The following is a post that I wrote elsewhere about three years ago. Something big is coming to remedy this problem! Stay tuned!
Today I want to talk about something that should be obvious to everyone in the conversation of Christian education but, sadly, is too often neglected at worst and merely assumed at best. What I am talking about is the practice of studying the Bible in order to gain a thorough knowledge of it. I’m going to leave off for now discussing the extent of and approach to the Biblical knowledge necessary for all God’s children. Here, I will examine the chief reasons for the dearth of Bible knowledge among God’s people, even among those raised in Christian homes and taught in Christian schools.
1. Worldview thinking
God has placed me among His people who love and promote “classical education.” One of the purported benefits of this method of education is its intellectual rigor. This rigor, coupled with a desire to be epistemologically self-conscious in a distinctively Christian way, is supposed to produce Christians who are able to “give an answer” to all forms of unbelief. This goal, while worthy in many respects, has been misapplied by its emphasis on “worldview thinking.” Of course, I recognize that the Christian faith is capable of providing a thoroughly extensive and intensive account of reality. But that desire to pass on such knowledge has minimized those disciplines (intellectual and otherwise) that are most valuable for Christians.
This fact came to my attention a couple years ago when I was at a teachers’ training provided by a leading school in the Christian classical school movement. I was surprised by the fact that at this intellectually demanding classical Christian school, Bible class met only three days per week. So I asked a board member about it, and he told me that they do so for two related reasons. First, they want to be careful that they don’t tacitly teach their students an improper compartmentalization of Bible from the rest of life. This avoidance is accomplished apparently, at least in part, by deemphasizing the formal teaching of the Bible proper. The second reason is that the Christian worldview is integrated into all school subjects. Thus, students will learn the Bible from their literature, math, science, and history teachers. The theory is that the Bible will so saturate the other classroom subjects that the students will complete their education with an adequate knowledge of it.
Worldview thinking has largely become a trendy buzzword for relevant engagement with the surrounding culture. Even at its best, it treats Christianity as a disembodied system of thought to be argued persuasively. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is its deemphasis on the data of Scripture in order to engage in the realm of ideas. Christianity is “assumed.” It is a lens through which one interprets reality. But when treated merely in this way, my observation has been a neglect of actual Scripture and a very shallow understanding of its facts.
I would add as a parenthesis that Bible classes themselves also frequently tend not to deal with the Bible as much as theology or apologetics. There is a tacit fear of making Bible class too much like a moralizing Sunday School class, almost as if the Bible itself cannot be taught in an intellectually rigorous way.
Catechism can be thought of as both method and content. I am not against the method of question and answer. Indeed, I regard it as a very effective pedagogical technique, especially in the early years. Rather, I am observing the drawbacks of the catechisms taught in the primary school years. When I began moving in the Reformed direction, I soon discovered that a distinctive of Reformed child rearing is the practice of catechizing. Debates ensue about the best catechism for children. Parents take as a mark of parental success the difficulty level or antiquated sound of their child’s questions and answers. A child who is equipped with a pea-shooter will learn only a purportedly watered-down “Catechism for Young Children.” Better, a child with a pocket pistol with have at his ever-ready disposal the answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But parents who want to go all out and equip their children with a bazooka that is sure to knock out all enemies of the gospel will teach their children the Westminster Larger Catechism.
Of course, I am speaking facetiously, but I am truly concerned that we are putting the cart before the horse. I heard of a dear friend of mine recently expressing concern about his four-year old’s inability to articulate the truth of the Trinity. My friend, of course, was not overly concerned, but I do think his prioritizing of the study of doctrine even at this early age illustrates my point. Catechisms are essentially systematic theology. And systematic theology should rely on a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Regrettably, my observation has been that a heavy emphasis on catechism frequently goes hand in hand with a shallow knowledge of the stories, types, symbols, terminology, and facts of Scripture.
Again, by way of parenthesis, I am not opposed to teaching children the language of doctrine. My concern is with how prioritizing it easily results in a deficient knowledge of the Bible itself. Additionally, teaching doctrine is important especially in later years after a strong foundation of Biblical knowledge has been laid. Pedagogically speaking, Bible content is an enormous amount of “grammar level” material. I regard theology and apologetics as essentially “dialectic” material.
3. Partisan spirit
Frequently coupled with catechizing is a partisan spirit that is more concerned about losing children to other theological traditions than producing people who know their Bibles thoroughly. I have heard parents, whose children, though remaining faithfully passionate about serving Jesus, now identify with a different type of church, lament their failure to catechize their children better. I have heard teachers object to my cautions concerning catechizing by saying that our children may not turn out Reformed if we teach them only the Bible. Oh, the irony! These concerns may be legitimate to a point, but they also reflect a divisiveness that has plagued Protestantism for years. It is as though our desire to keep our own types of churches full justifies circumventing a rigorous Bible education.
This partisan spirit also implies a lamentable misunderstanding of how to replicate our own. As parents and as educators, we must recognize that watertight theological arguments and meticulously qualified catechism responses are not sufficient to pass on our heritage. Our heritage is more than a list of theological distinctives. And Christ’s body is much, much bigger than our own particular convictions. And I speak as one who feels very, very strongly about my own!
4. The spheres
The final culprit for our general Bible ignorance that I will mention is, once again, sphere sovereignty. I have talked about the inadequacies of the spheres before, and so I will only touch on them briefly here. Many churches operate under the assumption that the intellectual development of Bible knowledge is the responsibility of the “family sphere” while the responsibility of the ecclesiastical sphere extends to the spiritual development of its members. Thus, pastors labor to persuade parents, especially fathers, of their responsibility to teach their children the Bible, and, once the job of persuasion is done, they try to equip them in their pursuit. Thus, they have book table, and they recommend Christian schools, which operate in the sphere of the family. But in an effort to maintain supposedly proper distinctions of roles, churches demure from offering a thorough and rigorous Bible curriculum.
Once again, I regard this neat, watertight theological construction as providing churches with a respectable excuse for not making the long-term, expensive, and inconvenient commitment to teach the data of the Bible in a systematic way (apart from the pulpit).
Of course, these criticisms do not apply equally to everyone, and there are churches out there who do a very good job in offering such vital programs. The bottom line of my concern is that believers of all theological backgrounds do not know their Bible. Teaching the Bible is a lot of work and takes years of diligent labor. But if we are to have a generation of men and women who can make a difference in the surrounding culture, then they must be saturated with Biblical knowledge. And that knowledge is possible only if we make the commitment to teach it thoroughly and rigorously.