Too Much Bible

What I’m about to write probably won’t make me popular among churchgoers.

I grew up with an open Bible near me virtually my entire life, hearing on many occasions the KJV command to “study to show thyself approved” and the story about the “noble” Bereans who studied the scriptures daily. Although I didn’t have a word for it at the time, I was taught by example to be a textualist—that is to say, to interpret the Bible with an extreme emphasis on it’s actual text without regard to outside sources. Later, however, I would appreciate how extra-Biblical sources help develop a more complete meaning of many scriptures. Branching out this way has exposed me to the mountains of existing Biblical commentary.

Yet, something bothers me about all of this. Let me be clear, it is not the fact that people write commentary on the Bible. Instead, what bothers me is that the story of history is a story of overwhelming illiteracy. Even at the height of the Greek and Roman empires respectively, literacy was the exception. If studying shows that you are approved, what happens to people who can’t read? (the overwhelming majority of all people in all history). I refuse to believe that receiving an education is a component of salvation. As readers of the Bible, we struggle with interpreting things from an American perspective. We subconsciously assume that the people we are reading about went to school like we did. They didn’t.

So allow me to present an argument that, if it doesn’t excommunicate me, might label me as a heretic: Bible study is way overrated; we study the Bible too much.

I do not mean that you should throw away your Bible. I do not mean that you should avoid going to your small group. I do not mean that you should never learn the Bible or even that you should discontinue reading if you have learned it. I do mean that what we need to know for this life and the next is not complicated. Once you learn it, spending hours and hours with your nose to a leather-bound Bible will not get you closer to God. Once you have learned the word of God, you will either act on it or you won’t.

When Jesus came to the Earth, he was very critical of the religious leaders who characterized their lives by study. Obviously, he wasn’t critical of them because of their knowledge; Paul was brought up among the Hebrew religious leaders and knew the Torah and the the writings of the prophets backwards. Instead, Jesus and other New Testament leaders were critical of them for their pride.

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Jesus

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” The Apostle, Paul

Further, the Bible seems to treat the most knowledgeable with seemingly the most precise and unforgiving scrutiny. James warns: “Not too many of you should become teachers . . . because we who teach will be judged more strictly.” To a religious group called the Sadducees, when asked a nit-picky, legalistic question about remarriage according to the Torah, Jesus answered demeaningly, “You don’t know the scriptures.” Yet to a criminal who was crucified next to Jesus, a man who lived in sin his whole life until the day of his death, and who did nothing more that confess his sinfulness, Jesus told him that they would see each other in Heaven. Did that man know 1/1ooo of the scripture known by the Sadducees?  No chance.

One scripture in particular would seem to directly cut across my argument.

“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Apostle, Peter

This is where it is important to for me to precisely state my case. The word of God is life and an utterly dominating universal power. You really do need to know the word of God: illiterate people in the Bible had to hear the word and incorrect teaching had to be corrected. However, whatever Peter meant by increasing your knowledge has to be interpreted within the narrative of an illiterate humankind. Further, I’m not convinced that studying the Bible over and over is the best way to add to your knowledge. Until you see and experience love, you will never know what that word means.

Perhaps then, our lives need to be characterized by more doing rather than more studying.


9 thoughts on “Too Much Bible

  1. Interesting!

    “Perhaps then, our lives need to be characterized by more doing rather than more studying.”

    And more listening. When you can’t read, you talk. As a person who is married to an old school “lecturer” kind of professor, I can attest to how much can be learned just from hearing, especially if the presentation is well presented. (Which I’m going to go out on a limb and guess was the case for the Sermon on the Mount.) What makes the written word important is that it gives you an account of what was said if you couldn’t be there. But like emails and texting, it isn’t as completely communicative as face to face. I think that’s one of the reasons that those of us who weren’t there are blessed (John 10:29) So, I’m voting for talking to each other about what we’ve read, talking about Jesus’ story to those who haven’t read it, and talking to God, even if I only hear my half of the conversation.

    Thanks, Chris. I enjoyed thinking about this for a bit!

    • Very true. My experience is there’s no one spiritual experience. We learn a lot by hearing the testimony of others. Granted, you don’t really have much of a testimony if you’re entire Christian experience is in Bible study.

  2. I’m currently studying for a year and a half in a biblical institute…and by no means would I excommunicate you for this ideal, much less label it as heresy. The number of churches that have been established in the world has increased dramatically due to more people that have “studied” the Bible and are therefore “qualified”. Curiously enough, the number of believers has increased ever so slightly in comparison…and your “too much Bible” concept, explains two commonplace problems of the Church today, known as legalism and division.

    Studying the Scriptures is essential, without a doubt. But action is at the very least as important as studying itself. If anything, the more Scripture you know and learn, the more you should be doing out there, glad to know some people are (finally) getting the message…

  3. Dan S. says:

    I’d say I’ve seen much more reading, less thinking. Letting someone tell you what to do/think/believe is much easier than thinking and discerning for oneself. The problem is that only one of those two ways lets us grow and mature in a positive way. I would argue that reading the Bible with our ingrained assumptions on the one and only way to interpret them (that is, the way our parents, family, and local church have always interpreted them) debilitates us from thinking about and figuring out God for ourselves.

  4. MelancholyDane says:


    I’m not sure that I’m clear on exactly what idea(s) you are reacting against (perhaps a suggestion that one should interpret the Biblical text without the aid of learned Biblical commentaries? The notion that somehow studying the Bible contributes to one’s acceptance with God?) Neither of these are true, of course. But at the same time, I’m also not sure that your suggestion that “we” study the Bible too much is correct, either.

    In your post, you ask permission to present an argument. I’m not clear on exactly what your argument is. An argument is a set of statements, at least one of which (i.e., a premise) gives support to another (i.e., a conclusion). Your conclusion is crystal clear, namely:

    (C): We study the Bible too much.

    But what facts do you put forward to support this conclusion? You mention the statistical normalcy of illiteracy throughout history. Is this supposed to provide support for the conclusion that we study the Bible too much? If so, then how does the argument go?

    (1) Most people throughout history were illiterate.
    (2) Illiterate people cannot study the Bible.
    (3) ?
    . . .
    (C) We study the Bible too much?

    It’s not at all clear to me how the fact that most people throughout history could not read the Bible gives support to the idea that we should not read the Bible as much as we do. Surely your argument is NOT an argument from popularity: Most people do (or don’t do) X; therefore we should do (or should not do) X.

    Is this where your mention of the notion that studying the Bible gains one’s acceptance with God comes in? Could your argument really be motivated by the seeming injustice in the notion that if one gains acceptance with God by studying the Bible, then this is unfair to those who are illiterate and cannot study the Bible? Is your argument one about the nature of what God’s justice must be like? –If so, then consider this: how do we know what God’s justice is like without reading/studying the Bible as best as we can? That is where we discover what God is like, who God is, and what God has accomplished for us. Isn’t it by studying the Bible more, not less, that we can be best prepared to counter false ideas about what God is like? (This is, in fact, very close to what Paul was exhorting Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:15-16, where he tells Timothy to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”)

    Another thing that worries me here is that it seems we might have gotten the cart before the horse, so to speak. The fact that you and I are literate is due to the literacy movement of the 18th and 19th centuries—which was itself motivated by the desire to enable more people read the Bible!! (And that’s not to mention people like John Wycliffe, men who were persecuted for their belief that all people should have the privilege of reading the Bible in their native language). So it is very hard to see how the fact that most people throughout history have been illiterate gives us a reason to read the Bible less than we do. To be frank, while I’m convinced you do not mean it this way, the suggestion comes across as ungrateful or at least as historically absent-minded.

    But, in any case, I look forward to reading your comments and any further clarifications.

    • MelancholyDane,

      Thank you for coming to my site. I appreciate very much the work you put into your response. I hope to have you back often.

      You make a valid point that I don’t adequate identify my audience and that probably explains much of the way you interpreted my writing. My argument is targeted at Christians who have a mature understanding of the word of God. Obviously, part of acquiring a mature understand includes reading and studying the Bible. So the argument I make is directed to people who are at that point (and I believe it is many more than other do).

      You were correct in identifying that part of my argument has to do with God’s justice. That is implicit in my statement: “I refuse to believe that receiving an education is a component of salvation.” However, I notice in your discussion that you are not attacking my thesis that we study to much. Instead, you switch arguments to suggest that I’m saying we don’t need to know the Bible. I make it explicitly clear that that is not the case. We must know God’s word.

      My concern is that people who have read the Bible and are familiar with it continue to study study study and to what end? To study more? My experience confirms that that is exactly the case, that we go to Bible studies and feel like we have accomplished something because we went to a Bible study.

      I’ll take your word for it that the literacy movement was motivated by a desire for more people to be able to read the Bible. I don’t see why that should be given more weight that the many many more people who couldn’t read. Don’t get me wrong, literacy allows more people to become introduced to the Bible and that’s great. I’m not sure that that has any implications for people who have a mature understanding.

  5. MelancholyDane says:


    You say:

    “. . . what we need to know for this life and the next is not complicated. Once you learn it, spending hours and hours with your nose to a leather-bound Bible will not get you closer to God. Once you have learned the word of God, you will either act on it or you won’t. . . .”

    What do you mean by “learn”? If by “learn,” you mean (1) mere cognitive awareness of what is revealed in Scripture,” then that is one thing. But if by “learn,” you mean something more like (2) a personal trusting/reliance on what is revealed in Scripture, that is something altogether different.

    The first one is easier (which is not, of course, to say that it is easy), if only because it is presupposed by the second one (one must know that something is before one can trust in it). This is the difference between mere noticia (intellectual assent) and fiducia (trust/reliance). Even the demons have the first (see James 2:19) and tremble. This is relatively uncomplicated, as you say (which is not to say “easy). But surely this alone is NOT sufficient for “what we need to know for this life and the next,” as you say. Surely the faith/reliance of the kind that Abraham had (see Romans chapter 4, especially verses 20 and 21) is necessary, too. While also seemingly uncomplicated, this is nevertheless not easy to “learn.” It goes against everything in us–all our attempts to find our own stability and security in our own resources.

    The reason I bring this up is that it seems to me that the way that one “learns” to trust / rely on Christ (as opposed to simply intellectual “learning” about what Scripture teaches) is very much a function of reading, studying, meditating upon, and trying to appropriate in one’s daily life what God has revealed about who he is and what he has accomplished for us, as revealed in Scripture. Believing (“learning”) in this sense is a task for a whole lifetime. And I don’t see how one can do this without constantly trying to conform one’s thought life to reality as it is revealed in Scripture.

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