Biblical Literacy and Phosphorescent Truth

This post first appeared at the Three Rivers Grace blog on 10/13/15.

Charles Spurgeon wrote, “I have heard of two infidels, one of whom said to his fellow, ‘If you had to go to jail for twelve months, and could only have one book, what book would you choose?’ He was very surprised when his companion said, ‘Oh, I should take the Bible!’ The first one said, ‘But, you do not believe in it; I wonder that you should choose that.’ ‘Oh! but,’ rejoined his friend, ‘it is no end of a book.’’ And then Spurgeon adds, “His record is true, it is ‘no end of a book.’”

As part of a conquering Christendom, this “no end of a book” was sewn into armor, displayed on gilt stands in soaring cathedrals, and held aloft to bless the tools of war before battle. Vanquished peoples were forced to swear allegiance to it; following its precepts resulted in purges by magisterial church officers for crimes of “piety”; and men were burned at the stake at the behest of kings and popes for daring to translate it into the common languages. 

A more subtle, though significantly more pervasive and persuasive, role is the one in which centuries of biblical literacy laid the foundation for our generation to receive a culture that has incorporated the language, principles and themes of the Bible into its literature, its governance, its legal principles — even its daily speech! How often have you heard these phrases or maxims?

Gutenberg opened the floodgates with his printing press, and torrents of words were let loose upon the peoples of Europe, mostly those rapidly translated into English and bound for the masses who were using the Bible to learn to read and speak and think and change the cultural, political and religious landscape for years to come. These phrases above come primarily from the King James Version, the Miles Coverdale Bible (1535), and Tyndale’s Bible (1526), and a longer list can be found here.

Within such a culture, the commonality of language, of experiences, of expectations eased the way for Sunday School societies and church home mission boards to share the truths of the God’s word with people who had already become familiar with some of the terms through education or the marketplace. The Bible was often the only book carried by settlers across the U.S., and it became the reading text for thousands who were educated in one-room schoolhouses. So with this kind of legacy, ours should be a generation steeped in understanding of the word of God, right? 

A recent survey in the UK revealed that fewer than 25 percent of the respondents could put 10 major events of Bible history in the correct order (i.e., the Flood, David and Goliath, etc.). According to a LifeWay Research study, even though, on average, every American owns three Bibles, less than 20 percent of those who identify themselves as Christians read it every day, and just as many of that same group never read it at all. Greg Gilbert says that today’s preachers and teachers are facing “America’s least religious generation.”

Basically, centuries of lip-serviced, watered-down exposure to the Bible does not mean that the people of those generations were spiritually alive, biblically engaged, or even necessarily biblically literate. In fact, there is even grounds for applying the theory of the frog and the boiling water. Years and years of syncretism and neglect heating up in a presumably “Bible friendly” environment has resulted in much of modern evangelicalism being caught in a scalding hot pot of decisionism, false teaching and apostasy.

This talk of numbers may be depressing, but the losses are eternal. “As knowledge of God’s truth ebbs,” John MacArthur says, “people follow more popular views, seeking feelings and experiences.” A danger arises when we presume this applies to the family next door or the church down the street– they are full of programs, their kids are exposed to everything but the Bible — but we leave our own spheres unexamined. Surveys done by LifeWay, Pew and Barna all indicate that across the denominational and doctrinal spectrum, church kids are being raised with a nod to Christianity but no knowledge of its power and might as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

So, which is it? Do we utilize the culture and its structure to spread familiarity and expose as many people as possible to the Word of God? Or does “familiarity breed contempt” so we should regard institutional and societal knowledge with suspicion?

I suggest we turn our perspective of biblical literacy around. Instead of big picture, let’s go to the root of the matter. Instead of looking back, let’s go to the beginning, and look forward. 

God revealed himself, as Hebrews says, first through the prophets but in the latter days “by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Son chose twelve men. Twelve taught by Jesus and sent out to the nations, and soon a canon followed, compiled from gospel accounts and letters written by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Reading and teaching and studying and worshiping, the body of Christ grew to encompass more than one nation and more than one ethnicity, spreading through layers of economic and educational divisions, birthed by the Spirit sometimes one at a time, sometimes in groups of thousands. 

This is the Word handed down to us that inflames the soul. Yes, it is a comfort it when our cultural symbols reflect what we believe, but what a joy it is to see the Word of God burning in the hearts of believers. Spurgeon wrote, “Do you know what it is to have a text leap out of the Scriptures upon you, and carry you away? This special energy and flash of truth is always memorable. How often have the waves of this sea of truth been phosphorescent before my eyes — a sea of glass mingled with fire, of which the spray has dashed over me and set my soul on flame!”

Perhaps what’s happening now is that more respondents’ answers are more in-line with their beliefs. So let the survey number crunchers crunch and the religious anthropologists deliberate over the intricate nuances of percentages. Regardless of the number of phrases we use each day from the Word, whether the sphere we reach is other adults or children, those previously exposed to the church or those with no biblical context, the seed we sow is the same, timeless, eternal, unchanging “Scripture … breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (Isaiah 40:8; 2 Timothy 3:16). As sowers, our task is humble but essential: faithfully sowing the true word, waiting for the seed to germinate and grow in soil made ready by the Father.

As sower-teachers, our own faithfulness to Bible reading and study produces righteousness, godliness and holiness in our lives. When I am regularly feeding on the word, my joy and happiness increases, and my words about Christ are sprinkled with gratitude and grace. Do I sow the seed of the Word in such a manner that the women or children I teach hear awe and reverence in my voice? Do they detect how I cherish it, and apprehend the magnitude of the lesson? It’s so easy to fall into the habit of seeing lesson preparation as a task, and I understand that sometimes that happens in a busy or hectic week. But when we do so regularly, we are also more likely to have already abandoned private devotion times. “Dear friends, beware of reading the Bible for other people,” says Spurgeon. “Get your own text — your own morsel of marrow and fatness — out of Scripture; and do not be satisfied to be sermon-making or lesson-making for your class in the Sunday-school. Feed on the word yourselves, or else your own vineyards will not be kept.”

To paraphrase Jen Wilkin, speaker, teacher, and author of Women of the Word, “The modern church cannot afford for its next generation to be biblically illiterate.” Jen’s book and her talks from the Revive 15 “Women Teaching Women” Conference provide outstanding tools in how to mine a Scriptural passage to understand better its place in God’s redemptive history. Other study methods are Bible Study Fellowship and Precept Ministries. Ed Stetzer has started The Gospel Project, “a curriculum that takes a whole Bible approach to Bible reading and study,” and he suggests several other resources such as The Drama of Scripture (Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew), Gospel-Centered Teaching (Trevin Wax), The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People (Zondervan) and, for kids or families, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Sally Lloyd-Jones).

Go, says Spurgeon, “be walking Bibles.” One of his favorite illustrations of a person engulfed by Scripture was that of John Bunyan:

“Read everything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had studied our Authorized Version, which will never be bettered, as I judge, till Christ shall come; he had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems—without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere; his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.”

“Do not be surprised,” though, if the world hates you (1 John 3:13) or “at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). The world makes much of its hatred of Christ’s blood and declares it has no place in spiritual conversation, not understanding the attraction of the cross or the comfort derives from it. The words of Hebrews 4:12 are a mystery to worldlings who protest the violence of spiritual surgery, blind to its life-giving measures. But to us it offers the promise of eternal healing:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” 

What shall flow forth from you if pricked?

(Ed Stetzer’s article here and Jen Wilkin’s talks here assisted me in preparing this post.)

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