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Word is Near You
Illiteracy in the Church
(c) Copyright 2008 Rev. Bill Versteeg
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
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,
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
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.
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
5:15-20 The Word is Neaar You: The Problem of Musical Illiteracy in the
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY
BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984
International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible
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