Recently I sat with the assistant pastor of a small church. It sounded to me like many good things were happening, and this brother was encouraged. We got talking about the kingdom of God, and I found his expression increasingly puzzled. From there I made a connection to the Trinity, and at that point I realized I had lost him entirely.

Now, I hesitate to say this brother was not biblically literate. He could quote verse and reference more readily than me, at least in the New Testament. And he was a leader with some heart. But to my mind he was in fact barely literate biblically, because he could not fit a particular NT passage into a wider framework. Why is that important?

Theology operates at two levels at once: at the level of belief systems or worldview, and at the level of particular arguments. Norman Peterson calls the first the narrative sequence, and the second the poetic sequence. Bible students always have both in mind. The former we tend to think of as the broader context of Scripture, including its cultural setting. The latter we think of as particular passages and verses. It’s not always obvious how these two work together. But a simple analogy to story and character development is helpful.

Last year I saw Battlestar Galactica for the first time, while it was running the fourth season. While I picked up some of the story, I missed much of what was really going on. I did not know or understand the world that the characters and unfolding story were set within. As a result, I misinterpreted the actions of one of the characters. It took three more episodes to discover my mistake. In the same way, doing theology requires immersion in the broader story and the historical landscape, as well as in the living church. It takes time to develop theological depth, a certain level of immersion in the story, and it takes a community of people on a journey together.

When we lack this wider context of understanding and of community, it creates a raft of problems:

* when we work from a particular passage, to the extent that we lack the ability to see the passage in the broader narrative, we distort what we see. We always see in part, and it is only honest to acknowledge this. But we will see in a much smaller part when we don’t know the wider story.
* apart from biblical literacy, we teach propositions and ideas, not theology. I recently noticed this tendency in a membership manual. Baptism was a practice anchored in the New Testament only, and even then only a few passages were referenced. As a result, baptism was abstracted to a religious ritual divorced from depth of meaning and the ongoing life of God’s covenant people.

The difference is like that of a black and white image versus full color, or like a stereoscopic image vs 2d. We orient ourselves much more quickly by the color image or the 3d picture, because they more nearly resemble life. Without attention to the narrative sequence we handicap the body of Christ and rob the community of the fulness God intended. We may create a community that understands the boundaries, but we will not have a community that is creatively free within them.

While it may seen counter-intuitive, I wonder if our encouraging the memorization of individual verses only adds to the problem. It’s a stretch to encourage the memorization of whole chapters, but why not? It’s not nearly so difficult as some think.

See also my post of last year on theological literacy..

13 Comments on biblical literacy

  1. Ryan says:

    Hi Len, I’ve been following your blog for a short time now (followed the trail from the MB Forum). I appreciate what you’ve written here and have come across this kind of thing quite often in my very brief time in pastoral ministry. Just last week a woman contacted me seeking a list of bible verses that she could use to show one of her neighbours that she was wrong about some issue or another. It was bible verses, not the entire framing story the Bible provides, that were thought to be the answer. Bible verses are very pliable entities in people’s minds—they can be yanked out of context, applied to some situation, and then put back. I think there is a dim understanding that verses are a part of chapters, chapters a part of books, and books a part of the big story, but in practice this doesn’t seem to be how we reflexively approach the Bible.

    Anyways, just wanted to say hello and, again, that I resonate very much with what you’ve written here. I try to use any and every opportunity I can to get people to move away from seeing the Bible as a compendium of doctrines and propositions to “prove things” or to provide an arsenal against those we disagree with, and toward an approach which sees Scripture as providing a broad narrative by which we understand ourselves and our world and within which we seek to fulfill our own part. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of this task.

  2. Roger says:

    Hi Len

    First, congrats on becoming a fellow “doctor of the church.”
    Second, canonical criticism (exegesis) and biblical theology are helpful tools for us to keep the forest and trees in mind when being “biblical.” Perhaps being “theological” will help us more–maybe not much difference? We are trained in “systematic” theology and “inductive” Bible study, but perhaps, as Len Sweet encourages, we need to exegete the whole narrative of Scripture and its images, not just words, texts, syntax, and do theological exegesis.
    Third, I am committed to helping leaders practice “theological reflection” as a spiritual formation and missional practice not only for ministry but for life and mission and to help the people of God do so accordingly as well.

    Selah, Roger

  3. len says:

    thanks bros, this is an uphill battle in a world of “sound bytes” .. but who said it would be easy?

  4. len says:

    btw, an incisive and often poignant article that describes where we have arrived was penned thirty years ago by the Anabaptist scholar Delbert Wiens..

    Excerpt here

    and here

    The entire article here:
    It’s always a shock seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes.. Agreed that even “teaching theology” will not bring us closer to a solution. We have to become interpretive communities, communities of virtue, communities of practice.. a transition from where we are that won’t happen without shock and pain.

  5. This is why I don’t get excited about the evangelical devotion of choice – reading the Bible. Because what they mean by that is to dip into the text and treat snippets as self-evident messages. Worse, is the evangelical penchant for Paul. Paul is pretty screwed up when you read just bits and pieces at a time. But it is even more easily screwed up without a context of the gospels.

    One of the best things we’ve done is have baptismal candidates read Mark, with their sponsors, in one go the night before their baptism. Reading the whole thing (after all chapters are really quite arbitrary) tells a much richer story than reading it as isolated pericopes. But this also has just confirmed my frustrations with how evangelicals treat scripture. (Funny we talk about scripture with high reverence, but our relationship to it often has the same depth as we have with a how-to manual!)

    So what I do is try and change the expectations about scripture. I’d rather have a community that lived with scripture as story than one that can cite chapter and verse. So I refuse to proof text in my messages – in fact I rarely ever tray from the lectional text and I never cite verses. I also discourage people reading along – scripture is meant to be heard. It is the story we tell. The story we speak to as much as it speaks to us. It lives with us.

  6. Dana Ames says:

    Len, what you’re talking about is making meaning, which in a sense is even bigger than the “story line”- it’s the reason we need to teach theology, as you note. That’s why we do need interpretive communities that encourage virtue, including rigorous honesty based on and nurtured in forgiveness. Somehow this has gotten lost not only in churches but in the wider culture as well. I think this is what people, particularly young people, are looking for when they say they want community. They’re not simply looking for a bunch of people who share the same point of view; the practice of a community -including symbolic practices- makes meaning. Practices also need to be interpreted so we can bring our reasoning “parts” along, and perhaps we are too impatient to take the time to let the symbolic practices do their work and raise the questions. Or we are too familiar with them. Or we have too few of them. It seems to me that Christian groups that are the most “bible only” in outlook are also the ones that reject or minimize the symbolic practices that explicate and point to the meaning not only of the chapters and verses, but of the whole larger story.

    Even within communities with lots of symbolic practices, the meaning can be missed. As I prepare to enter Orthodoxy, I think of my oldest cousins, fairly sensitive and very intelligent sister and brother who grew up Orthodox- and haven’t been to church or wanted much to do with God since about 1960. The only explanation I can come up with, in the face of the richness and depth of the liturgy that is constructed to lead one right up to and through the doorway of Meaning, is that their community somehow made it difficult for them. (I have some ideas about how that could have happened to them.)


  7. len says:

    Dan, would love to hear more about your process. WHat I hear you saying above connects to the concept of shared memory and living tradition. Have you written any short articles on your process or meaning making in community? The connection to leadership is a strong one but not leadership the way we usually think of it. I used Drath and Paulus and their short monograph to make some of the connections in the article on Kingdom Leadership.. quote..

    “Drath and Paulus argue that the old understanding of leadership rested on a set of assumptions about human nature and motivation. The dominance-cum-social-influence view assumes that humans are naturally at rest and that they need a motivation force to get them going. The meaning-making view assumes that people are naturally in motion, always doing something, and that they need, rather than motivation to act, frameworks within which their actions make sense.

    “From this theory appears an important difference and a powerful advantage. When we no longer see dominance and social influence as the basic activities of leadership, we no longer think of people in terms of leaders and followers. Instead, we can think of leadership as a process in which an entire community is engaged. This enables us to disentangle power and authority from leadership. Authority is a tool for making sense of things, but so are other human tools such as values and work systems.”»? Quoted from “Kingdom Leadership.”

  8. len says:

    Frank, I hear you saying something about a living word.. and maybe this is where we hold the Spirit and the Word together.. our tendency is to separate them.. perhaps for a sense of control? It seems to me that even our spirituality is distorted by a rationalism we rarely acknowledge. But I think the control dynamic is at the root of much of it.. the whole history of science was about abstraction and objectification for the sake of prediction and control.

  9. That makes sense – reason is about control, demystifying the world so that we can exploit it. I think we are impoverished in a lot of ways by modernity. I’m also convinced we can’t go back, seeing demons in every little thing is rightly debunked as a worldview. But we can forge some new ways forward.

  10. Dana Ames says:

    Len, your quote is germane to the way Orthodox do things. There is a structure, but it is very flat: people, priests, bishops. There are gradations within each, but really that’s all. Officially/theologically, no one of those segments is held to be above the others, and they are all accountable to one another; “conciliarity” is a strong value. Of course, there’s always “folk religion” to deal with, and context counts. There’s a dust-up going on in the Antiochian church in the US right now, and I think the outcome will be different than it would be if the same thing were happening in the “old country”… In the 1400s, one bishop and most of the priests and people stood against all the other eastern bishops who voted to accept the filioque and the Roman Pope as the head of all the church, essentially re-uniting eastern and western Christianity. In the face of this protest, the other eastern bishops “saw the light” and took back their votes, and that one dissenting bishop (St. Mark of Ephesus) & co. are regarded as heroes, who saw the cost of chucking 1400 years of shared memory and living tradition for the sake of “unity” as too high.

    As for myself, no articles (yet…). As briefly as I can for blog comment purposes: My received protestant theology ran out of steam and couldn’t answer some deep questions I had about Meaning (What’s my life for in the present? Why did God create a world he intended to ultimately destroy? If God is love, how could he allow an eternal torture chamber somewhere in the universe? Is Christian morality somehow “more moral” than others’ morality? If so, how? others…) I was in early and thick with the emerging church folks because they were asking the same questions I was, and it was safe to ask them and work through them in that milieu. Still no satisfactory answers from “traditional” protestantism, or RC either, though. In this sense, community wasn’t enough for me- or perhaps, the kind of community most of the contemporary North American prot. church is, even emerging… Then along came NT Wright, and I devoured his big books and just about everything else he’s written. At last someone, with his head in the texts and C1 history, who painted a big enough picture (meaning) for the Triune God to “inhabit”! I thought I could maintain as a Wrightian middle-of-the-road PCUSA-er… Then I began to encounter Orthodoxy through people and web sites and found that Wright’s views are about 85% Orthodoxy, though he has never really studied patristics. I was intrigued. It seemed like every time I turned around, I found out something really important about Orthodoxy that was what I had already come to believe as I found “landing pads”, mostly with Wright’s help, for my questions. This happened many times over the course of the last 3-4 years. This article was highly significant:

    Most “dogmatic” things simply fell into place. As I investigated, I saw that O. is very organic, and quite pastorally elastic, concerned as it is with Persons (theological definition) rather than “individuals”. Within the past couple of years I went from “It’s a possibility…” to “It’s likely that O. is where I’ll end up…” to “Orthodoxy is my home… ” to “Now’s the time to take my body where my head and heart already are.”

    I had to work through a couple of issues related to women 🙂 Interestingly, one of them was Mary, which was an odd experience for me, since I was raised RC; but the focus on Mary in O. comes from a different angle, and it was something I had to reckon with in a different way than when I was RC. The other was women not serving at the altar. I took another good look at early church history, thought some more about why the Jewish priesthood was restricted to males, ruminated on O. theology and what I saw among Orthodox people. We all know there is massive disparity among protestants about not only what women can do, but ultimately whether women are human, to the point that some prot. theologians (!) are willing to mess with the Trinity (!), positing eternal subordination of Christ, in order to shore up doctrine which has become a litmus test for whether a person “believes the Bible”: eternal subordination of women and all that entails from that. This line of thought ends up with women being sub-human. In Orthodoxy, women can do *everything else*: found religious houses, do missionary work, steer parish councils, lead ministries of all kinds, teach anyone, including seminarians, direct the choir (an area of very great responsibility in O.) and preach from the pulpit (with permission, which any man besides the priest has to have as well). Several women saints are called “Equal-to-the-Apostles” because they were responsible for bringing the gospel to whole nations: this is recognized, and celebrated. Male martyrs are not somehow more virtuous and courageous than female martyrs. And above all, O. theology constantly and consistently upholds the ontological equality of women and men. No matter how it looks from the outside (and even on the inside I do get frustrated with some attitudes vis-a-vis women, though among only some sectors), I can always look to the firm declarations in the Tradition that men and women are equally human and say, “Ok, we’re just not living up to the ideal, here as in other areas. Lord have mercy.” But the ideal of ontologic equality *is* in place, and on the ground, women’s leadership is recognized, not explained away. For me, this is light-years ahead of the protestantism that holds sway in N. America.

    And theologically, it’s beautiful; it’s tight in that organic sense, with the Resurrection at the center, Jesus the focus of worship, and communion with the Trinitarian Godhead and all humanity in the freedom of love as the ultimate goal, able to be realized in part now -most especially as we receive the Eucharist, and also as we are with people as in Matt 25.31ff, as we pray, and as we engage in spiritual disciplines (ascesis) in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, bringing about the turning to God in trust of his proven love (repentance), affecting the transformation of our being- along with the restoration/reconciliation of all of creation, in Christ. Everything is connected, and everything has meaning. I have found this ethos to be present and palpable in O. congregations where people are paying attention, even if they can’t articulate it in their own words. That’s the living tradition.

    Ok, too long already-


  11. […] Len Hjalmarson discusses biblical literacy, questioning whether the level attained even by pastors and leaders is typically adequate to interpret the theological significance of the text. He questions this not to disparage the pastors and leaders in our churches or to bemoan some belief that the biblical text is just too difficult for any but the experts to properly handle, but simply to highlight a particular issue before the biblical interpreter. Understanding the issue at hand, one may be better able to address it — or to at least avoid the worst effects of its impact. I haven’t asked Len if this is precisely his approach, but perhaps he’ll step in and clarify if necessary. ;^) He writes, when we work from a particular passage, to the extent that we lack the ability to see the passage in the broader narrative, we distort what we see. We always see in part, and it is only honest to acknowledge this. But we will see in a much smaller part when we don’t know the wider story. … Without attention to the narrative sequence we handicap the body of Christ and rob the community of the fulness God intended. We may create a community that understands the boundaries, but we will not have a community that is creatively free within them. […]

  12. len says:

    Thanks so much Dana. Our journeys have many points of contact. May you continue to walk faithfully in the light God gives you..

  13. Dana Ames says:

    Thank you, Len- you too.