When Paul came to Ephesus, he asked some disciples of Jesus, “ ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’ ” (Acts 19:2, RSV). If the Apostle were to come to the present-day American church, he would find it little different from those disciples in ancient Ephesus. For it does not take long to realize the glaring ignorance of the content and message of the Bible among believers today.
Nowhere is this ignorance more evident than on the college campus. Despite the fact that many students are products of the Church, and that, in the case of Christian colleges, many more are products of Christian homes and have been exposed to Sunday schools for many years, their knowledge and understanding of the Bible is little better than that of millions of people who make no Christian profession. They may be nominal followers of Christianity, but they have never really heard the message of the Bible, nor do they know the simplest facts of the faith. A student once said, “If a Communist were to ask me what I believed about the Bible and the Christian faith, I wouldn’t know what to say. I’ve gone to Sunday school and church all my life, but they just haven’t given me a living memory of anything.”
Evidence of this biblical illiteracy is seen in the results of a test given to 150 freshmen in a church college. Practically all these students were members of a Christian church and had never known a day without religious influences. The test in no sense indicated how a student would interpret the Bible but dealt only with elementary questions about the Bible, such as: Where was Jesus born? Which was the earliest of the four Gospels? Name some of Paul’s letters. Who was the successor to Moses? Name two of the Hebrew judges. Name a Wisdom Book. Where do you find the account of the Lord’s Supper? What book tells the history of the early Church?
Answers were revealing. The story of Abraham was found in the Book of Ruth. The Roman persecutions were the great event of the Old Testament. The Exodus was the return of the Jews to Palestine after World War II. The Ten Commandments were given by Jesus from the Mount of Olives, and some of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament were: Acts, Paradise Lost, and Lord of the Flies. Jesus was born in Rome; his mother’s name was Gabriel, and he was baptized at Pentecost by John the Baptist in the Red Sea. The earliest of the four Gospels was Genesis. Moses turned the Red Sea blue during the Exodus, and Joan of Arc was the Hebrew heroine who saved her people from the hatred of Haman. The mother-in-law of Ruth was Mary Magdalene, and her famous great-grandson was Noah. Jesus was betrayed by Samson and died at Bethlehem.
The average grade of the test was 10 per cent, and the highest was 34 per cent. Over half the students left three-fourths of the test unanswered. These results in no sense reflect on the intellectual abilities of the students, for all of them had survived the many hurdles that would have kept the unqualified from entering college. But the results do point to a real crisis in the teaching of the Bible in church and home. And this biblical illiteracy is not restricted to college students. Will Herberg has said, “Though four-fifths of all Americans acknowledge the Bible to be the ‘revealed word of God,’ when asked to name the first four books of the New Testament over half of these same faithful folk could not mention even one” (Protestant, Catholic, Jew, p. 14). Despite all the outward signs of religious revival and the tremendous increase of church membership and church buildings, there exists a “famine for hearing the Word of God.”
What is the cause of this biblical illiteracy? The burden of guilt falls upon the Christian home and the Christian Church. Paul wrote to Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14). Timothy had been brought up in a home where the “sacred writings” had been taught; he had been instructed from childhood in the Old Testament. But no longer is this so. There is very little teaching of the Bible in the modern Christian home. Indeed, there is often hardly any mention of it. Thus whatever knowledge of the Bible a young person may receive must be acquired from the Church.
But the failure of the Church is the greatest failure of all. Far too many people have turned to the Church looking for bread and have been given the stale crumbs of dull discussions of the kings of Israel, or the meaningless scraps of an empty moralism that tells people to be good when they feel lost. Wesley Schrader has called the Sunday school period the “most wasted hour of the week.” He claims that it is little more than “a glorified baby-sitting service, or a place where children listen to grotesque stories and memorize verses, or a Sunday morning social hour characterized by a considerable amount of horseplay” (“Our Troubled Sunday Schools,” Life, Feb. 11, 1957, p. 101). There is little doubt that in many Sunday schools the current sports heroes—Mickey Mantle, Jerry West, or Johnny Unitas—have taken the place of the biblical heroes, Abraham, Peter, or Paul. Most of the time is given to discussion of personal problems that would be better discussed with a competent counselor. Thus, despite the fact that the Bible remains our best-seller, it has become little more than an obsolete “sacred book” to which most of its devotees pay lip-service but which they practically never read, study, or understand.
The Word Made Dull
One of the reasons for this biblical illiteracy is the way some Sunday school teachers have presented the Bible. Uninspiring, uninformed people who have been coerced into a job they don’t want or like have merely marked time on Sunday mornings without ever making the Bible exciting or relevant. A survey made among 6,500 Protestant ministers in Canada indicates that Canadians skip reading the Bible because they think it is trivial, dull, and hard to understand. But this is a tragic misunderstanding of the biblical faith. Jesus Christ was never dull. He was dynamic, so dynamic that religious people had to kill him to prevent his exciting truth from disturbing their status quo. The early Christians were full of excitement, so much so that on the Day of Pentecost the populace thought they were drunk. And yet people today who attend church think that the Bible is dull and irrelevant! It is not enough to drill children in memory verses. Memorizing lists of the books of the Bible or the kings of Israel is no substitute for exciting, up-to-date Bible study that makes the ancient Word a contemporary Word. Jesus was clear enough on the point that knowledge of the Bible is no guarantee of faith. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4)—but this word must be a living and active word.
The biblical illiteracy in the Church today presents frightening possibilities. The Christian faith is always one generation away from extinction. If the Church does not communicate the faith to its young people, there are ominous signs for the future. Elton True-blood, in The Company of the Committed, has said, “What reason is there to suppose that our civilization, in contrast to other civilizations which have preceded it, will survive? There is no high probability that the fate of our civilization will be different unless.…” Unless? Unless we communicate the biblical faith to our young people and acquaint them with the sacred writings that alone can make them wise unto salvation.
The Master Teacher’s Method
Jesus spent long hours with the disciples teaching them the truths of the Kingdom of God. He taught them the true meaning of the Scriptures, and there is little doubt that the amazing use of the Old Testament by the early preachers and teachers of Christianity was the result of his own patient instruction of the disciples after the Resurrection (Luke 24:44–47). The words of the two men on the road to Emmaus showed how dynamic he made the Bible: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). He wrote his word on their hearts and gave them such a living memory of the truth that decades after his resurrection the Gospels could be written on the basis of that memory.
What would our present generation of young people write about Christianity thirty or more years from now? Would they know enough of the elementary truths of the Bible to be able to hand them on to the next generation? The alarming signs of illiteracy among Christians suggest that they could not. The modern Church has failed to create a living memory of the Bible and the Christian faith for the Christians of the twenty-first century. It has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage and conformed to the success neurosis of modern culture. Too content to gain the whole world, it is in danger of losing its soul.
If this biblical illiteracy is to be overcome, some drastic changes need to be made in the Church. As Trueblood has said, the greatest conversion we need today is not a conversion to the Church but a conversion in the Church. And nowhere is this conversion more needed than in the teaching of the Bible. Young people are aware of the staggering advances made in the world of science and space exploration. This generation is being challenged to explore the planets and conquer the stars. Yet the Church lags far behind, content with mediocrity.
There is a great need today to teach biblical content. Some young people are fortunate enough to take a competent course in the Bible in college. But it is all too true that some professors delight in tearing down whatever faith the student has, rather than giving him a deeper faith and a working knowledge of the Bible. A new gnosticism has emerged on the college campus—a gnosticism which teaches that salvation is through knowledge, the knowledge of Bultmann and Tillich, which will bear the initiate through the shadows of loneliness and despair into the promised land of enlightenment. But this pseudo-intellectualism cannot speak to the desperate condition of modern man. He must hear the word of the Gospel, if he is to be saved from despair and selfishness. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God …” (1 Cor. 2:6, 7).
G. Campbell Morgan, the great biblical expositor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, once wrote,
To me … a knowledge of the Bible is absolutely indispensable to anything like strong faith and life in Christ.… A mere intelligent grasp of it is of no value. Its study is always making an appeal to us. If we answer that appeal we enter into the deepest experience of life. The truth of the Bible is proven by the Bible itself, and that means knowledge of the Bible. So many people are quite ignorant of the Bible, and are occupied in reading books about it. The demonstration of its authority will never be gained in that way [This Was His Faith, pp. 18, 19].
Let the Church return to exciting, dynamic communication of the contents and authority of the Bible, and turn the most wasted hour of the week into the most wonderful hour. Let the Church once again introduce people to this “strange, new world of the Bible,” the world of prophets, of apostles, and of Jesus Christ.
There is still hope for our confused and despairing world. The present generation of young Christians are like the Ethiopian eunuch who sat in his chariot with a passage from Isaiah he could not understand and who, when Philip asked if he understood what he read, replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). Young Christians want to know the Bible. There is a great hunger for the “Bread of Life,” and it is high time for the Church to feed these souls. If we return to vital teaching of the Bible, then young people will hear the Gospel, as if for the first time, and become disciples of this Person and his community that once turned the world upside down. For the renewal of biblical teaching and the alleviation of biblical illiteracy, we are not left to our own efforts; it is the Spirit’s function to take this ancient Word and make it contemporary. Thus the devoted Bible teacher needs always to pray, Veni Creator Spiritus.
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