Review of Bp. Barron’s Word on Fire Bible (The Gospels)

Review of Bp. Barron’s Word on Fire Bible (The Gospels) June 22, 2020

I’m very excited to offer my thoughts about Bishop Robert Barrons new offering, The Word on Fire Bible, Volume I: The Gospels: published on 15 June 2020: just a week ago as I write. First off, before I begin my own analysis, let me introduce you to this fabulous Bible with some words from Brandon Vogt, the Content Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, and a very fine and influential apologist in his own right:

[It’s] an extraordinary project we’ve been secretly working on over the last four years. Imagine Bishop Barron’s Catholicism film series (art, beauty, culture, Bishop Barron’s genius) all wrapped beautifully around the Scriptures. Then add tons of insightful commentary from the Church Fathers, saints, popes, and contemporary spiritual masters. Then produce it all using the highest quality paper and leather, and you have something truly groundbreaking: the Word on Fire Bible.

It’s smart, beautiful, resplendent–a cathedral in print. There’s never been a Bible like it before.

The description in the Press Kit for this volume offers more enticing commentary:

It was designed to appeal not just to Christians but to non-believers, searchers, and those with far more questions than answers. It doesn’t presume any experience with the Bible, catering to those unfamiliar with its many events and characters, while still providing rich insights to even the most biblically literate.

Inside this first volume of the series, you’ll find the four Gospels surrounded by illuminating artwork and helpful commentary from Bishop Robert Barron, the Church Fathers, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Thérèse of Lisieux, Fulton Sheen, John Paul II, and many other teachers in the way of the Spirit.

Be sure to visit the wonderful Press Kit page for videos, photos, and twelve frequently asked questions. The web page devoted to this Bible at Word on Fire describes two more central features of the work:

Its purpose is evangelical

This is not a study Bible. Its goal is not merely to transmit historical knowledge or textual insight. It is also not a devotional Bible, offering self-improvement tips. The mission of this Bible is evangelical. It is meant to introduce not mere facts but a person: Jesus Christ. It aims to do that by unveiling Christ throughout each chapter and verse of the Scriptures, leading readers to a life-changing encounter with him.

It showcases the way of beauty

This Bible showcases what Pope Francis calls the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty). For many people in our postmodern culture—especially the young—an appeal to the true (“Here is what you should believe”) or to the good (“Here is how you ought to behave”) is often a nonstarter, likely to awaken suspicion and defensiveness. But an appeal to the beautiful (“Just look at this”) is more winsome, less menacing. And so this Bible features many striking works of art as well as literary explanations of those pieces—all designed to introduce the seeker to Christ through the aesthetic splendor that he has inspired.

The Word on Fire Bible (Gospels) will be available in leather, hardcover, and paperback. The translation used is the New Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition (NRSV-CE).

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Now, since I am myself a professional Catholic apologist, I thought I would approach my review specifically from that perspective and utilize it as a way to explore how this Bible comments upon three passages that are of particular usefulness to the apologist and any Catholic who seeks to share and defend the faith. Apologetics is part-and-parcel of the evangelistic task, which is the stated purpose of this Bible. I’ve always thought of evangelism and apologetics as “half-sisters.”

The first is the account of the rich young ruler, found in Matthew 19:16-24 (cf. Mk 10:17-21; Lk 18:18-22). To see those passages (for brevity’s sake), readers may wish to visit my article on the topic. Briefly put, the relevance to Catholic apologetics and evangelism in this passage is in the area of the vexed Catholic-Protestant issue (central in the 16th century) of the relationship of faith and works. When I dealt with it, I was (characteristically) much more polemical, and challenged the Protestant understanding of “faith alone” in light of the passage.

But Bishop Barron is far more subtle, inviting, and eloquent in how he deals with the passage. Not everyone responds to apologetics and polemics. Most people are drawn in a much different fashion. His commentary (found on p. 121 in Matthew 19) is entitled “Finding True Freedom” and reads essentially like a sermon rather than biblical commentary per se. It’s pastoral and personal, rather than scholarly, disputational, apologetic, or theology-heavy.

And that gives one an idea of what he is seeking to accomplish with this glorious Bible: drawing in the nonbeliever, and inviting Catholics and other Christians to enter more deeply into the realm of the Spirit and the treasures of Holy Mother Church. Here are some key excerpts (line breaks indicate a gap in the text, here as throughout my citations):

Jesus asks the rich young man whether he has followed the commandments, and the young man responds affirmatively.

[A]ll of those egregious violations of love — murder, adultery, hatred of one’s neighbor, and so on — must be eliminated in the seeker after God.

Once the soul has been shaped in the direction of love through the discipline of the commandments, it is now ready for a more complete and dramatic self-emptying. It is ready for the sequela Christi, the following of Christ on the path of discipleship. And this is a matter not only of external imitation but of the deepest inner conformity to Christ, a walking with him in the manner of an apprentice shaping his life in accord with his master’s.

Jesus answers him and then stands open to further dialogue; finally he invites him to the deepest form of life. At no point in this conversation is there a hint of violence or coercion,

The true God does not compete with freedom; rather, he awakens and directs it.

This is gospel preaching / homiletics at its finest: akin (in my mind, which is very fond of analogies) to fine wine, sparkling spring water right from the pure spring, or the most beautiful classical music. I could immerse myself in such words and thoughts forever . . . 

My second example comes from the famous “petrine / papal” passage of Matthew 16:18-19:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. [19] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (NRSV)

Bishop Barron offers his own commentary, and also that of the great apologist  G. K. Chesterton (from Heretics) and the Church father St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-258), from his Treatises. I cite both in their entirety (from pp. 104-105):

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

“I tell you,” he [Jesus] says, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., Apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the Apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”

St. Cyprian’s first Treatise is called The Unity of the Catholic Church (see section 4). Heretics, by the way, was written in 1905, which was actually 17 years before Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church. This is the amount of insight and wisdom that he had (much like St. John Henry Cardinal Newman) as an Anglican. 

As a third example, I submit John 6:48-66 (see it in the similar RSV version), which is one of the classic passages regarding the Holy Eucharist and transubstantiation. Bishop Barron offers wonderful “sermon-like” commentary again, as he does throughout this volume, in the section entitled, “Jesus’ Most Challenging Sermon” (pp. 500-503):

How do we appropriate this shocking talk? If we stand in the great Catholic tradition, we honor these unnerving words of Jesus, resisting all attempts to soften them or explain them away. We affirm what the Church has come to call the doctrine of the “Real Presence.”

[F]or Catholics, the Eucharist is not one sign among many, one inspiring symbol among others. It is the very soul and life of the Church, the hinge upon which the life of the Church turns.

God’s word, on the biblical telling, is not so much descriptive as creative. It does not express a state of affairs that already exists; it makes a state of affairs to be. God’s word speaks things into existence, determining them at the deepest roots of their being.

Given who he is, these words [Dave: from the Last Supper] bore the creative power of the Logos of God. They effected a change, therefore, not simply at the level of symbolic or metaphorical reconfiguration; instead, they pierced to the very roots of existence of those elements and changed them into something else, into his Body and Blood.

This change, this transubstantiation, explains why the Church comes from the Eucharist, and why eternal life comes from eating the Lord’s Body and drinking his Blood.

Spiritual riches like these abound throughout this Bible. You will want to partake of its blessings. I give it my very highest (and enthusiastic) recommendation. Buy it today!

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Photo credit: The Word on Fire Bible, from the Press Kit.

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