I’ve now had a chance to read the first two chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the beginning of First Corinthians in the Word on Fire Bible Volume 2, and I’ll summarize some of my thoughts and some memorable excerpts from the commentary here.
The basic goal of the commentary in Volume 2 is the same as the commentary in Volume 1. The front matter contains the same introductory essays by Bishop Barron that were included in Volume 1 outlining the goals of the Word on Fire Bible and providing a brief overview of biblical interpretation. I covered these essays in greater depth in my review of Volume 1. They provide an approachable introduction to the Bible that is not overly technical and summarizes good fundamental information.
Just like Volume 1, much of the commentary reads like a homily — and indeed, a substantial portion of the commentary is extracted from homilies that Bishop Barron has written. Other excerpts are taken from Church documents, early Church Fathers, saints, doctors of the Church, and theologians. In general, the commentary extracts key themes from the biblical text and makes them immediately relevant to modern readers. It quickly bridges the gap between the ancient culture of the biblical writers and modern western culture — sometimes so quickly that it produces “whoa” or “aha” moments. Many of the reflections include challenging exhortations to apply the Bible’s teaching in your life.
This Bible is laid out with alternating blocks of biblical text and commentary. There are no footnotes. The layout lends itself to reading scripture “a block at a time” rather than a sentence or two at a time, which sometimes happens in a Bible with many footnotes (like the NABRE New Testament). I prefer the block-at-a-time format. It helps me focus alternately on reading scripture, then reflecting on what I just read. By contrast, extensive footnotes break up the flow of reading so much that I sometimes lose the big picture of the biblical text.
That being said, the commentary in this Bible is extensive enough that the reading experience is still broken up. If I tried to read multiple chapters of Scripture straight-through while ignoring the commentary, I would need to skip past interspersed blocks of text and sometimes turn past multiple pages of commentary to continue reading. Taken as a whole package, the scripture and commentary can be read for extended periods without trouble, but if you are looking to read longer passages or absorb a biblical book in its entirety, for example, it would be useful to have a reader’s bible with no notes to complement the Word on Fire Bible.
Assessment and Excerpts
I’m impressed with how the commentary contextualizes the theological debates that have boiled throughout Christian history without getting “stuck in a rut” and rehashing the debates. This is especially apparent in Romans, where the commentary wrestles with Paul’s dichotomies of flesh and Spirit, sin and righteousness, in a way that is balanced and admirably avoids so many pitfalls that have come from reading Paul outside a broader biblical and philosophical context. It manages this feat without spending much ink focusing on the protestant reformation or making arguments to refute doctrinal points that emerged during the reformation. The commentary focuses on elucidating a Catholic understanding of Romans. Its arguments are directed against secularism and self-help ideologies, rather than protestant vs. Catholic concerns.
Romans begins with a brief introduction by Dr. Matthew Petrusek. He follows a common recent trend by comparing sin and its effects to addiction. His punchline is powerful: the honest addict knows that trying to save himself is a death sentence. Every one of us sinners should have the same recognition about our sins.
On a similar theme, a short snippet from theologian Henri de Lubac appears next to the text of Romans 3:23-24, laying down a marker that any authentic theology must accept the reality of sin and grace:
If anyone refuses to accept these two correlative terms, sin and grace, in their simple and usual meaning, even if he claims to be and is an exponent of an “evolved” Christianity, of an “adult” Christianity more in tune with “modern thought,” he would very evidently be contradicting the tradition of ancient Israel, as well as that of the Church who in her liturgy reminds us of these facts every day. Worse yet, it is this entire tradition and really all of Scripture and Christianity as a whole that would be denied if one tried to do away with the drama between sinful man and the God who offers him grace.Henri de Lubac — A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace
With these markers laid down, the commentary throughout much of Romans focuses on an integrated understanding of Paul’s teaching for our lives. In multiple places, the commentary pushes away from the body/soul dualism that is prevalent in modern society to place Paul’s teaching in the context of a more integrated, united view of the human person. Here are two examples of this:
In Romans 4, Bishop Barron comments on Abraham’s justification by faith:
Don’t think of faith primarily as assenting to propositions; think of it as something far more existential. To have faith means, in the first place, to trust in the Lord, to turn one’s life over to the direction of God. When you do this, life begins to flow through you. Paul’s great model of faith is Abraham, and Abraham’s greatest quality was, to put it simply and directly, trust.
…Paul says that his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” He means that this is the act that straightened Abraham out, made him right—a true vehicle of God’s grace. But this is not merely of antiquarian interest! “It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”Bishop Robert Barron
Then in Romans 7, a reflection by Thomas Merton presents an integrated view of God’s grace:
Grace is not a strange, magic substance which is subtly filtered into our souls to act as a kind of spiritual penicillin. Grace is unity, oneness within ourselves, oneness with God. Grace is the peace of friendship with God—and if it does not necessarily bring us a “felt” peace, it nevertheless gives us every reason to be at peace, if we could only understand and appreciate what it means. Grace means that there is no opposition between man and God, and that man is able to be sufficiently united within himself to live without opposition to God. Grace is friendship with God. And more—it is sonship. It makes us the “beloved sons” of God in whom he is “well-pleased”Thomas Merton — The New Man
Paul’s difficult argument in Romans 9 provides fodder for an extended quotation from Flannery O’Connor on the Church’s teaching authority. This is one example where a more traditional apologetic argument appears in the Word on Fire Bible:
…Catholics believe that Christ left the Church with a teaching authority and that this teaching authority is protected by the Holy Ghost; in other words that in matters of faith and morals the Church cannot err, that in these matters she is Christ speaking in time. So you can see that I don’t find it an infringement of my independence to have the Church tell me what is true and what is not in regard to faith and what is right and what is wrong in regard to morals. Certainly I am no fit judge. If left to myself, I certainly wouldn’t know how to interpret Romans 9. I don’t believe Christ left us to chaos.Flannery O’Connor — The Habit of Being
At Romans 13:13-14, the famous verses that played a key role in Saint Augustine’s conversion, there is an extended two-page excerpt from Augustine’s Confessions, recounting the moment when Augustine read these verses and was converted.
Overall, the experience of reading extended portions of the Word on Fire Bible is one that draws on a wide range of sources to illuminate the text and to show how the text has illuminated the Church through the ages: doctors of the Church, theologians, Bishop Barron, classic art, etc. The project has a cohesive design that carries over seamlessly from volume 1 to volume 2. My original conclusions from volume 1 are still relevant for volume 2. This is a Bible that offers excellent food for thought. It focuses its commentary on explaining the Catholic faith in the context of general unbelief and skepticism about religion, rather than theological debates between protestants and Catholics. But in so doing, it is a commentary that is quite relevant to Catholics and unbelievers alike in the 21st century.