Issues facing the church today: Biblical Illiteracy

Article by James Simmons




In a recent survey on the UK Apologetics and Evangelism Facebook page, members were asked what they felt was the biggest challenge facing the UK Church. At the top of this list, by a significant margin, was biblical illiteracy. The notion of biblical illiteracy being a major problem for today’s Church is one I have encountered regularly online. Various articles have been written on the subject and, if you wish, you could also participate in one of the online tests available that will assess your knowledge of Bible trivia to reveal if indeed you are biblically literate. However, is this the best way to think of biblical literacy? In my opinion tests such as these promote a fairly shallow view of biblical literacy by reducing the concept to the mere retention of information.


I think a better way of articulating what biblical literacy entails is to compare it to becoming literate in a language. I am currently seeking to learn biblical Hebrew, the first phase of which required me to understand the Hebrew alphabet, vowel sounds and rules of pronunciation. Consequently, put a Hebrew Bible before me and I would do a decent job of reciting what was on the pages. However, this doesn’t make me literate! I am merely reciting symbols from a page without much of an idea as to what I’m reading. Over time I will come to understand what words are represented by those symbols and how they combine to make sentences. At the heart of this process of becoming literate is a deepening understanding of what initially non-sensical symbols mean. The same is true of biblical literacy. One can read the Bible as I presently read Hebrew - knowing how to pronounce the words on the page but without a deeper understanding of the theological significance and meaning of those words. However, one who is biblically literate will better understand these things.


Various tools can assist in this process. An understanding of the broader story of scripture allows us to place what we are reading within this framework and identify the presence of themes that permeate this narrative. An understanding of the different literary styles found in the Bible allows us to interpret the text according to appropriate literary conventions and notice meanings that the author has sought to articulate but that we, today, may miss. An understanding of the context that the text was written in allows us to better identify the issues being addressed without imposing our own contemporary attitudes upon the text. An understanding of the original biblical languages allows us to engage with conversations about the translation decisions that compilers of contemporary Bibles must wrestle with.


It should hopefully also be clear from this description that biblical literacy is more complex than a binary literate-illiterate designation. Consider a group of individuals reading John 9. Someone might recognise the disciples’ opening question as reflecting a widely held view at the time that disabilities were the result of sin. Someone else, in light of John's broader gospel, might also see the blind man as representing John's readers who it seems are facing community rejection based on their testimony but that will again encounter Jesus at the end. Someone else might see all of this but also understand the etymology of the pool that the blind man is sent to and its relationship with being sent - further emphasising the blind man's role as a witness. Another might also notice the relationship between the clay Jesus puts on the blind man and the creation of man in Genesis 2. Finally, another might see all the above but, being skilled in Greek, also notices how the I am statement of the blind man in verse 9 uses the same Greek construction as Jesus uses in 8:58 and 18:6 [1]. Which of these individuals is biblically literate? The final person might see all the others as being illiterate because they see something the others don't. However, such a charge would seem harsh. Just because someone isn't as informed on a particular subject / passage / book doesn't mean they are completely illiterate.


In terms of understanding how big an issue biblical literacy is in today’s churches the situation appears similarly murky. Online discussions of biblical literacy tend to quote various statistics which show a decline in the number of people within the Church regularly reading their Bibles. This is indeed a problematic development, but these findings are also symptomatic of larger issues concerning Christian discipleship and the value we place upon scripture. Furthermore, although it is unlikely that someone who rarely reads the Bible will become biblically literate it does not follow that the opposite is always the case. Many individuals I see commenting online quoting Bible verses left and right seem to have little understanding as to what those verses actually mean. It is also common to see the charge used to dismiss another’s perspective without engaging with the points being made. There are occasions when such a charge is valid, but there are also many times in which I’ve seen it used quite liberally.


Nevertheless, even if biblical illiteracy is not uniformly the biggest issue facing our churches, I certainly believe it to be an issue that Churches should care about because of the ramifications that accompany it. It is a topic I am deeply passionate about and was a key motivator behind the book I published last year that sought to walk people through the key narrative of the Bible as well as introducing them to the key themes found within and interpretative techniques. Consequently, in the remainder of this article, I will seek to articulate four key problems that accompany biblical illiteracy.


Worshipping and Proclaiming an Incomplete View of God


The Bible is many things to the believer but primarily it is God's revelation to the world about who he is. Christianity calls us to put our trust in and worship this God and therefore it would seem of paramount importance to seek to know exactly who this God is. However, this is not the easiest of tasks. Across the whole of scripture God is described in numerous ways. Some of these are difficult to understand and therefore care needs to be taken that we do not impose our own views onto the text. Additionally, some are seemingly at odds with each other. How can God be slow to anger (Ex 34:6) when he immediately strikes down Uzzah for touching what an ill-informed reader might perceive to be a simple wooden chest? (2 Sam 6:1-7) How can God deeply love everyone (John 3:16) and yet cast unbelievers from his presence at the end of time? (Rev 20:15)


There are answers that can be given to both objections above. However, in my experience, many are uninformed about such answers - a situation exacerbated by a tendency for churches to avoid these sorts of difficult passages. The problem with ignoring these parts though is that we fail to appreciate the fullness of who God is. We cannot fully know God just by reading parts of the Bible in isolation from one another. In recent decades there has been a noticeable shift in how God is described that has seen the Church generally moving from the fire and brimstone imagery of the past and to a renewed focus on personal relationship. God is indeed someone who desires to be in relationship with us and therefore it is important that this part of his character isn't ignored. However, if the result is painting God as just a loving, best friend then we are guilty of producing a similarly incomplete picture of who God is as one who focuses just on the wrath and holiness of God. If we profess to worship God or desire to tell others about him, we should clearly endeavour to have the entirety of God in focus and not just a part of who he is.


Unbiblical Attitudes and Actions


Another key function of the Bible within the Church is to inform how we as believers can live a life that corresponds to God's desires. However, the fact remains that the world has changed quite drastically from when these words were first written meaning that many situations we are now confronted with are not specifically addressed. Finding a biblical response is therefore often more complex than finding a simple verse or principle and instead relies on a deeper understanding of the text and the moral themes found within. This is something that will be far harder for a biblically illiterate Christian to achieve with ramifications for both personal conduct and discerning how to approach certain ethical / political issues.


For example, the question of whether it is right or wrong to gamble is one the Bible fails to directly address when we consider the many, many ways one can gamble today ranging from spending hundreds of pounds on a slot machine to buying a school raffle ticket for £1. The Bible can't directly speak to these contemporary issues. However, the Bible speaks an awful lot about what we have as having been given to us by God, good stewardship and the problems of pursuing money. One who is aware of these broader teachings is going to fare far better discerning how to act than one who is not. The same is also true for many contemporary ethical and political discussions. Although it does not necessarily follow that there is only one biblically acceptable political position to take on a given issue, it seems that a more biblically literate Church would be better able to dismiss the extreme positions on either side that have little to no scriptural basis.


One final point to note in this area concerns Jeremy's observation from a previous article of this series that many Christians fail to live according to instructions they know are in the Bible. I believe this is indeed true and symptomatic of several issues including the problem of discipleship Jeremy discusses. However, I think at least a contributing factor is that people often don't understand why those instructions are present. People find it far harder to follow rules they don't understand the reason behind. Tell a child to not touch something and they might listen. Watch them subsequently ignore you and burn themselves on the still hot electric hob and that previously unintelligible rule now makes perfect sense to them. The same, I would argue, can also be true of biblical commands. For instance, we should forgive not just because we are ordered to but in response to acknowledging our own sinfulness and the forgiveness God grants us and we wish to receive from others. We should treat people well not selectively, in line with our own perspective on whether they deserve it or not, but because of God's love for them and the radical idea that everyone, even those who hate us, is made in the image of God.


Susceptibility to False Teaching


I've heard it said before that you can justify almost anything using the Bible - if you're selective in what you quote. It would be quite easy to use Psalm 23:1 and 37:4 which state that believers shall not want and will receive the desires of their hearts, to argue that those who believe will be endlessly prosperous in this life. Good health, relationships, wealth - it's all there to be had by those who believe! Of course, when we weigh these verses alongside the rest of scripture, the persecution of the early Church, the call to take up your cross and deny yourself or even just the fourth verse of Psalm 23, we see that the biblical teaching on this subject is quite different.


There are many other examples of false teaching that I could have given there. The reality of the Church is that there will always be those who either knowingly or accidentally teach things that are contrary to the Bible. Today the internet provides a way for anyone to share their thoughts on the Bible however qualified (or not) they happen to be. Consequently, for every decent article you can find there are numerous alternatives predicting the return of Jesus based on some previously hidden code or twisting scripture to push a particular political perspective. It's why we should weigh everything we hear against the Bible - even the sermons given to us by our own leaders. Clearly, this is something aided no end by possessing a deep understanding of scripture that enables us to discern false teaching swiftly and bring correction if necessary.


A Fragile Faith


Finally, biblical literacy enables us to defend our own faith from accusations or claims that we encounter. The claim that God is a genocidal maniac is one that may trouble believers who turn to Joshua for the first time without any understanding of the literary style being used or the larger story of Israel and God's interactions with the nations of the world. Similarly, it would be easy when initially exposed to them to see the Church’s historical attitudes towards sexuality, divorce, abortion, etc. as remnants of a past, inhospitable era rather than positions that have been formed not because of several verses but the consideration of the whole of scripture. Biblical literacy reveals the Bible to not just be a collection of kid's stories and rules for life that we outgrow, but as an all-encompassing worldview based on unchanging truths. Something that is always relevant for the world and individuals.



Conclusion


Within this article I've sought to briefly explore the nature of biblical illiteracy and several of the issues which are likely to emerge as a result. Collectively I believe that they represent a serious challenge to the Church today and that consequently the issue of biblical illiteracy is one that needs to be engaged with. One area which I have so far failed to discuss however concerns potential solutions. You may have your own ideas to this end. More Bible based teaching in churches. Formal theological training for leaders. Better resources for church members to engage with. Each of these (and many other proposals) are valid. However, the reason that I have focused upon the issues listed above is because I believe it is an awareness of them that lies at the heart of future change. Consider the issue of climate change. Why should we care that CO2 levels have risen so much over the past century? Why does it matter? The reason people are increasingly so concerned is down to the issues that are believed to result from such CO2 levels.


I believe that it's the same for biblical illiteracy. The reason we should care about this issue is precisely down to the fruits that it brings. If people don't like what those fruits look like (and who really wants to see the problems listed above) then they will surely be more motivated to address the underlying issue. There will be a change of heart. Leaders who care about biblical literacy will be more likely to structure teaching and discipleship programs around increasing people's understanding of the Bible. However, even more importantly, they will encourage their congregation to care about the issue as well, making them more likely to engage with such teaching and explore the Bible more deeply in their own lives. The Bible is a complicated book. However, despite there being unhelpful material out there, we are also blessed today with an abundance of tools and teaching that can help people to grow in their understanding of the Bible. What is sadly often missing though is the motivation to do so.


[1] Examples here taken from Peter Leithart's observations in Deep Exegesis


About the author:

James Simmons is currently undertaking a Master's Degree in Theology at Trinity College Bristol and is the author of Glory to Glory: A Devotional Journey Through Scripture.


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