A View On “Biblical Literacy”

I took a Biblical literacy quiz recently.

I did pretty well!  And the handful of questions I missed were ones that I didn’t feel all that badly about missing – like questions about small details of Daniel’s visions or minor Biblical rulers.

I enjoyed the quiz for what it was, but it did make me think about the concept of “Biblical literacy” and what that means.  The quiz that I took seemed to interpret “Biblical literacy” as “knowledge of small details.”  That worked out pretty well for me in the end – I have a near-photographic memory and the ability to recall a lot, even if I read it years ago – but at the same time, I’m not sure I’d send the quiz along to a fellow believer.  Not only do I think it would be intimidating and discouraging for those new to the faith, it might also prove intimidating and discouraging to those who don’t learn in the same way I do.

I’m also not so sure that “Biblical literacy” needs to be defined as “knowing all of the small details of every single event, story, and happening.”  While it’s great to know those things, knowing those things also to me does not embody a full knowledge of what the Bible is and how it functions: it means you’re super-good at Biblical trivia.  And yet I believe there needs to be some standard of Biblical literacy encouraged by the faith, especially in an age where believers often equate devotionals with the Word, don’t study the Bible regularly, and often know less than half of what it actually contains.

Moreover, the level and expectation of Biblical literacy depends on the believer.  New adherents to the faith can hardly be expected to dive immediately into the obscure prophets and every detail of the Old Testament; in those cases, the emphasis is often on first coming to a full understanding of the Gospels and the New Testament.  Believers with more experience, on the other hand, shouldn’t satisfy themselves with only knowing those things.

In the end, I think my feelings about how to approach Biblical literacy come down to a set of questions:

  1. What parts of the Bible do you you have a “working knowledge” of?  (In this case, “working knowledge” means a decent understanding and grasp of a topic: books of the Bible that you’ve studied or read at length, stories you know well, etc. This is the information that you can easily remember without having to dive into Scripture to look for it; this is the information that you might feel comfortable discussing with others and that you often apply to your own life.)
  2. What parts of the Bible do you not have a working knowledge of?    Are there books you’ve avoided reading?  Stories or Biblical figures that sound unfamiliar to you when Christians mention them?  Have you largely been a New Testament reader, avoiding the Old?  Be honest about what feels like unfamiliar ground: the places you’re not comfortable discussing, the information that you can’t recall or are uncertain of.
  3. How well do you understand the disparate parts of the Bible as a whole?  Are you familiar with the ways that the Old and New Testaments inform each other?  Do you understand the breakdown of the Biblical books: which are Paul’s letters, which are prophetic, which are Gospels, which are the Law?
  4. To what degree are you pursuing more literacy in the Bible?  Do you stick with what you know and you’re comfortable with?  Do you ever venture into the areas that you don’t quite understand?  Do you know what you don’t know?

The key to Biblical literacy is that all of us – even those who pass Biblical literacy quizzes with 100% scores – need to work on always knowing the Bible better, regardless of the amount of knowledge we currently possess.  We should never satisfy ourselves with where we are.  If there are parts of the Bible that you don’t know, or don’t understand, or have avoided, it’s good over time – and even with help – to seek those out and learn them and fit them into the larger picture of Scripture rather than sticking with just “the important bits.”  On the other hand, if you’ve been a believer for ages and ages and you’ve read the Bible cover to cover a thousand times, this might mean settling in for a deep study of a particular book, looking at a passage in a new way, or returning to material that you knew long ago but have neglected recently.  It also might be that you’ve been a believer for ages and you have a very small amount of Biblical knowledge: there’s no shame in admitting that.  The sooner you admit it, the sooner you can remedy it!

There is no end to Scriptural study.  And that’s not a curse – it should be a cause for joy.  The Bible is an endless source of wisdom, and it will take more than our lifetimes to ever fully understand everything in it.  The least that we can do, as believers – wherever we’re starting from and with whatever knowledge base we have – is to pledge to ourselves to know it more and better each day, as much as we can, seeking always to move forward.

Biblical literacy is more of a journey than a goal, but we’re depriving ourselves if we don’t pursue it.

 

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13 responses to “A View On “Biblical Literacy”

  1. I think we must always adopt the attitude that there is always more to be known. We pursue study of the word, not to make ourselves “smarter” in the estimation of others, but to know the Lord more fully and see what He wants to reveal to us.

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    • For sure. And some of the people “smartest” in the Word may not actually know it altogether well, so that can be deceptive… It’s absolutely about developing a relationship, and is a fundamental part of that.

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  2. I have read the Bible and in general I remember just about where everything was – but I think literacy can mean different things. Like just because I understand how a teaching on the subject of modesty was stitched together with verses from various books, it doesn’t mean that it is a correct interpretation of the concept as it was originally intended. Not only that, but I read about things that went unsaid and the honor/shame cultural dynamic that was the norm in Jesus’ and Paul’s day and age and how our lack of cultural knowledge skews our interpretation. To that end, I’m not sure that having biblical literacy is what’s important; for Jesus didn’t say that he came that we might have the Scriptures and read them from cover to cover. And Christian history has no shortage of times when the Bible was turned into an idol or a “person” of the Trinity or raised up to being as equally important as the Trinity; but sometimes it wasn’t actually the Bible but an amalgamation of verses that amount to some teaching or other.

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    • Oh, I would never define Biblical literacy as “thou shalt read them cover to cover” – though I suspect that some do. That’s not the most necessary thing to me, either. And it’s vitally important to learn the importance of not cherrypicking verses to prove your point (which is why I think trying to know more in general of what the Bible says can be helpful with).

      Literacy does indeed mean a lot of different things! I think the danger is in believing “literacy” means “I read all of it,” which can lead people to assume they “know” the Bible better than anyone when what they really might have gathered is trivia. And literacy is something entirely different from interpretation, too, absolutely.

      Fundamentally, I think a good encouragement is ALWAYS “read more!” (Though I think this for life, too, and not just Scripture!) Read more of the Scripture, read different interpretations, different translations… It helps a lot in understanding things from a broader view.

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  3. There is a big difference between literacy and remembering details. I teach history, and I tell my students that they will not be tested on lists of names, places, or dates. They can look those up when they need to know them. I teach them the big picture, basic movements and encounters, to give them a framework, a reason to care about the details and research them. In the same way, I hope the people I teach in Bible class grasp the main themes of the Bible–God is in control, we have sinned and need a Savior, Jesus is the Savior we need–even if they cannot name more than half the apostles or six of the twelve tribes of Israel. J.

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    • Yep! The big important stuff comes first, always.

      I like that especially because it then provides a context for everything, whereas memorizing random details can end up startlingly context-less and can create all sorts of problems when it comes to understanding the bigger picture.

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  4. My husband has a working knowledge of the Torah & the gospels, but that comes from his upbringing. I have read the Bible “cover to cover” and find that the verses that speak the most to me are when Jesus addresses women.

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  5. Pingback: Biblical illiteracy among Bible-believing Christians… | Enough Light·

  6. Pingback: A Few Good Posts | Samaritan's Song·

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