People of the Book: The Bible is the Only Book we Need

michael faraday all sufficient bible

Evangelicals love to claim that they are “people of the book” — the book being the Protestant Bible. Evangelicals talk a lot about the sufficiency of Scripture. According to these followers of Jesus, all that believers need for life and godliness can be found in the Bible. Yet, these same people write books, host radio programs, and blog about how the people of the book should understand and interpret the book they say contains everything Christians need to successfully live as followers of Jesus. Calvinists, in particular, make much of sola scriptura — Scripture alone. One such person is Jon Bloom, staff writer for John Piper’s Desiring God website. Bloom writes:

We have the New Testament largely because of the theological diseases that infected and afflicted the first-generation churches. The apostles wrote to clarify and remind early believers of things they had been taught, and to correct false doctrines that were springing up.

All of church history resembles the New Testament: remarkable outpourings of the Holy Spirit, gospel advances, churches planted, outbreaks of persecution and martyrdoms, doctrinal distortions and leadership abuses and all manner of sin causing churches to be, as the old hymn says, “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” followed by Holy Spirit-empowered revival and reformation movements.

To have knowledge of church history is good — really good. It helps us keep perspective. It helps us keep from being too euphoric and triumphalist in revival, too depressed and defeatist in tribulation, and too enamored of The Next Big Thing, the new method, strategy, or movement that promises to be The Answer. Church history helps us remember, “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us” (Ecclesiastes 1:10).

But it’s best to know our Bibles very well. The only proven antidote to the doctrinal and moral diseases that have always afflicted the churches of God is “holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16) and “not . . . go[ing] beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Church history serves to confirm this is true.

We must submit to “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and not allow the limits of our own understanding to place unbiblical limits on the “breadth and length and height and depth, and . . . the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18–19). Plead with God for the strength to comprehend what is beyond our human ability to grasp (Ephesians 3:18).

And resolve not to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).

And at the end of Bloom’s article? Books for sale that will help Christians better “understand” the all-sufficient Word of God.

Evangelical writers continue to churn out books, radio broadcasts, YouTube videos, audio recordings, and blog posts that are meant to “explain” what the Bible teaches. Or better put, meant to “explain” what that particular Evangelical thinks the Bible teaches. Why the need for all the extra-Biblical material if the Bible is the only book Christians will ever need? Why all the Bible study books if born-again, bought-by-the-blood. Holy-Ghost-filled Evangelicals have the very Words of God at their disposal?

The bookshelves found in the average Evangelical pastor’s study are filled with all sorts of books: commentaries, Bible translations, concordances, sermon outlines, sermon illustrations, Christian biographies, theological tomes, self-help books, and one-offs dealing with politics, the culture war, and clean Christian jokes. And thanks to computers, many of these books and study helps are now available online or through purchased software. Yet, come Sunday, these same pastors — after spending 10-20 hours reading and studying books about the Bible — will say to their congregations, “We are people of the Book! The inspired, inerrant, infallible Protestant Bible is all-sufficient. Praise be to God for giving us through his Word everything necessary to live in an evil world as his chosen people!”

Al Mohler, in a January 2016 blog post, lamented the theological and Biblical ignorance of many Christians. Mohler writes:

While America’s evangelical Christians are rightly concerned about the secular worldview’s rejection of biblical Christianity, we ought to give some urgent attention to a problem much closer to home–biblical illiteracy in the church. This scandalous problem is our own, and it’s up to us to fix it.

Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli put the problem squarely: “Americans revere the Bible–but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” How bad is it? Researchers tell us that it’s worse than most could imagine.

Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments. “No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time. They don’t know what they are,” said George Barna, president of the firm. The bottom line? “Increasingly, America is biblically illiterate.”

Multiple surveys reveal the problem in stark terms. According to 82 percent of Americans, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better–by one percent. A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.

Some of the statistics are enough to perplex even those aware of the problem. A Barna poll indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham. We are in big trouble.

Secularized Americans should not be expected to be knowledgeable about the Bible. As the nation’s civic conversation is stripped of all biblical references and content, Americans increasingly live in a Scripture-free public space. Confusion and ignorance of the Bible’s content should be assumed in post-Christian America.

The larger scandal is biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same. America’s Christians know less and less about the Bible. It shows.

How can a generation be biblically shaped in its understanding of human sexuality when it believes Sodom and Gomorrah to be a married couple? No wonder Christians show a growing tendency to compromise on the issue of homosexuality. Many who identify themselves as Christians are similarly confused about the Gospel itself. An individual who believes that “God helps those who help themselves” will find salvation by grace and justification by faith to be alien concepts.

Christians who lack biblical knowledge are the products of churches that marginalize biblical knowledge. Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing fraction of the local congregation’s time and attention. The move to small group ministry has certainly increased opportunities for fellowship, but many of these groups never get beyond superficial Bible study.

Youth ministries are asked to fix problems, provide entertainment, and keep kids busy. How many local-church youth programs actually produce substantial Bible knowledge in young people?

Even the pulpit has been sidelined in many congregations. Preaching has taken a back seat to other concerns in corporate worship. The centrality of biblical preaching to the formation of disciples is lost, and Christian ignorance leads to Christian indolence and worse.

This really is our problem, and it is up to this generation of Christians to reverse course. Recovery starts at home. Parents are to be the first and most important educators of their own children, diligently teaching them the Word of God. [See Deuteronomy 6:4-9.] Parents cannot franchise their responsibility to the congregation, no matter how faithful and biblical it may be. God assigned parents this non-negotiable responsibility, and children must see their Christian parents as teachers and fellow students of God’s Word.

Churches must recover the centrality and urgency of biblical teaching and preaching, and refuse to sideline the teaching ministry of the preacher. Pastors and churches too busy–or too distracted–to make biblical knowledge a central aim of ministry will produce believers who simply do not know enough to be faithful disciples.

Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leader in the hostile Calvinistic takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, thinks that the solution for the theological ignorance is for pastors to return to Biblical teaching and preaching. Mohler is a big proponent of expository preaching. (Expository preaching is a form of preaching that details the meaning of a particular text or passage of Scripture. It explains what the Bible means by what it says. Exegesis is technical and grammatical exposition, a careful drawing out of the exact meaning of a passage in its original context. Wikipedia) He thinks it is up to pastors to use some sort of Vulcan mind meld to impart Christian theological knowledge to church members, forgetting that many members have the attention span of a toddler and are more concerned with lunch and Sunday’s match-up between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots.

I thought that the only book that Christians need to the Bible. I thought that the Bible is all-sufficient. Surely, if God himself (the Holy Spirit) lives inside of every Christian and is their teacher and guide, shouldn’t every Evangelical know what the Bible says and means? Evidently not. Despite asking Jesus into to their heart and the Holy spirit living in said heart, Evangelicals still need clerics to tell them what the various books and verses of the Bible mean. For 2,000 years now, educated (and not so educated) pastors have been telling Christians what they should/must believe, going so far as to suggest that if Christians don’t believe the right things it is doubtful they will go to heaven when they die.

I was a part of the Christian church for fifty years, pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan for twenty-five of those years. I started my preaching career as a topical/textual preacher, moving to expository preaching once I embraced John Calvin’s doctrines of grace. I took seriously my obligation to preach and teach the word of God. As an expository preacher, I preached through numerous books of the Bible, including preaching over one hundred consecutive sermons from the gospel of John. Yet, despite all my preaching and teaching, most church members were content to believe what I believed. No matter how often I challenged and berated them over their lack of diligence and theological acumen, congregants were content to dust off their Bibles on Sunday and passively sit in the pew as Pastor Bruce preached to them the wondrous truths of God’s perfect Word. While a handful of church members would read theological books, study the Bible, and listen to sermon tapes, the rest of the congregation decided to live with the guilt of not being students of the Word.

The reasons for this lack of desire are many, but let me end this post with a few of them.

First, the people I pastored had a life outside of church. While the majority of church members attended church every time the doors were open — often two to four services a week — they also had other obligations: jobs, houses, lands, and families. As a pastor, I was paid to read and study the Bible. My schedule afforded me the leisure necessary to spend hours each week reading theological books. When I wanted or needed to do some intense study, all I had to do is cloister myself away in my study and put up a closed sign on the door. Trained to be “sensitive” to the man of God’s spiritual needs, congregants left me alone, believing that it was more important for me to hear from God than them.

Try as they might, most church members simply did not have the requisite time necessary to devote themselves to reading and studying the Bible. Members often resorted to short devotional booklets such as Our Daily Bread — a better-than-nothing approach that rarely, if ever, imparted any new knowledge about the teachings of the Bible.

percentage of americans who didnt read a book

Second, due to the belief that only certain Bible versions should be read: King James (KJV), New American Standard (NASB), English Standard (ESV), many members found the text of the Bible difficult to read. What do people who have a limited amount of time do when faced with a hard-to-read book? They put the book on the shelf, choosing to either read books that dumb down the Bible or supplant reading and studying with their pastor’s Sunday sermon. The sad fact is — Christian or not — most adults rarely read books, choosing instead to read blogs, news sites, and social media. Those who do read books are likely not reading religious tomes. Most Christians read religious fiction such as The Left Behind series or Christian self-help books. (You can check out Amazon’s Top 100 Best Sellers: Religion and Spirituality here.)

Finally, many of the people I pastored either found the Bible contradictory or boring. Whether this attitude was due to reading ability, education, or desire, the fact is most church members ignored the Bible, choosing, when they read, to peruse fictional books or easy-to-digest self-help books. I pastored people who read every book in the Left Behind series, yet couldn’t find a spare minute to read the Bible. One woman, a devoted follower of Jesus and active in the church, devoted her reading time, not to the Bible, but to books on famous crime stories and serial killers. Too bad I didn’t know to tell her that the God found in the pages of the Bible was/is the greatest serial killer of all time.

Bloom and Mohler are fighting a losing battle. Not only are most Christians no longer using the Bible as the all-sufficient rule for their lives, they also aren’t even bothering to read it. Perhaps it is time for Evangelicals to write a new Bible, one that has more of a True Blood, Game of Thrones, Ray Donavan, Criminal Minds, Walking Dead feel. Sticking with a Bronze Age religious text will only cause continued angst and depression among the Blooms and Mohlers of the world. If God himself can’t get Christians to read the all-sufficient Bible, what makes Evangelicals and parachurch leaders who, if the truth be known, don’t read the Bible much either, think they can do what God can’t do?

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6 Comments

  1. Geoff

    I have often wondered why, if the bible is the perfect, inerrant, word of God, context is important. Context is only relevant when considering documents that are poorly, or ambiguously drafted. Indeed the US constitution is one such example, yet I seldom hear people shouting ‘context’ as they defend their second amendment rights.

    I totally agree with your implication that, above all, the bible is an intensely boring read. I did, however, enjoy the references to what people believe, for example that Noah was married to Joan of Arc, and that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple (the gay lobby should use that one!). I am reminded of the joke about when Popeye beat up Jesus, because he went to mount Olive.

    Reply
  2. JR

    ‘God’s word is perfectly clear so that the simplist mind can grasp it’s truths’.
    That is why there are hundreds of passages that university educated Christians have no clue how to interpret. And that is why when I did a bit of preaching I would have to spend half the sermon explaining what the text doesn’t mean… ‘I know it says women must be silent … but it doesn’t mean silent really cos of xyz, and I know it says you get eternal life by keeping the comandments but it actually means ….’

    Reply
  3. matilda

    I’m a pragmatist. As an example of non-bible reading, a relative is trying to establish a church in one of the most deprived areas of a northern UK city. The residents are mostly unemployed and dropped out of education, having attended poorly, as soon as they could. Relative laments they will go to the free lunches or foodbank but never to Sunday worship which is an hour-long rant from some minor OT book, KJV obviously. I want to tell him that, for example most of these folk read a tabloid newspaper which boasts it has a reading age of 8. I think I read that the KJV has a reading age of 13. That’s just for starters, many clergy have no idea of the physical and mental toll that 12-hour shifts in a factory or other low-paid job take on the body. I’d love to suggest that a children’s bible would be much more appropriate to some folk – not being demeaning – because they have NO background whatsoever in the book and can’t begin to understand the archaic language, let alone revel in its glory and truth.

    Reply
    1. Brian

      Hi matilda, It has not been my experience that Christians “revel in its glory and truth.” What I have experienced is the simple fact that missionary work among evangelicals is founded on helping themselves to a culture, inserting Jeezus religion into people without their permission, building schools so that the Bible can be an essential part of ‘learning’.
      As you say, long shifts at hard labor is daunting and the idea that somebody would want to spend their Sunday being harangued and bullied by a preacher is truly addled, truly wonko. Christianity is founded in stories passed on through a few thousand years. The version now most touted by funadmentalist evangelicals is simply in action, bullying people. Makes no difference how well-versed one is in scripture: There are all kinds of bullies.
      I have had the baloney statement Gerencser quotes here, that the Bible is the only book you need, said to me pretty much word for word in the Baptist church of my upbringing. Just yesterday, while trying to slow my brother’s obsessional Christian oratory, I suggested he consider watching an HBO series, called The Leftovers. I told it was fascinating to me and began with a kind of rapture experience, people simply disappearing out of families, off the street, you name it. My dear bro immediately raised his voice to tell me that the rapture was incorrectly understood and therefore the show is worthless. The only story worth attending, is as Bruce Almighty has intoned, the Book. I ceased in my effort to offer my brother a good series to watch because of his rudeness and disrespect. It is bullying and Christians like this encourage one another to harm others in just this way all the time, praise dear sweet Jesus. Let us revel and prey.

      Reply
  4. Melody

    I’m an avid reader and yet I had to make myself read the Bible. Some of the stories are interesting but much is boring or difficult to understand. Thinking these thoughts was evil though, so I kept on trying. I do think there are some nice metaphors or flowery language here and there, but it wasn’t a book that grabbed your attention causing you to keep on reading. It kind of should though, shouldn’t it? If it really was God’s work, it should be the most riveting book that ever existed.

    It is amazing that God’s own words are so unread even amongst his people. You’d almost think it wasn’t such a great read after all….

    Reply
  5. Troy

    I took a literature class in College that included several ancient works of literature, in particular the Odyssey (Lattimore translation very good) and the Aeneid (So many historical allusions to be nearly incomprehensible to the casual modern reader). Regarding the Odyssey, a fellow student challenged the notion that the Odyssey was one of the greatest works of literature of all time. I was amused, but the guy was right, time hasn’t been kind to the Odyssey, nor any other ancient work of literature.

    The Bible, of course, has a lot less going for it. The Odyssey is a narrative about one man by one man, while the Bible skips around like a broken record with a cast of obscure an uninteresting characters. The purely mythological stories in Genesis I find entertaining as mythology, but much is like reading a rule book or another family’s family tree. A modern reader can’t relate to any of the stories or people. Like the Odyssey it was to be consumed by a fundamentally different audience. Like the Aeneid, the Bible is full of all kinds of historical and cultural allusions that most people aren’t going to get without significant investment into the lore and culture that produced it.

    Another impediment is the King James Only crowd. This adds another layer of obfuscation in an already challengingly boring work. And as a challenge to Christians, I suggest you transpose “Samaritan” with “Atheist” to get the true gist of that story. This is a good example that illustrates my point. No American is going to have the necessary visceral reaction to a Samaritan that the original audience would have for that story.

    (The fact that you can translate words but cultural metaphors and allusions are more difficult is the thesis of an excellent Star Trek the Next Generation, “Darmok”)

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