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Seattle Pacific University
Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1 | Features
"Biblically Literacy" continued

“I was an undergraduate at University of California-Berkeley when the Bible first became a book I really wanted to read. I lived in a large co-op called Barrington Hall, and it was there in a weekly student-led Bible discussion group that the random pieces of my world view came together. It was my discovery of the Jesus Christ of the Bible that made the difference for me, because Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Lord integrated the parts into a new whole. He resolved a journey that had begun in my childhood, and he called me into a growing lifelong adventure called the Christian life.

“But who this Jesus Christ? He is the Jesus of history to whom the Bible bears witness in the Old Testament by its history and expectation, and in the New Testament in its witness to his life and ministry. We do not know a mystical Christ of faith apart from the concrete Jesus of the first century. The cornerstone of Christian theology and its most radical cutting edge is the affirmation of the fact that the “Word became flesh” (John 1). If we agree that this is indeed the Jesus Christ in whom we trust, then we have joined ourselves to the Bible.

“Once we make this discovery, we are then invited to grow with and into the great texts of the holy Bible so that they become an alive part of our own daily intellectual and moral life as well as our friendly companion. This is what I call biblical literacy. It is not so much tested by a multiple choice quiz as it is by the presence of a day-by-day friendship with the text, which means I am feeling more at home on each page that I read and study. The books themselves become a part of my life: the Psalms, the history narratives of the Bible that describe real people in real places, the gospel records, the letters of St. Paul that he wrote to his friends. I feel included by these books because they understand my journey; therefore I am encouraged to welcome the texts into my heart and into my mind. Does this kind of biblical literacy matter? Yes, and most of all, because the Bible always points us to its own living center, the one who matters the most of all, Jesus Christ.” — Earl Palmer, author and senior pastor University Presbyterian Church, Seattle

“Biblical literacy is important but, based on my experience, it is not sufficient.

“First of all, I’m convinced after many years of work that belief precedes behavior. I look at it from a leadership point of view. If we think about how belief precedes behavior, we can see that our system of laws, and our system of property ownership, have their roots in the Bible. Our whole Judeo-Christian culture and our Western laws — these are things we’ve grown up with, and we know their authenticity — they have their roots in the Bible.

“In addition, the roots of our moral values are in the Bible.

“When you’re reach a position of leadership in business, and you are doing business with a diverse legion of [customers and clients], it becomes crucial that you understand the roots of your values, the roots of your system of law, and the roots of the concept of private ownership. If you think about the differences between the Western world and much of the undeveloped world, the basic reason they are different can be found in the fact that … the undeveloped world has either never figured out the role of private property, or is too threatened by it. That is a crucial thing to understand.

“Biblical literacy is important, but not sufficient, because the heart and the hand have to be connected. We have to ask ourselves: How do we make a connection between our cognitive knowledge of what’s in the Bible, and our day-by-day behavior? How do we take these beliefs and make sense of them?

“In business today, in the Western world, the quarterly term is considered to be ‘long term.’ But when we talk long term, we need something that has more authenticity, more strength, and more forward-looking. The Bible gives us that view.

“Here are some key elements of leadership:

  • Trust. You can’t do business without trusting somebody. Trust is based on truth … being truthful.
  • Forgiveness. You cannot enable somebody to reach their full potential without forgiveness.
  • Community. If you are a leader, you’re nobody without your followers. You have to build some kind of system of relationships. There are crucial differences between different kinds of leadership. Some leaders are using the system for their own personal aggrandizement. Other leaders are trying to build some kind of community. And we learn how to do that from biblical literacy.
  • The concept of personal restraint. This is another key element. One of the problems we have in American society today is a lack of personal restraint, particularly from a consumerism point of view. We need to learn more restraint, or we are in trouble. Biblical literacy is a great help and guide in understanding any of these elements.


“Further, if we know what the Bible says, we have to see every person we encounter as being made in the image of God. God himself said that to us. And that has terrifying implications. That’s asking a lot of anybody, to try and think that way about everyone you work with, the people you sell to, the people you buy from.

“Biblical literacy is important for me as I seek to connect it with my heart and with my hand. I find that what I have to be working at is answering well how I integrate my work into my faith.

“I have run into many people over the years who would ask me the wrong question. They would ask, ‘How do you integrate your faith into your work?’ That’s the wrong question. The right question is this: ‘How do you integrate your work up into your faith?’” — Max De Pree, chairman emeritus of Herman Miller Inc., author of Leadership Is an Art

“The U.S. and the world stand, of course, to lose everything with the collapse of biblical literacy, although ‘the world,’ except for Europe during the Middle Ages, has never paid much attention to Sacred Scripture. Without this touchstone, our mortal imagination will always slump over into fatuity, squalor, and havoc. If we doubt this, we may look at morals, education, public discourse, TV, cinema, and politics in our own country at the moment. As a Roman Catholic, my nose is held daily to the Psalter. Here is the plumb line. ‘Lord, hear my prayer. . . And let my cry come unto Thee! God, come to my assistance! Lord, make haste to help me!’ The man (or nation) whose voice is never heard in the Sanctuary with these words is in trouble.” — Thomas Howard, scholar and author

“I'm so thankful I was raised hearing the music and stories in the King James Bible. I remember hearing Elie Wiesel speak one evening, retelling so beautifully the stories he grew up with, and I remember thinking, These are my stories! How could a European Jew, a holocaust survivor, an intellectual and thinker have so much in common with me, an American kid who grew up in a little coal mining town in Southern Ohio? We shared the same stories as boys. The same protagonists. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon. Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Ruth, Bathsheba. Scripture can be so connecting, yet it is so often used to separate, condemn, marginalize.

“I'm convinced that any child who grows up hearing the words and stories in The King James Bible has a head start when it comes to being a writer or artist. The stories are so deep in the bones of much of humanity. The rhythms of the King James Bible, the poetry, the love, the contradictions, the struggles, the humanity — it's all fertilizer for the creative soul. And it teaches us to go deep, wrestle with the big questions, wrestle with the angel.” — Linford Detweiler, of the music duo Over the Rhine

“There is far, far more in the Bible than any of us have discovered. I have been reading it daily since I was about 12 and am continually amazed at ‘how did I miss that before?’ Even the bits I know continually surprise me with new angles. And the point is this: The more you read, the more it enables you to have a many-sided engagement with the world for the gospel. If you rely on what you learned at Sunday school, don’t be surprised if your ‘engagement’ gets just a little thin.

“Some people can read whole books at a sitting, others need to take things more slowly. Some people can analyse passages more or less unaided, others will need help. If in doubt, start with one of the gospels, then read one of the shorter Old Testament books, then another gospel, then an epistle, and so on. Never forget that the four gospels are the centre of it all, and that the Jesus we meet there is the human face of the living God. But remember that the Jesus we meet there was the Jesus who knew the Psalms so well that even in the agony of torture and death he couldn’t help quoting one of them …. Billy Graham once said that he read five Psalms a day ‘because they help me to get along with God’ and a chapter of Proverbs every day ‘because it helps me to get along with man.’ There is great wisdom there, however we apply it individually.

“… [W]e need constantly to read more and more, and find ways of reading the Bible together — the church as a whole needs to live with and under Scripture, not just be a community of people who individually look at passages now and then …. The Bible, though, was written in whole books, not single verses, and we need to relate to it like that.

“There is enormous value in learning as much as we can about the Bible itself, not least the dates and so on. But [it is] much more important … to understand the whole story of God, the world, Israel and ultimately Jesus, and how that great narrative works — and then opens up to include us within it. But far, far better to get to know the Bible, even from the wrong angle; you can fairly easily shift gears to a better angle, whereas if you don’t know it you’ve still got it all to do!

“We all need to know the Bible as well as we can, for every aspect of life. The influences of the Bible on a whole nation are subtle and not easily reducible to straightforward formulae. But if a significant number of citizens on a country are living in, and by, the story of the love of the Creator God for the whole creation, dramatically put into effect in Jesus Christ, then all sorts of things will be different at all sorts of levels… from taxes to ecology, from attitudes to sport to views on war, from family life to racial equality… the list is endless. Part of the sadness of the last few centuries is the way in which, through highly selective reading of scripture, nations have been able to do great wickedness and suppose that they Bible was on their side.

“We in England have a far smaller proportion of the population who go to church than is the case in much of America. And presumably Bible reading is likewise much smaller. Even in churches, with regular churchgoers, there is a worrying amount of sheer huge ignorance of what the Bible is, says, and does. Equally, we don’t have all the excesses you do (people using ‘the Bible says’ to justify all sorts of nonsense…). But frankly I’d rather have people knowing and loving their Bibles, even though (like all of us) still needing some further training, than simply not knowing and not caring.” — N.T. Wright, author and the Bishop of Durham

“… Too often well-intentioned Christians have too narrow an understanding of the gospel. Their interpretation of the gospel is predetermined by a cultural script that they have learned in church or through campus Christian groups. Unfortunately, that script is sometimes highly individualistic … and shaped by the unexamined cultural assumptions of late-modern American evangelical culture. In fact, the gospel is a deeper and more complex message. Christians need to be formed by a much deeper encounter with Scripture and with the church’s long history of interpreting it. This implies, among other things, that we are not just cultivating a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ (a phrase that never occurs in the Bible) but being ‘joined and knit together’ in the body of Christ and thereby growing constantly toward the maturity that God desires for us (Ephesians 4:15-16). We learn to read Scripture well by (figuratively) sitting at the feet of Christians, past and present, who are wise readers of the text, and by meditating on God’s word day and night. As Psalm 1 declares, those who do so will be like trees planted by streams of water, whereas those who do not immerse themselves in Scripture will be like chaff blown about by the wind.

“I would suggest that when we read Scripture faithfully in community, we will encounter not only the good news of individual salvation but also the imperative that the people of God should care for the poor, renounce violence, and seek racial and ethnic reconciliation  within the community of faith.”

“Let me enumerate five false approaches to the Bible that are pretty common.

  • Reading the Bible as an advice column on self-help.
  • Reading the Bible exclusively as an instruction manual on how to get to heaven when we die.
  • Reading the Bible as a predictive script for events of the end time.
  • Reading the Bible at a high level of generality as a source of principles for the moral life (e.g., love and justice).
  • Reading the Bible chiefly as a historical source of information about events of  the past.  (This approach usually assumes that we have to dig behind the text to find what really happened.)


“There is a grain of truth in each of these approaches, but each one, when taken as the primary mode of biblical interpretation, produces serious distortions.  I should also perhaps add that, in contrast to recent sensational claims of The DaVinci Code and other similar works, the Bible is not a cover-up of the facts about Jesus!

“If we look to the Bible chiefly as a source of facts and information, we are missing its central message. The Bible should be read as a story, not as an encyclopedia. The Bible narrates God’s gracious action of creating the world, electing a special people Israel, bringing them out of captivity in Egypt, grappling over time with their unfaithfulness, and ultimately working out the redemption of all humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Good Bible reading always has to keep in mind the overall sweep of this grand plot line, and we always have to see ourselves as heirs of this story, as well as characters within the story’s ongoing action. Finally, we have to keep in mind that the Bible is full of poetic language; its form of expression is often figurative, as the historic Christian tradition has always insisted. Biblical texts do not just have a single informational sense; they have many layers of meaning. Anyone who wants to read more about the approach I’m proposing should consult Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (eds.), The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

“One of the most pervasive misinterpretations [of the Bible] is the belief that the message of the gospel is all about going to heaven when we die. In fact the New Testament almost never mentions the notion of a disembodied heavenly afterlife. The characteristic form of Christian hope in the New Testament is for the resurrection of the body at the last day, and the restoration of all creation from its broken state. On this, see especially 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8:18-25. On this whole question, see N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

“Western culture, art, literature, philosophy, and politics have been profoundly shaped for many centuries by the stories, images, and language of the Bible.  People who are ignorant of the content of the Bible will be culturally illiterate. Those who do not know the history of their own civilization will more easily be led and shaped by the image-makers of Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Those who do know the symbolic world of Scripture can more easily imagine an alternative reality to the one we see on our TV screens.”

“When I was a college sophomore, I came face to face with Mark 8:34–35: “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” Up to that point, I had been about the business of seeking to construct my own rational (and self-centered) philosophical worldview. But the Gospel of Mark hit me like a lightning bolt with the call to renunciation, surrender, and obedience. The message the text spoke to me was this: you can’t first construct an explanation of everything and then plan your life; instead, you are simply called to follow Jesus and lose your life.

“When I was in graduate school, I was studying the Greek text of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I suddenly realized that the phrase usually translated “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16, 3:22) was dia pisteos iisou Christou, which might more naturally be translated “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” This became a watershed moment for me, as it helped me understand that we are saved not by the quality of our own act of believing, but rather by what Jesus has done for us through his faithful act of giving himself for us. (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:13: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful.”) All the emphasis shifts from our own subjective religious experience to the true story of God’s action in Christ. I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on this issue, but it was for me first of all not just an academic insight but a life-changing, faith-forming recognition. 

“Interestingly, these two revelatory experiences have a common theme, a common message from Scripture:  ‘It’s not about you, it’s about Jesus.’” — Richard Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School

“[Biblical literacy] matters because the Bible is the Word of God. There is this biblical thought — ‘Man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.’ The Word of God is the spiritual nurture that one needs in order to be the kind of person to have that full and meaningful life in society. It is the spiritual strength that keeps us alive toward God.

“There is another biblical idea — that we are to know God. Peter, and many of the apostles, talked about this: ‘But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.’

“There is a depth of knowledge that is available to us. And when the Apostle Paul talked about that available knowledge, there was so much of it, and it was so enriching, that he would almost always give something like a benediction — ‘Oh, the depths, oh, the wisdom, oh, the knowledge… it’s past finding out.’ He talks about the richness of it. And to not have this word of God living in us means we’re almost dying from the lack of the spiritual nutrition that we need in order to develop.

“I think there are many reasons for the problem of [biblical illiteracy], but one of the crises that I’m sensing today is that we misunderstood evangelism. We’ve over-evangelized the world too lightly, instead of discipling it.

“Jesus sent us into the world to disciple the nations. Evangelism would be a natural result of both the power and the presence of God in our life, in our midst, in terms of obedient disciples. Evangelism would come out of that. If you follow the Bible very carefully, [you find that] it is the growing obedience of the people of God — God demonstrates himself in their lives, and in their midst. Other people are evangelized by that.

“Part of the evangelization of Philippi was the demonstration of God in the lives of those who were locked in jail and beaten. But we have sort of reversed that. It’s heavy in our evangelism — [we think] that people should just hear the gospel. But that kind of hearing is different from the biblical idea — which is hearing ‘to the saving of the soul,’ hearing to the obedience of the word of God. We have made it, you hear about Jesus. What we’ve got is a light hearing. And we’ve turned that into evangelism, instead into discipleship.

“That’s what Peter is talking about… growing in that knowledge. That’s what Paul is talking about [in II Timothy 2:15], when he says, ‘Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’

“John’s thought within his epistles and his gospels is that the word of God is like God’s creative force in the world. By faith we understand that the world was framed by the word. In the beginning was the Word. The word of God is God’s incarnated being in us. I don’t think we understand it that way in that dimension.” — John Perkins, reconciliation advocate, author, pastor, and co-founder of SPU's John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development

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