Biblical Illiteracy: Its Tragedy and Remedy

(Volume 23, Issue 1, January/February 2017)

Both statistical research and anecdotal observation come to the same conclusion – America, a nation once steeped in Scripture if not always living in obedience to God, has joined the ranks of the biblically illiterate from around the globe.  Theologians and sociologists both speak of our “post-Christian” culture, while to some extent is still being fueled by the capital of Christianity, which is now all but coasting on empty. Albert Mohler, in a short article entitled “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem,” quotes pollsters George Gallup and Jim Castelli as saying, “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it.  And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”[1] As a result Mohler documents that fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospels, identify more than 3 disciples or name even five of the Ten Commandments.  Eighty two percent of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.  More comical are the studies that reveal 12 percent of adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, a considerable number think Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount,  and 50% of graduating high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. From a survey not referenced by Mohler it was discovered that some believe that the epistles are the wives of the apostles.  These findings and stories drawn from secular society should not surprise us too much – after all, biblical instruction is seldom found today in our schools, media, clubs or any place else apart from the church.  But sadly the church is catching up to society.

LifeWay Study

In 2014, a study was conducted by LifeWay Research for Ligonier Ministries in which self-identifying evangelicals were found to have unorthodox views concerning a number of essential doctrines such as those dealing with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation and inspiration.  These views were often equal to, or worse than, views held by their secular counterparts.  Questioning the results of this survey, some analysists assumed that allowing individuals to self-identify as evangelicals skewed the outcome. This is a real possibility, especially since there has been widespread confusion in recent times over exactly what an evangelical is and who can claim to be one. The standard definition for a number of years is one developed by historian David Bebbington.  Bebbington claimed an evangelical, at least since the mid-1800s, had four distinguishing marks: belief in conversion by faith alone, the final authority of the Bible, the substitutionary death of Christ as necessary for our salvation, and activism, especially in the sense of sharing the gospel with others.[2] Bebbington summed up these enduring priorities of the evangelical movement as: “crucientrism, conversionism, biblicism and activism.”[3] Recently the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and LifeWay Research (Southern Baptist) sought to sharpen the definition in order to better understand and analyze their research by providing the following tool containing four statements.  Respondents are expected to strongly agree to the four statements to be considered evangelicals by belief (as opposed to merely self-identifying). The statements are:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe [a somewhat weakened form of Bebbington’s biblicism, in which Bebbington’s “final authority” is reduced to NAE’s “highest authority,” allowing for competing authorities].
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior [Bebbington’s activism].
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin [comes short of Bebbington’s crucientrism of penal substitution].
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation [leaves out the Reformers’ “faith alone” and thus falls short of sola fide].[4]

As can be seen, the NAE/LifeWay’s definition of an evangelical is not quite at the level of Bebbington’s understanding of the word as used in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.  And at best it is a minimalistic doctrinal statement which leaves room for unbiblical dogmas of many kinds (for example, nothing is said of the Trinity or the person and work of the Holy Spirit).  For survey and research purposes it can be seen that those now considered evangelicals “by belief,” not merely self-identified, may in fact hold to many errant views.  Nevertheless this is the definition most common today and it is superior to the nebulous definitions which are the norm.  At least it is an attempt to define an evangelical.

We are now ready to compare what evangelicals, by the NAE/LifeWay’s definition, believe in contrast to what the general public believes. Since the 2014 survey in which evangelicals self-identified yielded discouraging results, a new study was commissioned in which self-confessed evangelicals had to pass the four-statement test highlighted above. The theory was this study, published in September, 2016, would surely yield better results than the previous one. Unfortunately, it did not. In the new study 47 statements about Christian theology were presented to 3000 American adults, 586 of whom met The NAE/LifeWay’s definition of an evangelical.  Here is a sampling of the results[5]:

  • While 97% of evangelicals believe in the Trinity, oddly 71 percent said Jesus was the first and greatest being “created” by God, thus identifying with the ancient heresy of Arianism. This doctrine of a “created” Jesus Christ is essentially what is taught by the Jehovah Witnesses and Latter Day Saints today. 52% of the general population believes that Jesus was not created, which means, that concerning the deity of Christ the secular public was more orthodox than evangelicals.
  • And the Holy Spirit fares even worse. The Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being, according to 56% of evangelicals. In addition 28% say He is a divine being, but is not equal with God the Father or Jesus. This is a rejection of the revised version of the Nicene Creed of 381 which affirmed the person of the Holy Spirit.
  • Fifty-four percent of evangelicals agreed with the statement, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” This means that 46% of evangelicals do not recognize the fallen, depraved nature of humanity as expressed in Scripture.
  • If depravity is not understood by evangelicals, it is no wonder that they are also confused concerning salvation and how one comes to Christ as well. Eighty-six percent believe that the sinner must take the first step in seeking God and then the Lord responds to him with grace (vs. 65% of Americans in general).  And a disturbing 74% believe that “an individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.” However, when asked to respond to the statement “By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven,” only 39% agreed. This demonstrates the confusion even evangelicals have regarding salvation.  Those who believe that their merit is necessary for personal salvation would be buying into the ancient heresy of Pelagianism,   which says either that mankind can come to Christ on their own, or at least aided Christ in their salvation (synergism), often called semi-Pelagianism.  No wonder many today claim that “God helps those who help themselves” is their favorite verse of Scripture, even though it is not found in the Word of God.
  • That God accepts the worship of all religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam is embraced by 64% of the general public (no surprise here), but strangely 48% of evangelicals agreed.
  • Sixty-four percent of evangelicals agreed that “heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones.” Sixty-percent of Americans agreed. Some form of universalism is apparently accepted by both groups.
  • Almost all evangelicals agree that the Bible is the highest authority for what they believe, but 30% see biblical interpretation as left up to the individual and 17% believe the Bible is not literally true and contains myths.
  • Church attendance among evangelicals did not fare so well either. Forty-two percent believe that “worshipping alone or in response to the survey results, with family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.” Mohler places the blame for such biblical and doctrinal ignorance on “churches that marginalize biblical knowledge.  Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing faction of the local congregation’s time and attention.”[6]


Surveys of this type can be interpreted a number of ways.  At best this one demonstrates the confusion among those who meet today’s recognized definition of an evangelical; a confusion resulting from wide-scale lack of scriptural teaching and minimized attention or interest in theology within our churches and parachurch organizations.  Almost anything else besides careful instruction from the Word will draw crowds, raise funds and sustain ministries, and therefore not surprisingly, exposition and Bible teaching have fallen largely by the wayside. Many have recognized this inattention to Bible teaching and general lack of interest in theology to be at the root of the illiteracy problem.  For example, “Howard Snyder blamed the overall lack of orthodoxy on the fact that ‘most evangelical churches have largely abandoned catechesis (or a functional equivalent)…Theologically informed discipleship is mostly absent from churches.”[7]  Beth Jones, professor of theology at Wheaton College states, “The survey underscores our desperate need for sound doctrinal teaching in the local church…I fear that we’re spending too much time in cults of personality around charismatic superstar pastors, who often focus more of their personal theological idiosyncrasies and pet ideas than on basic Christian orthodoxy.”[8] Kenneth Briggs, author of The Invisible Best Seller: Searching for the Bible in America says he finds “mega-type churches are a ‘Bible-less’ alternative version of Christianity… [Scripture has become] a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.”[9] And G. Shane Morris summarizes the results of the survey as an embarrassment to us all. “But they should also serve as a kick in the pants to re-familiarize ourselves with our own religion.” [10]

National Study of Youth and Religion

The bad news does not end with LifeWay’s latest survey. Considered the most comprehensive study on the religious views of teenagers ever conducted, a four year effort led by Christian Smith called the National Study of Youth and Religion in 2005 determined that

The majority of American teens believe in God and worship in conventional congregations, but their religious knowledge is remarkably shallow, and they have a tough time expressing the difference that faith makes in their lives…Though the phone survey depicted broad affinity with religion, the face-to-face interviews found that many teens’ religious knowledge was “meager, nebulous and often fallacious” and engagement with the substance of their traditions remarkably shallow. Most seemed hard put to express coherently their beliefs and what difference they make. Many were so detached from the traditions of their faith, says the report, that they’re virtually following a different creed in which an undemanding God exists mostly to solve problems and make people feel good. Truth in any absolute, theological sense, takes a back seat… God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist” who’s on call as needed”[11]

It should be observed that this survey is 12 years old and these teens are now grown up and have apparently carried over their view of God and truth into adulthood, as the LifeWay survey indicates.  Indeed there is some evidence that as a result of this understanding of God and Scripture the majority of the evangelical church has now become infected with a social disease.  The disease is popularly called MTD, or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  A generation which has been trained by its elders (intentionally or by neglect) to believe in “an undemanding God” who “exists mostly to solve problems and make people feel good,” can be excused for confusing biblical Christianity with a sickly, unhealthy mimic.  After all, moralism can appear at first to be godly living, therapeutic psychobabble can have similarities to biblical principles for sanctification, and deism fits well into a worldview that finds God unnecessary except during times of emergency. When one is infected with MTD the knowledge of truth (if it exists at all) is superfluous and unwanted baggage.  The study of Scripture or theology has no real relevance to those who have reduced their religion to how to solve problems and feel good.  If one subscribes to “pan-theology” – it will all pan out in the end, then why sweat the details? – does it really matter that Jesus was born of a virgin or that He has always eternally existed in contrast to being the first thing created by God?  Does it matter if Jesus Christ died as our substitute or was bodily resurrected?

Essential doctrines such as these are mattering less and less among those claiming evangelical faith. As an example, it is interesting to examine church websites and search for a statement of faith.  What is commonly found on most church websites yields either minimal results or none at all.  I was recently reading an article in Christianity Today which was highlighting some fast growing churches.  One in our area was featured so I took a look at their website.  What I found about their published beliefs is representative:

Having witnessed first-hand the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our own lives, the community at XXXX strives to create an environment where the “un-churched” as well as the “de-churched” will feel unconditional acceptance. We gather weekly to share stories of courage and sacrifice; stories that have the power to change our lives and the lives of others.  We value the power and authority of the living Word of God and the life changing effects it has.  Therefore, our community has been founded on the principles discovered within the Bible.

Life changing effects are mentioned, as are “principles discovered within the Bible” but there are no details as to what these effects and principles might be.  The emphasis is on an environment in which everyone, especially the un-churched (read unsaved) and de-churched (whoever they are) get to share their stories and are comfortable. From these statements one would expect in attending this church to have a good time, be accepted, be instructed in some general principles for living and go home relatively happy.  Few will notice that this philosophy of church life is virtually the definition of MTD and does not represent the New Testament view of the Christian faith.  It is almost certain that the leadership of this church, and others like them, intend no harm to the body of Christ.  Their philosophy of ministry appears to be working, numbers are growing, enthusiasm is high, and all seems well.  But appearances are often deceiving.  If we use the mirror of the Word of God, rather than the mirror of culture, we discover that the church was designed by God for the believer as a place of worship, ministry, instruction and fellowship (Acts 2:42).  It was not designed for the un-churched or de-churched.  The church in the New Testament is not a place where those who do not know Christ and thus are under the wrath of God (Rom 1:18) are comfortable.  The church is not the place where people are given a few principles found in the Bible, but a place where the Word of God is seriously preached and taught passionately (2 Tim 3:16-4:5).  Churches which are being organized to please the culture instead of God are steadily growing spiritually sick. However, because they are growing numerically, offer enthusiastic worship services and outreach opportunities, and have perfected the art of meeting felt-needs, the symptoms of MTD are being ignored.


Reasons for biblical illiteracy are many – lack of emphasis and teaching of the Bible in our churches, youth programs that major on entertainment rather than the Word of God, Bible colleges and seminaries that prepare ministers to be CEOs rather than shepherds who feed the flock a rich diet of Scripture, confusing MTD for biblical Christianity and simply laziness and distractions resulting in neglect of personal reading of the Bible.  But one other culprit surely is the increasing challenge to biblical inerrancy.  If Christians do not believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures then by default they believe the Bible contains errors and therefore it cannot be trusted.  If this is the case then why bother reading it?  Major attacks on the truthfulness and reliability of God’s Word have been prolific from the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and skeptics such as Bart Ehrman.  But, sadly, theologians closer to the core of the faith are also adding fuel to the fire.  Some might recall the celebrated “battle for the Bible” which took place between 1955 and 1985 (J. I. Packer called this “the 30-year war”).  Harold Lindsell’s 1976 book by this title brought the discussion to a head as he first accused and then documented how Western seminaries and denominations were abandoning their grip on the infallibility and authority of the Scriptures.  Shortly thereafter a gathering of over 200 leading American theologians produced the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (CSBI) in 1978.[12] The hope at the time was that this statement, with its numerous accompanying articles of explanation, would do for Scripture what the Nicene Creed did for the deity of Christ – virtually close the door to all meaningful debate on the trustworthiness and truthfulness of the Bible among evangelicals.  This has not proven to be the case, and today we find the Scriptures under renewed and significant challenges from many who claim to love it.

The CSBI definition of inerrancy is quite detailed but most believe Paul Feinberg pulled all the pieces together in his more concise definition: “When all the facts are known, the Scripture in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”[13] Unfortunately the dust had barely settled on CSBI when leading evangelicals began to nuance the definition and there has been a gradual abandonment, by many leading Bible scholars, of inerrancy in the subsequent years.  The editors of a 2013 volume entitled Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy asked five prominent evangelical theologians to state their understanding of inerrancy.  Below is a summary of where these men stand, which reveals the chaos and confusion over this vital doctrine.

Albert Mohler

Mohler is President of Southern Seminary and is in step with the CSBI.  His view is well summarized when he writes, “When the Bible speaks, God speaks” (p. 29).  Mohler does not think evangelicalism can survive without inerrancy as defined by the CSBI (p. 31), and summarizes his response to Franke’s article (see below) by saying that “he has revealed the destiny of evangelical theology if it surrenders the inerrancy of the Bible” (p. 291).  He is the only one of the five authors who clearly and consistently affirms that the three difficult passages, which each man was given to interpret, can be resolved through the use of a literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutic and do not need to be reinterpreted because of apparent internal contradictions or modern archeological or scientific discoveries.

Peter Enns

Enns, who is a biblical scholar teaching at Eastern University, strongly rejects CSBI, writing that inerrancy assumes God shares modern views on accuracy (which, Enns assures us, He does not) (pp. 84, 87-88, 91, 104).  Instead we must read the Bible through ancient, not modern, eyes (p. 108).  He rightly claims that “literalism is the default hermeneutic of the CSBI” (p. 88), although he distorts what literalism means.  He laments that those who embrace literalism disallow the study of ancient history or scientific discoveries to overturn what the Bible says (p. 88).  And he dismisses the notion that if we accept that portions of the Bible are in error then we have started down a slippery slope theologically (p. 89).  In addressing the assigned difficult passages, Enns not only denies the fall of Jericho, but the Exodus account as well, as they are both described in the Old Testament (pp. 94-98, 107-108, 122, 134), and claims the biblical authors shaped history creatively for their theological purposes (p. 101).  Enns redefines inerrancy beyond all recognition by writing, “It is a descriptive observation rather than a prescriptive declaration” (p. 114, see pp. 120-123, 135).  Mohler calls Enns’ views a “tragically minimal statement about the Bible” (p. 122).

Michael Bird

Bird is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne Ministry and Mission College and believes the debate over inerrancy is largely an American issue and should not cause such a fuss (pp. 146, 155-156).  He believes the CSBI relies too heavily on modern presumption of precision and, in fact thinks contradictions in Scripture can and do exist (pp. 147-149, 153, 168, 170, 194).  He sees the CSBI as based on foundationalism (pp. 157, 208), which Franz says in his article, has been thoroughly discredited (pp. 261-264, 282), to which Enns apparently agrees (pp. 304-305).  The Jericho and Exodus accounts did not likely happen in the way the Scripture claims (pp. 166-167), after all “ancient historians were storytellers not modern journalists so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives,” or so says Bird (p. 168).

Kevin VanHoozer

Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, supports inerrancy but what is needed, he says, is a “well-versed” version, which hails back to Augustine (pp. 204-207, 223, 235).  He says “God’s authoritative Word is wholly true and trustworthy in everything it claims about what was, what is, and what will be” (p. 202).  He agrees essentially with CSBI but registers three concerns:  the definition of inerrancy needs refinement (pp. 206-207), truth and language needs definition (pp. 208-211), and a closer connection with Nicaea is warranted (pp. 212-213).  ‘“Well-versed’ inerrancy puts a premium on the responsibility of the interpreter to understand the text correctly” (p. 223).  Yet when Vanhoozer turns to the assigned passages it is clear that he sees the events as not entirely accurately revealed (pp. 224-230).

John Franke

Franke is Professor of Missional Theology at Yellowstone Theology Institute. He defends a “fallibilist” position in which absolute certainty is impossible (pp. 262, 305).  This post-conservative, post-modern view, when applied to Scripture, means the Bible points us in the right direction but without the necessity of actually being precise (p. 268).  It is not that truth does not exist, for God knows truth with a capital T, but we can only know truth with a small t (pp. 269, 288, 308).  As such, small t truth is pluralistic (pp. 275-280, 288).  Biblical contradictions, or errors, are no problem for Franke (pp. 277, 290) because the purpose of Scripture is not to provide precise details but to bless the world (a missional understanding) (pp. 282, 286, 302-303).

On many levels Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy is a disturbing book.  Inerrancy is one of the most important of doctrines and is supposedly a hallmark of evangelicalism, yet if the views presented in this volume are representative of evangelical scholarship in the 21st century, it is obvious there exists a wide diversity on what it means and how it is applied.  Three of these authors clearly state, and one is conflicted, that the Scriptures do not accurately report many events found in the biblical texts, and they challenge the veracity not only of history that is recorded but also of statements addressing nature, creation, and the internal makeup of mankind. Given that the Bible is unreliable concerning such issues, why should we believe it is reliable when it comes to doctrinal concerns?  How can we be certain that Scripture is dependable when it comes to its description of God, Jesus Christ, the redemptive work of the cross, the resurrection or our salvation, when it is in error about so many historical and scientific events?  Enns, Bird and Franke give assurance that the Scriptures can be trusted concerning these theological issues even though they do not report the truth when it comes to other matters.  When faced with these kinds of discrepancies and inconsistencies, the average believer might very well question the importance of Scripture in their life at all. Why bother reading the Bible if even evangelical scholars are telling us it consists of stories shaped by the imaginations of ancient people to convey certain principles which they desired to express?

The challenges to inerrancy are not merely an American problem.  The Master’s Academy International recently published a book, The Implications of Inerrancy for the Global Church,[14] written by teachers from the 18 Master’s Academies in 17 countries in existence today. Leaders of the academies each wrote a chapter discussing the unique implication of inerrancy in their respective countries and cultures.  In most situations inerrancy is outwardly affirmed, at least by the evangelical community, but, in reality and in practice, inerrancy is denied or revised to mean something different from the official definition (as per CSBI). This collection provides convincing, and disturbing evidence that there has been a gradual abandonment of inerrancy since the publication of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” in 1978 (pp. ix, 46). Some of the specific culprits that are identified as leading to the erosion of belief in inerrancy throughout the world include:  claims of corruption of the biblical manuscripts (pp. 27, 235-264), development and spread of the historical-critical methodology (pp. 54-58), popularity of egalitarianism (pp. 67-76, 149-151), abuse of contextualization (pp. 77-80), an evolving and revised Roman Catholic understanding which could be labeled “limited inerrancy” (pp. 88-102), the growth and influence of the prosperity gospel and Pentecostal theology (pp. 112-123), an increasingly popular “hermeneutic of the Spirit” which begins with Scripture but adds additional revelation (pp. 126-131), integration of secular psychology (p. 148), increased acceptance of syncretism (pp. 152-157, 207-210), Barthian neo-orthodoxy (pp. 193-202), existentialism (pp. 193, 229), oral traditions trumping the written Word (pp. 204-205), and adoption of evolutionary theory (pp. 265-266).


Biblical illiteracy is well recognized today.  There are many reasons for why not only the general population but also the evangelical church has little understanding and knowledge of Scripture, and I have tried to identify some of these in the body of this article. With all of the attacks on the trustworthiness of Scripture, coupled with general lack of Biblical knowledge and apathy toward what it proclaims, it would be easy to despair for the future of the Scriptures.  But God’s Word always accomplishes that which it is sent forth by the Lord to accomplish (Isa 55:1), which is to teach, reprove, correct and train His people in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).  We have the promise of Jesus that His Word will never pass away (Matt 24:35). So rather than despair we should make every effort to pass along the Lord’s truth to the next generation (Deut 6:4-9; Psalm 145:4). At this point we need to consider some means to do so.  What can we personally, and corporately as the church, do to address the issue of biblical illiteracy?  This will be the subject of the next article.

[1] Albert Mohler, The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem, Jan 20, 2016, (

[2] David W Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005),   pp. 21-40.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.



[6] Albert Mohler.


[8] Ibid.


[10] Ibid.

[11] (emphasis mine).

[12] For and excellent overview of the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” see R. C. Sproul, Scripture Alone, and Evangelical Doctrine, (New Jersey: P&R Publishing  p. 2005), pp. 121-193.

[13] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Augustinian Inerrancy” in J. Merrick, and Stephen M. Garrett, eds, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), p. 207.

[14] Mark Tatlock, Gen Ed, The Implications of Inerrancy for the Global Church, (Xulon, 2015).


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