What Bible Translation Do Presbyterians Use? Get the Facts

The Presbyterian tradition has historically held the Bible in high esteem. Its founder, French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), and other pastors and theologians had the conviction that God inspired Scripture and that it’s authoritative for the Church.

The King James Version (KJV) is the Bible translation that Presbyterians have used historically. However, in recent decades, many Presbyterians switched to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV), or the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.

What Study Bibles do Presbyterians prefer? What do Presbyterians believe about Sola Scriptura and the doctrine of inerrancy? Keep reading to learn more.

Also see Presbyterian vs Pentecostal: What’s the Difference? to learn more.

Presbyterianism Holy Bible
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

What are the Best Study Bibles for Presbyterians?

The sheer number of Bible translations and Study Bibles can appear daunting to the average Christian. The wide range of theological perspectives only serves to further complicate matters.

Although Presbyterians do not possess their own particular Study Bible, there are a number of Bibles that reflect the principles of Presbyterian or Reformed theology. Two notable Study Bibles with a Reformed perspective include:

  • The Reformation Study Bible: Contributors include R.C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, Wayne Grudem, Knox Chamberlin, Buck Parsons, Stephen Nichols, Steven Lawson, Michael Horton, Robert Yarbrough, Derek Thomas, and T. Desmond Alexander.
  • The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible: Contributors include Richard Pratt, Bruce Waltke, John Frame, and Roger Nicole, J.I. Packer, James Montgomery Boice, Sinclair Ferguson, and Wayne Grudem.

R.C. Sproul (1939-2017), the general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, is both Reformed and theologically conservative. Over the years, this Study Bible has changed names (originally it was named the New Geneva Study Bible) and utilized two different translations (switched from The New King James to The English Standard Version in 2005).

In general, the study notes offer a variety of perspectives in places where there is variance within the Reformed tradition and specificity where there is agreement. 

Do Presbyterians prefer the ESV translation?

In recent years, there has been a movement within conservative evangelicalism, and especially within the Reformed tradition, to move to use the English Standard Version.

Because of this, the more theologically conservative Presbyterian denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in America, favor this translation, while the mainline denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), does not. (Also see Presbyterian Church USA vs Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?)

For the most part, the PCUSA uses the New Revised Standard Version in their publications and liturgy, and local churches in the PCUSA often use this translation as their pew bible. Unlike the conservative branches of the reformed tradition, the PCUSA does not have a Study Bible that it can call its own.

However, there exists a plethora of Study Bibles that fit well with the PCUSA theologically. This includes both The HarperCollins Study Bible and The New Oxford Annotated Bible. These Bibles utilize the NRSV and are denominational in nature. Because of this, these Bibles are used both by Protestant and Catholic laypeople and scholars.

Also, both of the Bibles approach Scripture from a scholarly perspective rather than from a theological or devotional viewpoint. However, because of the diversity of thought that exists within the PCUSA, these Bibles do not necessarily represent how a pastor or congregant approaches Scripture. [1] [2] (Also see Presbyterian vs Episcopalian: What’s the Difference?)

Presbyterianism Scripture
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 (ESV)

Do Presbyterians believe in Sola Scriptura?

Since the Protestant Reformation, Sola Scriptura has been a cornerstone of both Presbyterian and Reformed theology. Sola Scriptura is one of the five “Solas” of the Reformation and means that the Bible is and should be the highest authority in a Christian’s life. (Also see: Presbyterian vs Methodist: What’s the Difference?)

Everything that a believer needs for salvation and the Christian life is contained in the words of the Bible. Sproul explains,

“The idea of sola Scriptura is that there is only one written source of divine revelation, which can never be placed on a parallel status with confessional statements, creeds, or the traditions of the church. Scripture alone has the authority to bind the conscience precisely because only Scripture is the written revelation of almighty God.”

Twilight of the Idols, Tabletalk, June 2008, p. 7

Martin Luther and John Calvin argued that reason and tradition can be helpful in the believer’s life but that, ultimately, both must submit to the authority of Scripture. A key component of Sola Scriptura is that the Bible is clear enough for the average person to understand and interpret the main truths therein. Accordingly, Protestant reformers were especially concerned with ensuring that every person had access to the Bible in their own language. [3]

Throughout its history, Presbyterianism has been committed to the principle of Sola Scriptura. To ensure that the church does not drift away from the truths of Scripture, Presbyterians utilize various creeds or confessions, most notably the Westminster Confession of Faith. (Also see Presbyterian vs Baptist: What’s the Difference?)

A typical Presbyterian worship service includes both readings from the Bible and recitation of doctrine. Regarding individual study, reading the Bible is an important aspect of a Presbyterian life. Some Presbyterians consider it the most important thing that a Christian can do. This is because they believe that the Bible should intimately inform how believers should live their lives, even if it contradicts culture, experience, or reason.

Presbyterians also often interpret Scripture through a gospel-centered lens. Scholars of this persuasion view the Bible as one unified story, often retroactively reinterpreting the Old Testament through the perspective of the cross.

Over the last several decades, a rift has occurred in Presbyterian theology between traditional, orthodox teaching and more progressive interpretation on important Christian doctrines. Thus, within the PCUSA, which is the largest Presbyterian denomination, a range of views exists concerning how much authority the Bible has for a Christian’s life.

Some Presbyterian scholars have begun to value reason, experience, and tradition more highly than other Presbyterians have in the past. The discussion often goes like this: should reason, tradition, or any other factor ever override the clear message of a passage of Scripture? (Also see the full article Do Presbyterians Believe in the Trinity?)

Do Presbyterians believe the Bible is inerrant?

Tied to this issue of scriptural authority is that of inerrancy. One major reason that some scholars argue for a more moderate view of the Bible’s authority is that they believe that the bible contains errors.

Like the subject of Sola Scriptura, this issue often divides along the liberal/conservative theological divide, with Presbyterians taking one side or the other. (Also see Are Calvinists and Presbyterians the Same?)

Generally speaking, the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church believe Scripture to be inerrant, while those in the PCUSA tend to avoid this sort of language when talking about the Bible. 

Something that makes this conversation more complex is the variety of meanings connected to the concept of inerrancy. Some theologians believe the Bible to be inerrant in purpose, while others believe that Scripture is inerrant in every statement and detail. (Also see How Do Presbyterians Baptize Adults?)

In addition, there are those who argue that the concept of inerrancy is a relatively modern term that is unique to evangelicalism. In response, some contend that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and most of the reformers speak of the authority of the Bible in a manner that is much closer to ideals of theological conservatism than theological liberalism.

Regardless, for the vast majority of its existence, Presbyterianism has held the Bible in very high regard. Serious challenges to its primacy within Presbyterian circles have only come within the latter half of the twentieth century. (Also see Presbyterian vs Episcopalian: What’s the Difference?)

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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