reading the Bible

Biblical Illiteracy in the Church Today, Part 1

Today’s post originally appeared in “Western Magazine.”

Thirty years ago, a perceptive Christian leader identified a serious concern for pastors, church leaders and seminary professors. He wrote, “Today a form of illiteracy abounds that is especially dangerous precisely because it is unrecognized. It is particularly prevalent among those of us who read the Bible regularly, memorize verses, and are committed to the authority of Scripture. I am referring to our biblical and historical myopia or nearsightedness. We lack a world view, a vision of the whole.”1

Today, we still see this problem of “biblical myopia” in our sermons, Bible studies, and even how we converse with each other about the Bible. We teach Bible stories and often tack on little morals. But we fail to explain how all of the pieces fit together in the great flow of holy history. Seldom are believers presented a picture of God’s all-encompassing plan for the ages.

The story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17) is one of the most celebrated stories of the Bible. We all love how David, the shepherd boy, defeats the Philistine giant Goliath. We speak of his fearlessness and faith as he confronts Goliath with a shepherd’s sling and five smooth stones, and we cheer when the giant falls. But how does this story fit into the great story of the Bible? What is the narrator trying to teach us through this exciting text?

Inherent in the gospel-centered message of the Bible is that Israel’s God is the one true God, in contrast to the many false gods people are prone to worship. Belief in the one true God is the starting point for all the great themes of the Bible. This is what the narrator of the David and Goliath story wants readers to embrace. Facing Goliath and the Philistine army, David announces to the army that God will give him victory “so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam. 17:46). Everything else in the story is presented as the context for communicating this great truth! Throughout Scripture we find God introducing Himself as the one true God (Exod. 3:13–15, Deut. 6:4, Isa. 40:12–26). As the writer of Hebrews comments, “He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).

How can pastors, seminary professors and Sunday School teachers move beyond merely telling the stories of the Bible to declaring the great story of God’s plan for the ages?

For the last thirty-eight years as a Bible professor at Western Seminary, I have been seeking to address and respond to this concern for “biblical myopia.” In my own seminary training I was taught the importance of biblical exegesis. As students, we focused our attention on books and texts which are crucial to the development and support of our Christian theology. We immersed ourselves deeply in the great books of our faith like Romans, presenting the doctrine of justification by faith, and Hebrews, presenting the person and work of Jesus Christ. But while mastering the details, many of us lost sight of the big picture. We failed to understand and embrace the over-arching story of the Bible revealed in Genesis through Revelation. Hence, we have fallen short of communicating the grand drama of salvation history to the people in our congregations.

How can pastors, seminary professors and Sunday School teachers move beyond merely telling the stories of the Bible to declaring the great story of God’s plan for the ages? The key, I believe, is to give more attention to proclaiming the major Bible themes in our teaching and preaching. In this article, I would like to identify some of these themes and show how they can be used to provide believers with a greater understanding of God’s plan for the ages.

The Blessing/Curse Theme

In the first two chapters of Genesis the word “blessed” appears three times. God blessed the sea creatures, the land animals, and the seventh day. The repetition of “blessed” reveals that God has a plan to bless the world that He has created. But in chapters three and four, the word “cursed” appears three times. God intended to bless His creation, but a curse resulted from Adam’s disobedience and sin. The curse is evidenced in Genesis 5 where all of Adam’s descendants (except one) dies. The theme of blessing and cursing can be traced through Scripture. In the chapters that follow, we discover that God has a plan to remove the curse that came as a result of sin and restore blessing to His creation (Gen. 12:2–3). As a result of the work of Jesus on the cross, believers are “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). And by the time we reach the closing chapter of the Bible, the apostle John writes, “There will no longer be any curse” (Rev. 22:3). God’s great plan for the ages is simply to reverse the curse that came as a result of sin and restore blessing to His creation. Most of the stories of the Bible are sub-stories of this grand narrative.

The Promise Theme

In recognition of the unity of the Bible as one great story, Walt Kaiser has identified the “Promise-Plan of God” as a unifying theme which permeates the pages of Scripture from Genesis through Revelation.2

The promise has its beginning in Genesis 3:15 where we find the first “good news” (protoevangel) of the Bible. Here God promises that a descendent of Eve would receive a painful wound on the heel, while giving Satan a deadly wound on the head. This promised descendant of Eve would sacrifice Himself to save humanity and achieve victory over Satan.

The theme of God’s promise advances in His promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3) and is confirmed with Isaac and Jacob. God promised Abraham and his descendants a land, a nation, and a blessing. The promise of a land is advanced and developed (Deut. 30:1–10) and the promise of a nation is further developed in a promise given to David (2 Sam. 7:12–16). The promise of blessing is elaborated in the promise of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31–34 and Ezek. 36:25–28). We see this promise confirmed and advanced when the angel Gabriel identifies Mary’s unborn son Jesus as the one with whom the promise will be fulfilled (Luke 1:32–33). Through His death Jesus enacts the New Covenant which provides the basis for all humanity to be blessed through the offering of His once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Paul writes to the Gentile churches in Galatia teaching that the blessing promised to Abraham can be theirs on the basis of faith (Gal. 3:9,14,22). While the promised blessing is chiefly fulfilled in Christ, there are future implications for the nation of Israel as well. The promise of the land and nation will be fulfilled in the messianic age when Jesus returns to judge the nations, redeem Israel, and rule His earthly kingdom from Jerusalem.

 

Stay tuned for part 2, to be posted next Tuesday.

Endnotes
1. Richard Foster, “Getting the Big Picture: How we can know the Bible—and not just Bible trivia,” Christianity Today, April 18, 1986, pp. 12–13. While not in agreement with all Foster’s views on mystical spirituality, I do concur with his assessment cited here.
2. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Promise-Plan of God,” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).