The process of communicating knowledge is a centerpiece of the faith in Christ. Proclamation of the Gospel, after all, demands the communication of saving knowledge of the Risen Lord Jesus who was crucified (Romans 1:16, 10:17). What is going on in the process of attempting to communicate the Gospel?
This is another area in which the Enlightenment paradigm has taken hold. The Enlightenment paradigm involves the assumptions of the Enlightenment: the problem with mankind is ignorance or false knowledge; the solution is to inform, or enlighten, mankind with true knowledge, and then humanity will do what they are supposed to do when they know what they need to know. According to the Gospel, knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient: our problem as humans is that we know quite well what to do but we are tempted to sin and fall prey to temptation (Romans 5:12-21, 7:1-25, James 1:13-15).
Another aspect of the Enlightenment involved the idolization of “objectivity.” The only things which are really true are those that can be maintained through objective analysis. We can see this clearly in the pretense of the media: the stated goal is to attempt to communicate the news as objectively as possible so as to allow the reader to make an appropriate conclusion based upon a sober and reasoned analysis of the information provided. Never mind that no one wants to read an objective news story and everyone has their biases because everyone has an already formed worldview; objectivity remains the goal.
The conceit of objectivity is exemplified in the oft-used illustration of the uncontacted Indigenous person who comes across a Bible and would thus begin to practice Christianity as we believe it ought to be practiced. If such a circumstance were to take place, it would be difficult to imagine how the would start the Catholic church, Lutheran church, or things of that sort; and indeed, they would see in the text and practice things like elders in a local congregation, baptism, etc., but may also give the holy kiss, meet in their huts or wherever they would live, and practice the faith in other ways that may not exactly imitate our practice. It would be consistent with New Testament Christianity, just as we seek to be consistent with New Testament Christianity; nevertheless, this story is impossible, because such an Indigenous person doing such a thing is purely mythological. No one is fully objective. Everyone, from the New Guinea tribesman to the Parisian to someone in the Deep South of America, has a worldview shaped and formed by their experiences and their environment. Every worldview is consistent with the Gospel in some ways; every worldview falls short in some ways. That’s why we must be rooted in Christ and challenge our most deep-seated assumptions with the Gospel (Colossians 2:1-10).
And this is the challenge with how we view Gospel communication. We’d like to think the Gospel Preacher proclaims the Gospel and the Hearer understands exactly what is meant and comes to the exactly proper conclusion and makes the appropriate changes. That’s the ideal, and we all know what happens to the ideal in our creation. In fact, every step of this process is fraught with difficulty.
The Gospel Preacher is exhorted to preach the Word faithfully (2 Timothy 4:1-4), but the Gospel Preacher is a creature of his time, place, and culture. Based on his experiences he will think that certain elements of the message need greater emphasis than others; he may be right in some ways, but he also may not. He may defend tradition as if it were truth, and dispense some truth as if an earlier tradition. No doubt he’ll think he’s proclaiming the whole counsel of God, but if there could be an “objective analysis” of what was preached, some lesser things textually would be magnified in preaching, and some things made much of in the text would not receive as much emphasis. This is not the end of the world; we preach the Gospel in a specific context, which means that we are going to have to spend more time on certain subjects rather than others. But we’ve also all probably seen when it goes wrong.
Then there’s the Hearer. Assuming her sincerity, she has lived for years apart from the Gospel of Christ or influenced by some other understanding of Jesus. Today she has lived in 21st century America and has been influenced by all of its cultural peculiarities. Even if she is very receptive to the Gospel, when she hears its message, there are parts that she isn’t comfortable with and strike her as odd, counter-intuitive, and against everything she’s ever been taught. This is not a bad reaction; it is exactly the reaction that should exist, because there are parts of the Gospel that should make us uncomfortable, should strike us as counter-intuitive, and against everything we’ve ever been taught. A Gospel that is everything she believes, everything she expects, and with which she fully agrees is not a real Gospel at all, but the God of the imagination of man of that particular era. The Gospel is supposed to be a challenge to some degree; at some point, we have to recognize that many of its dictates are difficult, counter-intuitive, and against everything we’ve been taught, but decide to trust God and His ways over our thoughts and ways (so Peter, John 6:68-69). Anyway, our female Hearer, like the rest of us, is not a computer. We don’t just process data; our emotions and souls are involved. Therefore, she’s not just receiving information and processing it like a computer; she is reacting to what she is hearing or reading in her emotions and soul as well. She might feel a deep sympathy or revulsion at what is heard; she may automatically sympathize with what she hears, or feels hostility toward it; the visceral impressions she feels may be impressed as a deep memory which might recur when the subject or information piece is brought up again in the future. This is not bad or wrong because if God wanted to make computers, He would have; instead, He made humans, and our minds and emotions and soul all influence one another. This is how we can, say, abhor what is evil, and cling to what is good (Romans 12:9); we can have such visceral reactions. But in our sin corrupted nature, we can misfire. We can feel deep revulsion to some things that God has said are good or are consistent with holiness; we might still cling to sin or not righteousness. I’ve heard too many stories of people who have gone down the wrong paths doctrinally not because of a well-argued, coherent, rational argument, but because they are reacting to some situation that was not handled properly or a very uncharitable or unloving attitude expressed toward another, and the person felt a deep revulsion based on that experience.
“Coming to a knowledge of the truth and be saved” is not, therefore, just a matter of mental information processing. Our understanding is colored by our emotions; just like we need to align our thinking towards God’s Word, we must align our feelings with it as well. And we need to confess and admit that the proclamation of the Gospel is not just an information transfer, but often a war within the mind, body, and soul, the spiritual conflict of forces of light and darkness, the flesh versus the spirit (Galatians 5:19-24, Ephesians 6:12). We’ve got to conquer our biases, our deeply held impressions, our visceral reactions, for they are part of that thought process. And we need to be aware that others will be going through this experience as well, and shouldn’t expect the transmission of the Gospel to just be about objective pieces of information. Communication never is.
We also do well to consider the means by which the Gospel is communicated. Notice that the New Testament doesn’t say a whole lot about reading or studying; the focus tends to be on hearing and listening. This is appropriate for a time and place when most people were illiterate and scrolls were few and far between. Therefore, if you are an early Christian, odds are you could not read. And even if you could read, odds are you do not have access to all of Scripture, let alone in the various forms as we have it. So what do you do?
In such an environment, the public reading of Scripture becomes all-important; it’s the only way you get access to Scripture. If the reading is not done well, or worse, misread, you may come to believe that God has said something He has not said, or has not said something He did say. Not for nothing does Paul exhort Timothy to give consideration to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). Granted, in an aural culture, your mind is better able to retain the things you have heard read to you, which is good, because after hearing the reading and the exhortation on Sunday, that’s what you’d have to think about throughout the week until the next Sunday. Hence the Biblical exhortations in Deuteronomy 6:4-12 about having the Law be on your mind, in your conversation, etc.: it’s to be made a part of life. You might think about the reading while plowing the field, and perhaps you’d have a chance to put it into action by helping a neighbor as you walk home. The message heard on Sunday is thus not divorced from life; there is an expectation that it is thought about and acted upon in life.
We’ve seen an incredible shift in 200 years: not only has Scripture become so easily accessible, but literacy is no longer the privilege of a few. Such is not intrinsically problematic; it’s a great blessing to have constant access to Scripture. It seems that “studying your Bible” has become one of the defining religious behaviors of Christians. By listening to lessons you can easily get the impression that we should be there on Sunday, do the acts of worship right, not be a denominationalist, and go study your Bibles. Now, that sentiment is noble: the idea is that by going and studying your Bible, you’ll reflect more on it, and seek to put it into practice in your life. If people were to do that, such would be great, right?
But let’s be honest. Let’s even grant that people are studying their Bibles like they should. Are we honestly seeing the transformation that should be taking place? Are people effectively meditating upon what Scripture says and applying it to their lives? Also, as discussed above, how well is the average individual doing at understanding what he is reading? Who’s there to correct him in his private study if he’s made an inappropriate conclusion or application? Does he even engage Scripture with a view toward applying it to his life, or is he just trying to understand the text for understanding’s sake so he doesn’t sound like an idiot in Bible class and doesn’t gain the ire of the preacher? How has he seen Bible study modeled in the Bible class: is it an attempt to come to an understanding of what God is saying, challenging our thoughts and actions, seeking to apply it to the modern day, or is it just a weekly opportunity to utter the same stock phrases and platitudes and revel in how we have it all right and others do not?
Even beyond that, how is the person “hearing” the voice of God in Scripture in his head? Scripture is never dead words on a page. Remember that Scripture was meant to be read aloud: sure, it’s not Paul or Peter standing up there actually saying the words, but if we close our eyes and listen, we can hear the words of the Apostles speaking to us through the Scripture reader just like they were originally read to the Ephesians or Colossians or Christians of Asia Minor or whomever and wherever. It’s its own form of communion with the saints, the shared experience of hearing the words of God spoken before us. You just can’t get that experience from reading paper or an e-reader.
For that matter, what was preached in your congregation on Sunday? Maybe you remember it. Great! What about last week? The week before that? Last month? How often have the lessons spurred you on to greater meditation on Scripture and applying it?
Let none be deceived: it is not wrong to study Scripture. We encourage the study of Scripture! But how are we going about it, and what do we see in the Bible? In short, how could we blend the benefits of the ancient approach and the modern approach?
To that end, we exhort all Christians to take the public reading of Scripture more seriously. It’s one of the acts of the assembly and should be held in high esteem. Actually read Scripture; be willing to add drama to it, for it is a dramatic text! Make it more than a preface to the lesson; remember that whatever the preacher says, no matter how substantive or well-presented, is uninspired, but the Scripture reading is our chance to actually listen to and meditate upon the inspired message of God. We do well to provide an opportunity to think about a Scripture as related to the lesson and an application of it throughout the week to keep the message fresh and to bring the message into the regular life of those who pay attention. Personal Bible study can be good and profitable but it is not an end unto itself; we need to remember that for the first 1700 years of Christianity most Christians had no ability to engage in personal Bible study and God is not going to condemn them for it. Personal Bible study should lead to the same goal as the public reading of Scripture and the exhortation in preaching: to foster meditation on what God has said to us so that we have it actively in our mind so as to have opportunity to act it out in our daily walk and to do so. All the Bible study in the world, even becoming a “walking Bible,” is of no value unless it is lived, and it is the lived Christian life which should be elevated as the ideal religious behavior for all Christians, just as it is in Scripture (Galatians 5:17-24, Ephesians 4:1-6:18, Colossians 3:1-4:6, Titus 3:3-8, etc.).
Let us give appropriate consideration to the processes of communicating knowledge so as to most effectively promote the apostolic Gospel of Christ in the 21st century!
Ethan R. Longhenry