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The first volume of The Word on Fire Bible is substantial, attractive, and evangelical

A novel and extraordinarily exquisite feature of this Bible is how numerous works of Christian art are reproduced along with lucid explanatory essays.

(Image: www.wordonfire.org)

“The relationship between the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred Scripture is essential to our identity as Christians.” — Pope Francis, Aperuit Illis

One of the truly encouraging results of the Second Vatican Council is the increased engagement with the Bible by lay Catholics, particularly the New Testament. Bible study groups are widely available at the parish level, and many individual Catholics have incorporated Bible reading into their daily spiritual practices. The market has responded with number of excellent Bibles with reliable and insightful Catholic commentary. The Navarre Bible (with commentary complied by the faculty at the University of Navarre), the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (edited by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch), the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (a series edited by Peter Williamson and Mary Healy), and The Didache Bible (with commentary based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church) are all excellent. It is impossible not to benefit from the reading of and reflection on any of these volumes.

Bishop Robert Barron and his Word on Fire Catholic Ministries have now entered this area in rather spectacular fashion with the The Word on Fire Bible, Volume 1, which contains the four Gospels and will be available on Monday, June 15th. What is immediately striking about the book is simply how attractive it is. Eschewing traditional thin paper, this volume is substantial, with matte-coated paper that is very sturdy. It is solidly bound and has a handsome cover of leather. This book is, in short, a remarkably beautiful object.

Bishop Barron emphasizes that the WOF Bible is not just a “study” Bible; its purpose is rather evangelical. That is to say, it works to introduce readers to Jesus Christ in order to change their lives. (Consistent with the breadth of Bishop Barron’s evangelical focus over the past few years, these target readers have little or no contact with any Christian church.) This evangelical purpose is thoroughly achieved in a way familiar to those who have read Bishop Barron’s books, watched his Catholicism series, or listened to his homilies and podcasts. As for the translation, Bishop Barron uses the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition.

This volume has expected and unexpected features. The Gospel texts are surrounded by very astute commentary, informed by rich scholarship that is obvious but unobtrusive, from Bishop Barron. He provides, moreover, penetrating longer essays on major topic and events. In “Jesus’ Most Challenging Sermon,” to select one example, Bishop Barron comments on one of these challenges regarding the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, specifically the revulsion of many Jews when Jesus first preached (in John’s Bread of Life Discourse) about eating his body and blood:

So what does Jesus do when confronted with this objection? One would think that, in order to mollify his opponents, he would take the opportunity to soften his rhetoric, to offer a metaphorical or symbolic interpretation of his words, so as at least to answer the most obvious difficulties. Instead, he intensifies what he had said: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The Greek term translated here by “eat” is not the usual phagein but rather trogein, a word customarily used to describe the way animals devour their food. We might render it “gnaw” or “chomp.” Therefore, to those who are revolted by the realism of his language, Jesus says, essentially, “Unless you gnaw on my flesh . . . you have no life in you.”

Also, his essay on the wedding at Cana is among the most theologically rich that one is likely to encounter. All of these essays are very cogent.

But it is not just Bishop Barron’s voice that deepens our understanding of the Gospels in this volume. There are quotations from what Bishop Barron calls “a chorus of voices from the great theological and spiritual tradition in or to sing the meaning of the Scripture.“ Discerningly selected passages from ancient and modern masters—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and others—are deployed to elucidate familiar and sometimes difficult passages. One instance is on the submission of Jesus to baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), where an extract from Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ is illuminating in Sheen’s inimitable rhetorical way:

When he went down into the river Jordan to be baptized, he made himself one with sinners. The innocent can share the burdens of the guilty. If a husband is guilty of a crime, it is pointless to tell his wife to worry about it, or that it is no concern of hers. It is equally absurd to say that our Lord should not have been baptized because he had no personal guilt. If he was to be identified with humanity, so much so as to call himself the “Son of Man,” then he had to share the guilt of humanity. And this was the meaning of the baptism by John.

A novel and extraordinarily exquisite feature of the WOF Bible is its embrace and effective use of the via pulchritudinous (the way of beauty): numerous works of Christian art are reproduced along with lucid explanatory essays by Michael Stevens. Duccio’s Christ Entering Jerusalem, Raphael’s Transfiguration, Grunewald’s The Isenheim Altarpiece, and many other familiar works appear. (There are also a few impressive but less prominent works that are arresting — for example, Karoly Ferenczy’s The Sermon on the Mount.) The art is not presented as an afterthought in, say, black-and-white pictures; rather its use here, with color reproductions, is integral to the project. It is, as Bishop Barron explains, “all designed to introduce the seeker to Christ through the aesthetic splendor that he has inspired.” This emphasis on the intimate link between beauty and belief has long preoccupied Bishop Barron, as his concise and absorbing book Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of Great Cathedrals from 2000 attests.

The WOF Bible can be read for private devotion or in a group. It is the ideal version to give to anyone who is seeking to know and come into deeper friendship with the Lord. This is so whether that person is already Catholic or someone who is not but open to a Catholic understanding of the Gospels. As with all aspects of Bishop Barron’s evangelization work, the WOF Bible is intellectually rigorous yet utterly accessible to the alert reader. Given the quality of the work we have come to expect from Word on Fire, it is not hard to imagine Bishop Barron and his capable staff sitting down and figuring out how to prepare and publish a volume of the Gospels that will be among the best available.

And this exemplary project is just getting started. According to Word on Fire, the expectation is that the rest of New Testament is scheduled for publication in June 2021. In the years that follow, several Old Testament volumes are planned.


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About Gregory J. Sullivan 12 Articles
Gregory J. Sullivan is a lawyer in New Jersey and a part-time lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He has written for First Things and The Weekly Standard.

22 Comments

  1. Someone with a legal background is giving us a review of this Bible? I would think that a Scripture scholar might have been the one to turn to. I would like to know who is the recipient of the profits garnered by the sale of this Bible.

  2. Bishop Robert Barron has done many beautiful and thought-provoking projects to promote his ministry of evangelism but in clear, concise and easy to understand ways as to make the reader/listener hunger for more! I have long awaited Bishop Barron doing a biblical commentary and it has finally arrived! I look forward to this edition and those to follow!

  3. A shame Barron is using the NRSV. That alone would make this a no-buy, no matter how lovely the artwork and other aspects of presentation.

    • Please explain why it is a bad thing to use the NRSV. I have a Catholic NRSV bible from Ignatius press. I find the commentary in the extensive footnotes in their NRSV very enlightening. Probabably a good idea for an article in CWR to discuss the pro and cons on various versions.

      • The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible uses the Revised Standard Version (Second Catholic Edition), which is different from the New Revised Standard Version. The latter has been criticized by some (including myself) for various things, including a more “inclusive” and rather relaxed (hazy?) approach to certain matters.

  4. Having been seduced more than once by Baron’s confections I’ll prefer to take my time with Holy Scripture straight up, without the high fructose mixer. Thin paper and orthodox scholarship will do.

    • Exactly my reaction too. The combination of Barron and Bergoglio is a sure loser for anyone who wants to gain or maintain an orthodox Catholic faith, without which it is impossible to be saved, as the Athansaian Creed proclaims.

        • The translation received the imprimatur of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1991, granting official approval for Catholic use in private study and devotional reading.

          Speaking of translations, where is the Imprimatur for the comments section on this website? The verbiage by commenters makes Mein Kampf look uplifting .

  5. Wow. The promo video goes all out. The book looks gorgeous. Trump should have held up this one!

    Seriously, we really are now inundated with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Bible resources. The use of the NRSV is disappointing, but that’s probably a losing battle in a post-Ratzinger Church. Hope this edition spurs IP on in its gargantuan task with the Ignatius Bible.

  6. To be honest I would prefer a complete single volume bible for study purposes. It’s the reason I didn’t get the Ignatius Study Bible by Scott Hahn, despite it’s excellent reputation.

  7. The NRSV CE is a “Politically Correct corruption” of Sacred Scripture but perhaps a bit better then the banal and embarrassing New American Bible revised or unrevised which faithful Catholics are forced to endure week in and week out in the Liturgy. Like Dorian Gray the NRSV-CE may be handsome to behold but hard to swallow.

  8. Since it is not out yet, how can any of you evaluate its value? Perhaps if you had read it first, your comments would have had more literary value. I prefer to read first rather than offer my opinion on something I’ve not experienced first.

  9. I’m really looking forward to receiving my copy. Pity some people just have to pour cold water over beauty…by the way, the Word on Fire Bible is sold out…only some paperback versions are still available 🙂

  10. I think it is a good sign to see so many Catholic Christians with such strongly held views on the various translations available. But, lets keep the dialogue within Christian parameters.
    “Avoid these foolish and undisciplined speculations, understanding that they only give rise to quarrels; and a servant of the Lord must not engage in quarrels, but must be kind to everyone, a good teacher, patient and gentle when he corrects those who oppose him…” 2Tim 2:22 (Revised New Jerusalem Bible).

  11. The word on fire Bible is an Amazing Bible, I usually don’t go with Bibles that go into volumes, but wof Bible is a piece of art!!! The commentary is fantastic and the pages are of high quality, I will buy all the next editions as they release them.

  12. I bought the Bible and have very much enjoyed its presentation. Scripture is spot on, artistic and entirely lovely in its renderings. A hodpog of theological summarization devoted to a better understanding of the ministry of Jesus.

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  1. Some reading material, 10.06.20 – RC Largs and Millport

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