I had the honor of conducting an interview with well-known and respected Theologian Kevin J Vanhoozer (Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical, Illinois) regarding if Biblical Illiteracy is indeed a problem in our churches. As his work has a large amount to do with systematic theology, hermeneutics, and postmodernism, Vanhoozer has much to bring to the table in this discussion.
To the average hard-working American who may be juggling things like school, a job, church commitment, and family, how would you answer the question of “why study the Bible?” Isn’t it a waste of time when you have so many important things vying for your attention and time?
Kevin: You’re right: “Time is money.” Or is it? This is one of those metaphors we live by (to cite the title of the famous book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson). We all live by words of wisdom that we use to guide the choices we make in daily life. Where do these words come from, and how do we know they are reliable? There are so many unreliable social scripts that people unquestioningly accept just because other people do: monkey see, monkey do. Here’s my point: the Bible gives us God’s words to live by. The Bible challenges the social scripts we often take for granted. The Bible exposes our many ways of foolishness – the diverse ways we chase after wind, and windfalls – with the light of eternal truth. What we find in the Bible is wisdom, which is more precious than gold, or 401(k)s. The Bible presents Jesus Christ: the one through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. In sum: we should study the Bible to learn about God’s plan for human flourishing revealed in Jesus Christ. What better use of time is there than to come to grips with the only real life and death issue there is: how to get right with God, the giver of life?
Looking back to all your experience leading up to this point, what would you say a leading cause (if you can pinpoint one) of Biblical Illiteracy is? Or do you find there are simply too many to name?
Kevin: I can think of two. The first is a certain anti-intellectual mood that has often infected the church. Why bother learning how to read and write when all you need is faith in Jesus? The problem with this faith/reason dualism is that you have to know how to read the Bible in order to grow in understanding Jesus and his saving work. The Protestant Reformers knew this, which is why they insisted on translating the Bible into the language of the people. It is also why they put such a value on literacy! The church has nothing to gain when its membership is biblically illiterate.
The second factor may be a misunderstanding of what it means to be biblical. “The Bible says it, I believe it” may sound pious, but truly to be biblical involves knowing how to read the various kinds of literature that make up the Old and New Testaments. Yes, it’s all God’s word, but the Bible is actually a whole library of different kinds of books, and readers need to know the difference between reading parables, histories, laws, and Gospels – and don’t even get me started on apocalyptic literature (e.g., the book of Revelation).
Say the church all of a sudden becomes biblically literate and starts reading Scripture well, not taking verses out of context. Then what? Is this the end goal? Will this change the direction of the church at all?
Kevin: The end goal is not literacy but understanding and obedience. Think of literacy as the ability to follow the way the biblical words go, and think of discipleship as the ability to follow biblical instructions, for example, by obeying what is commanded or trusting what is promised. If Holy Scripture becomes the church’s authoritative script in practice, and not simply in theory, then I think biblical literacy will change the direction of the church. It will mean that the church will be able to see the cultural scripts it is following for what they really are: idolatries. It will mean that the church may again be able to worship in Spirit and in truth.
How has studying Scripture impacted your life personally?
Kevin: There’s a reason to begin the day with Bible reading. It reminds me that I too am a character in God’s ongoing historical drama, with lines to say and things to do. As James 1:22-25 says, those who peer into Scripture see themselves as they truly are. Reading the Bible on a regular basis helps me stay in tune with the real world, which is not death and taxes, but what the Father is doing in the Son through the Spirit to renew creation, and me, so that I can live each day in a way that images God and embodies the mind of Christ.
Thank you for your time!