Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Biblical Illiteracy

Apr 18, 2011

As I travel around the country – and overseas – speaking at churches, Bible colleges, Christian conventions, and so on, one thing I find is the alarming increase in biblical illiteracy. Many believers simply seem to have very little grasp of what is actually in their own Bible.

Many of course simply don’t read it, or at least not very much. Few would have read the entire Bible through, and many just pick and choose a passage here and there, instead of systematically reading through a whole book, let alone the whole Bible.

I find the same level of biblical ignorance or illiteracy on various Christian websites, where many believers write articles or send in comments which reveal an appalling lack of basic biblical knowledge. We are told in Scripture that “My people perish for lack of knowledge” and we are also warned about a famine of the word of God.

No wonder every trendy heterodox teaching that comes along is being lapped up by believers. They have no or little biblical knowledge by which to assess any new teaching that comes their way. Thus they are easy prey not just for the cults and heretical groups, but for even evangelical teachers who have been going off the theological rails.

But it is not just proper Christian doctrine which is at risk because of biblical illiteracy. Not knowing the Bible means we will never properly understand our own history. The truth is, in broad and general terms, without the Bible – and knowledge of it – there would be no Western civilisation.

The Bible is that significant, that had it not been there, we would not have the West as we know it today. Many have pointed this out. Back in 1998 D. James Kennedy wrote a book called What If the Bible Had Never Been Written? In it he demonstrated quite convincingly “the many ways the Book of books has changed our world”.

The Bible has had a tremendous impact on every area of life: politics, literature, science, the arts, law, morality, and so on. Simply to be aware of the monumental influence of this book on the world we live in is important for every one of us.

And no less an uber-atheist than Christopher Hitchens has just come out saying similar things, at least in terms of the King James Bible. With its 400th anniversary this year, many are writing about it. Hitchens may think it is merely a collection of myths, but at least he recognises its great influence.

In a lengthy article for the recent issue of Vanity Fair he argues that our culture, our history, and our language would look radically different if it weren’t for this book. He may not like its content, but he knows just how significant it has been in shaping Western civilisation.

He especially focuses on its enormous literary influence: “A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it ‘relevant’ is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. ‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,’ says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter?”

Another article appeared just recently, also from unexpected quarters, commenting on our biblical illiteracy. A piece in the glaringly secular Melbourne Age spoke of how ‘Young people no longer know their Bible stories – and our culture may be the poorer for it’.

John Elder says that “many young Australians have no clue about the Good Samaritan, the Great Flood or even Easter. When Jesus went into the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed to God that he might be spared the horror of the cross, he might well have added that ‘by 2011, most kids won’t even know who I am … they’ll be more concerned about why chocolate eggs are delivered by a rabbit’.”

Let me stop there. My wife tells me that this article was read out on a radio station for the visually impaired. She heard the young reader absolutely massacre the word ‘Gethsemane’, pronouncing it as if he had never heard it before. Thus this radio announcer nicely confirmed what Elder is saying.

He continues, “Sixty-three per cent of Australians at the 2006 census identified as Christian, although only a small minority said they attended church regularly. As for young Australians, a Christian Science Monitor survey three years ago found them the least religious in the world. Whether religious or not, few know the basic Christian stories and their meaning.”

After providing a few examples of this, he says, “La Trobe University sociologist John Carroll, agrees, saying the Easter story is powerful in dealing with big questions of life and death regardless of one’s faith. ‘The threat of death, the loss of people close to us; we have to make some sense of that and we find that in the big stories in our culture, and the adult story of Jesus and the Crucifixion is the biggest story of them all.’

“He says the Bible stories about children, especially about the baby Jesus, still have resonance in the non-church community. ‘It’s the adult Jesus story that’s in trouble,’ Professor Carroll says. ‘The story of Good Friday and resurrection is floundering badly. If we lose the tragic Jesus story from the culture, we lose a lot. That symbol of the cross sits on top of Western civilisation.’

“He says the loss of biblical stories from the culture is a direct failing of the Christian churches, who have a responsibility to ‘tell those stories in a way that is engaging today’. Others, such as sociologist David Chalke, say Australians over 30 may retain some knowledge of Bible stories from their primary education, but younger people ‘have been brought up in an actively atheist education system and … don’t know anything about it’.”

It seems there are at least two main culprits here. Yes there is certainly the secularist war against all things Christian. But churches must also shoulder a large portion of the blame. We have been dumbing down our congregations for decades now. We have given them heaps of entertainment, celebrity culture, feel-good therapy, humanist sop, and theologically-empty pep talks.

But we have largely abandoned our responsibility to provide solid, Bible-based teaching and exposition of Scripture. Certainly in many of our youth departments, our young people are being entertained to death but are being starved of basic biblical doctrine and theology.

No wonder biblical illiteracy seems to be at an all time high. The church has a lot to do to turn things around. Sure, there are many solid churches where the Word of God is boldly proclaimed, systematically taught, and courageously defended. But I suspect that these may be the exception to the rule.

Biblical illiteracy will not go away soon unless a concentrated effort is made by all Christian churches to make biblical literacy a chief priority. Until this occurs, we will only see more articles in the secular press bemoaning this decline. And the fact that it is non-Christians that are pointing this out is even more disconcerting.

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21 Responses to Biblical Illiteracy

  • Sounds suspiciously like a church which has become luke-warm.
    Marcus Anderson

  • It really is a worry when you tend to find that Christians don’t even know their own scriptures. It leaves them open to be led off the path in many different directions, especially when one considers that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons tend to have a far greater knowledge than most Christians and often know enough mangled and out-of-context scriptures to lead them astray.
    Mario Del Giudice

  • I can’t pretend to know the Scriptures as well as I should and I’ve discovered that buying all the translations and commentaries under the sun has one major hitch … you have to actually read and study them! I am continuously surprised though by the lack of knowledge of BASIC Christian doctrine amongst believers … why do we need salvation? how are we saved? what is after death? I am sure that this comes from the increase in pastors and church leaders seeing the Bible as little more than a class of “wisdom literature”, not to be taken as factually and historically reliable, but containing “good guidelines” for living; rather than the view that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, giving a history of humanity, a solution to the central anthropological problem and a picture of what is in store for all of us in eternity. Non-believers think that the Bible is, at best, a collection of folk tales and when church teachers fail to stand up for a “high view” of scripture, then it is little wonder that believers balk at putting in an effort to study the Word of God and become familiar with the consistent, integrated theme of creation-rebellion-redemption-restoration that He has given us. The wishy-washy or compromising treatment given to the opening part of Genesis, the prophetic utterances in Isaiah and the great threat cum hope of Revelation, by many in church leadership these days, is bound to undermine confidence in many ordinary bods in the pews.
    Col Maynard

  • My father commented years ago that when he was a boy all the children got sent to Sunday school whether the parents were church goers or not. A bit of religion, a few morals and the golden rule were all seen as good tools in raising good kids. Now those outside the church keep there children as far away as possible so the basic ‘Sunday school’ stories that everyone used to know are now missing from collective society.

    I must credit AFES with teaching me how to write a Bible study with all the research, context and depth involved in pulling a passage apart and putting it back together. I have found the way to learn the most from a passage is to teach it. I don’t think many people are taught how to study the Bible for themselves these days.

    Kylie Anderson

  • The church has not only allowed biblical illiteracy to develop, but has facilitated its occurrence. Why?…Cultural conformity?…A response to ridicule? The illiteracy and ignorance does seem to be the fundamental reason many have enthusiastically embraced the troubling changes and wayward drift of the church. It is amazing that non-believers are pointing this out this loss of literacy….do they feel they have won the culture war or is truth breaking through? Good teaching can reverse this course…how do we get churches to re-adopt the practice?
    Boyd Hawkins

  • Bill,

    But what do we do?

    I’m currently studying at Melbourne School of Theology. At chapel last week our principle’s sermon looked at the first part of Col 2; to hold fast to the teachings we had received so as not to be pulled away by fine sounding arguments. He put forward a defence for theological conservatism; a defence for ‘true’ tradition in the biblical sense.

    He used an illustration of another un-named Bible college lecturer in Melbourne who described their theology as ‘edgy’ and ‘out-there’. This is disturbing. This is coming from theological institutions. What chance do the congregations have?

    But i guess that’s the point really…people aren’t opening the word for themselves and testing all manner of teaching against it.

    Mark Topping

  • Thanks Mark

    Yes you are certainly correct – in addition to churches not doing their job here, there is also the problem of some Bible colleges where every latest trendy fad is being pushed at the expense of teaching the Word of God. They exist all over the place. I even am aware of one where students come in as Christians but often leave as non-Christians! Lord have mercy.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Much of today’s faith is a sign and wonders driven faith, with little emphasis on the word. In many churches, experiences and emotions take precedence over the Word.
    The word if taught is that of self help / motivation, christianity-lite and the WOF kind that get people excited. Sound doctrines and expository sermons are out of date and don’t help church growth. Church growth is more important than making disciples. Numbers and the extent of one’s empire is the mark of a ‘successful’ church.

    Added to all these is now a growing trend towards the mystical and contemplative spirituality. Those who cannot discern will just move along with the trend. Some leaders will be held accountable for all these.

    Barry Koh

  • Quite right Barry.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Being doers of the word is I think a lost concept in both churches and bible schools, it takes patience and change and accountability (and more accountability) but is the best way to understand sound biblical doctrine. Therein lies real understanding of the will of God as His word defines it. The bible makes sense as you’re doing it, alot like trying to make sense of a recipe – try doing it and you’ll understand it so much better. “Uh, but does that mean I have to change? I don’t want to, I just want to learn lots…” uh huh, goats this way, sheep that way, thank you.
    Maxine Prosper

  • I have noted the decline of Bible reading in Church services over the last few years. Of course, there is usually a “Call to Worship” – a short reading, usually from one of the Psalms, but that is it. I have also noted the decline in prayer time during services, and when this point was raised during a Church Business Meeting, the answer was – “We don’t want a lot of long boring prayer”. It doesn’t leave much hope for many of our Churches.

    Joan Davidson

  • That many would retain a remnant of knowledge of biblical history, yet remember them as mere “stories”, is also quite disappointing.
    Duane Proud

  • Bill, you have hit this one on the head. Yes, the twin culprits of the current Biblical illiteracy are the secularists and (some in) the western church. A pastor friend of mine was criticised for using ‘too much Scripture.’ In my many years of Bible teaching, I have also observed a shocking lack of Scripture knowledge. Biblical illiteracy is unhealthy and dangerous: it means we can become ‘relevant’ to the world while becoming increasingly ‘irrelevant’ to God.
    Kameel Majdali

  • Quite right Kameel.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Great article Bill, I only pray those called ‘leaders’ in the Body of Christ will ‘do’ something about it.
    Dorian Ballard

  • Me too Dorian.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It is a sad state of affairs indeed when so many Christians today religiously follow the teachings of prominent Christian leaders, purchasing and devouring their resources, giving freely to their ministries and putting so much weight on everything they say and do, without checking the credibility of their teachings against the ultimate authority of the Holy Bible. It seems to me that God’s word can so often become a secondary resource for many Christians caught up in the ‘celebrity’ church environment, where entertainment is the focus and passionate, captivating speakers rule the stage, preaching sermons that are often devoid of biblical content let alone sound biblical teaching. I agree completely with Barry Koh, today church growth appears to take precedent over making true disciples with many new converts having little or no biblical understanding and follow up support. Now I’m sure there must be a couple of warnings about such times and problems somewhere in the Bible… hmmm… ummm… well… oh, I know! How about I tell you what Rob Bell believes about the topic instead?
    Joel Hawting

  • Greetings Bill,

    Amen and amen – the gate is indeed narrow as so few seem to have His word living in them – and the Lord’s word is true – His people perish for lack of knowledge.

    After more than 40 years loving the Lord and His word with my mind, the Lord was merciful and enabled me to love Him with all my heart (note: heart does not mean emotions). As I travelled this journey I stumbled across “Hebrew Roots” and it has enhanced my biblical literacy.

    I have been reading your posts for some months now and have not seen mention of this perspective. In particular the seven eternal feasts established by the Lord which are shadows of His plan – of which the first four feasts were fulfilled in Messiah’s first coming – that can open up the scriptures – old and new testaments.

    If you have not explored this before, the links below may be an introduction (as always, it is necessary to be a Berean and exercise discernment with everything).
    Part 1: The 7000 year plan of redemption for mankind

    Shalom from Liisa Keily

  • Ours is a far cry from the passionate love that old John Sung (1901-1944) experienced, for when he was converted, his modernist lecturer at Union Theological Seminary had him locked up for 193 days in an insane asylum – such is the joy of the LORD. Keep in mind, he hadn’t slept a whole week, nor returned to his dorm – he’d been out witnessing and fasting all week! But there in that sanitary asylum he read his Bible through about 40 times. After his time in the asylum (which he called ‘God’s Appointed Seminary’) he developed a habit of reading 11 chapters of the Bible a day.
    Forbes Morrison

  • Thanks Forbes

    Chapters or books? Eleven chapters can be read in an hour. Mind you, that is about 11 chapters more than most Christians manage to read in a day.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Why We Have the Bible:
    It is unfortunate (and almost paradoxical) that in the most literate human era, that the Bible is becoming less and less read, and the results of this are only too evident:
    ‘…every trendy heterodox teaching that comes along is being lapped up by believers. They have no or little biblical knowledge by which to assess any new teaching that comes their way. Thus they are easy prey not just for the cults and heretical groups, but for even evangelical teachers who have been going off the theological rails.’ (Muehlenberg 09/05/11:n.p.)
    Karl Barth (1886 – 1968) says that the Bible ‘…constitutes the working instructions or marching orders by which not just the Church’s proclamation but the very Church itself stands or falls…’ (Barth 2010:101), this is partially because the Bible ‘…is not the Church’s dialogue with itself but an address to the Church…’ (Barth 2010:106). Barth argues that the Church does not stand on itself, nor does it look to itself for doctrine, but rather she looks to Jesus: ‘…if the Church in its proclamation does not find its basis secretly in itself but in the Other who is its Lord without the Church ever becoming His Lord, then the concrete form of vicariate [how one communes with the Godhead] must be succession’ (Barth 2010:102). This succession he explains is: ‘…the succession of the prophets and apostles in their office of proclamation… this can only happen if his proclamation has been fixed in writing and if it is acknowledged that he still has life and free power over the Church to-day in this written word of his’ (Barth 2010:104).
    So we can see here that Church is intended to keep the Bible, and to not rely on its own intuition (as many seek to do), as relying on itself breaks itself from the succession and hence ultimately from the vicarage of Christ and communion with the Godhead.
    Heterodoxy appears in Churches that don’t practice good Bible reading habits; this is the natural result of the Church relying on itself as the source of teaching and having dialogue solely with itself. But this is also not to say that any Church that bases all its teaching on the Bible will become perfect, as it will still be populated with imperfect men, but at least they would still be part of the Body of Christ.
    Jai W. Steinmeyer

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