Book Review: “The Reformation Study Bible” (2012 ESV Edition)

Posted: January 1, 2016 in Book Reviews
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ReformationStudyBible2012It has been my practice for about 40 years to take a different edition or translation of the Bible each 1-2 years and read all of it. I suppose I’ve done so about 30 or more times now, although I haven’t kept track so I can’t say for sure. Most times I read it through within a year’s time. Sometimes I’ll take two years to read it. I recall one that I spent three years reading. It’s a great practice of exposing myself to nearly all of the translations of the Bible available and to the wealth of commentary and notes available in study Bibles that are filled with articles and nearly as many notes from scholars as Bible text itself. As long as one remembers that the primary content is the Bible text itself and the eternal Author behind that text, it never hurts to glean from the insights and wisdom of others who have spent far more years studying particular books of the Bible and periods of history than you or I ever will.

For 2015 my goal was to read through The Reformation Study Bible for the first time. At the time of purchase in late 2014, the latest edition available was a 2012 printing, so that’s what I got. I chose to go with one that uses the English Standard Version (ESV) translation since it is one of my personal favorites. It has over 1950 pages of content, so reading 3-4 Bible chapters a day along with the corresponding study notes and commentary accomplishes the year-long goal on schedule. (OK, I confess I finished it on January 1 and not December 31.)

It did not take long into my 2015 reading before I knew I had finally found a study Bible that I was very much at home with in terms of its theological outlook and commentary – one I was inclined to settle in with for multiple readings over many years. I’ve read several other study Bibles and benefited from each, but this one stood out as… well… outstanding to me. With the general editor being R. C. Sproul – pastor, theologian, author, and founder/chairman of Ligonier Ministries – I already trusted as biblically sound the general editor and looked forward to reading the work of the 50+ additional editors and contributors.

The introduction to The Reformation Study Bible explains why it is so named:

The Reformation Study Bible contains a modern restatement of Reformation truth in its comments and theological notes. Its purpose is to present the light of the Reformation afresh. The Reformed accept the Christian faith as expressed in the ecumenical creeds and believed by Christians everywhere. The distinctive ideas of the Reformed are the result of accepting the Bible as the supreme authority for faith and practice. The words of the Bible are true and its message is powerful. It conveys the infallible promise of God, its Author, that it will not return to Him empty, but will certainly accomplish His intended purpose.”

Since some of my personal study in recent years has been about the Reformation and Reformed theology, this study Bible seemed a perfect match for me at this particular time, and it was.

Let me provide two caveats up front before I discuss more of the specifics of this study Bible, especially as a warning to my fellow Southern Baptists and like-minded folk:

  1. If you can’t handle what the Bible says about election, then you may want to avoid The Reformation Study Bible. Of course, if you claim to be one who loves and cherishes what the Word of God teaches, then you ought to be open to what it says regardless of how much your church or denomination may avoid the topic. It’s a soundly biblical subject and this study Bible isn’t afraid to point that out and remind the reader of it regularly.
  2. You may need to agree to disagree with the study note contributors on the subject of baptism, particularly infant baptism. While they fairly treat the traditional Baptist view of baptism as a believers-only act, you will be exposed to another view within these pages. Being exposed to other views, though, is not a bad thing. Perhaps it will help us understand one another better. With general editor Sproul being a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States), one would expect some denominational differences between them and their Baptist (or many other) brethren on the subject.

Now, on to more about this study Bible…

In addition to the Bible text of the ESV, you’ll find the following as listed in the Table of Contents of The Reformation Study Bible:

  • Introduction by R. C. Sproul;
  • List of 50+ contributors from around the world along with their place of employment;
  • An explanation of features (cross-references, footnotes);
  • A preface to the ESV;
  • Nearly 100 brief articles (called theological notes) inserted as appropriate near relevant Bible passages from Genesis to Revelation;
  • 19 in-text maps and a dozen in-text charts also scattered throughout the biblical text from Genesis to Acts;
  • A list of the Old and New Testament books;
  • Old Testament introductions to the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Hebrew Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Prophets, and the Intertestamental Period;
  • New Testament introductions to the Gospels and Acts, and the Epistles;
  • 72-page concordance;
  • Bible reading schedule;
  • Six full-color maps.

Each Bible book contains its own introduction with sections discussing author, date and occasion, interpretive difficulties, characteristics and themes, title, and outline (although not all books will contain all sections). The introductions are fairly brief – usually 2-3 pages.

The text on each page is split into two columns (something that has changed with the 2015 Reformation Study Bible) with a center column for the ESV cross references and footnotes at the bottom of the second column. Study notes are at the bottom of each page except for the theological notes (brief articles) mentioned earlier that are inserted into the main text as needed.

I purchased the brown imitation leather binding and find it attractive with a good feel and very sturdy. After a year of daily handling, it hardly looks used at all from the outside. On the inside, my only complaint is that the pages are so thin that the simple task of underlining with a mechanical pencil would with some regularity start to punch a hole in the page – nothing really noticeable and something I easily stopped each time before doing any damage, but still annoying. It may just be the size and sharpness of the lead I use, but I don’t recall experiencing that with other Bibles I’ve read through in recent years using the same pencil.

One minor content annoyance relates to the ESV footnotes and not the unique writings of this study Bible’s contributors. I’m referring to the repetition of some ESV footnotes in full countless times as you read through books. It seems like there is an unnecessary quantity of notes repeated in full in each chapter of the same book or at least once per book where relevant. That’s an ESV decision, though, and not a decision of the editors of The Reformation Study Bible.

Saving the most important unique quality for last, the content of the introductions and study notes from The Reformation Study Bible contributors are superb. They are informative, helpful, consistent across the books of Old and New Testaments, and a pleasure to read – a great source of knowledge and inspiration. I did not read any Bible book’s notes or supplemental material where I thought there was a noticeable and unwanted difference in the quality of scholarship as I did in 2014 reading through The Apologetics Study Bible. Any reader will learn much about the biblical text by taking the time to read these notes along with the related biblical text. It is a spiritual exercise well worth the time.

I’ve read several study Bibles – ESV Study Bible, MacArthur Study Bible, Apologetics Study Bible, Evidence Bible, and maybe a few I’ve forgotten after too many years – and I can say without reservation that The Reformation Study Bible is at the top of my list of preferred ones. I suspect that is because it came at a time where its theological foundations and mine converged around the Reformed tradition.

For 2016 and beyond I have purchased the newest Reformation Study Bible that was released in 2015. It has about 500 more pages of notes and resources such as the text of numerous historical confessions of faith and more. I look forward to tackling this version over the next 1-2 years. I won’t commit to reading it all in one year because I’m taking a different approach in 2016 of Praying the Bible rather than trying to read it all in a specific time frame, so however long it takes me this time is fine with me.

It’s important for Bible readers to focus on the primary text of scripture and not on what others say about that text. Only one Author is perfect and infallible and He has arranged it so that all who read His word seeking to know Him and His will can understand what He has written through the inspired human authors. It’s also helpful, though, to continually learn new insights that come from the shared research and writings of others who have devoted their lives to such study and scholarship.

If you are looking for a new Bible to read or just a great one to add to your shelf of Bible study resources, I heartily recommend The Reformation Study Bible. Why let it just sit on your shelf, though, for special studies? If you get it, read it all. You’ll be glad you did.

Comments
  1. steve johnson says:

    I thought the Reformation annotations were much more clear and to the point than the in ESV study bible. Upon reading the Reformation annotations my responses were usually…”finally”…now I get it. In the ESV…my response was more likely to be “hm…interesting”. I think there is salvation in the Reformation bible…I can feel it. I found I wanted to read the Reformation. The ESV is nice but it tends to sit on my shelf. I write my notes in an interleaved ESV so I can find them. I tend to be surprised at what I find in the Reformation…it seems to beg me to think and write….then I just have to have someplace to put my thoughts and the interleaved ESV is great…strong blank pages…my favorite. I only use Mont Blanc leads in my mechanical pencils….dark, no smear, erasable…AND…the best for xerox copying.

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