Evangelicals today face a great paradox within their churches. On the one hand, Evangelicals take a strong position on the importance of the Bible. On the other hand, members of our churches have inaccurate and meager biblical knowledge, and no general penchant for gaining more and better information. Furthermore, preaching and teaching in the church today seems ineffective and lacking in biblical truth. We have a general church membership with a low level of biblical literacy, and church leaders who barely rise above it.
How did we get here? I know there are many exceptions to the generalizations above, but I doubt that anyone would assume today that if a person identified herself as a “Christian,” we could be confident that this person had a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible.
I remember an epiphany I had years ago when my daughter was old enough in school to begin having notes sent home in her backpack by her teacher. I was often appalled by these notes, which had spelling and grammar errors. These were my daughter’s teachers! English teachers! My epiphany was in realizing these teachers did not know English well, and this was because they had not been taught well. The result was a generation of students with inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of English, and then those students became teachers. This is somewhat parallel to the situation in Evangelical churches. The inadequately educated students are now the teachers.
How, though, did we ever get to a place of expecting our church preachers and leaders to have a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible? Or better, why should we expect this? Should we still expect this? More basically, why does the Bible have a privileged position of authority in the Evangelical church? Allow me to offer a couple of observations.
First, the idea of “Scripture” or “Sacred Writings” was inherited by the church from its Jewish founders. At the time of Jesus, the ancient writings of the Law (Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Former and Latter) were recognized as having authority that could command respect and obedience. One could win an argument or demand behavior if one could cite a verse of recognized Scripture. This trumped all opinions. To be sure, the Jewish community of the first century did not simply view their Scriptures as proof-texts to be used in argumentation. They also saw them as telling their story as a nation and giving them an identity as the people of God.
So, like the synagogue, the early church had Scriptures, roughly identified with what we call the “Old Testament” in the Evangelical church. The early church’s Scripture did not include the “New Testament,” because its books were still being written, collected, and recognized. When Paul writes in 2 Timothy that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …,” he is not talking about the New Testament, but about the Old Testament. Application of this verse to Christian writings is retroactive, perhaps anachronistic, maybe even circular argumentation.
One significant difference is that the early church’s “Old Testament” was the Greek translation we call the Septuagint (LXX). The idea of learning the Hebrew language to exegete the Hebrew text of Genesis would never have occurred to the Greek-speaking Gentile leaders of Paul’s churches. The authority of the text, as they understood it, was perfectly intact when using a translation such as the LXX. It would be hard to imagine a first century preacher telling his congregation that he had insights into Scripture they could not fathom based on his study of a Hebrew text. Such a claim would be little more than Gnosticism, touting a secret knowledge to gain authority and power. All this is to say that when we understand that the Scriptures of the early church were a Greek translation, our desire to have absolute exactitude concerning every word and its original meaning may be overly zealous today.
The earliest, documented use of Scripture by the Christian community comes in the writings of the New Testament itself. In the next installment of this series, we will attempt to understand not only how the New Testament writers use Scripture (the Old Testament), but how they understand its authority and how this established the tradition of biblical authority in the church that continues to this day.
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University