Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity? 2

This post (sorry it took so long) continues from part 1, in which I discussed the Church Mouse’s suggestion that evangelistic strategies should be based more on the Bible text.

As I concluded in part 1, I stand with the doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture, in other words, that ordinary people can and should be able to understand the basic meaning of the biblical text without having to depend on outside authorities, and without requiring special education. Obscure parts can be understood by comparison with simpler parts. This is not to say that every nuance of doctrine can be understood in this way, or that untaught readers can claim to understand the Bible better than scholars. The point is that people can understand the core meaning of every part of it, which includes understanding enough to be saved.

This argument that ordinary people can understand the Bible is not intended to undermine the church as a community. For fuller comprehension readers should compare their impressions with those of others. However, it may undermine the church as a hierarchical institution, as the Reformation did, by denying its monopoly on interpreting the Bible.

Of course this does depend on a good Bible translation being available in the language of those ordinary people, and this is the theme that has been promoted at Better Bibles Blog by many of us on that blog’s team. But this begs a number of questions that I will attempt to answer.

In my published paper Holy Communicative? (published in Translation and Religion: Holy Untranslatable? (Topics in Translation), Lynne Long (ed.), Multilingual Matters, 2005, pp. 89-101; a draft is downloadable as a zipped Word document) I discussed three barriers to understanding the text of the Bible. For an accompanying PowerPoint presentation I showed these barriers as piles of rubble, not separate walls, as the factors are not completely separable, and the barriers are not insurmountable:

Piles of rubble obstructing our understandingIn fact I would suggest that there are not three but six barriers to complete understanding of the Bible text.

Only the first three were relevant to the purposes of my 2005 paper: the linguistic, contextual and cultural barriers. A good Bible translation should overcome the linguistic barrier. Contextual issues, where readers lack important background knowledge, can also be overcome in a translation by making some implicit information explicit, and footnotes may also be helpful here. There is more controversy over whether the cultural barrier, caused by the historical and cultural remoteness of the text, should be overcome within the text: not many people accept the kind of updating of the historical setting found for example in the Cotton Patch New Testament. But for educated westerners this is probably the least serious of the barriers.

Another barrier that must be considered is the availability of the text in a form which the ordinary person can use. For people who read well, that implies clear print in the orthography they are used to. For those who cannot read or do not find it easy, it is necessary to present the text with suitable audio or video media. This is a large topic which I don’t want to go into further now.

The fifth potential barrier to understanding is the conceptual one. There are of course conceptual difficulties in understanding some of the deeper theological implications of some parts of the Bible. But I would hold that the basic concepts in the Bible can be understood by untrained people of ordinary intelligence, if presented to them in clear language – and as long as there is no spiritual barrier to understanding.

Yes, the final barrier to ordinary people understanding the Bible is a spiritual one. As the Apostle Paul wrote,

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

2 Corinthians 4:4 (NIV 2011)

A few verses earlier Paul described this barrier as a veil, but he also wrote that

whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

2 Corinthians 3:16 (NIV 2011)

So this should not be a factor for true Christian believers. But it is of course important when the Bible is being used to promote the Christian faith to outsiders. How can this barrier be overcome? Only through prayer, I would suggest.

There are many stories going around, including some from personal friends of mine, of people in Muslim majority countries who have become Christians because they saw Jesus in a dream and then started to read the Bible. In some such countries Bibles are quite widely distributed, through unofficial channels, where expatriate Christians are not welcome. But Christians have been praying for those countries for a very long time, and these prayers are being answered as some people’s blind eyes are being opened to the light of the gospel.

But this discussion as started by the Church Mouse was about evangelism in Britain. In countries like this, with a fairly large Christian population and few restrictions on sharing one’s faith, there is no need for God to rely on miraculous intervention such as in dreams. The cultural barriers to the gospel can be broken down if we Christians are prepared to befriend our unbelieving neighbours, colleagues etc. The spiritual barriers will start to come down as we pray for these people. Then as we share the gospel message with them, from the Bible and in an appropriate way, there should be no remaining barriers to them accepting it.

Some may say this doesn’t work. Of course it is not an infallible formula. And I can’t say that I have proved that this works, largely because I have not really tried it and persisted with it.  But how many of those naysayers have tried it more than me?

So let’s use the Bible to promote Christianity, but not as a weapon to bash people with, rather as something we use within relationships of genuine Christian love.

19 thoughts on “Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity? 2

  1. Pingback: Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity? 1 - Gentle Wisdom

  2. I’m trying to think back over biblical examples of promoting Christianity (the good news about Jesus). I think of Jesus speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman, and Paul speaking to the Areopagus in Athens. I’m sure there are other examples.

    It seems to me that most of these Good News Encounters did not consist of pointing people to the Bible or quoting verses from it.

    I cannot imagine sharing Christianity without some kind of reference to the Bible, which is our surest record of God’s plans to rescue people. But it seems to me that a address to each person’s particular needs was the primary strategy employed by Jesus and Paul. Although a biblical foundation was assumed by both, neither used that foundation as the primary focus. I suspect that many (most?) non-Christians today have little interest in the Bible itself. But I think that many are interested in something that might help their lives become better, something better than they have been able to reach by their own efforts.

    So, where does this leave the Bible? I think it is primarily a tool for the communities of faith associated with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. It is a tool to help them understand more of what it means to grow as a believer.

    I do think there is a good role today for non-print presentations of important parts of the Bible such as the stories of beginnings in Genesis and the life and teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Such presentations can help inform people with little Bible background what the Bible’s main message of salvation is.

  3. Wayne, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    I could answer your biblical examples by saying that the New Testament was not available in those cases. But in several NT cases we do see the Hebrew Bible (or Septuagint?) text being used in evangelism. Peter and Paul quote from it extensively in their sermons, but these are not examples of the Bible text alone bringing people to Christ. And I know that the audiences of these sermons were mostly Jewish, whereas the Bible was not used in sermons to Gentiles. The lesson here would be that the Bible should be used in evangelising those with a basic Bible background, but not for those who do not have it. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with starting where people are, but it is possible to use well chosen Bible passages, rather than our own arguments, to move them on from there.

    The Ethiopian eunuch is an interesting example as he was a non-Jewish unbeliever who read a part of the Bible text. He was not converted by it alone, but it certainly got things started. I think this illustrates my eventual conclusion, that the Bible is useful in evangelism but not in isolation from the personal witness of Christians.

  4. Your brief commentary raises the pivotal question respecting the relevance of the Bible. One of the reasons reading became part of the academic curriculum was to enable ordinary folk to read the Bible. With the new hemeneutics and the splash it’s had on Bible translation, almost to the point of heretical departure from pious allegiance thoroughly informed, one must wonder whether a whole genre have been brought up to see the Bible a matter of personal license, something to be taken or left at discretion. Of course, there is an interest in theological circles, to which you allude, to keep the Bible out of the hands of the “laity”. It has a long tradition, and it remains active and threatening to those who believe that the essential part of our Faith is a personal relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as revealed in His Word.

  5. Pingback: Is Sodom the Bellweather for Universal Restoration? | Unsettled Christianity

  6. Just a quick comment to say that I think the “midrash” in 2 Corinthians 3 is about the veil hiding the fact that the glory on Moses’ face (which Paul takes as symbolic of the glory of the Mosaic covenant) faded. His point seems to be that the removal of the veil exposes this, not that those who read the text who aren’t Christians cannot comprehend it. (Dunn has a good article on this).

  7. Thank you, James, for your comment. Yes, that could be the meaning of the veil in chapter 3. But surely 2 Corinthians 4:4, also quoted above, is unambiguous, and also implies that believers are no longer blinded in the same way, as also suggested by 4:6. And 4:3 links the veil with the blindness. So I think my general point stands.

  8. Do you have any statistical evidence on the efficacy of Bible distribution? You cite some vague anecdotal evidence above about “people in Muslim majority countries,” but I am not aware of any significant increases in Christian affiliation in those countries. (One can fairly easily find competing anecdotal accounts that Bible distribution is often not effective.)

    The fraction of Protestants in the United States has been sharply dropping in the last few decades, a period of time during which efforts to produce new English Bible translations has been especially vigorous. In part, this is due to non-Protestant immigration, but it also reflects, especially among younger Americans, movement away from Protestant beliefs.

    It appears that number of available English bible translations is negatively correlated with the percentage of US residents identifying themselves as Protestants.

    Of course, correlation is not causation, but one is forced to reconsider claims that distribution of Bible translations is an effective evangelization tool.

  9. Theophrastus, welcome to Gentle Wisdom. Your wisdom will be welcome here even when I disagree with it – which may be most of the time judging from our history at Better Bibles Blog.

    On this issue, the general scholarly consensus is that the decline of Protestantism in the West is caused by a general cultural process of secularisation, which can be traced back at least a century. Updated translation and wider distribution of Bibles are among a number of responses by Christians to that decline. Are you really proposing the opposite, that the main cause of the decline of Protestantism is these new Bible initiatives? Or are you suggesting that they are one of a number of factors? If the latter, what is your evidence that these initiatives made the decline steeper rather than less steep? More likely their effect on the overall statistics has been minimal.

    However, I am sure that groups like Bible societies have studied the effectiveness of their programmes in more local situations and have concluded that at least some have had a positive effect – and have continued those programmes while discontinuing those without a positive effect. After all, not every Christian suffers from insanity as defined by Einstein.

  10. More likely their effect on the overall statistics has been minimal.

    Yes, I suspect this is the case. My citation above was to suggest that there is a lack of evidence supporting Bible distribution as an effective evangelization tool. Perhaps Bible Societies do have such evidence and are simply keeping it proprietary, but that seems implausible, since releasing the evidence would certainly help contributions.

    I was also suggesting that the question posed in your post heading is one that can best be answered empirically, not theologically.

  11. Theophrastus, indeed empirical studies would be useful. I expect the Bible societies have published some, if we look for them. But that was not my point in this post.

  12. In my experience in India, there are two main ways that people come into the faith. Either through being prayed for by a Christian when they were sick and being healed, or by simply reading the Bible. I’m currently at a workshop with 20 or so Indian Christians, and, of the 4 whom I happen to have previously asked to hear their testimony, all four are first generation believers and all 4 came to the Lord through simply reading the Bible (and then meeting Christians who were able to encourage them). To them, God’s word was powerful even though it wasn’t in their mother tongue. One of them, who used to study the Hindu scriptures and know them very well, started reading the Bible and she was drawn in because she realised that this type of “scripture” was something totally different to the Hindu scriptures.

    I agree that the Bible by itself is a powerful tool for evangelism. Now I’m interested to ask the rest of my colleagues here how they came to know the Lord!

  13. I think the Bible is a lousy way to promote Christianity, mainly because some Christians and some atheists take it too literally.

    I think we should all just read Tito Colliander’s ‘The Way of the Ascetics’ and use that as our guide. It is a brilliant book.

  14. Very late to the party, sorry.

    I will note without comment that I have heard atheists claim that the best way to make more atheists (presumably in a nominally-Christian society) is to get people to read the Bible closely. “It says WHAT??”

    It’s probably true for some people, and not for others. I myself have no idea what proportion of what people would have that reaction.


  15. Just Passing By, that is an interesting claim by atheists. I wonder if it has been tested? Personally I would not be afraid of putting it to the test. I am confident that Bible reading will convince many more people to become Christians than to become atheists.

    I would however want to insist on one condition for the test: that the readers use a good modern language version, not the King James Version which is the one Richard Dawkins wants children to read. Interestingly, Dawkins’ main expressed reason for wanting this is that the KJV is “one of the glories of English literature”, but he does go on to suggest “an ulterior motive” similar to the idea that you are passing on. Well, I can agree with him that it is good if people read the Bible with understanding.

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