How does biblical literacy today compare with earlier generations? A case study

One of my recent freelance projects has been to proofread a new edition of John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection (forthcoming from Whitaker House).  In addition to learning from (and marveling at) Wesley’s profound theological insights, I was also struck by the way he referenced (actually, didn’t reference, in most cases) the quotations from Scripture that saturate his thought and writing.

Wesley provided actual Scripture references almost exclusively in the few places where he adopted a question-and-answer format.  There he used them either on the part of his hypothetical interlocutor, or in the guise of the respondent. For example:

Q. Is there any example in Scripture of persons who had attained to [Christian perfection]?

A. Yes; St. John, and all those of whom he says, “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because, as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).

In other contexts Wesley may name the biblical author and book, but not provide a specific reference:

Did not St. Paul pray according to the will of God, when he prayed that the Thessalonians might be “sanctified wholly and preserved” (in this world, not the next, unless he was praying for the dead) “blameless in body, soul and spirit, unto the coming of Jesus Christ”?

Or, he may name the biblical author, but not even the book, expecting his readers to recognize the source of the quotation:

The words of St. Paul, “No man can call Jesus Lord, but by the Holy Ghost,” show us the necessity of eyeing God in our good works, and even in our minutest thoughts; knowing that none are pleasing to Him, but those which He forms in us and with us.

And in some cases, to support his points, Wesley quotes Scriptures from different places without even identifying the authors:

Be “slow to speak,” and wary in speaking. “In a multitude of words there wanteth not sin.” Do not talk much; neither long at a time. Few can converse profitably above an hour. Keep at the utmost distance from pious chit-chat, from religious gossiping.

Seeing how Wesley was able to quote the Bible this way, with the full expectation that his readers would recognize the source of his citations, to such an extent that chapter-and-verse references were not generally required, made me think that biblical literacy was much higher in his day than it is in ours, when a book like the Plain Account of Christian Perfection could hardly be published without chapter-and-verse references.

Can you identify the source of the last three quotations used as examples here (the biblical book, at least?)


Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “How does biblical literacy today compare with earlier generations? A case study”

    1. I, too, thought that in that place Wesley was quoting the book of James: “Each of you should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” I’m not aware that James is quoting any earlier biblical writer himself, although there’s a lot in Proverbs about controlling the tongue!

  1. It is sad to say that most Christians could not even sit long enough to hear (much less understand) a sermon by Jonathan Edwards for example. The theologians of the past were knowledgeable in both the languages and philosophies. I personally believe most Christians are totally ignorant of sound Christianity. Even in our political system — our politicians cannot even make a speech. The “Lincoln/Douglas Debates” show intelligent debate. What do we have today? Bad journalism and misinformation from both sides! I am convinced that most people today do not have the thinking minds of the past!

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