The Dongola Times

(Anachronistic) Dispatches from the Kingdom of Makuria.
28th of September, 2015

Reformation Study Bible Review

Long ago, I pre-ordered the Reformation Study Bible that was edited by R C Sproul (of Ligonier Ministries), and I was excited about it even before I got to see it. I have had it for over two months, now, and I am very happy to have a good paper Bible with study notes, but I also have some gripes to note. I have always wanted to write a review of it since then. I want to cover several things about the Bible itself, but first I will discuss the version.

The version is English Standard Version (ESV), which, unfortunately, is now the norm among anglophone Reformed; I say “unfortunately” because, while it is a very good translation, the publishers of it are so jealously defensive of it that they are the only ones I know who have successfully issued take-down orders for unformatted XML copies of it that are were found on Google Drive. Nobody ever created any of the prevailing versions with the expectation of making money from electronic versions—electronic versions are so cheap and unprofitable, on top of post-dating all these versions—so for as long as people buy paper Bibles (which they do) the profit obligations of the publisher, such as they are, have been fulfilled. But the publishers of the ESV have, for many decades already, made money off paper versions, and yet they are still jealous over Zefania XML versions of it! May they be accursed of God.

The packaging and presentation is good—I like the spartan design of the cover, with the subtle Ligonier logo—but it doesn’t present itself as “heirloom” material. All the materials are of box and paper; that is fine for a study Bible, but in this day of Bible Gateway and Bible Hub and OliveTree and Sword and Zefania XML, honestly, the extra ten-twenty dollars or so that it would take to calf-skin a Bible is worth it. Nobody buys a paper (study) Bible because he needs a Bible; they buy it for collections and so on. This was not the case for me, but one thing that should result from the irrelevance of paper Bibles to the normal reader of the Word is that the industry (yes: those who are making money off it) should understand that every buyer is buying premium. There are enough cheap Bibles out there; there is enough Gideon’s and random other Chinese publishers turning out unlicenced ESVs. If I buy a legit ESV with a sound name against it, it should … my point is that, if you are selling it in print (in a box), you are back to the days of the illuminated manuscript. Each copy is a keep-sake, and that for centuries.

This point above—that a paper Bible sold today must be premium—is going to be a simmering subtext to whatever criticism follows. You may not agree; even so, I can find a free ESV, even in hardback, after some ten minutes of looking. If I do not get it essentially free, it should be because it is of premium quality.

A quick example of this issue: there is no ribbon. Really? In a study Bible? A study Bible should have at least two ribbons to hold place; if I want to go off to the islands—with no electricity, just me and my Bible—I should not have to remember to take a placeholder. In this case, I would have to remember to take four, because a study Bible can easily have a student of the Word tracking so many places at once. And yet they could have sensibly justified this by saying that this is not an premium Bible—and that is exactly the problem. There was a time when a cheap Testament came with a ribbon, and it was expected; today, a pre-ordered study Bible has none!

But apart from using a greedy publisher’s version and not being presented in a “premium” package, there is little that is objectionable about the presentation of text itself. As far as copy-setting the text, the execution was quite impressive. Study Bibles are exceptionally challenging in layout, but when you look at this one, you feel that there was a real investment of time.

The guys who designed the Bible are named, as is sensible, but the typeface is not named. Come on. This is what I mean, you see, because if they had been making their Bible for posterity, they would not miss out such a crucial detail. Today you find people naming typefaces after designers (“Caslon”) and even individual works in which exemplars of a certain style or type appeared long ago.
They typeface itself is beautiful, actually, and has a sufficient supply of nice ligatures. The ligatures are not very traditional, which is delightful; but ultimately the typeface does not distinguish itself either by its looks or by name. It is the normal and forgettable face that, say, a beautified Merriweather could replace. I think the “standard-issue typeface” has had its time—if I were typesetting a Bible today, I would be obsessed with a chance to use something as wild and novel as, say, Alegreya.

But regarding the type-setting, there is one thing in which these guys excelled: shadowing control. The paper is the thin India paper we have all come to expect in thick publications, but there is almost absolutely no perceived shadowing, because they managed to lay out the text well-enough to offset any ghosting. It is quite satisfying to see the lines fall over each other in such perfect sync, even on a single leaf, and this is going to make it at least a very comfortable Bible to use in normal circumstances.

The Bible has good resources, which are the many renowned Reformed scholars who contribute to the volume, and the confessions it appends to the end. I have not had the chance to explore enough of these contributions to present a worthwhile review of them, but I expect that nothing flagrantly heterodox could have slipped in past such an editorial pedigree.
Yet the canonical resources are quite anæmic when compared to how much space is allocated to the scholars. Of the Three Forms of Unity, only the Belgic Confession is included. Since it is anglophone, the Westminster Confession of Faith is also sensibly included. But, unfortunately, so is the London Baptist Confession! This is a serious error on their part, because the Baptist confession is not even orthodox! (Accursed be any man who trivialises the multi-generational-ness of the covenants of God! The Baptists formalise rebellion against parents, and call it good and sound doctrine—for, according to them, a child may legitimately not receive and follow the orthodox religion of his father, which is a damnable error and accursed heresy.) Sound Reformed doctrine has as little to do with the Baptists as it does with the Episcopalians; and the 39 Articles are missing for good reason.

Moreover, the Westminster Confession has, from the beginning, had the relevant Bible references included (the English Parliament actually required them of the Assembly of Divines), and yet they are not only missing in the text of the confession itself (!), but you also do not find back-references (i.e., from the text of the Bible to an article of the confession). In a Bible that wraps the text of scripture on either side with the many words of scholars—and in an age when computers are used in such work, and the algorithm to achieve this is simple—how can we explain this lacuna? Since the Statenvertaling, confessions have been a normal feature in the back of the Bible; but now, centuries later, there is no real improvement on this laudable tradition.

Moreover, this is a bit of a regression since the translation of the Synod of Dort; the Statenvertaling had more than just the confession; it also had the Heidelberg Catechism. There isn’t a catechism in this Study Bible. Imagine: they put the redundant Baptist confession, which basically just rehashes Westminster for the most part, and yet they left out any catechisms. This lacuna is hard to explain, except that the guiding consideration was neither the orthodoxy of resources (worrying) nor exhaustive supply of orthodox resources (regrettable); by including the Baptist standard—and, tellingly, the Baptists do not have more than just a cribbed confession; they have neither catechism nor subscription to the Canons of Dort—one is led to believe that profit (i.e., being able to sell to the sizeable population of pious American Baptists) was a bigger influence on the choice of resources. —And, no, the Canons of Dort are not there, either; this is not a problem, in itself, but is something I would like to note.

I think the relationship that readers have with the Bible has evolved enough to justify a lot more effort being put in every last new production of it, especially if it will be sold. I also think that the Reformed tradition is old enough, now, that resource Bibles done in this tradition have many important precedents to respect and many canonical resources to include, that the study Bible cannot be approached with old eyes any more. Liturgical forms, for instance, have their place in a study Bible, because, like all things Reformed, they are thoroughly biblical, and yet, because Reformed worship is so sparse, almost everything required for Sunday can be packed away in a large, well-done volume. Perhaps I would even have insisted on appending a metric psalter, but I accept dissent on this one.
Some time, I will be designing and producing a study Bible; it will not be easy to make it better than this one in any way, but that would have to be the requirement and aim.