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.

Overview

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.

Reading Experience

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.

Conclusion

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.

9 thoughts on “In Depth with the Word on Fire Bible Volume 2: Part 2 — Commentary”

  1. I recently heard of a rumor that Cambridge University was going to publish (through their press) copies of different varying Bibles this coming year. The one I was specifically intereted in hear about their publishing is the ESV Catholic edition. I contacted them and asked them when it would be out and if there would be study editions, compact editions and this is what they said back to me.

    Dear Andrew,

    I am getting back to you about this Bible query.

    Please note that we will be publishing an ESV Catholic Edition. It will publish around early summer 2022 and will be available in either imitation leather or calfskin leather.

    We won’t be publishing study editions, only reference editions.

    And also please keep up to date with news on our Facebook and Instagram pages (CambridgeBibles) and the Bible will be shown on our website for purchase when it is available: http://www.cambridge.org/bibles.

  2. Now that I have finished the WOF Gospels, I can say that it was a good experience and the alternating style of “spoon of Scripture, spoon of commentary” worked well in short doses. But as beautiful as it is, I don’t think I’ll ever open it again once I digested the commentary. I can’t imagine rereading in that format. The power of the commentary (and that ranged from mildly interesting to powerfully moving) would be greatly diminished on a second read through. I didn’t not expect this reaction. It almost makes me wish I had bought the paperback version. It further strengthened my feeling that I would not be buying future volumes after Vol 2.

    1. Tim,
      Nice review. I agree with your observation. While I have not read the WOF Gospels; I find that when I read a commentary which includes all of the Bible text, I find it useful to read along with a single column reader’s edition. This helps me keep a better sense of continuity. I do believe, leaving this beautiful book on the coffee table might aid someone to commence the regularly reading of the Bible. The commentary and the art may help them to understand both the depth and the beauty of the Bible and inspire them to go further. Perhaps when a visitor comes, do something that leaves them alone in the living room for a short period of time and then see what happens. It’s worth a try.

      1. Thanks Jim
        Bishop Barron suggested something similar in his preview of Vol 2 when he said “give it away” when you are done to someone who might benefit. Perfect for the paperback but it hurts when it’s the leather version. Lol

  3. Andrew,
    Is there an advantage to buying the Catholic Edition ESV from Cambridge over their ESV+Apocrypha (also supposedly coming out in leather this year in the Diadem typesetting)? The Prayer of Manasseh is something good to have “on hand” so is it worth losing it to get the Deuterocanon in their proper locations?

    1. As it pertains to the edition that you’re thinking about that has the prayer of Manasseh in it, and includes the erroneously but commonly called Apocrypha. I’m not sure and don’t know if that that edition also contains the 151st Psalm and 3rd and 4th Maccabees but I’m going to assume it does.
      I would recommend that you buy the Catholic Edition as that has everything in it that you need and where it’s supposed to be, whereas the ones with the Apocrypha will have you searching through a whole middle section to be able to find what it is you’re looking for. I’ve noticed in every edition that is the one that say WITH APOCRYPHA never says Daniel 13, Daniel 14 or what have they are just it’s just put in underneath a certain title such as Bel and the Dragon, so you’ll have to memorize which particular text in the middle goes in which book like your Daniel or what have you so the ones that say with apocrypha being more unwieldy. So myself I would again recommend you buy the Catholic one because that again has everything we’re supposed to be. The prayer of Manasseh along with 3rd and 4th Maccabees and the 151st Psalm are interesting to check out to see what they’re like, I know that 3rd and 4th Maccabees and the prayer of Manasseh etc., were in the Septuagint but they were in the appendix. The Church has for all intents and purposes for over a thousand years or more, done without those particular texts. In all honesty the 151st Psalm is exactly like some of the other Psalms that we already have and that’s nothing new, because, certain ones already do repeat themselves. 3rd Maccabees is a little extra history.
      So personally I would buy the Catholic Edition of what you’re thinking you might want. I have dozens of translations of the Catholic Bible, such as the Vulgate, etc., for comparative purposes, none of the editions The Church has used or authorized for over about 1200 years ha ever contained the prayer of Manasseh 3rd or 4th Maccabees or the 151st Psalm, so that’s something to think about there. I have read 3rd and 4th Maccabees and so on, and afterwards, I said to myself “Hmm, neat, but I see no reason to read this ever again” So yeah my personal opinion is don’t worry about the prayer of Manasseh etc., and just buy the Catholic Edition, that’s the way the scriptures have been for nearly 1,500 years and also everything is where it needs to be and you won’t have to go looking for something and have to search through a bunch of stuff to find it. If the church thought we needed it when she put the the Canon of scripture together in the year 383 then it would have been here all that time, so I recommend the Catholic Edition so if you have to look up something like Daniel 13 it’s already sitting in the Book of Daniel, the Catholic edition is more user-friendly. So there we go I hope I was able to help.

    1. Anonymous,

      The Cambridge ESVCE is scheduled for this summer. It will be in a large-print edition. It will not be a Catholic ESV Diadem. So, if you want the references and size of the Diadem, you’ll want to get the one with the Apocrypha. I’ll have a review up here in a month or so, once the leather edition of the diadem comes out.

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