"For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord." (Hab. 2:14)

What is “Biblical Literacy” and Why is it Important?

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“Biblical Literacy” describes the ability and motivation of people to read the Bible with sufficient understanding so that they can explain its basic meaning, having sufficient knowledge and skill to use resources that enable them to discern the basic meaning of a biblical text. It includes the ability to apply this discerned meaning, i.e. biblical wisdom, to contemporary life. Biblical literacy only attains its full potential when scriptural truth (i.e. wisdom) is applied for salvation and shalom individually and collectively in Canadian society.

Much of Canadian history and culture expresses the influence of biblical story and ideals. Western culture in general, whether music, literature, jurisprudence, or philosophy reflects biblical influence. When biblical literacy declines in the culture in general, people no longer recognize or appreciate this influence or have access to this wisdom, considering it irrelevant or unimportant or just ignorant of its existence and value.

Hermeneutics related to the Christian Scriptures generally refers to the methods, presuppositions, and theoretical aspects of exegesis and interpretation that, when applied to the biblical text, enable individuals in their particular contexts to understand, communicate and contextually apply its meaning reliably and consistently.  It gives attention to canonics, linguistics, semantics, literary aspects, historical/social contexts of text and reader, contextualization (culture past and present), communication theory, theological methods, understandings of the text through history, and the spiritual development of believers. Where translation occurs, this too becomes a hermeneutical reality.

The relationship between theology and hermeneutics requires careful definition.  There are moves back and forth between theology and hermeneutics, in that each must inform the other. Theology defines the guidelines which set the boundaries for our hermeneutics (i.e. concepts of canonicity, the role of the Holy Spirit, the centrality of Jesus Christ as “The Word”, the relationship between the “ekklesia” and the proclamation of the word, the connection between the Holy Spirit, the Word and sanctification, the moral absolutes of the Ten Words of Exodus 20, etc.). These valued, theological principles enable us to discern what issues now in our cultural setting require further investigation and clarity. Hermeneutics is part of this set of theological principles that help generate clarity by defining appropriate presuppositions and methods, i.e. how we proceed to exegete and apply God’s word, and to philosophical matters, i.e. the nature of communication, human ‘being’ and ethical behaviour, the nature of language and religious language per se, etc.

The hermeneutical framework promoting biblical and theological literacy in this proposal is specifically “Evangelical” because it operates on the basis of, but also in critical interaction with the framework of Evangelical theology.[1] For example, an “evangelical hermeneutic” would operate with the theological premise that while there are two distinct sections to the canon, there is an integral and essential unity that must be recognized. However, the second section of the canon will exercise some direction for the interpretation of the first section because of the progression in divine revelation and in particular the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, Son of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It will be a Gospel-centred hermeneutic. The English term “Evangelical” borrows from the Greek word euaggelion, which we normally render as “gospel.” So an “Evangelical Hermeneutic” by definition must seek to expound and apply the “Good News” revealed by God “in various places and times and through various people” (Hebrews 1:1-2), but now inscripturated in the biblical canon[2]. It also centres upon Jesus because he is both content and communicator of God’s new Kingdom revelation. Because it is “Gospel-Centred”, it will also be salvific, eschatologically-oriented, ethically dynamic, culturally prophetic,  and ecclesial-creating.

While ecclesial tradition is respected, biblical principles have priority in defining contemporary understanding of the Gospel and its incarnational expression in the church. Scriptures define and evaluate our traditions.  We recognize that we engage Scripture as part of a Spiritual community that spans geography and time, united by the effective work of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly not all of God’s truth is revealed in the Bible. Common grace requires us to presume that God enables humans to discern truth as they exercise their God-given faculties in scientific research, inventiveness, and observation.

Northwest’s ministry is embedded in a group of churches that identify themselves as “Evangelical Baptist.” Thus it is critical that we serve as a resource for these churches to help their people develop a mature, biblical literacy. In part this means the Centre will seek to  help them discern the nature, methods, and appropriate results of an evangelical hermeneutic coherent with their theological affirmations. Failure to do so will result in a failure of mission. The more effectively the Centre can serve as such a resource for this group of churches, the better able it will be to serve the global church.

We also recognize that our ways of understanding Scripture change because we and our culture change. As culture raises new and different questions, this requires us to engage in a fresh evaluation of Scriptural truth and to reconsider other hermeneutical “givens.” It is also the case that from time-to-time new discoveries of manuscripts or other artifacts throw new light upon ancient texts. And we recognize too that the growing multicultural reality of our Canadian churches will bring new voices that will speak into the hermeneutical task.

In the end, unless this discerned biblical wisdom and truth finds direct application in individual and communal contexts, the exercise fails to accomplish God’s intention.

As Northwest is able to establish the Centre for Biblical and Theological Literacy, it is our hope that a significant part of this vision can be realized.


[1] Key theological commitments, within the framework of theological orthodoxy expressed in the major creeds,  generally thought to define “Evangelicalism” would include: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed by encounter with the Gospel and the activity of God’s Holy Spirit; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort empowered by the Spirit; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible authority and inerrancy; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the centrality of Jesus Messiah to the mission of God in the world;  a belief that the local church is the primary means by which God’s Kingdom is being expressed in this age.

[2] Here ‘biblical canon’ refers to that set of biblical materials normally regarded as canonical within Evangelical Protestantism.

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