Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Combating Biblical Illiteracy in the Churches, 1

Dr. Jim West, pastor of Petros Baptist Church, is part of a growing number of bibliobloggers, i.e. folks who blog primarily on biblical studies. On his blog, Jim regularly blasts TV preachers and others who regularly misinterpret Scripture badly as “dilettantes.” I have argued with him that he seems to promote an “academic magisterium” of semi-official biblical interpreters which, it seems to me, undermines the Reformation doctrines of the “perspicacity of Scripture” (i.e., that the main message of Scripture is understandable to all who read it–barring learning disabilities or other special circumstances) and of the “priesthood of all believers.” But Jim and I agree that the Bible is regularly mangled by TV preachers, writers of much popular drivel found in Christian bookstores, etc.

Further, the state of biblical literacy among laity is very low. Theologian George Lindbeck notes that when he was a student at Yale Divinity School entering students were tested for levels of biblical knowledge that would now surpass many graduating students–and that is not something unique to Yale. Indeed, I have heard similar complaints from many professors at conservative evangelical institutions. When I taught New Testament introduction courses at a local church-related university (in Louisville, KY–part of the Bible Belt in America), I began each course with an anonymous pre-test to let me know where the students were at the beginning of the semester.

I asked the following 6 questions: 1) How many books are there in the New Testament? 2) How many Gospels are part of the New Testament? Name them. 3) Who wrote more books of the New Testament than anyone else? 4) In which book would you find the Sermon on the Mount? 5) Which book tells some part of the history of the early church? 6) What is the name of the last book of the Bible? Never did more than 5% of the class get all 6 questions right and usually the percentage was much smaller. More than once over 95% of the class missed all 6 questions and this did not vary too much on whether the students came from strong church backgrounds or not. I have made inquiries across the U.S. and found that these kinds of results are fairly typical.

Thus, laity (and many clergy) are easy prey for heresies, whether of “New Age” nonsense or militant Christian Zionism, or any of a dozen or more other schemes propagated by TV preachers and popular Christian authors, many with mail order degrees from diploma mills and not from reputable schools (although it is quite possible to have heretical nonsense from people who should know better, too).


September 10, 2006 - Posted by | Bible, blogs


  1. Wow, that test and its results are surprising. I could answer those questions probably by the time I was in 4th grade and certainly before I entered middle school.

    It’s one of the things I appreciate about my Baptist upbringing.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 10, 2006

  2. Brace yourself. Quiz the youth group or even survey our adult membership, friend, and I bet that, at best, only 50% can answer all 6 perfectly. I’d love to be proved wrong, but my experience says I won’t.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2006

  3. And, out of today’s headlines, some evidence that people are biblically illiterate:

    A booming movement that began with Evangelical Christians holds to the belief that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke. In a Time poll, 17 percent of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61 percent believed that God wants people to be prosperous.


    If the poll is to be taken seriously…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 10, 2006

  4. I’ll try the youth group. I just tried Jordan and he got 50% (sorta). He then asked, “Is that enough to get into heaven?”


    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 10, 2006

  5. I just tried Molly and she got 2 of 6 which was about average for my pre-tests. She was embarrassed.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2006

  6. And our church, I believe, is MORE biblically literate than many, not less!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2006

  7. Sarah got two out of six.

    Hmmm…In many ways, I like the way we teach the Bible in our childrens/youth dept. We talk about concepts – peacemaking, economics, etc (or at least in the youth dept), but maybe we’re not doing enough to get the basic facts down, as you’re suggesting.

    They DO know (or have an idea of) the books of the Bible, but they didn’t recognize the term Gospels as signifying the four books.


    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 10, 2006

  8. Molly knew the 4 Gospels and where the Sermon on the Mount is found. She had heard before the number of NT books and Revelation, but couldn’t remember them now.

    The concepts approach is right, but so is the content!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2006

  9. One of the reasons I now attend a Baptist church after trying out other denominations is that most Baptists bring their Bible to church and the preacher reads scripture and then teaches from that scripture. He will even ask the congregation to hold up their Bibles, and if he gets something wrong, somebody will tell him. I am a big believer in the priesthood of the believer, but I think it is important that each person base their belief on their interpretation of scripture, rather than feeling.

    As for your test, I can see how people might miss the first one, but not the rest.

    Comment by Glen Dean | September 10, 2006

  10. Wow, that is shocking. I’ve never even taken a Biblical studies class, and not only could I get all six questions right, I could name all the books in the first question (admittedly, which is the only reason how I knew the answer to that question). You know it’s bad when an atheist can do better than 50% of the laity…


    Comment by Chris Weimer | September 10, 2006

  11. Now, Chris, if you can recite all 27 books of the NT, you had a sunday school teacher or something in there at some point…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 10, 2006

  12. What is surprising me is that, with the exception of Glen’s affirmation of expository preaching and of church members bringing their Bibles to the sermon and reading closely while the preacher speaks, no one has commented much on my actual suggestions–nor given any alternative ones or additional ones.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2006

  13. Nice job on this post! I will make a reference to in my own blog.

    In my last youth minister job I had a high school SENIOR, not know about Paul’s Damacus Road conversion.

    Comment by Matthew61 | September 11, 2006

  14. Maybe we have no good answers…

    Perhaps we ought to send them to traditional Baptist churches for their “Sword drillin'” and then just unteach them what wrong stuff they learn there, but let them retain the strictly biblical stuff?


    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 11, 2006

  15. Whoa! When you were talking about the state of biblical illiteracy on my blog, I was thinking along the lines of: “Old Testament commandments for purity,” “timelines for the invasion of Israel”, the doctrine of substitution, etc… I had no idea you were talking about such basic stuff! That is kinda scary. That’s like Jaywalking on the Tonight Show, where Jay asked people basic questions like how Mt. Rushmore was formed and who is the Vice President?

    That is indeed sad.

    On your comment concerning views of biblical authority in relation to knowledge of scripture, it seems to me that churches that put authority of another source, say the “Church”, on equal footing with the Bible, would be more likely to have people less knowledgeable of the Bible. I could be wrong on this; the only evidence I have is anecdotal. I had an ex-girlfriend who was raised in the Catholic church but had very little knowledge of the Bible, and a Catholic friend who never read Revelation (of course, I bet many Christians have not).

    Comment by Chance | September 11, 2006

  16. “although it is quite possible to have heretical nonsense from people who should know better, too”

    In my experience, again, anecdotal, when I watch shows on the History Channel, it seems that many of the educated theologians from the Ivy League schools seem to have a very loose interpretation of the Bible. Most of these people do not believe much of the Bible, or agree that it is highly symbolic. It could be that these shows are just trying to grab a range of views.

    As you say, knowledge if very important, but, as I believe you realize, knowledge is not everything, as the Pharisees had knowledge. But the Bible in many cases harps so much on gaining biblical knowledge so that one is not swayed easily by false doctrine.

    Comment by Chance | September 11, 2006

  17. Chance, I have done no nationwide surveys, but my experience as a teacher showed, on average, no more biblical illiteracy among Catholics, Orthodox, or mainline Protestants than among evangelicals or fundamentalists–something that surprised me.

    It used to be that fundamentalist and evangelical churches, whatever their other problems, were excellent at getting their members to memorize large amounts of Bible. That seems to be changing.

    Mega-church preachers, the majority of whom are fundamentalist or evangelical, now often preach topical sermons with little biblical backing and preach on single sentences taken out of context. The focus on “praise worship,” etc. often leads to people who claim the Bible as supreme authority, but who don’t read it anymore than anyone else.

    This is a huge problem. Thus, my 3 posts and asking for all of us to work on ways to stem the tide.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 11, 2006

  18. I find that a lot of folks who would love to see the Bible taught in schools (along with prayer) have demonstrated little effort to study the Bible themselves.

    I think part of what we are seeing is a complete loss of the Biblical language in the broader culture resulting from the Constantinian Church losing its political hold. Faithful churches will not look back at the golden years and try to establish some Neo-Constantinian edifice (which is what worries me about how televangelists manipulate many Christians), but will realize that we should never have expected the broader culture to teach our children our faith in the first place.

    Comment by Ryon Price | September 12, 2006

  19. Right on target, Ryon! Welcome to Levellers, btw.

    During the ’80s, I kept encountering well-meaning folks saying, “If our children don’t learn to pray and read the Bible in the public schools, where will they learn?” Uhh, home? Church? Can you imagine any Jew saying, “If my son does not learn what he needs to become bar mitzvah [Reform Jews can add, “or my daughter to become bat mitzvah”] in the public schools, where will he learn?” Most synagogues run after school “Hebrew School” programs to educate Jewish youth in Judaism. Why can’t non-Constantinian Christian churches do similarly?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 12, 2006

  20. Reminds me of when Stephen Colbert asked a Congressman who is for putting the 10 Commandments in courthouses to name them, at which point the Congressman managed to get out four or five.

    I think a reporter should ask the President some of those questions.

    Comment by Wasp Jerky | September 14, 2006

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