Associate Pastor, Agros Church
The Age of Biblical Illiteracy
The church has fallen far from the time where children were trained up in the catechisms, not only memorizing the questions and answers, but also the Scriptures that went along with them. From a young age, Christian children were equipped with an entire body of divinity, and could probably shame the average pastor in Biblical knowledge today. The art of catechism, of question and answer, has overwhelmingly vanished from Christian homes. It would be interesting to see how many adult Christians could answer the question, “What is the chief end of man?” (WSC Q1)
Along with catechesis, the practice of reading the Bible has been lost upon the American Christian Church culture in a lot of respects. Reading the Bible once per year has transformed to reading the Bible once in a lifetime, or not at all. This, combined with milky preaching, has led to Biblical illiteracy and a poor view of God and man in the 21st century. There are many culprits to point at for a weakened American Church, but Biblical illiteracy is one of the primary guilty parties.
The easy access to search engines and Bible Study tools like Blue Letter Bible and BibleHub has helped in a lot of ways, but has also harmed Biblical literacy. To the benefit of the church, believers can now quickly type a phrase or topic into a search engine and add the word, “Scripture” and find the passage they are looking for in an instant. This is a great tool and can save somebody a lot of time flipping through a concordance. It does have its own harmful effects, including the “proof text” and “word study” phenomenon that plagues Theological discussion (Theological Discussion can be academic amongst scholars or casual among friends and family).
The Proof Text Phenomenon
Have you ever been in a discussion with somebody who is espousing a doctrine outside of Scripture, but they insist that their view is the “obvious” reading of the passage? They probably have a handful of Scriptures tucked away to demonstrate their point, and because the texts themselves seem to “prove” their Theology, it can feel impossible to show them otherwise. Maybe their argumentation is even convincing to you. They do seem to have the Bible on their side, after all.
This phenomenon is usually a product of ripping a verse or passage out of its context, and a quick search engine query might yield a handful of articles that even support their viewpoint. This is often framed as, “Well what about this verse? What about that verse? How do you reconcile this passage in light of?” and so on. This happens when Christians fail to recognize that Bible as a cohesive story of Redemptive History. The proper question should be, “What is the whole passage communicating in light of all of Scripture?” For those Christians that consider Scripture “God breathed,” it is imperative to recognize that a God inspired book is going to have a unified teaching that can be reconciled at every passage.
The job of the Bible reader, then, is to make sense of the difficult passages in light of the clear passages, and allow God’s Word to provide the context. Proof texting is a dishonor to the text of Scripture, and makes God double-tongued and inconsistent when used to espouse non-Biblical doctrines.
Word Study Nightmares
Another problem with Biblical illiteracy is the idea that deeper meaning can be pulled out of the root words, either in the English (Or other translations), or the Greek or Hebrew. D.A. Carson, in His book, “Exegetical Fallacies,” devastates this modern practice. “One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or components” (Carson, 28). He uses the problem of agape love as a sermon illustration to demonstrate his point. “How often do preachers refer to the verb agapao(to love), contrast it with phileo(to love), and deduce that the text is saying something about a special kind of loving, for no other reason than that agapao is used? All of this is linguistic nonsense” (Carson, 28).
We need to be quick to recognize this fallacy when we hear it, and certainly avoid making practice of this in our own Bible reading. When we read our Bible, it is important to recognize that the context of the passage informs the meaning of the words used. Special meaning should not be found in root words that add to the passage more than what is intended by the author. There are not multiple, opposite, interpretations in every line of Scripture. There is unified purpose and meaning in all of it, and declaring that the text can disagree with itself is declaring that God can disagree with Himself.
An example can be drawn from the English phrase, “The water is cold.” This clearly is talking about temperature, but let’s apply that word to another context. “Becky didn’t even cry at the funeral, she is a cold person.” Does this mean that Becky should probably carry a coat around with her, or that she is lacking emotional warmth? Does it mean that she is both physically cold and emotionally cold? The sentence, “Becky didn’t even cry at the funeral, she is a cold person,” clearly means that Becky is emotionally cold.
The first step in determining the meaning of “cold” should not be to consult a dictionary or a lexicon, but to look at the context to inform the usage of the word. In our Bible reading, we should not use the Lexicon as a crutch, or a tool to draw more meaning out of a passage than is made available to us in the author’s intention for the text. If you must use a Lexicon, ensure that you know how to use one, or you might find that you are putting meaning into the text of Scripture that was not put there by the pen of the author.
Reading Your Bible Properly
There are four takeaways that are helpful for the Christian to understand about reading the Bible.
The Bible is not meant to be a free for all, allowing for multiple, opposite interpretations in every line. It has a meaning and a purpose. I often hear, “Well I interpret that differently” regarding passages that are easily established in their context. As Bible reading Christians, we need to put our foot down on this. There are some passages that are more difficult to understand than others, and discussion is necessary regarding those passages, but overwhelmingly, the text of Scripture is clear, and when a verse is allowed to live in its context, it speaks freely.
The most important takeaway from this article is that Christians ought to be reading their Bible more, and not just using a search engine to find support for things they believe. Use the tools available to you, but do not abuse those tools. Let Scripture interpret Scripture, and let the context of a verse provide the meaning for the words in a passage, not a lexicon root word value.
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