Are We Teaching Students to Quote Scripture or Love the God of Scripture?

In an article in the latest Modern Reformation (check it out for your edification), Seattle Pacific College professor David Nienhuis explains the concept of “Biblical illiteracy” among evangelicals. I fear that in the Bible belt we are not immune to this problem.

Nienhuis observes two main problems among his own college students who have been raised to quote proof-texts rather than read their Bibles as a whole (emphasis mine):

First, many of them struggle to actually read the text as it is presented to them on the page. Just last week, several of my Bible survey students expressed their surprise and disappointment that “years of church attendance and AWANA Bible memory competitions” never trained them to engage the actual text of the Bible. They weren’t trained to be readers; they were trained to be quoters. One in particular noted that all these years she had relied on someone else to tell her what snippets of the Bible were significant enough for her to know. But whenever she was alone with the text, she felt swamped by its staggering depth and breadth; so if she read the Bible at all, her method typically involved skimming the Scriptures in search of the passages she already knew and loved. This method of “reading” (if it can be called that) is seriously limited, if not dangerous, because it reduces the Bible to a grab-bag repository of texts that reaffirms the reader’s prior commitments.

Second, this method leads students to uncritically assume that doctrinal reflection is exhausted by the capacity to quote a much-loved proof-text. In doing this they suppose not only that the passage they are quoting is entirely perspicuous as it stands (in complete isolation from its literary and historical context), but also that the cited text is capable of performing as a summary of the entire biblical witness on the matter at hand. In this they are sometimes led to uncritically conclude that Christians who believe differently from them are either incompetent or willfully disobedient…

In fact it requires both a far more substantive grasp of Scripture and a capacity for careful doctrinal reflection to know how to negotiate the rich plenitude of the biblical witness. Unfortunately my students’ encounter with the Bible’s depth and breadth often leaves those who have been raised to quote verses feeling very insecure in their faith.

So students’ insecurity in the faith is not produced by deep theological reflection, but rather by their lack of ability to do so. Nienhuis closes by offering three broad points to correct these problems. He says we need:

  1. Schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant).
  2. Training in the particular “orienteering” skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible.
  3. Instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints.

The Bible is no “grab-bag” or “drive-thru” out of which we get to pick and choose favorite verses – it is the Word of God, to be loved, adored, studied, and lived through. So, how are we doing, students, parents, teachers? Are we growing in our ability to rightly divide the word of truth, for our own faith, or do we just quote the Bible for other people and understand Jesus as we prefer to make Him?

For more information on how many Christian churches, schools, and universities badly need improvement in this regard, read the whole thing. I’ve lived through this problem as a child and young adult, observed it in my classmates (both then and now), observed it my students at various schools, and seen it in all levels of Christian schooling, so I can say with great honesty, “Please read this article for the health of your faith, your children, and your great-great-grandchildren.”


About B Treece
loved by God before I ever loved Him, saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by the authority of the Bible alone to the glory of God alone, made to enjoy Him forever, happily married with wonder-filled children.

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