The term biblical literacy, coined by theologian John Frame, refers to the ability to read the Bible well enough to know what it teaches about the Christian faith. This includes knowing how the Bible relates to the history of Israel, the Old Testament canon, the New Testament canon, and the Church.
Frame defines biblical literacy as having four components:
1. A basic knowledge of the Bible’s historical context, including geography, chronology, and political structure.
2. An ability to recognize key terms and concepts within the Bible.
3. Understanding how the Bible connects to the rest of the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament.
4. Having an understanding of the Bible’s theological themes, such as creation, sin, redemption, and eschatology.
According to a LifeWay study from 2017, only 11% of Americans have ever read the entire Bible, and only 9% have done so more than once.
Considering Reading Habits
And I believe it’s important for us to recognize that there’s no single way to read the Bible. For example, consider the various teaching methods educators use to convey concepts. Some people prefer to lead by example, while others prefer to ask lots of questions. Some people want to make sure everyone understands the big picture, while others focus on helping students connect individual concepts to the whole.
But here’s the thing: If we want to teach effectively, we need to be intentional about both what we teach and how we teach. Otherwise, we risk creating a classroom environment where students feel confused and disoriented rather than inspired and challenged. When it comes to reading the Bible, I find it helpful to have a few basic principles as a guide.
Here are the Four Facts For Gaining a Deep Understanding When Reading
1. The Bible is a library, not a book.
2. The Bible is written FOR us, but not TO us.
3. Never read a Bible verse.
4. All of the Bible points to Jesus.
Dan Kimball, How (Not) to Read the Bible
The Bible is a library of diverse books from many authors that have been bound into one book. These writings include history, poetry, prophecy, and law written in three different languages over a 1,500-year period by many different people from different cultures. Some books in this library were written more than a thousand years before the other books.
Kimball explains, “So when you go to the poetry section of a library and pull a book off the shelf, you would read it differently than a book in the history section. The way a history book is written means it is to be interpreted and understood quite differently than a poem. Keep walking through the library, and you’ll come to a section containing writings from Europe in the medieval period (around 900 AD).”
The Whole Story of the Bible
Many people misunderstand biblical passages believing them to be moral stories with nice characters. It’s important to keep in mind that from Genesis to Revelation, scripture tells a story of creation, fall and rescue, and restoration. Each small story fits into this big story. To be biblically literate, we must learn how every part of scripture fits into this story. God’s Word is much richer when the celebration of heroes overcoming failure. Biblical principles aren’t just stories about overcoming obstacles but are pointing us toward Jesus, who slays our greatest enemy — sin and sets a standard of how to reflect our creator through our words and actions every day.
Matthew 5:13-16 says,
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (CSB)
Rightly Interpret and Apply Scripture
The Bible still means what God initially intended. When Jesus died on the cross, He took upon Himself the sins of humanity. But He did something else too. He gave His life as a ransom for many people. The Old Testament says that the price paid for sin was death. But Jesus came into the world to save sinners – not simply those who had committed grave sins.
We cannot change the meaning of the Word of God. If we try to do so, we end up changing the truth. For example, we might say that “God loves everyone.” But this isn’t true, because some people are born blind or deaf or mentally challenged. They’re unable to hear or see or think. So how could God love them?
But we can’t stop there. Remember, never read a Bible verse! We must look at the entire passage. What does the writer mean here? Does he mean that God loves everyone? Or does he mean that God loves those who are able to hear and see and think? In fact, the answer is neither.
In reality, this verse doesn’t even speak about human beings. Rather, it speaks about the relationship between God and Israel. And the word translated “love” actually refers to covenantal faithfulness. God promised to give his chosen nation a land where they could live safely and prosperously. But this promise required obedience. Only those who kept God’s commands would receive God’s blessing.
This same principle applies today. God’s Word tells us that He wants to bless you and me. But this requires that we obey Him. As long as we keep obeying Him, He promises to bless us abundantly.
So let’s take it another step further. Let’s apply this principle to ourselves. Are we keeping God’s commandments? Do we love others as He loved us? Are we obedient to Him? Do we seek to honor Him above everything else?
If we truly believe that God’s Word is true, then we know that He really does want to bless us. But if we aren’t willing to obey Him, then we are rejecting the blessings that come through faith.
Memorizing Bible verses and the location of different stories won’t happen quickly. But as you read the Bible repeatedly, you’ll find your recall comes quicker as well.
If you’re unfamiliar with a passage or you are having a difficult time understanding the context, don’t be afraid to read it several times over the course of a week. The idea behind repeated reading is to take a text apart and put it together again. As you do this repeatedly, you begin to internalize the structure of the passage. When you encounter something unfamiliar, you recognize it because you’ve seen it before. Your brain begins to make connections between things you already know and things you haven’t studied. After a few weeks of repeated reading, you gain fluency. You no longer need to think about what you’re reading; it flows naturally.
In the same way, we must approach our studies of God’s Word as though we are starting from scratch. We must break down the passage into smaller units. Each unit becomes familiar territory. We become comfortable with the material. We develop a mental map of what we’re reading. Once we reach a level of comfort, we progress to the next unit.
This process takes some discipline. But once we adopt this practice, we find ourselves immersed in the Scriptures. Our minds are filled with the words of Jesus Christ. As you read, pray for God to help you understand the passage. Trust he is guiding your understanding. You can also try breaking down a passage using Priscilla Shirer’s 5 P’s.
Sometimes we need some outside help understanding the history, theology, and culture surrounding the biblical text. We have so many great resources at our fingertips today that it can be hard to know where to begin. A good place to start is with a commentary. An introductory section of the Bible will give you an overview of the author(s), date, and location of the book. You will learn about the context of the writing as well as how the book fits into the overall canon. You will also find out whether there are different versions of the same story.
If you have a study Bible, you might want to read the introduction to the book before you start your reading. This will help you understand who wrote the book and why he/she did so. It will also provide you with an outline so that you don’t lose track of what you’re supposed to be doing while you’re reading. And finally, I’ve found reading a chapter from one of the introductions to the Old Testament or New Testament to be very helpful before diving into my reading.
I’ve featured some of my favorite resources for reading deeper and strengthening literacy skills here.
Bible Literacy and Fluency Start with Careful, Curious Reading
The Bible is a large document, and there are lots of books within it. But what does it take to understand those books well enough to use them effectively? Most agree that reading for curiosity is a great place to start.
Choose a passage of Scripture that interests you—a story about Jesus’s birth, his teaching ministry, or the resurrection. Then look up several different translations online, including the Christian Standard Bible, The Message Version, the New American Standard Bible, and others if you prefer.
I found that each translation offered something slightly different. For example, the NIV had a helpful note explaining that the word translated “virgin” in John 2:1 actually refers to a young woman who had never been married. And the KJV makes clear that Mary Magdalene was a follower of Christ rather than his wife.
These differences will help you understand the text and consider the author’s intent when writing in their historical context.
When you have to do extra work to figure out what the original language means, you are increasing your overall standard of literacy. You may begin to explore biblical linguistics and the history of interpretation.
When we look at the Bible today, we often think of it as a single, unified narrative. But that wasn’t always the case. As scholars learned more about ancient languages, they realized that the Bible contains multiple layers of meaning. Some passages refer to events that happened thousands of years ago; others talk about contemporary issues such as slavery or gender roles.
Since the discovery of The Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have increased their understanding of many passages of Scripture. However, there have been many times where the grammatical context in the 21st century has limited our full understanding of the complex original presentation of the Bible.
This complexity helps us appreciate the Bible in ways that aren’t possible without studying the context. When we read carefully, we begin to see connections among seemingly unrelated stories, and that understanding leads to deeper insights.
Biblical literacy is a lifelong skill that we develop at our own pace. The wonderful part is that as we do so, we learn more about our Creator.
Want to Study the Bible with a Mentor? Start Here
As Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), we’re all called to “make disciples of all nations” wherever we live. God invites us to partner with him and live on mission every day, even in the mundane moments of life. We do this when we love people as Jesus taught the disciples to do, without stipulations.
Embracing Holy Interruptions: How Jesus Used Mundane Moments to Love People Deeply is a six-week Bible study that teaches people how to develop a disciple-making movement.
This is not a step-by-step instruction manual.
Jesus modeled using mundane moments to love people, build tension, and point them to God in a way that caused many of them to step from a curiosity about God to a fully surrendered faith. We can adapt his methods and learn from the examples in the Gospels today. This study aims to help people keep their eyes on Jesus and improve their inductive Bible reading skills while also learning to love their neighbors to the best of their ability. This 6-week study is available in both print and Kindle formats.