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The Word is Near You

Biblical Illiteracy in the Church

Romans 10:5-13

(c) Copyright 2008 Rev. Bill Versteeg

Romans 10
    5 Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.”  6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down)  7 “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming (Deut 30:14):  9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.  11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”  12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,  13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

    In our passage, Paul refers back to when the nation of Israel was not sure that they would be able to follow the Lord, after all, they hardly knew God at that time.  To most of them, God was an unknown.  And many felt certainly that God was unknowable.  After all, they had never seen God, they may have heard rumblings from the mountain top, but they didn’t have the radiant faces Moses had from being in the presence of the Lord. This ascending or in Paul’s time descending was an expression that demonstrated they thought that knowing God was difficult, only for the elite, only for the spiritual supermen among them.  Moses response was to remind them that knowing God was not too difficult - it came from knowing the word, the covenant which was near to them. the ABCs of the old covenant were not too difficult for them or beyond their reach.  The law was right before them, all they needed to do was learn them, and obey them.  No heroic obedience would be required, just faithfulness to words that were right there with them.
    So to, the word is near to us, we have it in printed text in our hands, and it is what we need to learn in order to know God.  Without it, God will remain a mystery, distant, unknowable.

    The word is near you.  I wonder how much we appreciate that basic truth.
    There was a time in the church where only the elite had the word of God in their hands.  For the first 1500 years of its existence, only the leaders of the church had the word in their hands, in the form of carefully hand copied manuscripts, only the priests and the monks could read those words, most of the crowds who heard were illiterate and uneducated.  And so the character of the church was that it was a dispenser of grace.  Priests functioned as intermediaries between God and them.  They dispensed the word in public readings, they dispensed the sacraments.  They church was totally dependent on their leadership.

    Along came Johannes Gutenberg in 1453.  He was not the first one to create a printing press.  The Chinese had created a printing press it is believed during the life of Christ.  But the Chinese language was communicated pictographically, with thousands of different pictures and so the process of setting up a press to print was exceedingly difficult and time consuming.  Johannes in contrast had inherited from the Romans the Latin alphabet, so with about 30 different characters which formed the letters of the alphabet and punctuation, his printing press could be set up quickly and page after page could be produced.  The invention of the alphabetical printing press changed the western world.  For the first time the masses would learn to read because they had for the first time reading available to them.  In the space of 57 years after the development of the printing press, the books in Europe went from 8000 (each worth a significant portion of land) to 8 million.  Not only did people start to read, they started to understand that an entire system of knowledge could be built was a few basic building blocks and those blocks could be organized into a system of thought starting with point A,B,C,D etc.  Can you imagine a Encyclopedia without the alphabet.  In short, at the roots of science as we know it today stands the printing press and the alphabet.

    Now I could mention how the development of the printing press created schools, created science and the explosion of scientific knowledge and linear thought, the development of individualism, capitalism, how it even changed politics and created democracy, but what I want to focus on is how it changed the church.
    Where once, for most people, the church was the elite and it dispensed grace to the masses, because of the printing press, now the masses could have the word, they could read it, they could memorize it and talk to one another about it.  In a very real way it was near to all.  "The people of the way,"(Acts 9:2) as Christians were once called, now became "the people of the book."  And so arose the theology that since we are all near the word, we are all priests, and prophets and kings.  We all have direct access to God through the Word (Christ), the printed Word (Scriptures) and Spirit.  It has been said that Protestantism was created by the printing press.  Protestantism was the first religion in history created by technological innovation.
    Whereas the masses were kept in line by their ignorance, and the church could raise massive funds to deal with its 9/11 - the fall of Constantinople, through print, the masses started seeing the bigger picture and the information power that the church had quickly diminished.  With knowledge came power, and soon, it wasn’t only political systems that became democratic, even the church started becoming democratic, no longer ruled by one central government, now each believing community became a separate unit governing itself.
    So changed was society and even the church that it could be summarized by Immanuel Kant like this.
    “enlightenment was man’s coming of age.  It was man’s emergence from the immaturity which caused him to rely on such external authorities as the Bible, the church, and the state to tell him what to think and do.  No generation should be bound by the creeds and customs of bygone ages.  To be so bound is an offense against human nature, whose destiny lies in progress.... The motto of enlightenment was ‘Have courage to use your own understanding.’” (Immanuel Kant, summarized in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Article by C. Brown, Baker Book House, 1984, p. 355)

    And in line with this increase in individual thinking arose the concept of individual or personal devotions, where people should read for themselves and were responsible for their own spiritual growth.

    We are blessed to have inherited the Word, printed using the alphabet.  We have the word near us, available to us, it is not to hard to get to know God.  All we have to do is "take up and read" (the lyric of the song that brought about Augustine's conversion).  But now there seems to be a change in trend in our society.  Since the development of video, tv, internet which could be an evening reflection all by itself, people seem to be stopping reading.  In 2005, a study showed that 70% of 8th graders were not proficient at reading.  Our lives have become entertained.  It is common knowledge that we are becoming more and more biblically illiterate.  Less people are reading the book that is so near to them even though we have the opportunity like never before in history!

But the question is - what will happen if we stop reading?

Will we be driving the church back to the middle ages, where those who run the church are the paid elite, who read, who study theology, etc, and simply dispenses grace to the ignorant masses?

Will we be heading back to the middle ages where our spiritual vitality depended on what was spoon fed to us by the elite rather than taking the time to learn and grow for ourselves.

We have inherited a democratic style of church government. We still nominate and elect office bearers.  If we stop reading, are we choosing to let the church return to that time when it was run by a few and the members had little to say?

With this short message, I invite you to think about that.  What will happen, maybe not tomorrow, but it will in a few decades, if we adopt patterns that existed before the protestant church came into existence.

    Mari shared with us some of her ministry.  As she goes to work with a different language group, as they develop language based on an alphabet and print the words of scripture, her work has the potential to transform entire cultures, empower people and bring the Word of God near to them.  How blessed we are to be here.  Let’s not take what we have for granted.

Next message this series

Ephesians 5:15-20 The Word is Neaar You: The Problem of Musical Illiteracy in the Church


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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