but serious claims for Scofield’s Bible is this: “Historically speaking, The Scofield Reference Bible was to dispensationalism what Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was to Lutheranism, or Calvin’s Institutes to Calvinism.” (R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetnam, The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church, Paternoster, 2009, p. 195. NOTE: This book will be cited below simply as Mangum & Sweetnam.)

Progressive Christians, who may fear or despise what the Scofield Bible represents, may still benefit from some awareness of its history and character. It has truly been a historic phenomenon in the religiousness of our time; and, it is the Bible that the majority of our neighbors—whom we are summoned to love—have been reading. Thus it is included in this series of study Bible reviews.

The Movement

Between the Civil War and World War I, American Protestants gradually divided between modernists and fundamentalists—divided over Darwinian evolution and higher criticism of the Bible. The higher criticism conflict reached a symbolic climax in the heresy trials of Charles A. Briggs by the New York Presbytery (1892) and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (1893), with the result that Briggs was dismissed from the Presbyterian Church. The evolution conflict reached a climax later (1925), in the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, from which Fundamentalism came away in some disrepute, particularly because of H. L. Mencken’s press coverage of the trial.

In the early period, conservatives (fundamentalists to be) gathered especially at the annual Niagara Bible Conferences (1878-1901) for study of Bible prophecy. In later decades, this movement gradually shifted into Bible institutes (like Moody Bible Institute, 1886) and colleges (like Philadelphia College of the Bible, 1914. which Cyrus Scofield helped to found).

A whole ethos of Bible study was developed in these circles.

[T]he prophetic teachers regarded their approach as a popular one. The literalistic approach, they maintained, was simply that of common sense…. Although fundamentalists emphasized that it was scientific, they never regarded their scheme of Biblical interpretation as esoteric…. Fundamentalism did not develop in seminaries, but in Bible conferences, Bible schools, and, perhaps most importantly, on the personal level of small Bible-study groups where the prophetic truths could be made plain. (George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, New ed., Oxford, 2006 [1st ed. 1980], pp. 61-62.)

It was to promote and facilitate such individual Bible study that Cyrus I. Scofield developed his Reference Bible.

The Scofield Reference Bible originated in part from Scofield’s becoming converted relatively late in life and his becoming a preacher and minister charged with learning the content and meaning of the Bible mostly through self study. He designed his study Bible to be a tool for others needing or desiring to be likewise self-taught in the content and meaning of the Bible. (Mangum & Sweetnam, p. 76.)

The Man

So, what of the man who created this notorious study Bible? After he became famous, Scofield symbolized a religious position that made him both devoutly admired and seriously hated. A highly laudatory biography was published at the end of his life by Charles Trumbull, a pupil and friend, and other works of praise followed. Some decades later, however, a writer named Joseph Canfield searched records far and wide in order to write a biography “designed to destroy the reputation of Scofield and his Bible alike” (Mangum & Sweetnam, pp. 2-3, with full references there). This partly hearsay negative material is still being retailed by current critics (for example, Ben Witherington III, The Problem with Evangelical Theology, Baylor University Press, 2005, p. 95). More balanced presentations are available in two recent biographical sketches of Scofield, one in Mangum & Sweetnam, “Cyrus Ingerson Scofield: A Controversial Life,” pp. 7-52, the other more briefly in the current Wikipedia article on Scofield.

Here are selected highlights (and lowlights) of his life.

Early Life. Scofield was born in 1843 in Michigan, the last of seven children, his mother dying in his infancy. His father raised him in a New England intellectual atmosphere, but died in Cyrus’ mid teens. He was taken south to live with an older sister, and served a year in the Confederate army while he was still in his teens (1861-62). After the war he migrated to St. Louis where he received a lawyer’s training and married a woman from a well-to-do French Catholic family.

In 1869 he moved to Atchison, Kansas, and became involved in the politics of that state. In 1873 he received, as a political favor, appointment as U.S. District Attorney for Kansas. Political scandals came to light (this was the second administration of U.S. Grant, notorious for its corruption) involving influence, bribery, and possibly forgery. Scofield had become a heavy drinker in these busy years, further complicating his life. He was removed from office, may have served some jail time (the records are vague), and spiraled downward in both his professional and personal life. He was separated from his wife and two daughters in these years. (The marriage was eventually annulled, 1883. The two daughters never married, but Scofield wrote them occasionally in later years. Right after the divorce he married a church member in his new location in Dallas, Texas, and had a son by that marriage.)

Born Again. Scofield hit bottom in 1879, when he accepted Jesus as his Savior. Both in his personal life and in his later theology he was a born-again believer. The two parts of his life were radically separated by his conversion. For him, the sharp break between the dispensations of Law and Grace was deeply rooted in personal experience. (On this grace in Scofield’s theology, see Mangum & Sweetnam, pp. 90-91.)

In his new life he was mentored by the Reverend James H. Brookes, pastor of a Southern Presbyterian church in St. Louis. Brookes was an enthusiastic follower of John Nelson Darby’s newly spreading Dispensationalism, and that view of the end times was included in Scofield’s introduction to the glories and mysteries of Biblical truth. (Scofield never attended a seminary.)

By 1882, Scofield had become a candidate for the ministry in a Congregationalist Association in St. Louis, and after approval was sent to a struggling church in Dallas, Texas. A man of ability and leadership, he increased the First Congregational Church of Dallas from twelve to eight hundred members in fourteen years (1882-1896). Scofield’s leadership extended beyond his own church to community work with the poor, to work with missionary groups both domestic and Central American, and to participation in Bible conferences, especially on prophecy. He became a frequent conference speaker on the dispensationalist circuits.

The Reference Bible. Scofield’s main writing in these years was a preview of the theology that would be embodied in the Reference Bible: Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, published in 1896. Dwight L. Moody’s home church in Northfield, Massachusetts, picked Scofield to succeed the old champion of Evangelical revivalism, and Scofield moved there in 1895. His circle of Bible prophecy friends encouraged his idea to create a study Bible, and in 1903 he resigned most of his major positions in order to give the bulk of his time to work on the Reference Bible, including travel to Europe to consult sympathetic allies there.

While in England Scofield was also searching for a publisher, and he was put in touch with Henry Frowde of Oxford University Press who was far-sighted enough to go for the idea of the Reference Bible. He directed the American head of OUP, John Armstrong, to carry on the project in America—thus securing what would eventually become Oxford’s first million-copy title, though it took 20 years. The first edition was published in 1909, with extraordinary sales following. (The records of the Oxford Press for the relevant years were destroyed by fire, and only generalities are known about the sales of the Reference Bible in the early decades.)

Last Years. Scofield retired to Long Island, New York, and worked on a revision of the Reference Bible (the “New and Improved Edition,”) eventually published in 1917—the edition now commonly known as the “Old Scofield Bible.” He helped establish the Philadelphia College of the Bible (1914), which carried on his legacy until its present incarnation as the Philadelphia Biblical University. Along the same lines, but a littler later, one of his disciples in Texas, Lewis Sperry Chafer, institutionalized Scofield’s legacy there by founding (1924) the Dallas Theological Seminary, which in two decades became a kind of Mecca of Dispensationalism. (See the Seminary’s Doctrinal Statement, particularly Article V on Dispensations . Cyrus Scofield died on July 24th, 1921.

Editions of the Scofield Bible

All editions were/are published by Oxford University Press, except a few recent spin-offs. Oxford never released its ownership of this valuable property!

The Scofield Reference Bible, 1st ed., 1909. This is now rarely found, having been essentially absorbed into the renowned 2nd edition.

The Scofield Reference Bible, New and Improved Edition, 1917. Now widely known as “The Old Scofield Reference/Study Bible.” Discussed at length below. This edition was re-set and re-titled The Old Scofield Study Bible, Standard Edition (1917 Notes), 1996, in which the 1917 text is given page-for-page, but with a few additional helps at the back. I am using the 17th printing (!) of this 1996 re-set, which is an attractive and useful volume.

The New Scofield Reference Bible, 1967, ed. E. Schuyler English et al. This is commonly referred to as the 3rd edition, symbolized by III after the title (see the image at the top of this review). This has been the only full (but still modest) revision. It was done by a nine-man committee that included the President of Moody Bible Institute, the Dean of the Philadelphia College of Bible, and the President of Dallas Theological Seminary.

The New Scofield Study Bible, NIV, 1984. (Note: the Reference Bible has become a Study Bible.) All previous Scofield Bibles used the King James Version of the Bible, though the 1967 edition made some updates in the English text. This is the first “adaptation” of the Scofield study materials to a different English translation. To attach the Scofield notes, usually tied to specific Biblical words, to a different translation was a substantial editorial task, carried out by three senior members of the administration of Philadelphia College of Bible. The Scofield materials used were those of the 1967 revision, so this adaptation could be designated as Scofield III. The front matter of the previous editions is seriously “improved” in this edition, probably by Paul S. Karleen, who was “Chairman of the Division of General Education” at Philadelphia College of Bible, and who authored the “Introduction to the 1984 Edition.”

The Scofield Study Bible, NASB, 2005, Contributing Editor, Doris W. Rikkers. Doris Rikkers is the head of a consulting/editing firm in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working with Zondervan publishing. Her firm obviously contracted to do the “adaptation” of the Scofield notes to other translations besides the NIV. They also adapted the Scofield notes to the New King James Version (NKJV) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) version. Most recently, the Scofield materials have been adapted to the Evangelical substitute for the RSV, the English Standard Version (ESV).

General Character of Scofield’s Bible

His Era. Cyrus Scofield characterized his own time in church history as follows (1909 Introduction):

The last fifty years have witnessed an intensity and breadth of interest in Bible study unprecedented in the history of the Christian Church. Never before have so many reverent, learned and spiritual men brought to the study of the Scriptures minds so free from merely controversial motive. A new and vast exegetical and expository literature has been created, inaccessible for bulk, cost, and time to the average reader. The winnowed and attested results of this half-century of Bible study are embodied in the notes, summaries, and definitions of this edition. Expository novelties, and merely personal views and interpretations, have been rejected. (Page iii.)

His Irenic Intentions. Scofield did not set out to promote a particular theological position (among those within the spectrum of Protestant Orthodoxy).

Until it became so popular as to become a lightning rod for controversy, The Scofield Reference Bible served first as a means of promoting consensus among Bible-believing American Christians.

Scofield conveyed to Trumbull [his first biographer] his sense of gratification that his definitions of election, predestination, and foreordination all met with approval from both Calvinist and Arminian [Wesleyan] theologians whom he had corresponded with. Transcending partisanship was clearly one of Scofield’s goals in his defining such traditionally controversial terms. (Mangum & Sweetnam, pp. 91 and 98.)

It is true, of course, that Scofield’s Bible became famous and notorious because of its presentation of the Dispensationalist interpretation of End-times.

Scofield advocated distinctly dispensationalist positions, but he does not seem to have been aware of their distinctiveness; nor does he seem to have anticipated these positions becoming controversial. Rather, Scofield seems to have regarded his work as reflecting the consensus of a broad coalition of Bible-believing interpreters of Scripture. (Mangum & Sweetnam, p. 85.)

Features of the Bible

In his Introduction to the first edition (which, the reader was informed, was “To Be Read”), Scofield listed eleven “distinctive features” of this Reference Bible. Here are most of them (excerpted from p. iii):

  • Current reference systems are not helpful. They are replaced here by one in which a chain of references is given for each important Biblical concept, starting from its first appearance in the Biblical story and continuing to each important link in succession until a final summary is reached.
  • Helps are provided on the page where needed, covering such things as weights and measures, dates, explanations of names, and the like.
  • The chains of topical references end in “analytical summaries of the whole teaching of Scripture on that subject, thus guarding the reader against hasty generalizations from a few passages or proof texts.”
  • “The great words of Scripture”—and 27 examples are listed—“are defined in simple non-technical terms. These definitions have been submitted to, and approved by, a very large number of eminent students and teachers of all the evangelical bodies.”
  • Each of the 66 books of the Bible is provided with an introduction and analytical outline, which also provides a system of subheadings inserted in the running text of the book.
  • The results of modern study of Prophecy are given in full. The Prophecy portion of the Bible “nearly one-fourth of the whole, has been closed to the average reader by fanciful and allegorical schemes of interpretation. The method followed [in this reference Bible] gives ready access also to the amazing literary riches of the Prophetical Books.”
  • The Covenants made by God with various humans in history “are analyzed, and their relation to each other and to Christ made clear.”
  • “The Dispensations are distinguished, exhibiting the majestic, progressive order of the divine dealings of God with humanity, ‘the increasing purpose’ which runs through and links together the ages, from the beginning of the life of man to the end in eternity. Augustine said: ‘Distinguish the ages, and the Scriptures harmonize.’”
Additions in the 1917 Edition

The Revised edition offered improvements in the size of print, especially in the center column references, changing chapter references from Roman to Arabic numerals (a change American publishers were adopting over against British usage), and the addition of a system of dates for Biblical events, using the chronology of Anglican Bishop Ussher of the seventeenth century. Thus Genesis 1 is dated to 4004 B.C., the Flood to 2448, Moses’ farewell speeches to 1451, David’s capture of Jerusalem to 1048, John the Baptist to 26 A.D., the Crucifixion to 33 A.D., and the Revelation to John on Patmos to 96 A.D. After the time of David, the dates are somewhere near what contemporary scholars would give. (In the third edition, no dates were given for anything earlier than 2100 B.C.)

The Panoramic View. The most prominent new feature in the revision of 1917 was the front-matter essay, “A Panoramic View of the Bible.” This essay puts in succinct form the hermeneutical foundations that Fundamentalists and Bible-literalist Evangelicals had already developed and have continued to defend to the present time.

The essay elaborates five propositions (pp. v-vi):

  1. The Bible is one book.
  2. The Bible is a book of books.
  3. The books of the Bible fall into [systematic] groups.
  4. The Bible tells the human story.
  5. The Central Theme of the Bible is Christ.

The basic principle is that the Bible is a closed system. “[T]he Bible story and message is like a picture wrought out in mosaics: each book, chapter, verse, and even word forms a necessary part, and has its own appointed place” (page v). The Bible is one book because every part of it is divinely designed. Therefore, the interpreter’s assignment is to decipher the meaning within the whole of every chapter, verse, and word.

The systematic groupings of Biblical books, with Christ as the unifying theme, is as follows:

Preparation [for Christ]: the Old Testament
Manifestation: the Gospels
Propagation: Acts of the Apostles
Explanation: the Epistles of the New Testament
Consummation: the Apocalypse [book of Revelation]

The Old Testament is subdivided as follows:

Redemption: the Pentateuch
Organization: the historical books, Joshua to Esther
Poetry: Job to Song of Solomon, plus Lamentations
Sermons: all the prophetic books

The point of these groupings and labels is to orient the reader to the big pictures, to provide maps to the components of the closed system that is the inspired Scriptures.

The Dispensations

As an example of how Scofield’s references and notes work we may take one of the more distinctive features of his Bible, the Seven Dispensations.

Scofield’s details concerning the dispensations varied some from the original set developed by John Nelson Darby in the 1860s. The differences presumably developed in the many years of discussions of the End-times with colleagues at the Niagara Summer Conferences on Prophecy. A particularly close consultant on Prophecy was Arno C. Gaebelein (1861-1945), editor of Our Hope magazine and advocate of missions to the Jews. To Gaebelein Scofield wrote in 1905, “I sit at your feet when it comes to prophecy, & congratulate in advance the future readers of my Bible on having in their hands a safe, clear, sane guide through what to most is a labyrinth.” (Facsimile of a note written from the Lotus Club in New York, given on p. 87 of Mangum & Sweetnam.)

[Note: in what follows, all Biblical passages to which Notes are attached are as given in the 1917 edition. Several Notes were moved to other Biblical verses in the Revision of 1967 and its successors.]

Definition. “A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God” (note on Genesis 1:28). Thus for each dispensation there is a specific revelation of some requirement by which humans are to be tested, some consequence of failure, and some time limit that marks the end of that dispensation.

The first four dispensations were given at the beginning of the human story:

(1) Innocency, discussed at Genesis 1:28, at the creation of humans;
(2) Conscience, discussed at Genesis 3:23, at the expulsion from Eden;
(3) Human Government, discussed at Genesis 8:20, after the flood; and
(4) Promise, discussed at Genesis 12:1, the beginning of the Abraham story.

The last three are the major ones for the history of Israel, the Church, and the end-times.

Fifth dispensation, Law, note at Exodus 19:8. “This dispensation extends from Sinai to Calvary—from the Exodus to the Cross. The history of Israel in the wilderness and in the land is one long record of the violation of the law. The testing of the nation by law ended in the judgment of the Captivities, but the dispensation itself ended at the Cross.”

Sixth dispensation, Grace, note at John 1:17. This note is attached to the Bible verse that reads, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

This note has three parts, one the Summary on the topic of grace in the chain reference system, one on the dispensation of grace, and one on the manifestations of grace in salvation and the Christian walk. Here is the part on the dispensation.

(2) As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 3:24-26; 4:24, 25). The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation [8 references]… The immediate result of this testing was the rejection of Christ by the Jews, and His crucifixion by Jew and Gentile (Acts 4:27). The predicted end of the testing of man under grace is the apostasy of the professing church (see “Apostasy,” 2 Tim. 3:1-8, note), and the resultant apocalyptic judgments.

Thus all of Church history and our own time are within the dispensation of Grace.

Seventh dispensation, Kingdom, note at Ephesians 1:10. At this note, the last dispensation is actually called, “the Dispensation of the Fulness [sic] of Times.”

This, the seventh and last of the ordered ages which condition human life on the earth, is identical with the kingdom covenanted to David [references to the Summaries at Zechariah 12:8 and I Corinthians 15:24] and gathers into itself under Christ all past “times”:
(1) The time of oppression and misrule ends by Christ taking His kingdom (Isa. 11:3, 4).
(2) The time of testimony and divine forbearance ends in judgment (Mt. 25:31-46; Acts 17:30, 31; Rev. 20:7-15).
(3) The time of toil ends in rest and reward (2 Thes. 1:6, 7).
(4) The time of suffering ends in glory (Rom. 8:17, 18).
(5) The time of Israel’s blindness and chastisement ends in restoration and conversion (Rom. 11:25-27; Ezk. 39:25-29).
(6) The times of the Gentiles end in the smiting of the image and the setting up of the kingdom of the heavens (Dan. 2:34, 35; Rev. 19:15-21).
(7) The time of creation’s thraldom ends in deliverance at the manifestation of the sons of God (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 11:6-8; Rom. 8:19-21).

Scofield’s Legacy

Reference was made in sketching Scofield’s life to institutions that have become bastions of Dispensationalist theology—Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, Philadelphia University of Bible, and a much longer list could now be compiled. Besides the continuing publications of the Scofield Bible in its original form, revised form, and several “adaptations” to other Bible translations, the Scofield Bible has had its imitators, presenting updated versions of the same basic viewpoint aimed at the same “average Bible reader” audience and purchasing public. Two prominent examples are:

The Ryrie Study Bible, Moody Press, 1978. Charles C. Ryrie was a student of John F. Walvoord (1910-2002), second president of Dallas Theological Seminary, and himself became chairman of the Department of Systematic Theology at that seminary. Ryrie’s Bible used the then-recent New American Standard translation (NASB) first published by the Lockman Foundation (one of the Fundamentalist groups seeking alternatives to the Revised Standard Version) in 1971. Ryrie kept his notes and introductions very simple and included essays at the back, featuring “A Synopsis of Bible Doctrine” (copyright by Moody Bible Institute), which gives Dispensationalist interpretations of the Church, Israel, the Rapture, and the Tribulation.

An “Expanded” edition of the Ryrie Bible was published in 1995 (Moody Press), which included many more charts and summaries of background materials, but kept the Dispensationalist doctrinal interpretations. (Moody Press had published Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today in 1966, and the revision, Dispensationalism in 1995.)

The MacArthur Study Bible, Thomas Nelson, 1997. John MacArthur became a very popular preacher and teacher at Grace Community Church, a mega church in Sun Valley, California. In time he expanded by creating The Master’s Seminary and published separate commentaries on all the New Testament books. His extended publications are facilitated by the staffs of both the church and the seminary, and the most prominent result is the MacArthur Study Bible. This work has all the standard features of present-day study Bibles, joining the publishing melee aimed at Evangelical buyers of the Scriptures. His “Overview of Theology,” at the back of the book, gives the Dispensationalist interpretations of Death, Rapture of the Church, the Tribulation, and the Millennial Reign.

Popular and Political. Even more familiar to most readers will be Scofield’s legacy as seen in popular publications in the last half of the twentieth century.

[The Scofield Bible’s] way of reading the Bible and viewing the world enjoyed a surge of popularity that is still having an impact to the present day. Hal Lindsey’s best seller The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970), John Walvoord’s best seller Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis (1973), Jerry Jenkins’ and Tim LaHaye’s best selling Left Behind series of books (1995-2007) all have their roots in the dispensational theology first popularized by The Scofield Reference Bible…. It was the first best seller to popularize the dispensationalist ideas that these other works developed and made even more famous. (Mangum & Sweetnam, pp. 179-180.)

A major political impact of the dispensationalism presented in the Scofield Bible is the alliance between Evangelicals and the modern state of Israel, after 1948 and especially since 1977 when more conservative leadership came to power in Israel. Writings on these issues are vast, but the Evangelical side is traced recently in Timothy Weber’s On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, Baker Academic, 2004.

Conclusion

This review has been mainly descriptive. In evaluation it should be insisted that Scofield’s Bible was a masterful piece of work. It is much more meticulous and carefully written than any of its later offspring. For anyone who wants to treat the Bible as a closed system, divinely inspired and essentially untouched by questions of social and historical context of the Israelite and early Christian writings, this is a masterpiece of popular Biblical study.

For those who cannot accept such a view of Scripture (and a God who would have contrived it), and who deprecate the political, international, and ethnic consequences of such an astonishingly narrow and elitist world-view as that of Dispensationalism, there must be sadness that such enormous energy and devotion have been poured into such a misguided enterprise.

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