What is biblical literacy?

“Apollos…was mighty in the Scriptures.”

Acts 18:24 (NASB)

“Wow, she sure knows her Bible.”

Perhaps you’ve said that about someone, or heard it said. What was it that triggered that response? Was it the command of details about the Bible? Was it a demonstration of extended memorization? Was it the ability to bring additional passages to bear on the discussion? It could have been any, or all, of these.

The fact is, Christians tend to admire someone who can prove themselves knowledgeable in the Bible. Furthermore, many wish that they themselves were more so. If biblical literacy is to be valued and pursued, it would be helpful to determine what it means to be literate in the Scripture.

Far too many Christians are happy with just a cursory knowledge of the Bible. This is more than sad; it can be dangerous. Since there are so many worldviews and doctrines vying for our attention, it would be easy to fall into error without a working knowledge of Scripture.

Often, we are satisfied to find a verse-of-the-day and pop it like a vitamin pill and then spend the rest of the day thinking worldly thoughts. And we wonder why we are weak and ineffective.

On the other hand, our goal for biblical literacy is to go deeper. Whether you go to a Bible college or seminary, attend instructional workshops and classes at your church, or engage in personal study on your own, you should be seeking to dive into the text of Scripture with a mind to understanding the deep truths found therein. This may not be easy, but it’s easily the most rewarding. As John Piper has said in reference to reading, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”

Apollos, a man of the Word

In Acts 18:24, we are introduced to a Jewish believer named Apollos. He is described as “eloquent” and “competent” in the Scriptures (ESV). The word for “competent” in the ESV is perhaps better rendered “mighty,” as in the NASB, or powerful in handling the Word. In other words, he knew his stuff, and furthermore, he was effective in communicating to both believers and scoffers alike.

I believe he is a model of a biblically literate man. We can glean several characteristics about what it means to “know” the Bible through the text that follows.

Skill

In verse 25, we read that Apollos had been instructed in the way of the Lord. This shows us the value of training and both formal and informal education. A student of the Bible must be willing to submit to this training.

Sometimes this means that you must learn new skills in order to dig deep. First, a student of the Bible must be well-versed in language and grammar. As a written document, the Bible opens its truths to those willing to examine the meanings of words and the relationships between phrases and clauses. Linking words such as “for” and “therefore” are the unsung heroes of biblical literacy. Grammar is important.

Secondly, learning to understand literary forms such as poetry and extended metaphor will also enrich your study. You can hardly read the Psalms or Revelation without an appreciation of figurative language. You read and study an epistle differently than you do an historical book.

Finally, having an understanding of the basic tenets of logic and argument will help you draw sound conclusions and avoid errors in reasoning in your study. One unfortunate unintended consequence of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses (verses have only been commonly used for about 500 years) is that we often think of the verses in a vacuum outside of their context, and we lose sight of the overall argument being made. Worse, we may misuse a verse to make it say what it doesn’t. Dan Brendsei wrote, “Scripture is not just a collection of energy packets; it’s a five-course meal. It’s not just a bunch of pearls on a string; it’s a chain strong enough to pull you out of any trial.” In order to obtain a full grasp of a passage of Scripture, you must be able to follow the argument in the “chain” of verses and derive sound logical conclusions.

Accuracy

We also read in verse 25 about Apollos, “being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus (emphasis added).” Perhaps nothing is more basic to biblical literacy than the ability to understand the Bible correctly. Paul instructed his young disciple Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). He contrasts this accurate handling of the Word with the warning to “avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (v.16).

Interestingly enough, we are told in subsequent verses in Acts 18, that Apollos himself was limited in his knowledge – he only knew the baptism of John – and needed further instruction from Priscilla and Aquilla in order to fill out his understanding. But even before that correction, he was described as an accurate teacher. Further truth, or in our case, learning more and more of the Bible and comparing Scripture with Scripture, will make our knowledge correct.

Reason and Synthesis

Apollos, after correction from Priscilla and Aquila, was of great help to the believers. In verse 28 we read that he “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” This follows one of the recurring themes in the book of Acts, namely the need to prove to the Jews first that Jesus of Nazareth, whom everyone then knew about, was in fact the promised Messiah (Greek word, Christ), something the Jewish leadership opposed. Apollos was able to do this by “showing by the Scriptures.” Now, there’s not one solitary, handy verse in the Old Testament that could do this. Apollos would have to show, passage by passage, line by line, what the prophecies concerning the Messiah were, what he would be do, how he would have to suffer, and then he would have to demonstrate how Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of those prophecies. This would be extremely encouraging and helpful to young believers who were in danger of skepticism.

This is what is known in education circles as synthesis, the act of putting parts together to form a whole. Just as in Bloom’s Taxonomy, this is one of the higher order thinking skills. Comparing Scripture with Scripture is not only helpful in our accurate understanding of the passages, it also enables us to formulate a theology and a creed according to that understanding.

Boiling it down to a statement

So, what can we say about this question, what does it mean to know the Bible? If we take these entities of skill, accuracy, and synthesis, let’s say this –

A biblically literate person is able to apply the skills of language, literature, and logic to passages of the Bible, comparing one with another, so that the reader is able to accurately determine the meaning of a passage and to grasp its place in the greater story that God is telling.

Biblical literacy is not becoming a “Bible nerd,” but it is a means by which you may grow in godliness as you grow in the knowledge of our Lord.

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