Biblical Literacy and Preaching (Part 4)

17 Mar

Introduction

In this series of articles, I’ve been examining the many appeals from various quarters decrying the apparently low levels of biblical literacy, both within churches and denominations, and also right across society. Whether coming from the professional academic classes (both teachers of Scripture and English literature), the clergy and/or denominations, or biblical publishers, we need to examine the claims being made a bit more critically.

The basic argument from professional academics can be summed up in the following statement: the current lowered levels of biblical literacy in Western society is an increasingly major issue. Why is this a problem? Simply this: because so much of Western art and literature is saturated with either direct biblical references or allusions. Therefore, academics maintain that lowered levels of biblical literacy and knowledge affect not only one’s familiarity with Scripture; worse yet, it diminishes one’s ability to interact meaningfully with so much of the art and literature of Western society.

Clergy and Church Denominations

But what about the urgent appeals coming from the ranks of the clergy, and from various denominations? I noted in the previous post (Part 3) that clergy and denominations alike maintain that lowered levels of biblical literacy affect one’s missional involvement; and that moreover there is (apparently) a direct line from reading one’s Bible, and having intimate knowledge of it, and discipleship and church involvement.

Upon closer examination, however, many of the appeals for increasing biblical literacy that come from the clergy and certain denominations, stem oftentimes from a conservative—or even fundamentalist—view of the Bible itself. Conservatives such as John MacArthur, for example, cite 2 Tim. 3:16 as the mandate that links the study and preaching of Scripture together with evangelism, church discipline and Christian maturity.[1]

Developments in the Reformation Era

Where did the tradition of linking Bible reading and discipleship originate? The development of this belief can be traced back to the time of the Protestant Reformers, as they built upon the notion of sola Scriptura. Displacing the magisterium of the pope and the Catholic Church, they installed the Bible as the “paper pope” instead. Within Protestant theology, this move led to the concept that the Bible–in and of itself– possessed the inherent qualities of both objective, and revealed, truths. Draper notes that “the vernacular translations in Europe and the mass distribution of text after the invention of the printing press led to the universalist notion that the Bible was above culture, indeed in some sense neutral, objectively true.”[2]

Since biblical truths were all that were necessary for salvation and discipleship, held many Reformers, therefore simply “reading the Bible” could accomplish both these goals because of the Scripture’s inherent nature, power and authority.

In conservative evangelical circles, even today this notion is still very much alive, and has at times led to biblicism (a literalist interpretation of the words of Scripture), or even into bibliolatry (worship or deifying of the text as somehow possessing “magical” properties). This may be one of the major drivers behind many churches and their stated desire to get people to read their Bibles. It also could help to explain why so many preachers harangue their listeners on a weekly basis to do so–even though, ironically, most of their listeners do not follow this mandate.

Conclusion

The point being made with each of these first three stakeholders (academics, clergy and Bible publishers) is that they all have high levels of vested interest in justifying and maintaining their positions, either as scholars or clergy. The argument is that they, and they alone, as expert clergy or elite scholars, are the ones that are needed in order to “fill the gap” in terms of the needed levels of biblical literacy, for whatever reason they deem it necessary. These are typically linked to a text- and literacy-based definition of literacy and furthermore tend not to take into account new cultural appropriations of the Scriptures. Christopher Meredith, however, comments to the contrary:

In short, many existing discussions on biblical literacy are not about biblical literacy, they are about preserving a serious paternal metaphor in the midst of a decentralizing of biblical dissemination. The biblical literature remains in social and cultural circulation, of course, but the metaphor is not as serious as it once was.[3]

In the final post in this series, Part 5, I’ll begin to examine various “cultural appropriations” of Scripture in our society today. Has the Bible in fact disappeared from public consciousness, at least in the West? Or is it changing? If the views on the Scripture are indeed changing, then it is incumbent on preachers to understand not only these shifts, but also how to preach the Scriptures in ways that are culturally relevant and appropriate to their listeners.

Footnotes

[1] MacArthur, John F. Jr. “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching.” Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 1 Number 1 (Spring 1990): 4.

[2] Draper, “Less Literate are Safer,” 309.

[3] Meredith, Christopher. “A Big Room for Poo: Eddie Izzard’s Bible and the Literacy of Laughter.” In Rethinking Biblical Literacy. Edwards, Katie, ed. London: Bloomsbury (2015): 211.

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