Biblical Illiteracy Strikes Again

In his sermon preached at many and various district conventions, LCMS President Matthew Harrison chided delegates for not knowing the Bible as well as their fathers and grandfathers.  And he is correct; there is definitely a generational distinction where those in the Church today do not know the Scriptures as well as their predecessors.

Now normally this charge is thrown at the laity, and rightfully so as many only know the Scriptures that are read on Sunday morning, and many cannot recount basic Biblical accounts.  And there is little hope on the horizon, as children will know less than their parents.

But the charge is just as legitimate when levied against pastors.  How well versed are pastors in the Scriptures today compared to pastors 50 years ago, or 100 years ago?  Martin Luther had the Latin Vulgate memorized, how many pastors can make a similar claim?

This is not just being able to quote verses on demand, this is about being able to expound on the Scriptures without the use of study notes.  How many can speak intelligently about the Prophets, or any of St. Paul’s Epistles without the use of a commentary?

I put myself in this category as well.  In preparing for a Bible study on the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, I found myself blown away by some of the things I was learning in preparation.  And much of what I was learning was not in some ancient non-canonical writings, it was in the genealogies in chapter 10 and it was in common misinterpretations in chapter 11.  For years, I have looked at this text as nothing more than a mere explanation for the diversity of languages that exist on the earth; but the reality is that there is so much more going on in this text that it boggles the mind.

I now repent of only reading the flood account through chapter 9, skipping chapter 10 and going straight to the Tower of Babel in chapter 11, and then skipping the rest of chapter 11 and going to Abram in chapter 12.  The truth is that God did not inspire the Prophets and Apostles to include things like genealogies and seemingly dull instructions just to fill space; He did it because they were important to understanding the things that came before and after.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me how people learned the Scriptures before Sunday school and Bible studies became popular in the 1850’s.  The answer I gave was that they followed the instructions in the Scriptures and in the Catechism in that the head of the household taught his family the Scriptures and they went to church with that strong base of Biblical understanding intact, so that the sermon was spent recounting the text, it was spent actually preaching the text.

This is evident from sermons by Luther, Chemnitz, Walther, Pieper and others.  They hardly spend any time in their sermons recounting the text or giving significant background on the text, they spend their sermons expounding on the text, delving into the Law and the Gospel, and the Scripture that they do quote is normally verses from elsewhere in the Bible which support the actual text they are preaching on.  And they preached for 45 minutes!  Today, almost half of a typical 15 minute sermon is spent unpacking what the text is actually about.

Sadly, the truth is that that even the most common peasant in Luther’s day, or in Walther’s day, knew the Scriptures, dare I say, possibly as well as the average seminary trained pastors do today.

The harsh truth is that many pastors today stand up in the pulpit and belittle others for not knowing the Scriptures, and the harsh reality is that Biblical illiteracy goes far deeper than anyone could ever imagine.  It is not only time for the laity to start reading the Bible a little more thoroughly; it is time for pastors to do the same.

About revschmidt

An LCMS Pastor in North-Central Kansas
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4 Responses to Biblical Illiteracy Strikes Again

  1. I saw this posting on a friend’s facebook, and responded there first. But at his recommendation I am also posting here, in the hopes of giving food for thought. I am not a theologian or a historian, just a mom. So forgive me, if I’m taking liberties by adding my two cents to the opinions of a stranger.

    Let me first say that I don’t deny that we don’t know Scripture well enough, or that our pastors don’t know it as well as pastors at certain times in the past. However, I suspect there is just a bit (or more) of romanticizing the past going on in this article.

    Take for instance this sentence, near the end, …”even the most common peasant in Luther’s day, or in Walther’s day, knew the Scriptures, dare I say, possibly as well as the average seminary trained pastors do today.”

    now here’s the part where I’m not sure my historical sense is accurate, so please correct any false impressions. But my impression is that since all preaching was done in Latin and the Bible was therefore not available to most people, that most people in Luther’s day knew very little about Scripture. That’s why he did the German translation and the catechism. To get God’s Word to the people.

    And even Luther himself, again, at least my impression, is that when he discovered grace, those passages that he discovered were totally unfamiliar to him. (Just want to say that I do realize I may be a victim of historical reconstruction, since, I also was taught that Luther discovered these passages in the Bible that was chained to the library podium. My dear husband has traced the history of that myth and refuted it for my correction.)

    So I guess what I’m first asking is whether your historical presentation is altogether accurate.

    But I’d also like to add, secondly, that we use caution to not slide into holding the past in such a high regard that we despise the era in which we are put. God put us here. This is where He wants us. This is where he thinks we can do the most for His Kingdom. Even with what seems our pathetically limited minds and literacy.

    And I don’t mean to say we ought not to strive to know more Scripture. But we must always temper our striving so that we are not striving so long and hard that we neglect the here and now of the vocations God has given us. They are best suited for our abilities and experience and preparedness; and we for them.

    If my theologian husband were to try to be Luther or Walther, for instance, he may miss out on being Joe the Pastor (Husband, Parent, Friend, Son, Patron, etc. (His name is really Joe, BTW.)

  2. revschmidt says:

    Thanks for the comment. I would disagree that I am holding the past up at the expense of the present. Certainly there are things in the past that we should not hold up and repent of, but there are other parts that it may not be the worst thing to bring back into practice. Our vocations, whatever they may be, would certainly benefit from an increased knowledge of the scriptures. And as you correctly point out, not just memorized verses, but actually delving into the study of that scripture. Luther knew the verses that later offered him hope, but just knowing them was not enough, he had to study them and know what they mean. As for your comment of the peasants knowing the Scriptures, their knowledge of the scriptures grew throughout the life of Luther, just as Luther’s own knowledge grew with time.

    • Dknefelkamp says:

      I have to say two things. One, I believe Luther had memorized those passages but just as revschmidt has read genesis 11 before it was not until you read and understand its full context that it truly opens your eyes. Luther heard St Paul’s words before but he always heard them in a context not of gift but requirement. It is not enough to just memorize bible passages or read them, but to be able to dive into a text you need context. Thus, biblical illiteracy is problematic, because preachers spend most of a sermon just explaining context.
      Second, pride in History should be expressed when we see good things they did. Just because it is in the past does not make it less praise worthy, nor does the parrellel events of the past make their biblical literacy less praise worthy. I personally would like to praise them, because they did not have television, movies, other forms of entertainment, which would fill our minds and time. Sports literacy in America is greater than English literacy, and even that is greater than biblical or religious literacy.
      But just a personal note that this is one of the reasons I have been working on my four year lectionary. I thank you Schmidt for your blog.

  3. RevnPadre says:

    Thanks Michael, keep up the thought provoking work.

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