The Scourge of Biblical Illiteracy

Feb 6th, 2016 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Bible2Important researcher and evangelical Christian, George Barna, has written:  “The Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy.  How else can you describe matters when most churchgoing adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, reject the existence of Satan, claim that Jesus sinned, see no need to evangelize, believe that good works are one of the keys to persuading God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm?”  Consider additional evidence Barna has surfaced of widespread biblical illiteracy in America:

  • The most widely known Bible verse among adult and teen believers is “God helps those who help themselves.” But this is not a verse from Scripture.
  • Less than one in ten believers possess a biblical worldview as the basis for his/her decision-making.
  • When given 13 basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embraced all 13 as being biblical perspectives.
  • Of students at Wheaton College, which represents almost every Protestant denomination in the US from every state, NT professor Gary Burge has uncovered these statistics:
  1. One-third could not put the following in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ and Pentecost.
  2. Half could not sequence the following: Moses in Egypt, Isaac’s birth, Saul’s death and Judah’s exile.
  3. One-third could not identify Matthew as an apostle from the list of New Testament names.
  4. When asked to locate the biblical book supplying a given story, one-third could not find Paul’s travels in Acts; half did not know that the Christmas story was in Matthew; half did not know that the Passover story was in Exodus.
  • Barna has also researched the beliefs of churchgoing American Protestant denominational members. A summary of his salient findings:
  1. Only 35% of mainline Protestant church members believe Jesus was sinless.
  2. Only 34% believe the Bible is totally accurate.
  3. Only 27% agree that works do not merit salvation, only faith does.
  4. Only 20% believe that Satan is real.
  • Among nondenominational Christian churches, there is a difference, but not much:
  1. 48% believe Satan is real.
  2. 60% agree that works do not merit salvation; only faith does.
  3. 70% believe that the Bible is totally accurate.
  4. Barna’s research confirms that the Assembly of God denomination has the highest commitment to essential Christian doctrines: 77% believe the Bible is totally accurate; 70% believe Christ was sinless; only 56% believe Satan is real; while 64% agree that works do not merit heaven; only faith does.

So, even among evangelical church members, large percentages still deny essential Christian doctrines.  Barna is certainly correct when he expresses particular concern over how Christians view Jesus Christ:  “Literally millions of Americans who declare themselves to be Christian contend that Jesus was just like the rest of us when it comes to temptation—fallen, guilty, impure, and Himself in need of a savior.”

Evangelical Christian leaders have been lamenting the loss of confidence in God’s Word in this Postmodern, Post Christian culture for over two decades.  Yet, what Barna’s research indicates is that among confessing Christians there is the same lack of confidence and belief in biblical essentials when it comes to doctrine.  The tragedy of this harsh reality is that the Bible itself affirms its centrality in our relationship with God.  Kenneth Berding, New Testament professor at Biola University, reminds of these central verses:

  • When God commissioned Joshua to lead Israel in the Conquest, He declared: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8).
  • Psalm 1:1-3: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.  In all he does, he prospers.”
  • Psalm 119:97: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
  • The New Testament authors included over 300 direct quotations from the Old Testament (not counting the hundreds of illusions to the OT). The NT authors knew the OT; indeed their minds were saturated with it.  We should follow their model!

Berding offers four major reasons for the current ignorance about and illiteracy of the Bible:

  1. Distractions: In 1986, Neil Postman argued that the loss of personal freedom would not come from outside oppression but when people “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”  Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death:  “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”  Postman has successfully described American Postmodern culture.
  2. Misplaced Priorities: Meditating on God’s Word is something every Christian should do.  Nothing is more central to the Christian life!  Competing with this absolute priority for the Christian are TV, social networking and video games, among many other pastimes.  But as Berding suggests, “We need a revival of the Bible.”  It must be our priority.
  3. Unwarranted Overconfidence: This reason stems from arrogance, a near hubris that manifests itself in this sentiment, “We already know more of the Bible than we put into practice anyway.”  Going to Sunday school as a child, to AWANA, to youth group or even as adults to our respective small groups, do not equate with knowledge of and meditation upon God’s Word.  In the Bible classes I have taught over the years, I always have placed this quote from Charles Simeon at the top of the syllabus:  “Justification is by faith; knowledge of the Word of God is by works.”  Such knowledge is central to sanctification and to our walk with God.  To ignore this or to deny this is really a sin for which we need to repent.
  4. The Pretext of Being Too Busy: There is little doubt that American Christians are busy—outrageously so:  Young mothers raising three children, the corporate executive, the industrial worker working overtime, etc.  But as a very wise man one time counseled me, “You schedule what you believe is important.”  Hence, it is imperative that we as Christians simply build into our schedule the reading of God’s Word.  Is it important?    If other things are important, we schedule them.  Therefore, build into your time schedule each day the reading of God’s Word.

For 2016, American churches and individual American Christians must recover the centrality and urgency of Bible reading, of biblical teaching and preaching, and adamantly refuse to sideline this priority.  We often pray for revival, but perhaps the basic premise of revival is that we do indeed need a revival of the Bible.

See Kenneth Berding, “The Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy” Biola Magazine (Spring 2014); Michael Vlach, “Crisis in America’s Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low,” The Church of the Living God (1 September 2004) in www.joegriffin.org; and www.albertmohler.org (21 January 2016). PRINT PDF

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6 Comments to “The Scourge of Biblical Illiteracy”

  1. Charles Harder says:

    Dr. Eckman, what a challenging article!! I have seen the same thing in my current pastorate. When I entered the pastorate in 1979 I knew many “Christians” in our town from the very theologically liberal churches. But now I wonder if “evangelical” isn’t even an appropriate term anymore with statistics like you quote. There were “some” true believers among the liberal churches I had contact with but….??? Maybe that’s where we are today.

    On a related note, do you know anybody that has published some kind of a “test” I could give to my congregation on theological issues? I don’t know how to write the questions in a way that wouldn’t have an obvious answer. I would love to get my hands on the actual questions Barna and these other people used!!

    Thanks again so very much. I read your articles every week and want you to know how much I appreciate your insights!!

    In His Service,

    Charles K. Harder
    Pastor
    First Baptist Church
    Las Animas, CO

    • Jim Eckman says:

      Thanks for your comments Pastor Harder. I am not aware of such a “test” on theology for the layman, but I will check into this. The Barna website gives you an overview of this research design.

  2. Richard Pendell says:

    Entering Wheaton College in the mid-60’s was very tough. Strong academic capacity and a thorough knowledge of and commitment to Christian Biblical doctrine including a life that gave much evidence of these was the minimum for consideration, and both were equally important factors. Bible and theology courses were required and equally as rigorous as all other courses. In addition, students were expected to spend some portion of their week involved in community-based Christian ministries, regardless of their major or vocational goals. Daily chapel attendance was mandatory for freshmen. Civil unrest with protests and rioting was almost an avocation among our peer group at Chicago area colleges. Students, both men and women, were always keenly aware of current events at every level and the highest levels of world ‘movers and shakers’ were frequent guest lecturers on campus. We were in no way ‘cloistered’ from the turbulent realities of the world we were about to enter. It is ironic that in these intervening years, Christians have a greater degree of access to Bible and theological knowledge than ever before in history, yet they spend far less time doing so. The result of this neglect is this pervasive ignorance, confusion and lack of conviction that is described above. We have, to a large degree, sold our souls our blessing and our birthrights for a ‘mess of pottage.’ We will be held to account if we do not repent and discipline our lives according to the Lord’s design priorities.

  3. Anton Wagenhoffer says:

    As an appendage to your concerns expressed with which I largely agree, one aspect that I believe is frequently forgotten and potentially even more deadly than Biblical illiteracy is Biblical fantasy. It is useless to claim to believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture if I and my experiences become the chief architects of its meaning and application. Take for instance the quote, “Barna’s research confirms that the Assembly of God denomination has the highest commitment to essential Christian doctrines…” Really? In a similar survey approximately 20 years ago, Barna discovered that “Among the largest Protestant groups, those most likely to get divorced were Pentecostals (44%) while Presbyterians had the fewest divorces (28%)”. The same holds true regarding “Egalitarianism”. I am quite certain that the Assemblies of God would rank with the most liberal denominations in their endorsement of and the number of women pastors and teachers. Do these claimants therefore believe in the inerrancy of Scripture? Professionally yes, factually No! Many only believe in its nomenclature and their personal professions. They believe in and have a personal relationship with a Jesus whom they do not know; as Albert Mohler stated, “A lot of Christians do not even know enough to be Christians”. After all, all truth is elastic. With this revisionist hermeneutic, one can make Scripture say most anything. Even someone as liberal as Bultmann did a better job of interpreting Scripture, though he believed it to be in error, than many a contemporary Evangelical revisionist. Francis Schaeffer predicted forty years ago in regards to false christs, in Escape from Reason, pages 78-79.
    “I have come to the point where, when I hear the word ‘Jesus”–which means so much to me because of the Person of the historic Jesus and His work–I listen carefully because I have with sorrow become more afraid of the word ‘Jesus’ than almost any other word in the modern world. The word is used as a content-less banner, and our generation is invited to follow it. But there is no rational, scriptural content by which to test it, and thus the word is being used to teach the very opposite things from those which Jesus taught. Men are called to follow the word with highly motivated fervency….” “We have come then to this fearsome place where the word ‘Jesus’ has become the enemy of what Jesus taught”.
    It is not true that “Justification is by faith; knowledge of the Word of God is by works” if faith is simply in the aura of a nomenclature rather than in its propositional content. To be saved one must know and believe not only in, but the historical Jesus, Who Is The Christ, Who has revealed Himself to humankind in His incarnation which includes his death, resurrection, ascension and vicarious atonement, and Who now reveals Himself to us in His Word as illuminated by His Spirit. We desperately need accurate Biblical exposition rather than personal manipulations of it. Many will say in the last days, “Have we not…” only to be rejected by God Who will say, “I never knew you”.

    Respectfully submitted

    Anton Wagenhoffer

  4. Arlie Rauch says:

    I really appreciate you taking on this topic. Now retired from the pastorate (a combination of age and health issues required us to step back), but hopefully not from ministry, my wife and I have visited lots of churches here in AZ, and it’s really difficult to find a church where a pastor teaches the message from God, meaning a message designed to help people read the Bible with understanding. Having been a pastor for 41 years probably makes our search more difficult. It’s easy to say it’s a pastor problem; but, on the other hand, sometimes the people love it so. It usually seems like the pastor (even also the church) has an agenda, and they ignore everything else the Bible has to say, or they twist the Bible’s message to fit their agenda. I do believe numerous people in our church in Montana could do a better job teaching than many of these pastors, perhaps not in delivery, but certainly in content. It’s a trial for us.

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