Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 3

Over the last few days, I’ve been reflecting on an occasional comment I’ve heard from evangelical people.  I indicated that it comes from different angles, with different attitudes.  Sometimes it’s a complaint or something of a lament.

Talking with people after an evening class in a local church, I’ve heard the wistful comment, “Wow, I’ve been in an evangelical church my whole life and never heard this before . . .”

I once received an email from a student after discussing several aspects of the incarnation in class.  She wrote with gratitude but shocked me with her closing comment.  She said she felt badly about not knowing her Savior better—that she wasn’t more conversant with what the Bible said about Jesus’ humanity.

I wrote her that we please God when we are diligent students, which implies that we are always learning and that it’s okay (and normal) that there are things we don’t know!

Again, I think this indicates something warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.

I wonder if much of our evangelical rhetoric about our role in culture and an evangelical posture toward the world perverts our posture toward the Bible.

We’re told to “get equipped” to get out there and “make an impact,” to be prepared to change the world.  We need to get trained so we can be maximally effective.

And what does this involve?   Well, we need to get all the Bible knowledge we can, master the information, know all the facts, and be prepared to respond to various challenges with all the right answers.

When I’ve been asked about developing a plan to get to know the Bible, I can tell that it’s often coming from an anxiety to master the Bible efficiently and effectively.

This sort of impulse, and its accompanying rhetoric, can make us very anxious and uneasy when we find out there’s something we don’t know, or when we encounter unfamiliar material in the Bible.  We may feel guilty for not knowing what we should know.  In fact, I recently heard the comment as a lament or almost as a plea, as if learning something new was unfair.  “Look, I really am making the effort, you know!  I’m really trying!

Such folks need to relax.

My advice is to get to know the Bible over time—like, over decades.  There aren’t five easy steps to Bible knowledge.  I’ve told students in the past to measure their knowledge of the Bible in 5-year increments.  And when I’ve said that, I could hear sighs of relief.

Remember that the aim of getting to know Scripture is not to be equipped to get out there and have “impact.”

The purpose of knowing the Bible is to develop Scripture-shaped minds so that we get to know and love God more faithfully, being transformed so that we love and serve others more creatively.  The goal of Bible knowledge is the cultivation of virtue.  And this is something that only happens over time.

And the learning process itself transforms us, so we shouldn’t think that at some point we’ll be finished, “fully equipped” to get out there and put our knowledge to effective use.

Evangelicals are at our best when we’re humble students before the text, not necessarily when we’re out there giving well-prepared answers to common objections.

We sit before the Bible, then, as students-for-life, always learning, always searching.  And we honor God when we humbly learn and resolve to embody what Scripture says creatively and joyfully.

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14 responses to “Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 3

  • Danny Mortensen

    I think I gave up some time last year on ‘knowing the right answer’ and having an unmoved position on this or that Biblical topic. The learning process does indeed transform us. I’ll regularly get re-confused about some theological such-and-such that I thought I had nailed down… and it’s okay! You get to know Jesus better through the searching. It would bother someone who is firmly entrenched in the mindset you have been describing, though. I mean, sure, it still bugs me sometimes, but oh well. I’m learning to better appreciate a little more ambiguity and mystery.

  • Jerry Goodman

    These are challenging posts to me in my faith walk. Ever sense I had a huge “upside-down” in the year 2000/2001 I agree that there isn’t “the easy steps” as we in our world culture thinks. Just as Moses wasn’t in the place to really hear God and obey (some 80 years in the wilderness), I can testify how the grace of God patiently will, if we will, his will his words and our obedience. Am I willing?

  • Andie

    John 5:39- 40 This is what Jesus said about studying the Bible

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  • lydiasellerofpurple

    “wrote her that we please God when we are diligent students, which implies that we are always learning and that it’s okay (and normal) that there are things we don’t know”

    We please God when we love. Being a diligent student of scripture should make us more loving. If it doesn’t there is a problem. And there is a big problem out there with just that.

  • Scott Watson

    Great post. Shared this yesterday with our Sunday morning 1 Corinthians class. Often times there is push back about the serious study of Scripture within our churches, as though the study of scripture as a community somehow distracts us from being missional, loving, Spirit-led, etc. But, as you put it, serious study of the Bible allows us “to develop Scripture-shaped minds so that we get to know and love God more faithfully, being transformed so that we love and serve others more creatively.”
    The Church as a whole is in great need of individuals and communities that possess Scripture-shaped minds.

    • timgombis

      Good word, Scott. It’s a mistake to imagine that serious grappling with the text is somehow antithetical to cultivating lives of love. Sadly, such folks who imagine that’s the case have probably known people who portrayed things this way. Very unfortunate!

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  • Andrew

    This series of posts are insightful.

    With respect to your point “… something about evangelical culture that was making these students assume that if something was unfamiliar, it was unbiblical“, have you encountered tendencies within protestant culture (specifically Reformed culture) where something familiar was considered ‘biblical’ (meaning assumed to be biblical) when in fact it was something originating from Calvin’s Institutes?

    If so, do you ever wonder if the mere Christianity (so, the more fundamental orthodox) theology that is more broadly accepted than just the evangelical community, the protestant community contains elements that are ‘deemed’ to be biblical but are in fact not?

    If what you say is true of evangelical culture – isn’t it also true of the broader Christian culture as well?

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