The sixteenth century Reformation was marked by a return to the infallible authority of Scripture (sola scriptura). And with it the walls that divided the spiritually elite clergy from the common Christian came down. No longer was the bishop or priest privileged to the biblical text, as if they alone had the right to interpret Scripture.
But as the Reformers came to realize, there was a problem. Though the Bible was now accessible, the people were biblically illiterate. Even with a copy of Scripture in one’s hand, many had no idea where to begin? How were they to approach this massive book?
These questions were not only relevant with the genesis of the Reformation, but they are relevant today as Christians in many churches, for one reason or another, are biblically illiterate. Perhaps you have believed in Christ for the first time, started attending a local church, but when it comes to the Bible you are overwhelmed and have no idea where to start or what to do. If I may, I would like to offer a handful of very practical steps you can take.
First, this may sound too simple, but it truly is the most important thing you can do: read your Bible and pray. If you are a believer, then the Spirit has not only regenerated you but now indwells you. And the Spirit always works in conjunction with God’s Word. The same Spirit who breathed-out Scripture through human authors can and does illuminate the biblical text to the believer. So read the Bible and pray that God would assist you, opening your eyes to understand its meaning and message.
Second, read large sections of the Bible at a time. Too often Christians take a piece-meal approach to the Bible, waking up in the morning, reading one verse, and hoping to gain a nugget of truth to get them through the day. How easy it then is to misunderstand Scripture. Such an approach easily ignores the context of the passage. Instead, try to read an entire book in one sitting. Remember, many of the New Testament books were written to churches as letters, meant to be read in one sitting to the recipients. Reading an entire book in one sitting will allow you, like those early believers, to see the big picture, the main message, and avoid missing the forest for the tress.
Third, read Scripture in community with others in the local church. American Evangelicalism is notorious for raising up solo Christians: just me, God, and my Bible. This is terribly unbiblical and unhealthy. If you are a Christian then you are part of the body of Christ, the church. How can a Christ follower divorce himself from Christ’s body? The two go hand-in-hand. Therefore, within the context of the local church believers are to encourage one another and hold one another accountable. So benefit from reading and studying the Scriptures with others. Gain from the insights of those in your midst who have studied the Bible much longer than you have. And do not limit yourself to the church of today, but turn to the church of yesterday. Read the Fathers, the Reformers, and others in church history. Remember, we should always be standing on the shoulders of others.
Last, be sure you are sitting under good preaching of God’s Word. Too many churches are led by pastors who enter the pulpit and instead of letting the Word of God speak to the people of God they get in the way by distracting the congregation with their own agenda, hobbyhorse, or personality. Find a pastor who is not afraid to do the very thing that is considered politically incorrect—preach! And do not just look for a preacher—after all, there have been many men who preach, but preach the wrong thing. Rather, look for a preacher who will expound God’s Word. Look for a pastor who will move beyond the superficial and take you into the deep waters of Scripture. Look for an expositor who refuses to be content with milk because he sees the people’s need to be fed solid food.
Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin understood this need well. For example, when Zwingli inaugurated his reformation in Zurich, he entered the pulpit of the Great Minster on New Year’s Day, 1519, and rather than using the typical lectionary he began expositing Scripture chapter-by-chapter. Heinrich Bullinger notes that Zwingli was fed up with the approach that “cut up into little piece, the Lord’s Gospel.” Therefore, Zwingli said, he was now going to preach “without any human addenda.” Zwingli, as Timothy George explains, not only was preaching from the Bible but “also was allowing the Bible to speak directly to him and his congregation.”
Are you sitting at the feet of a Zwingli? Are you reading the Bible as a whole? Are you gleaning insights from the community of saints? These are questions every Bible-believing Christian must ask if he is to avoid biblical illiteracy.