Read Your Bible Slowly

The statistics on Bible engagement among Americans are not encouraging. They have not been for several years. The latest research from Barna shows that the number of Americans who are “Bible Centered” dropped from 9% down to 5%. Bible-Centered is defined as those who “Interact with the Bible frequently. It is transforming their relationships and shaping their choices.”[1] That is a subjective measure, but the category next to that one, “Bible Engaged” has a similar definition. “It is transforming their relationship with God and others.”[2] (It is odd that the more engaged category would not list a transformed relationship with God.) Nevertheless, one of the key points is this. “More than one-third of adults (35%) reports never using the Bible in 2019, a 10 percentage point increase since 2011 (25%).”[3] The use of Scripture by the general public is decreasing, which puts a greater burden on Christians.

As the public knows less of Scripture, and has no shared heritage rooted in Scripture, the task of evangelizing and apologetics becomes more difficult. One cannot count on hearers agreeing with things such as God is holy, or that he is just. One cannot count on agreement with the Bible’s definition of sin, or of salvation. All of this means that a thorough understanding of God’s redemptive plan is not just a nice thing to have, but it is an essential part of the equipment every believer needs. That redemptive plan, the unfolding of salvation history, is what some know as biblical theology. This, as opposed to systematic theology. The latter takes a subject, collects all the verses in Scripture about that, and formulates a doctrine. Biblical theology looks at the whole plot line of Scripture and locates within it what God has done to advance his kingdom, his purposes, and it locates our place within that plan.

Another way to say this is that Christians need to rely less on proof-texting, and more on this overarching plot line.  Proof-texting does have its place. There are verses that speak clearly and definitively on a subject. The exclusivity of salvation in Christ is there in John 14:6. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But it’s also notable that this verse is found in John’s gospel. The beloved disciple is the one who spoke of truth far more than any other evangelist. His gospel uses the word 27 times; Matthew and Mark 3 times each, and Luke uses the word 5 times. The word “life” as well, John uses nearly 3 times more than any other gospel writer.

When we note this, we begin to construct a biblical theology. We see that this verse doesn’t appear in isolation, but is part of the Johannine portrayal of the Lord Jesus in a unique way. We start to notice how one writer uses words in a way the others do not. We fit this verse into a biblical context. That allows us to see how that book and its author fit into the sweep of biblical theology, and the unfolding of God’s plan. We move beyond what some view as glib answers to questions they may have about God, Scripture, and importantly, their own relationship to God. This sort of biblical theology comes by slow reading, it comes by turning back a few pages to see what has come before, and it comes by reading more than just a few verses each day.

If Christians are going to meet the challenges of the world we inhabit, if we are going to be able to demonstrate the authority of Scripture and of the God who authored it, we need to be slow, careful readers of the text, and do the hard work of constructing this sort of understanding of God’s Word. Formulating this sort of biblical theology takes time, and can’t be rushed. But it’s vital for Christians to grasp this overarching sweep of God’s revelation that Scripture reveals. It is this centering on Scripture each of us needs.

 

[1] Barna Research “State of the Bible 2019: Trends in Engagement” https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible-2019/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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