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.