Three Elements of Bible Literacy

The average person can read and understand the Bible. Let’s not skip past that too fast. God intends the Bible for the average believer. The Lord did not give us an academic textbook meant only for those sequestered in seminaries. His word is not obscure or opaque. He didn’t hide what it has to say in convoluted language. He gave it to us to read. He means for us to understand.

We shouldn’t walk away from Bible study bewildered. We can expect unresolved questions, but the Bible isn’t cryptic or impractical. God gave it for the everyday life of everyday people. We can each grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s word. Familiarity with the scripture is called Bible literacy, which has three major components.


Bible literacy begins with knowledge. This can start with kids in Sunday school learning songs to help them know the order of the books. I still speed-sing through an old Sunday School song to find Obadiah. Of course it goes deeper than that. Knowledge consists of recognizing and being able to retell Bible stories, quote some verses, know generally where to find passages (i.e. “That’s in one of the Pauline letters, I think.”)

The Bible is a large enough collection of literature that this base of knowledge always has room to grow. An early Bible learner might be able to tell about David and Goliath and the Nativity and quote John 3:16, but many who have cherished the word of God for a lifetime cannot summarize the message to the church at Pergamum in Revelation from memory. 


Bible literacy continues with the second element: understanding. While knowledge means a familiarity with parts of scripture, a person with understanding will have clarity on how those parts fit into the whole. Understanding requires familiarity with the overarching story of Scripture and how the narrative weaves together.

For instance, a knowledgeable person can recount with reasonable accuracy the story of David and Goliath. But a person who understands the narrative arch of Scripture knows that David will become Israel’s king, and that the Messiah will come from his line. So in this story, not only does God raise up David in the eyes of the current king, Saul, he also foreshadows the coming Christ who would rescue Israel. 


The third element of Bible literacy is application. We cannot just develop knowledge and understanding as if for an academic exercise. God has given us Scripture as his mediated presence so that we may know him more. As we know him more, we can love and obey him more. To truly have Bible literacy, we must apply the knowledge and understanding to our lives.

Knowing the story of David and Goliath foreshadows Christ, then the believer can understand that as God delivered Israel from the Philistines through one man, David, he has delivered the Church from our own sin through one man, Christ. Seeing this picture of the Gospel reminds us of the great grace we have in Christ, which should lead to worship. God had a plan for salvation all along. He was woven the story of Christ through the scriptures so that we may know he is good and keeps his promises. We can trust him. 

Knowing, understanding, and obeying the Bible is one of the ways in which God in his grace has chosen to sanctify his people. He has not hidden his Word in obscure, difficult language, but has made it possible to read and understand. We can develop Bible literacy, but it takes work. Next week, I’ll share some of my own ongoing struggles in growing in Bible literacy.

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