Biblical and Theological Illiteracy in the Church

Bill Evans head shot

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Magazine (March/April 2013, pp. 10-11) and is presented here is slightly edited form.]

Astonishing though this would have been to our great-grandparents, biblical illiteracy has reached crisis proportions in the broader culture and even in American churches today. High-school English teachers now find that even the most basic biblical allusions in literature must be explained to students clueless about the biblical story line and even the most prominent characters in Scripture.  An academic colleague told me recently of a student survey at a church-related college in the American South which found that many students did not know the difference between the Incarnation and reincarnation!  These problems have been extensively chronicled in books like Stephen Prothero’s well-publicized Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (2007), and the same author has gone so far as to describe America as “the land of biblical idiots.”  We could go on and on, but the larger point is clear.  Americans in general, and even many American Christians, don’t know much about the Bible.

Not surprisingly, this biblical and theological illiteracy has practical consequences.  It undoubtedly contributes to the prevailing popular theology among America’s youth, which has been aptly termed “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton in their influential book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005).  According to Smith and Denton, many American young people view religion as about being a good person (moralism); they view the purpose of life as being happy and feeling good (therapeutic), and they view God as distant and undemanding although available to help us with our problems (a sort of modified deism).

What’s the connection?  Well, this moralistic therapeutic deism obviously has little to do with the gracious and all-powerful God who reveals Himself in Scripture, and who upholds the universe by his power.  Even a basic knowledge of the Bible demonstrates that the domesticated and convenient god of MTD is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who sent His Son to redeem helpless sinners dead in trespasses and sins. But nature abhors a vacuum.  Unaware of what the Bible teaches and the Christian church has confessed, young people construct a theology congenial to themselves. And of course, this ersatz theology is not solely the property of the young; it is shared by many of their parents as well.

But why did the current biblical and theological illiteracy emerge?  The contributing factors are complex but we will mention three—the broader culture tells people the Bible is unimportant; cultural shifts make people less likely to read in general, and the church has not responded as well as it might have.  First, our public culture is characterized by the absence of religious expression, by what the late Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” and behind this, of course, lies the programmatic split between public and private.  Since the 1960s prayer and Bible reading have been judicially excluded from the public schools, and a very clear signal has been sent that the Bible is not significant to public life.  Rather, it is at most a matter of private opinion, on the same level of importance as one’s preference for Pepsi or Coke, that is to be kept private.  In other words, the Bible is no longer valued by the broader culture, except as a cultural artifact, and texts that are not valued are unlikely to be read.

Second, we are well into the transition from a text-based to an iconic, or image-based, culture.  Newspapers and books are becoming curious vestiges of the past, and many younger people spend their time with the constantly changing virtual reality of images on computer screens . . . or smartphone screens . . . or video games . . . or television.  The permanence of the written word has been replaced by ephemeral flickering images.  Accustomed as they are to constant visual stimulus, many today find the reading of texts in general, and the biblical text in particular, tedious.

Finally, the church has, to a greater or lesser extent, capitulated to these trends.  Disciplined expository preaching that exposes people to the comprehensive witness of Scripture is the exception rather than the rule.  For decades Christian education theorists assumed biblical literacy and emphasized entertaining programs instead of content, and the result is that now we have generations of people who have grown up in the church and yet have little idea what the Bible says or what Christians are supposed to believe.

Of course, it was not always so.  In a recent article Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College has documented the extent to which the English Victorian culture of little more than a century ago was permeated with the Bible; he shows that the Bible was pervasive to the educational system from start to finish, and to the culture, both public and private, of the period.  Nevertheless, the stark contrast between the Bible-saturated Victorian culture of the 19th century and the barrenly secular Britain of today underscores just how easy it is to lose biblical and theological literacy.   All it takes is a generation or two of neglect.  Biblical and theological literacy is something that takes sustained ongoing effort.

We see this clearly in Scripture.  In the Old Testament we find two striking instances of biblical illiteracy and the response of God’s people to it.  First, recall how King Josiah was shocked and dismayed when he heard the contents of the book of the law of God (probably the book of Deuteronomy with its listing of covenant blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience in chapter 28) read to him (2 Kings 22:10-20).  Apparently the Scriptures had been suppressed during the reigns of Josiah’s wicked grandfather Manasseh and father Amon.  In other words, Josiah lived in a time of biblical illiteracy.  Josiah also responded appropriately to the Scriptures—he read the book of the law to the people and then he and the people solemnly promised to obey God’s word (2 Kings 23:1-3).  Not only that, but Josiah also rooted out the idolatrous practices that had become institutionalized in Judah. Such was his zeal that we read: “And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him” (2 Kings 23:25).

Our second example comes from the book of Nehemiah.  Recall that when Ezra the scribe came to Jerusalem from Babylon he discovered that the post-exilic Jewish community was profoundly compromised—they were not living according to the law of Moses and they were intermarrying with the surrounding peoples at an alarming rate.  Ezra wisely discerned that the problem was twofold—the people did not know the Scriptures, and they were disobedient to them.  He too lived in a time of biblical illiteracy.  His strategy, like that of Josiah, was twofold as well.  He called a national convocation in Jerusalem; he read the law of God to the people and then it was further explained by the Levites (Nehemiah 8:1-8).  With this reading of the law it was painfully apparent that the people were living in disobedience to it.  They responded with grief, the confession of their sins, and they solemnly vowed to be obedient to the covenant (Nehemiah 8:9; 9:1-38).

What lessons can we learn from these biblical examples?  First, biblical literacy is important.  Ignorance of Scripture is no basis for faithful Christian lives and congregations.  Second, biblical literacy requires hard work.  It doesn’t just happen. The word of God must be diligently read and taught.  Like the Levites who worked with Ezra, we must explain and apply the word of God to people’s lives.  Finally, biblical literacy and obedience must go hand in hand.  It is quite possible for people to know a great deal about the Bible and about theology and yet to be profoundly disobedient to God’s word.  James reminds us, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22).