Good Theology Doesn’t Just Happen

The Multiplication of Bibles and the Decrease of Bible Knowledge

By W. Ward Gasque

Virtually everyone who lives in Canada today has access to a Bible in his or her mother tongue. In fact, the Bible has been translated into the languages spoken by 95% of the world’s population. The complete Bible has been translated into 392 languages. The New Testament, into 1,012 languages. 883 additional languages have at least a book or selections from the Bible. That’s a total of 2,287 languages into which at least a portion of the Bible has been translated. And you can go on-line and find out how to obtain the majority of these.

There are countries in the world where it is difficult, but not impossible, to find a copy of the Bible in your mother tongue (for example, in the Muslim world or China). But today the Bible is actually available for sale in nearly every country, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and North Korea. If you are a Christian rather than a Muslim, you can probably get a Bible in Saudi Arabia, too.

92% of households in the USA own at least one copy of the Bible. Of those households that own a Bible, the average number of Bibles is three. The stats are probably similar for Canada. There are more than 200 different translations of the Bible into English, and there are several new translations published every year. I am supposed to be an expert on such things, and yet I walked into a bookshop at the Guildford Cathedral when I was in England this past summer and saw two new translations that I had never seen before.

It seems that every publisher wants to have his own translation of the Bible, and if not a translation at least one or more special interest editions. When I was a teenager, there were a handful of contemporary English translations readily available and a couple of study Bibles. Today we have the choice of literally hundreds of annotated study Bibles – special editions for children, boys, girls, teens, women, men, the military, single adults, students, brides, those recovering from a variety of addictions, etc. There is a Marketplace Bible, The Serendipity Bible, The Twelve Step Bible, One Year Bible, The NIV Study Bible, several NRSV Study Bibles, The TNIV Study Bible in an extremely wide variety of colors and styles, Biblezines, Extreme Teen Bible, The Duct Tape Bible, God’s Little Princess Devotional Bible, and Immerse: A Water Resistant Bible (presumably for Baptists or Scuba Divers), The Maxwell Leadership Bible, The Woman Thou Art Loosed Edition of the NKJV, The Life Application Study Bible, The Archaeological Study Bible, Zondervan’s NIV Recovery Bible and Tyndale’s The Life Recovery Bible, The Learning Bible, a variety of audio and dramatized Bibles, The Access Bible, and so on.

The same surveys that tell us that the average North American home has 3 Bibles suggest that the people who own these Bibles do not read them. About a third of those who own Bibles say that they have read the Bible once in the past week, and the knowledge of the content of the Bible seems to decline year by year. In a Gallup Poll taken in 2000, less than half of the adults interviewed could name one of the Gospels! 37% could name the four Gospels. 42% could name 5 of the Ten Commandments.

I have spent my life teaching Biblical studies at a post-graduate level. In recent years, I have taught primarily non-traditional students, that is, fully employed adults who are pursuing graduate studies without quitting their jobs. I always do a test in and a test out. Out of a class of, say, 20, I normally have only a couple of students who seem to have a good knowledge of the English Bible before taking my course on Paul or the Gospels or whatever I happen to be teaching. The surprising thing is that some of these biblical illiterates are pastors who have been ‘in the ministry’ for years. Thus, ignorance of the Bible is by no means limited to the non-church go-er.

How can it be that we have all these different translations and editions of the Bible to choose from and yet knowledge of the contents of the Bible seems to be in decline, even in churches that regard themselves to be Bible-based? I have not done extensive research on the subject, but I have a few ideas based on a rather wide observation of church life over the past fifty years.

The dominant reason for the decline is probably due to the influence of TV. The average adult watches 4 to 5 hours of TV each week, which does not leave a lot of free time for reading the Bible or any other books. A good place to start would be to turn off the TV (or perhaps cancel cablevision)!

A second influence has been the decline of expository preaching in favor of relational preaching. It is rare to hear of pastors who systematically preach through the key books of the Old and New Testaments these days. Nor is it the custom to read aloud large portions of Scripture as a part of the worship service. As a result people who attend church regularly are exposed to 52 short paragraphs of the Bible at most.

Thirdly, there is the decline of both the Sunday evening service and adult Bible classes. In my youth, most evangelical Christians attended two services and a Bible class on Sunday, and there was a mid-week meeting for prayer and Bible study to boot. Today, the one Sunday service, with its emphasis on ‘worship’ (praise music) and inspirational preaching, has become the general pattern.

Fourthly, even in small groups ‘Bible study’ frequently degenerates into a sharing of feelings about the particular text under discussion, with very little interest in what the text actually says (hence, very little ‘study’).

A fifth influence could be the deluge of contemporary translations and editions. Not only has there been the loss of a common Bible in English – as in the case of the Authorized Version that shaped the English language and literature for three centuries – but people are inclined to think that because they own several Bibles they are better informed than their ancestors, when the opposite is true.

I challenge church leaders to do a critical analysis of their congregation and to devise a plan to reverse the downward spiral of Biblical knowledge among their people. There may be no simple solution, but a recovery of the gift of ‘teacher’ would be a good place to begin.

W. Ward Gasque, a founding member of the faculty of Regent College, is English Ministries Pastor of Richmond Chinese Alliance Church in British Columbia, Canada.

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by W. Ward Gasque

Theology–the study of God and his revelation to us–is too important to be left to the clergy. It is also essential for the laity, who make up 99% of God’s people who are called to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world.

In the past, we have tended to think of theology as something that you study if you are “going into the ministry” or preparing for “full-time work” as a pastor or a missionary. In recent years, however, more and more church leaders have rediscovered the biblical teaching that “ministry” belongs to all God’s people.

If the ministry belongs to all the people of God, then it stands to reason that all God’s people need to be equipped for ministry.

To equip God’s people for their ministry in the world is the prime role of pastor-teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13). However, there is the need for some to have training that goes beyond what the local congregation can normally provide.

In order to fulfill their mission in the world, ordinary Christians need to be strongly rooted in their faith. Many believers have spent years and years, as well as thousands of dollars, obtaining their secular education, while investing very little time and money in educating themselves in the fundamentals of their faith. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Christian church is making such a minimal impact on our society.

All Christians need to have a solid grasp of the Bible and basic Christian doctrine. They also need to have a basic understanding of the history of Christianity, Christian ethics, the world mission of the church, and foundational skills for ministry. And they need help in identifying and in developing their spiritual gifts.

These are the fundamental assumptions underlying the KOINOS program.

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