Note 5/10/2013: Third Millennium Ministries is posting everything online (except the NIV text) that is included in the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible. The project is called the IIIM Seminary Study Bible.
Another year has come and gone. One of my New Year’s resolutions each year is to purchase a new study Bible and read through it–Bible, notes, articles, everything. This has been my practice for the past 3 years, and for 2009 my study Bible of choice was the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (SORSB). My devotional reading and Bible study has been immensely enriched this past year by immersing myself in God’s Word, being guided by the Holy Spirit as my primary teacher and listening to other godly scholars who the Spirit has also taught much.
I am also a bit sad about reviewing and recommending this excellent study Bible because (as I hear) it is now out of print and can only be purchased at stores that have remaining stock. In my opinion it is a terrible shame that this book will soon not be widely available because it is the best overall study Bible. I suspect that it could not compete with the recent publication of the ESV Study Bible and the ESV Reformation Study Bible, but the study notes contained in the SORSB are better than both of its competitors. Having read almost every word in this study Bible, I can testify that the level of scholarly excellence and faithfulness is consistently superb.
So what is so good about this Bible? A number of features cause it to stand above its peers.
- Study Notes. The commentary is pretty comprehensive on every book of the Bible. While writing research papers in seminary I had to frequently consult multiple commentaries on interpretive options for various passages. What I discovered time and again was that after hours of research in weighing options, the notes in the SORSB mirrored the best option available. In this sense, it proved to be trustworthy guide for study. Also, the study notes are an extensive revision and expansion of the notes in the ESV Reformation Study Bible. So here you get more thorough explanations.
- Book Introductions. Each biblical book is prefaced with a 2-3 page introductory article summarizing the best evangelical and reformed consensus on topics such as authorship, time and place of writing, original audience, purpose and distinctives, Christ in [book name] (for OT books), and an extensive book outline. Each article interacts with historical-critical scholarship by uncovering their presuppositions and showing why many of the conclusions of critical scholarship are unwarranted when viewed in light of all the evidence.
- Book Section Articles. Each major section of writings in the Bible are introduced with a 2-3 page article. These articles offer the reader a thematic introduction to the books, a literary-canonical analysis of how the book function in the canon, and a history of their composition. Again, attention is paid to critical scholarship so as to interact with and evaluate its conclusions. The various OT sections are the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetic and Wisdom Books, Prophetic Books; NT sections include the Gospels and Acts, and the Epistles.
- Reformed Confessions. As an appendix, the SORSB includes the major Reformed confessions (the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, Heidelberg Catechism) and the Westminster Standards (Confession, Larger and Shorter Catechisms)) that continue to function as confessional standards for many Presbyterian and Reformed churches today. Reading and studying these historical documents is extremely beneficial to doctrinal understanding, and provides a window on what biblical issues are most important to Protestants. The SORSB goes a step further in its use of these confessional documents by reverse referencing them in the Bible book study notes. While I didn’t use this reverse reference feature very often, when I did I found it extremely useful as a guide to a fuller understanding of the application of referenced verses.
As with other study Bibles that have been published in recent years, it contains standard features like biblical cross-references, translation/textual notes, concordance, in-text maps, charts, and diagrams, and color maps in the back of the book.
I can only imagine a few potential drawbacks to the SORSB for some readers:
- The translation is the NIV (New International Version). While I consider the NIV to be a good dynamic-equivalent translation, many readers prefer a more formal equivalent translation such as the ESV, NASB, or KJV. I’ve heard some dogmatic folks say they will not purchase any study bible in the NIV, but losing out on what the SORSB has to offer would be a great loss.
- In recent years, the Study Bible has gone “technicolor”. Many study Bibles now incorporate color on virtually every page, making Bible study more appealing to the visually oriented. The SORSB is “old school” in comparison. The only color to be found is in the maps at the end of the book. But again, color is not what really makes the Bible come alive. It is the inspired text and the faithful exposition of it that brings a truly “colorful” experience to reading the Bible.
- The SORSB does not apologize for being evangelically Reformed in its doctrinal slant. For non-evangelicals or non-Calvinists, reading a “Reformed” Bible may sound distasteful, but I can attest that there is nothing in this Bible that is not “winsomely” Reformed. The attitude of the commentary and articles is respectful of other faith traditions, and has the feel of informing the reader what the Reformed tradition has confessed in the past and today, rather than dogmatically lecturing from a position of assumed authority. Besides, the majority of commentary does not touch on distinctly Calvinistic doctrine, but rather merely seeks to interact faithfully with the text with an honest and humble interpretive strategy (instead of a hermeneutic of either suspicion or historic confession).
- Perhaps the biggest objection to buying the SORSB is that it is now out of print and a little difficult to track down at a fair price. This obstacle makes me sad, because it is reasonable. But I hope those who look past this will try to find a copy of this study Bible before it is too late. I bet you won’t regret it.
For a peek at what the SORSB looks like on the inside, click here.
Westminster Bookstore is an online retailer that still has copies to sell.