What does it mean to be Biblically literate?
Obviously, this means more than just the ability to read the Bible. I looked up the word “literate” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the definition I mean when I talk about Biblical literacy goes like this, “competent or knowledgeable in a particular area.” Helpfully, the dictionary says that this usage works alongside a “modifying word” and gives examples with such phrases as “politically literate,” “culturally literate,” media-literate youth,” and “scientifically literate.” Thus, someone who is Biblically literate is knowledgeable enough of it to be considered competent in it, that is, capable, proficient, and skillful with the Bible.
How is Biblical literacy achieved?
We shouldn’t simply lament the Biblical ignorance of Christians in America; we should also to seek solutions. The most obvious solution is for every Christian to read the Bible, all of it. I think reading it through every year is a good thing, but it is by no means a legalistic requirement. The advantage of doing that is seeing the sweep and progression of the whole Bible quite rapidly. On the other hand, I tend to pick up details and remember them when I read slower and more thoughtfully. I can think about interpretation, wrestle with difficulties, and notice motifs more readily when I read slower. (Incidentally, this is why I always did well in literature classes but also took longer than most of my classmates.) So why not have a reading plan that takes you through in two or three years?
But besides reading, I think that we need to adjust our expectations concerning what it means to be “Biblically literate” and our priorities and methods for achieving them. Being literate in the Bible is something desirable and achievable by every Christian. Not everyone will become a published, professional theologian, but everyone is a vocational theologian. And if all of Scripture is profitable, then all Christians should seek out how all of it speaks to every part of their situation.
Part of the vision of the Four Volumes project is a system of Biblical education that strives to achieve these priorities. The first four-year cycle through the Bible is all about the facts. Even at an “overview” level, students are pairing their daily reading with memorizable summaries of each chapter. They walk away with a comprehensive knowledge of what is in all the Bible (even if its not detailed). While knowing the facts of the Bible does not guarantee the ability to apply it to all of life, not knowing them does guarantee a serious deficiency. And although in much of life more is not necessarily better, when it comes to knowing the facts of the Bible, more data is better.
The second cycle through the Bible, the second four years, applies the methods associated with Biblical Theology: tracing themes, motifs, symbols, and types throughout the Bible. I find that many Bible curricula love to jump to this step (because it’s so much fun!) without having the proper founding in the data. Thus, students often walk away taking one thinker’s word for it because they don’t have the databank to perform the methods themselves. I like to think of this work as “connecting the dots” where the first cycle was learning the dots themselves. Without a knowledge of the dots, students can tend to think that connections people make between them are forced or fanciful (not that they never are!). Only when someone knows the things themselves can he synthesize and analyze them.
The third cycle through the Bible, the third four years, grapples with application (apologetics, systematics, and “worldview”) and poetry. Once a person is conversant in the language of the Bible can he speak it or translate it in his own world. This is really, really fun as well as hard work! Again, older students, having grown up in a Christian environment, frequently have big worldview-level questions thrust at them, but successful thinking at this level is impossible with a mind that is not saturated with the Bible.
A Christian culture that is Biblically literate is one that can speak its language (and I’m not talking about Greek and Hebrew), using its own vocabulary in today’s world. It is an alternative culture that is intellectually coherent. And most of all, it is a culture that is much more capable of offering acceptable, thankful, and humble worship to our God and Savior. If the Bible is all about Jesus (and He says that it is), then a culture that is truly Biblically literate both knows about Him and also continues pursuing a knowledge of Him, a truly lifelong pursuit.