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 smörgås­bord. 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 in fight­ing 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 181986

Text First Published April 1986 · Last Featured on January 2023

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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