The Reformation Study Bible

RefSB.jpgSproul, R. C., ed.

The Reformation Study Bible. 2nd ed.

Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005. Pp. xvii + 1950. Hardcover. $39.99.

Westminster Bookstore | Amazon



With thanks to P&R Publishing for this review copy!

Under the general editorship of R. C. Sproul the Reformation Study Bible (hereafter RefSB) has drawn together a number of scholars (48 in all not including editors) to produce a Bible that “stands in the Reformed tradition of the original Geneva Bible of the sixteenth century.” (iv)

As per the usual for study Bibles the RefSB contains a variety of maps and charts interspersed throughout the running commentary/study notes as well as standard section (i.e., Pentateuch, Historical Books, Hebrew Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Prophets, Intertestamental Period, Gospels & Acts, and Epistles) and individual book introductions.  These address everything you’d expect, i.e.,  authorship, date and occasion of writing, book outlines, and the major themes and characteristics of each book. In addition to this is the highlighting of the given book’s interpretive difficulties.

Not surprisingly the RefSB takes traditional stances on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and a single author for Isaiah and while it notes the anonymous authorship of the Gospels it presents external evidence for accepting the traditional ascriptions to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the son of Zebedee).  The introduction to Matthew highlights that the identity of the primary author (the Holy Spirit) should concern us more than the identities of the human authors (see 1359).  To the RefSB’s credit, it does list dissenting views, even if not in any great detail (which is understandable given the short space devoted to introductory matters).

In addition to the introductory matters and commentary notes there is a series (96 total) of short articles called “theological notes” scattered throughout the Bible at appropriate junctures.  These cover topics from God’s holiness and justice (168) to hell (1432) to the sinlessness of Christ (1782).  Because I jumped around in this Bible and didn’t read it from beginning to end I found myself judging the theological note on “Baptism” (1623) to be somewhat anemic and seemingly politically correct in that no reference to paedobaptism was made and the three common modes (immersion, pouring, sprinkling) of baptism were all affirmed as valid.  But in my reading of Genesis 17 (appropriately placed after God makes the covenant of circumcision with Abraham) I came across the theological note on “Infant Baptism” (37) where a proper defense of the paedobaptism of the Reformed tradition was given against the credobaptism of Baptists.

The study notes are pretty much what you’d expect from commentators of the Reformed faith.  The OT is interpreted Christologically so that the law points forward to and finds its fulfillment in Christ; messianic prophecies are seen as referring specifically to Christ; etc.  Reformed soteriology is apparent everywhere we’d expect to find it, e.g., Romans 8:29-30 is seen as presenting the “golden chain of redemption” (although the commentator does not use this expression) where it is said that, “It is a plan of sovereign saving grace, entitling all who now believe to trace their faith and salvation back to an eternal decision by God to bring them to glory, and to look forward to that glory as guaranteed certainly.” (1627)  We naturally find irresistible grace and unconditional election championed in such passages as John 6:37-44 and Ephesians 1:4. The “warning passages” in Hebrews (2:1-4; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:25-29) are dealt with in different ways  but 6:4-8 gets the fullest treatment and is interpreted in light of the Reformed understanding of other passages such as John 10:28-29 and Romans 8:28-30, which is to say that it cannot mean that one’s salvation can be lost.  So we read, e.g., of those who “shared in the Holy Spirit” that “They had some experience with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but it is not necessary to conclude that regeneration is specifically intended.” (1784)  The “falling away” is interpreted in light of 1John 2:19 to refer to those who were “not really a member of the household of faith, although they may have seemed to be.” (1784)

I was somewhat surprised to find no mention of any of the -lapsarian doctrines in either the study and the theological notes (although I admit that I have not read every single word of this Bible so it’s possible I’ve missed a reference) seeing how prominent these theories are in discussions of God’s decree.  However, I was not surprised in the least to find repeated references to the Westminster Confession of Faith (and the Longer and Shorter Catechisms) in the theological notes (12x1; that I’ve counted so far and once that I found in the study notes [1037]).  The Heidelberg Catechism is mentioned once (1411) but there’s no reference (that I could find) to any other Reformed confessions (e.g., the Canons of Dordt or the Belgic Confession).

Aesthetically this (hardcover) Bible satisfies on many levels:

  • It has sewn binding which allows it to lay flat no matter where you open it from.
  • The glossy brown and gold decorative dust jacket is pleasing to the eye and it covers an equally tasteful and attractive gold(ish) hardcover.
  • It measures 9.5 x 6.75 x 1.5 in. and is easily the slimmest hardcover study Bible I’ve come across.
  • The opaque paper keeps bleed-through to a minimum.
  • The center-column reference system is familiar and helpful.
  • The overall content layout is straightforward and unfussy:
    • Two-column Biblical text.
    • Center-column references.
    • Two-column study notes in smaller and different font.
    • Theological notes clearly marked out and presented in different font.
  • Large, clear, full-color maps in back of Bible on cardboard stock paper.

My only gripe with the physical features of the hardcover edition is the lack of a ribbon marker.

The RefSB is a well-conceived study Bible that will fit the needs of its target audience perfectly.  But it’s a niche-Bible that probably won’t appeal to those outside of its target audience.  Those looking for a study Bible based on critical Biblical scholarship will have to look elsewhere.  Those looking for a study Bible with as little theological bias as possible will have to look elsewhere as well.  But Reformed folk looking for a Bible to confirm and strengthen their current beliefs will find this Bible extremely useful.  But I think the Bible is mis-titled.  The more appropriate title would be the Reformed Study Bible.  As it stands there’s relatively little mention of the Reformation (10x2) or the great Reformers of the past like Luther (14x3) and Calvin (17x4).  The five solas of the Reformation get nearly no mention at all with Sola Gratia (1509) Sola Scriptura (iv) as the exceptions.  The reader expecting to find more unfiltered Reformation theology will be disappointed.  What they will receive instead will be Reformed theology as it has survived through centuries, which is fine, but might not be clear to potential readers from this Bible’s title.


1 See pp. 665, 781, 844, 1391, 1411, 1519, 1603, 1627, 1636, 1659, 1677, 1747.
2 See pp. 665, 1148, 1309, 1312, 1509, 1646, 1659, 1695, 1775, 1831.
3 See pp. 290, 559, 738, 776, 781, 1309, 1367, 1611, 1613, 1659, 1731, 1775, 1803, 1850.
4 See pp. 31, 264, 290, 594, 1256, 1309, 1359, 1405, 1406, 1659, 1683, 1729, 1753, 1775, 1804, 1808, 1823.


25 thoughts on “The Reformation Study Bible

  1. This is, of course, the 1995 New Geneva Study Bible with the NKJV translation swapped out and the ESV shoved in. (Ligonier Ministries admits as much.)

    In 2003, there was a major revision of the Bible notes and a complete overhaul of the theological essays. The old essays were published by J. J. Packer as Concise Theology, and Richard Pratt, Bruce Waltke, Vern Poythress, Gregory Beale, John Frame, and J. J. Packer became the new editors. The Bible text was replaced with the NIV, and the entire Bible was published as The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible. In addition to more detailed and revised notes, greatly expanded Biblical book introductions, as well as new theological essays, the new Bible added five major Reformed confessions, (Belgic, Dort, Heidelberg, Larger Westminster, Shorter Westminster) and cross-references to/from the confessions and Biblical translation.

    The resulting study Bible is about 450 pages longer than the older Reformation Study Bible. Unless a reader needs the NKJV of the New Geneva or the ESV of the Reformation Study Bible, the expanded and revised Spirit of the Reformation is probably the better the choice.

  2. I should also mention that the Spirit of the Reformation SB has a much more attractive layout than the Reformation SB — with single column text and side reference notes.

    I have to admit I was surprised when Ligonier/P&R decided to roll back the clock to this older, inferior supplementary material.

  3. Theophrastus: The Spirit of the Reformation SB sounds almost exactly like what I expected from the title of this SB. I find it interesting that the introduction didn’t mention that this is the New Geneva SB with a different title and translation. Has it been revised at all or has it truly been swapped out?

  4. My understanding (and my spot checks — I declined to purchase the Reformation SB) is that the only revisions have been de minimus: the only change was to change the footnotes so that they quote the ESV text rather than the NKJV text.

  5. Overall this is still one of my favorite Reformed theological Study Bibles! I have one of the early one’s…2005, Ligonier (genuine leather, ESV). (And yeah the older NKJV also) I also have several (genuine leather, black). I give this Bible and the old Thompson Chain to savvy new or young Christians. I have given away several in my time.

  6. Hi Nick,
    Christmas is coming and I want to offer to my wife, a nice Bible (She is a fan of KJV,NKJV) Can you give some references (Study Bible or not), I just want your general opinion.
    Thank you by advance

  7. Nick,

    It is my opinion that every western Christian should know both the Reformation and also the Reformed faith. This is part of our Evangelical heritage, and one should know it! This is one of the reasons I have chosen to give away The Reformation Study Bible to new or young Christians, if they appear ‘ready to rumble’! :)

  8. Theophrastus: That’s interesting. I wonder why they’d change the title then, or not mention that it’s the same Bible that they’ve been publishing with a different title.

    Fr. Robert: Have there been many Reformed study Bibles? I’d consider the ESVSB to have a Reformed slant to it but I don’t know if that qualifies.

    JJMonde: My favorite Bible ever was a simple burgundy bonded-leather giant print KJV reference Bible published by Thomas Nelson in 1994. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find the exact same Bible online. Amazon sells a similar version but it has added book introductions and outlines which some folks might enjoy but I personally found superfluous in this particular Bible. I’d also mention that all of the front matter (title page, table of contents, KJV translators’ preface, etc.) fell out of my copy with very limited use. I don’t know if I was just unfortunate or if Thomas Nelson’s binding practices really are that terrible.

    Do you know what type of cover (hardcover, softcover, leather, bonded-leather, etc.) you’d like to get for your wife? That would help to narrow down the field. In the post before this I mentioned that I’m probably going to get the hardcover Cambridge Paragraph Bible (KJV) rather than the genuine leather edition because I believe it will have the same sewn binding (which should keep pages from falling out!) and hold up to a lot of use.

    Also, perhaps Theophrastus would like to recommend some Bibles for you. He’s truly the most knowledgeable person I’ve come across in these matters and I’ve come to trust his opinions. Hopefully he’ll chime in.

  9. JJMonde: My wife has a Thompson Chain Reference Bible (NKJV)and I think she likes it better than her Study Bibles. She uses the countless references in order to compare Scripture with itself and let that be her “study notes.”

  10. JJMonde,

    Yes, the Thompson Chain is an old standard Reference Bible. Perhaps one of the very best! I have it in the NIV, NASB, NKJV and the KJV. I give away both the NKJV (and sometimes the old King) version and the NASB. It is so very important for the Christian to read his/her Bible, comparing Scripture with Scripture! Would that many bloggers read their Bible more also! This is not the generation of biblical literacy sadly. With too many Bible versions, many just read the surface of the Text. And talk “about” the Text, but don’t know it spiritually and deeply.

  11. Regarding the origins of the Reformation SB, Ligonier says:

    This unique study Bible was first published in 1995 as The New Geneva Study Bible in the New King James Version and was renamed The Reformation Study Bible in 1998. In March 2005 The Reformation Study Bible transitioned to the English Standard Version and has since sold more than 100,000 copies.

    You can still buy the New Geneva SB in the NKJV from Ligonier (look at the bottom of the linked page for order links).


    JJMONDE: Nick is right. There are many, many Bibles that meet your general requirements. What are you looking for in terms of price, binding, text size, notes and other additions, physical size, etc.? Prices for nice KJVs range from $10 to $10,000 (although price is not a very accurate measure of how nice a volume is). You can also buy any number of KJV/NKJV combinations (two different volumes in one slipcase or parallel Bibles).

  12. Hi,
    Thank you all for your help.
    In term of version, she has The New Open Bible, Study Edition.
    She is not insterested in a leather bible, but I was thinking of a new nice bible study because her open bible is worn out.
    Let me know if that indication helps narrow what you will recommend


  13. JJMONDE:

    I list some recommendations in decreasing order of what I am guessing your wife might like. It seems she tuned in on the cross-reference aspect of the Open Study Bible, which is a feature of many Bibles (“reference editions”).

    Primary recommendation: If you search on Amazon and E-Bay, you can still order The Open Bible for the KJV and NKJV that are in “new” condition — although the volumes are out of print. If you wife is very familiar and comfortable with her current edition, this may be the best option for you. Expect to pay $50 up for this.

    2nd recommendation: Since your wife is particularly fond of the Open Study Bible in the NKJV, I think you will find almost all of its features (including the extensive cross-reference list) along with much more incorporated in the NKJV Study Bible, 2nd edition (ISBN: 0718020812). You can find samples of the book at or Amazon, so you may want to ask your wife if this is what she would like or not. The problem is that this Bible does include a lot more — so I’m not sure it is what she wants or not.

    3rd recommendation: you may want a KJV/NKJV parallel cross-reference Bible, which also includes the features of the Open Bible. This is coming back in print as part of the 400th anniversary of the KJV (ISBN: 1418544701).

    4th recommendation: this has a similar format to the original Open Bible and you can get it as cheap as $10 NKJV Personal Size Giant Print Reference Bible (Many different bindings are available, for example, ISBN: 0718013468)

    5th recommendation: you may be interested in the Cambridge NKJV Reference Bible, which comes in both Pitt-Minion and Wide-Margin editions. (Many different bindings are available, for example ISBN: 052170622X). This is more expensive.

    I’m guessing at what you want here — the truth is that there are many, many, many more options to choose among. And this is a personalized recommendation based on what you asked about — I would not necessarily recommend these titles to other people because they are specific to your comment that your wife was very fond of the Open Bible and a fan of the NKJV.

  14. Nick,

    Love this review! But even for someone like myself who stands in the Reformed tradition, I’m not tempted to add it. ;-)

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