Today a form of illiteracy abounds that is especially dangerous precisely because it is unrecognized. It is particularly prevalent among those of us who read the Bible regularly, memorize verses, and are committed to the authority of Scripture.

I am referring to our biblical and historical myopia—our nearsightedness. We lack a worldview, a vision of the whole.

Our understanding of the Bible—and of church history—is fragmented, and as a result we are susceptible to all manner of enthusiasms. In Paul’s words we are in danger of being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).

The Little Picture

In some ways Christians, of all people, are the most gullible. We hear the latest theory on the end of the world, and just because it is generously sprinkled with Scripture verses (especially from the Book of Revelation) we leap to accept it. Never mind the great historical interpretations of Revelation or the nature of apocalyptic literature: If the new view can be manipulated to fit the present scheme of world events, it must be “biblical.”

Or consider the ease with which we revel in the words of Scripture that proclaim the gracious bounty of God—while at the same time we conveniently ignore Jesus’ harsh critique of wealth. Or think of how quickly we pass by the Bible’s abiding concern for the poor and disinherited in our rush to memorize passages on prosperity and wealth. As a result, we may even arrogantly proclaim that there are biblical grounds to “love Jesus and get rich.”

Biblical myopia was shown in a Christian conference on alcoholism that used as its theme Colossians 2:21: “Touch not; taste not; handle not.” These people were genuine, but they were unaware that Paul was not commending but criticizing such an attitude. The prohibitions were proposed by a non-Christian sect at Colossae, and Paul goes on to say, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).

This problem of biblical myopia is especially acute in our Sunday schools. As we teach Bible stories, we often tack on little morals. But that is what they may remain: Bible stories with little morals. We may never explain how the pieces all fit together, giving a sense of the great flow of holy history. We seldom present a picture of the whole.

We stress experience and ignore doctrine. We stress doctrine and ignore experience. We wrench texts out of their context; we examine the context with such critical precision that we never hear the text. We take bits and pieces of the gospel message and turn them into the whole gospel. And on it goes.

There is a reason why the many games of trivia are the craze today. We value specialization more than integration, detail more than synthesis. We see little need for organic unity, little need to understand things in their entirety. After all, if we know the 1,001 facts of Bible trivia, we know the Bible, don’t we?

Our preaching may contribute to our myopia. Sermons may be a pick-and-choose process, a biblical smorgasbord. But what is the connection to the flow of biblical history or to the great themes of theology? When this problem is coupled with the modern love for reducing the gospel to slogans, we have a singularly dangerous situation.

The Heresy of the Contemporary

Furthermore, we may be illiterate not just on the great themes of biblical history, but also on those of church history. We may have embraced the heresy of the contemporary: If it is new, it must be better. This mentality was epitomized by a bright student of mine. As we were studying the writings of Saint Augustine, he blurted out, “I always thought people back in the past didn’t really think very deeply. And yet here is this guy from the fourth century who is pondering things I have never even thought about… . Wow!”

The attitude of a large number of Christians is this: “There was the first century with Jesus and the apostles, and now there is us, and anything that may have happened in between was probably wrong and certainly has no significance for today.” This is the heresy of the contemporary, and should make us sad because we can learn much from those who have sought to be faithful to God in past centuries. They have so much to teach us about “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

Further, nearly every excess or error of today can be found in the past, sometimes many times over. Just to understand the development of many of the great creeds and doctrines—seeing how they interrelate, interact, and correct each other—would assist us in dealing with contemporary problems.

The Way Out

So today we are faced with a biblical and historical nearsightedness that threatens to fragment the Christian fellowship. How can we begin to restore perspective? That question is not answered easily or quickly— it will take our best thinking and our greatest devotion. Here are some ideas I have found helpful infighting nearsightedness in my own life:

First, we can read the Bible as a whole, looking for the connections and unifying themes. We are seeking to be informed with a biblical world view. Let’s read entire books of the Bible in one sitting. Let’s allow familiar verses to fit naturally into the context of whole chapters (How does Ephesians 2:8-9 fit into Ephesians 2?), and familiar chapters to fit naturally into the context of whole books. Let’s read historical books together and in their historical context. Let’s read all the Gospels, not just those that tickle our fancy. If we will do this with diligence, we can, in time, learn to distinguish big issues from trivial ones so we can stop majoring in minors.

Second, we can offer courses in our churches on the unity of the Bible. For example, we can follow the concept of the covenant from Noah to Abraham to Moses to David and to its culmination in Jesus Christ. We can gaze at God’s great sovereignty all the way from the Creation narrative in Genesis to the new heaven and earth in Revelation. We can marvel at God’s indiscriminate love, which saturates virtually every page of the Bible.

We can learn how to walk with God as we follow the human foibles and triumphs of Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah. They teach us to experience this life of walking and talking, of hearing and obeying. And wise pastors can help us so much by expository preaching that forces us to see how the threads of thought in Scripture interweave to form a seamless robe.

Third, we can learn to appreciate the diversity of approach God’s superintending hand has introduced into Scripture. The systematic logic of Paul is different from the poetic imagination of the psalmist. We do not just pull a wise maxim from Proverbs and give it doctrinal status. We allow Scripture to be what it is, in all its purity and uniqueness.

Surprising Christians—from the Past

We can send our roots deeper into our own denominational tradition. Let’s never kid ourselves: we all read the Bible through a church tradition, but the problem today is that our understanding of that tradition is so shallow that it produces extremely provincial systems of belief. Therefore, let’s learn not only from the gifted and winsome leaders of today but also from the leaders of the past. If you are a Methodist, read John Wesley; if you are a Lutheran, read Martin Luther; if you are a Mennonite, read Menno Simons.

As we do this we will also want to enter the larger debate and learn from the traditions of others. Methodists should also read Luther, and Lutherans, Menno Simons; and everyone should read Augustine! We can learn so much from each other. To an astonishing degree, our theological treasures are borrowable.

We can also study the church’s great professions of faith, from the Apostles’ Creed in the fourth century to the Barmen Declaration in the twentieth. The creeds are a kind of shorthand for the gospel message, and they can be immensely enriching.

And let’s read the lives of the saints. Godliness carries with it a composite likeness, so we can find common threads of devotion in people of vastly different ages and geographies —from Saint Augustine to Saint Jerome, from Julian of Norwich to Catherine of Siena, from John Calvin to John Woolman.

So many wonderful biographies are readily available to us that nothing need stop us from this simple way of experiencing “the communion of the saints.” Remember, we are not trying to amass information; we are immersing ourselves in the devotional literature that cultivates our minds and hearts for spiritual growth. If we read William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, let’s be sure that the focus of our study is not a book but the experience of a devout and holy life. We can read such rich and varied works as Augustine’s Confessions, or The Little Flowers of St. Francis, or Bainton’s Here I Stand (on the life of Martin Luther), or the spiritual journals of people like Fox and Wesley and Brainerd, and the great missionaries like William Carey, Mary Slessor, and Hudson Taylor.

As a result, we will have a better sense of the whole. More and more we will be able to see how the elements in the story of God’s great working in human history interrelate. The pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle begin to come together. To be sure, we will never have all the pieces, and will always view the picture “through a glass darkly,” but what we can see starts to make sense.

How prone we are to spiritual myopia. How easily we embrace the heresy of the contemporary. But if we can enter into dialogue with Scripture and with those faithful to God in the past, then perhaps, just perhaps, we will experience the refreshing balance that is found in the whole counsel of God.

Published in Christianity Today, April 18, 1986

Originally published April 1986.