By Ben Reichert, Crosswalk.com
The Bible is a collection of books written over a 2500-year period, and it has a unified story that points to Jesus. Biblical literacy is being able to understand how each book of the Bible applies to our lives and how each book can speak to us. It consists of understanding the different genres of Scripture
What Does It Mean to Be Biblically Illiterate?
Biblical illiteracy means not being familiar with the Bible in a way that is helpful and meaningful for everyday life. It might look like knowing a few scattered stories that would be learned in Sunday School.
Biblical illiteracy also looks like not understanding the different genres in Scripture. Reading Proverbs in the same way we read Isaiah can cause us to become frustrated or confused.
Ancient Rabbis divided the Old Testament into three different parts. Together these three are known as the TNK. The T refers to the Torah—the law, the Bible’s first five books. The N refers to Neviim, or prophets—which includes everything between Joshua and Kings, the major prophets, and the book of the twelve (What we know as the minor prophets). The “K” refers to Ketuvim, or writings, which include the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Chronicles.
The New Testament also has four distinct genres. These are the biographical portions (the Gospels), the historical (Acts), the apocalypse (Revelation), and the epistles or letters (everything else).
How Biblically Literate Are Most Christians in America?
Most American Christians have never read through the entire Bible. Sadly and couldn’t discuss more than the basic, big stories. In 2014, the Pew Research Center performed studies which found that 63 percent of evangelical Christians read the Bible “at least once a week” and that 18 percent “seldom or never” read it. The numbers have continued to decline since then—the American Bible Society found that 26 million people stopped reading the Bible between 2021 and 2022.
As a recent State of Theology report shows, a lack of biblical literacy also leads to a lack of theological understanding. The findings also show that culture can impact our view of God. It is easy to believe culturally popular ideas (such as that all people are born innocent and their environment corrupts them, meaning so sinful nature exists). Half evangelicals believe that God accepts the worship of all religions, despite the clear teaching of Scripture against this idea. Additionally, 59 percent of people surveyed believe the Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being. These findings should alarm believers who want people to grow in their knowledge of God and help others do the same.
Why Is Biblical Illiteracy a Serious Problem?
It’s important to be biblically literate in a world increasingly hostile to Christianity. As Peter said, we should always be ready to give a defense of the faith.
Many atheists have read the Bible more than people who grew up Christian because they seek to find issues with the Word of God. If Christians can’t answer these questions, it will affect our witness to those around us. As the survey data above shows, Christians need to grow our literacy and fluency with the Bible.
If we don’t know the grand narrative of Scripture that points to Jesus, it can be difficult to apply texts to our lives in a healthy. Biblical illiteracy can lead believers to believe everything in the Bible applies to us, missing the larger picture. For example, it could lead someone going through a difficult situation to apply the story of David and Goliath—seeing themselves as David and their difficult situation as Goliath. This sounds inspiring, but this method of Bible reading is self-centered. It forgets that the Bible is about Jesus, not us—and we are to pursue being made more and more like him. Left to our own devices, we will default to reading ourselves into the protagonists of the narrative portions of the Bible.
In an increasingly individualistic and postmodern culture, we will increasingly read ourselves as the story’s heroes. This is dangerous because it causes us to miss the Bible’s key point: God loved us despite our unworthiness. As Matt Chandler said in a great sermon, “The Bible is not about you.”
Sadly as humans, we are susceptible to “Narcegesis,” or reading ourselves into the text of Scripture. Just look at the plethora of Philippians 4:13 plastered on athletic shoes. Could Paul’s words about being content in all circumstances refer to success in an athletic event? I suppose so, but that is not the primary meaning of the text, despite what many nominal Christians believe.
How Can Individuals Overcome Biblical Illiteracy?
The best way to fight biblical literacy is to read and study God’s Word regularly. It is difficult to become more literate in the Bible without reading it regularly for yourself. One helpful way is to do this by reading through the Bible in a year. Here is a great place to do that, where you can select the translation and type of reading plan you want.
Another way to foster this desire for biblical literacy is to get a group of friends together and read through a book of the Bible individually, and come back and discuss it together. Studying the Bible with friends provides accountability and someone to help us so we don’t get bogged down in the more difficult sections.
Discipleship is one of the key ways to foster biblical literacy. Meeting with a mature believer at your church can be a great way to grow in biblical literacy. Getting regular time in the Word with someone else is invaluable in growing in the knowledge of the truth. Having someone model what biblical literacy looks like can help immensely. If you are an older believer, find a younger person at your church and ask them to get coffee and read the Bible. If you’re younger, you can do the same thing.
How Can Churches Encourage Biblical Literacy?
Bible studies and small groups are the best places to encourage biblical literacy. Pastors can preach every week and encourage their congregants to be in the Word regularly. Letting people know that spiritual growth will occur much faster by daily reading the Bible may encourage them to study the Word themselves. Make it part of the church culture to talk about what people read in their times with God. This will also encourage believers new to the group to read the Bible themselves.
Another great way to encourage biblical literacy is to get discussion groups and discipleship groups that combine older and younger people—encouraging cooperation and the younger generation learning from the older.
It is also helpful to provide resources to fight biblical illiteracy.
Great Resources for Fighting Biblically Illiteracy
The Bible Project provides a great free introduction to the Bible, both each book and larger topics.
30 Days to Understanding the Bible is an incredible resource for those who want to develop biblical literacy. It goes through the whole Bible’s big picture and gives practical advice on how to read the Bible better. A free snippet can be found here.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is a resource by renowned biblical scholar Gordon Fee that provides helpful background into how to read the Bible in its original context.
Ben Reichert works with college students in New Zealand. He graduated from Iowa State in 2019 with degrees in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and agronomy. He is passionate about church history, theology, and having people walk with Jesus. When not working or writing you can find him running or hiking in the beautiful New Zealand Bush.