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Mark My Words: Effective Bible Notation

Committed Christians are Bible-believing Christians (1 Thes. 2:13). We believe we are sanctified by the Word of truth (Jn. 17:17). We understand that we must diligently feed upon the solid meat of Scripture (Heb. 5:12-14). We happily examine the words of ministers, searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are so (Ac. 17:11). Consequently, one sign of the committed Christian is his or her well-marked Bible.

I am sure I share with the vast majority of Bible-carrying, text-marking Christians the regret of having too hastily jotted indelible notes in my favorite expensive, leather-bound Bible. I still have the first Bible I received upon my conversion at age 16. Needless to say, I have plenty of notes in that Bible that I lament.

Over the years, I have become more careful in my note-taking while listening to sermons and lectures on Scripture. I would like to share a few thoughts that have enhanced my note-taking and limited the number of Bibles I have had to toss out.

Tools of the Trade

The first order of business in your bibliocharagmic (Bible marking) endeavor is to purchase proper tools for the trade (none of them gasoline powered, harmful to the environment, or high on calories!). Important tools include the following:

First, a good quality wide-margin Bible. Wider margins provide additional space for serious, orderly note-taking. This important tool not only provides more notes ready to hand, but facilitates deciphering them later. You do not need to buy a Bible made of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. A good wide-margin Bible provides one inch margins all around while remaining a manageable size.

Second, you need a mechanical pencil, which I prefer to a ballpoint pen. I recommend a pencil with either 0.5 or 0.7 mm #2 lead and a good, soft eraser. I would even argue that I am being Biblical in this, in that I follow the Apostle John’s lead: “I have many things to write, but I am not willing to write them with pen and ink” (3 Jn. 13)!

Pencil inscription will allow you to avoid common, annoying problems, such as being unable to correct accidental jottings of the wrong cross-reference, notes placed at the wrong location (not near enough the proper verse), or thoughts that you later come to regret altogether (e.g., the latest date for the Rapture). How often I would have gathered my notes together and erased them, but I could not.

Third, you need a notepad. Purchase a thin, lined notepad with small enough sheets to insert into your Bible. You will always have note-taking materials when your grab your Bible. Or at least have two or three folded sheets tucked loosely in your Bible for this purpose. I discourage taking notes on the fly. I have seen some Bibles where it appears that any verse the pastor read was underlined; this is not helpful. I have seen pages filled with unnecessary material.

You should jot down notes in a notebook or on note sheets so that you can take them hastily and fully without permanently cluttering your Bible with them. You should avoid going “out hastily to argue your case, otherwise, what will you do in the end when your neighbor puts you to shame” with better notes in his Bible (Pr. 25:8)?

After taking notes during a sermon or lecture, you can later set aside time to reflect on the notes. Then carefully organize, summarize, and record them in your Bible (in pencil, of course!). I would recommend finding a time not long after hearing the message, so that your recall will supplement your notes.

Fourth you need, an attachable blank notebook (if your Bible does not have several blank sheets of space in the back). Wide margins will not hold all the notations you might like to carry with you in case you run into a dispensationalist seeking whom he may devour. Blank sheets provide invaluable real estate for more serious note taking.

To make your own insertable notebook, construct one in the following manner:

•  Take three or four sheets of 8 ½” x 11” typing paper.

•  Fold them in half.

•  Insert the folded sheets into one another, creating a little “booklet.”

•  Staple the sheets together at the folded center.

   You now are the proud owner of a small, blank notebook. But you want it to stay in your Bible. You should attach it in the very back of your Bible like this:

•  Place a drop or two of glue on the outside of the booklet at the fold. (If you don’t want to glue them in your Bible, paper clip them to the last page in your Bible with two paper clips.)

•  Tightly tuck the “booklet” up against a glueable surface, such as either the sheet before the last page of your Bible just before the back cover, or the inside cover itself (if glue will adhere to it). (Do not put seven seals on it: only destruction and chaos will result when you open it, cf. Rev. 6.)

By this method you can “enlarge the place of your notes, stretch out the pages of your Bible, lengthen your notes, and strengthen your debates,” all in imitation of Isaiah’s example (Is. 54:2).

Organizing for the Task

Now, how do you put your shiny new equipment to work for you?

First, develop a system of abbreviations. Never use the limited space available in your Bible to record notes in full, verbose, elegant prose. If you do, you will soon discover in your “right hand a book written on the front and on the back, full of lamentation and woe” as you try to labor through your full volume of thought (Ez. 2:10). You want notes in your Bible, not treatises.

Not only do I attempt to write smaller than normal (conserving space), but I abbreviate my notes by a combination of:

•  well-known abbreviations (“Gn” = Genesis; “Ex” = Exodus; “cp.” = compare; “qv”  = “which see”; “purp” = “purpose”);

•  other abbreviations and Greek symbols (the capital letter “G” stands for “God”; the Greek letter chi [X] stands for “Christ”); and

•  compacted words (generally formed by dropping unnecessary vowels: “Bbl” = “Bible”; “thlgy” = “theology”; or by symbols: “<” = “from”; “>” = “to”).

Having used this system for a number of years, I can read and understand my notes as easily as full text.

Second, organize your notes. Random notes in the back of your Bible can be hard to find when you need them — unless you have approached the task with careful planning. A jumbled, chaotic note section in your Bible leaves you to lament: “Who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man” which has planned them (1 Cor. 2:11)? To correct such a problem, I recommend the following:

•  Mark each of your blank pages at the top with a range of letters from the alphabet. For instance, “A-D”; “E-G”; “H-K”; “L-P”; “Q-T”; “U-Z.”

•  Carefully write your notes on the proper page: “Predestination” notes on the page marked “N-Q.” “Tongues” notes on “R-Z.” And so forth. They will be at least loosely organized and easier to find.

•  Organize your entries on the various topics in some sort of logical fashion. Try to avoid just piling up verses under a heading. For example, under “Predestination” you could organize them (using your abbreviations, mind you!): 1. “Key vv” (i.e. “Key verses”). 2. “Bfor Crtn” (i.e., “Before Creation”). 3. “Acc > G purp” (i.e., “According to God’s purpose”). 4. “Aprt < wrks” (i.e., “Apart from our works”). 5. “Prob vv” (i.e., “Problem verses”). Notice also that I conserve space by not entering each point on a separate line.

Third, develop a system of cross-references. I have certain base texts, so that I don’t have to wonder where I jotted the cross references on a topic. For instance, on the concept of the “last days,” I have my base note at Hebrews 1:2. I know if I turn there I will find a long list of Bible references in the margin that show the last days began in the first century. At each of those other verses in the Scriptures, I simply write in the margin: “Hb. 1:2.” I underline the reference as an indication it refers to my base note. This way, if I happen to forget where my base note is, I can turn to any of the familiar passages and it re-directs me to the base where all the cross references appear.

Fourth, develop a system of pointers. If you want to make a note on some key thought in a particular Bible verse:

•  Underline the key word in the verse. This will alert you to the key thought and remind you that you have some notes elsewhere in your Bible on it.

•  Above the underlined word put a pointer to where the notes are. For instance, “T” means in the top margin of that page in the wide margin space; “B”, the bottom margin; a left or right pointing arrow points to the margin beside the text itself. “N” over the marked word reminds me I have some notes in the rear personalized “notebook” which I have inserted in my Bible.

Fifth, use your Bible’s small concordance. If you have a system of base notes in your Bible, you can link them with your Bible concordance. If you don’t have a full notebook entry recorded in your blank pages (your notebook), look up “predestine” in the concordance in the back of your Bible. Beside “predestine,” jot the Bible reference to your base note and underline it. If “predestine” does not appear in your concordance, write the word “predestine” in the closest position where it would have been.

Sixth, if you like to teach Bible studies and relish such opportunities, tuck one of your favorite Bible studies (or sermons) in your Bible. That way, if you are visiting Christian friends somewhere and they ask you to make a few comments on Scripture or offer you the opportunity to teach a class, you will have something organized and available. Of course, if you use your blank sheets effectively, you will have mini-Bible studies available in the back of your Bible.

Seventh, transfer your notes in an orderly fashion. When you buy a new Bible, begin at Genesis and leaf through your old, well-marked Bible one page at a time. Carefully and legibly transfer the notes that are truly helpful from your old to your new Bible. Do this as soon as you can, so that you will have your cherished notes at your fingertips.

These are just a few of the procedures I use for taking notes in my Bible. I have found them to be extremely helpful (especially the older and more feeble I get!). If you give thought to your note taking methods, you will find that you can create an invaluable, personalized, long-lasting “Study Bible.” Who know? If you find enough colorful pictures or simple charts, you might be able to market your Bible and make a fortune. Unless, of course, you are Raptured before the project is completed.


Topics: Church, The, Education, Theology

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., holds degrees from Tennessee Temple University (B.A.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th. M.; Th. D).  He also attended Grace Theological Seminary for two years.  He is Research Professor in New Testament (Whitefield Theological Seminary), a theological writer, and conference speaker. He has written numerous books and articles on issues such as theology, ecclesiology, eschatology, theonomy, six-day creation, presuppositionalism, worldview, Christian education, and more.  He also offers a Christian writing correspondence course.  He is the Director of GoodBirth Ministries, a non-profit religious educational ministry committed to sponsoring, subsidizing, and advancing serious Christian scholarship and education.  He is a retired Presbyterian minister holding his ordination vows in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly.

More by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.