Several years ago, two new study Bibles hit the market, both of them genetically related to the New Geneva Study Bible, which appeared in the mid-1990s and positioned itself as a successor to the original Geneva Bible. Rather idiosyncratically, the NGSB features the New King James Version, an update of the Authorized Version with textual notes reflecting variants from the Textus Receptus, the Critical Text, and the Majority Text of the New Testament. One of the newcomers, the Reformation Study Bible, replaced the NKJV text with the new English Standard Version, but otherwise it was very similar to its predecessor. The other, the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, used the older New International Version -- but its notes were greatly expanded, offering a better window into the state of Reformed theology today, and it also included an index of Reformed confessional standards and catechisms. If you ask me, the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible is the better of the two.
WHAT MAKES THIS EDITION SO GOOD?
I have the impression, though, that a lot of Reformed readers lean toward the Reformation Study Bible instead, probably because the NIV has declined in popularity among Reformed Christians as the ESV has increased. Personally, I prefer the ESV, too, but I find that the tools offered in the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible are just too good to pass up. For several years, I made do with a hardback copy, which I used more as a reference, but recently I broke down and bought the genuine leather edition pictured here.
First, I think the notes are more thorough and give a better grasp of Reformed theology as I've encountered it on the academic level. Since one of the reasons for having such an edition is to be able to check "the Reformed view" of a biblical topic, that's important. After all, people enter the Reformed community from a variety of backgrounds, with many different levels of theological sophistication. A Reformed Study Bible is a great teaching tool. (It's also helpful to people outside the Reformed community who are seeking to understand where we're coming from.)
Second, it's hard to overestimate the value of the confessional standards published in the back of the book. The editors go a step further and offer notes in the text referring back to the confessions and catechisms, helping the reader make connections between biblical passages and doctrinal statements. I wish all of my Bibles had this feature!
WHAT ARE THE SHORTCOMINGS?
Let's set aside the translation question for a moment. I wish the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible was available with the ESV. I wish it were available with The Message, too, for that matter. People are loyal to translations -- for practical as well as polemical reasons -- but I hate to think that such loyalty would lead anyone to miss out on such a good Study Bible. I'm not going to say that using the NIV is a shortcoming of the translation. In some ways, it's probably a strength, since the NIV continues to be popular in a variety of traditions.
But I do have issues with the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible. Like so many of its peers, the "genuine leather" edition is anything but luxurious in the hand. The leather isn't as bad as I thought it would be, but looking at the close-up of the grain, you'll see the ubiquitous thin, plasticy cover. I haven't used it long enough to see whether it improves or declines with age -- if you have, I'd be interested in hearing about your experiences.
The biblical text is single-column, while the notes are double. The design is quite elegant for a Study Bible, and I find the text perfectly readable. One of the questions I'm often asked concerns "bleed-through" -- does the ink on other pages bleed through the paper? -- and the answer here, as it is so often these days, is yes. You can see in the photographs that this is the case. I don't find it distracting, but if you do, be aware.
As a thorough introduction to the Reformed faith, you can't beat the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible. It includes the full text of the Westminster Confession and Longer Catechism, the Canons of the Synod of Dordtrect, the Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism. As far as I know, there is no other Bible on the market that does. Without these documents, any explanation of the Reformed perspective is incomplete.