What Is Biblical Literacy?

What Is Biblical Literacy?

Bibles on top of each other
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We complain about it, write about it, claim it’s important or even critical, design programs to create it, but what is it?

I don’t mean that none of us know what we mean when we say “biblically literate” or “biblically illiterate,” but do we all mean the same thing? I don’t think we do, and that creates problems in communication.

Between age10 and 14 I attended a school that was extremely serious about Bible study. We had study guides that took us through the entire text of scripture, asking questions as we went. We memorized substantial portions of scripture, such as the entire Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 119. We also memorized selections of texts on various topics, such as four texts on the Sabbath and the state of he dead. (We were SDA, so these were considered important.)

I greatly value the knowledge I gained in this way, but when I was done, was I biblically literate?

This depends, of course, on what one means by biblically literate. Here are some definitions I’ve heard (or experienced):

  1. A person who is acquainted with the key scriptures of his or her specific denomination or group. This type of literacy was provided for me by those “4 text” groups on particular doctrines. I could give a Bible study on any of the major Seventh-day Adventist doctrines as long as you didn’t ask me about context.
  2. One who has a general knowledge of where things are located in scripture.
  3. One who vigorously affirms a particular high view of inspiration.
  4. One who is acquainted with the various higher critical methodologies.
  5. One who knows the original languages.
  6. One who knows the related history and literature along with the Bible story.
  7. One who can place any particular story into the broader story of scripture.

(No, I didn’t plan to make that seven. It just happened.)

When I refer to “experiencing” a definition, I mean that I’ve seen someone tacitly dismiss someone else as knowledgeable because they lack one of these elements. I’ve encountrred this attitude about every one of these points. “If he or she doesn’t know x, the person is biblically illiterate.”

I have encountered this with regard to creation. When someone discovers that I accept the theory of evolution, they will suggest that I am unacquainted with Genesis 1 & 2. I am very acquainted with those chapters. In fact, I had to memorize them as one of those long passages in school. Memorizing them does not mean that I will interpret them the same way others do.

I fell into the trap myself recently. I was listening to Deanna Thompson respond to her award for book of the year from the Academy of Parish Clergy for her commentary on Deuteronomy in the Belief series. She confessed that she did not read Hebrew. My initial reaction was to think that it wasn’t really possible for someone to contribute to the interpretation of Deuteronomy (of all things!) without reading Hebrew. Yet right within her brief remarks accepting the award, she expressed some rather profound understanding. I mentally took it back and was glad I had only thought it internally.

This experience does not make me think that learning Hebrew is unimportant. It just makes me think more carefully about what I expect. I have no problem with the value of most of these benchmarks of knowledge. I think they’re important. But what is it that I want the average person in the pew to know? What about my church leaders? Pastors (if we make a distinction)? Seminary professors?

My own definition would be close to #7. I think hearing the overall story of scripture is critical to everything else. Fit the passage into a broad view of the whole. Of course, this type of knowledge might well look superficial to others.

My suggestion would be simply that we pay attention to what type of biblical literacy a person has, if any. Far too many people in the church could really claim none of these elements. We should work on that. But we should also recognize other approaches and what kind of knowledge those other approaches support.

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