For the last four years, the Bible and theology department at Wheaton College in Illinois has studied the biblical and theological literacy of incoming freshmen. These students are intellectually ambitious and spiritually passionate. They represent almost every Protestant denomination and every state in the country. Most come from strong evangelical churches and possess a long history of personal devotion and Christian involvement (regular church attendance, youth groups, camps, missions, etc.). They use the Bible regularly—but curiously, few genuinely know its stories.
The Bible has become a springboard for personal piety and meditation, not a book to be read. These students very likely know that David killed Goliath, but they don’t know why he did it or that Goliath was a Philistine or who the Philistines were.
When asked to complete a test in which a series of biblical events must be placed in order, our students returned surprising results. One-third of the freshmen could not put the following in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ, and Pentecost. Half could not sequence: Moses in Egypt, Isaac’s birth, Saul’s death, and Judah’s exile. (Gary Burge)
This is interesting to me, because the problem with these freshmen (which I think I probably shared when I was that age) was not necessarily that they didn’t know these Bible stories. It was that the stories existed in totally separate compartments that had little or nothing to do with one another.
It’s like asking, “Put these Aesop’s Fables in chronological order:
- The Tortoise and the Hare
- The Fox and the Pitcher
- The Fox and the Grapes
When the primary—or, really, sole—point of a story is to picture and distill a moral lesson for life, chronology is immaterial. Who cares what order these stories come in?
Today we seem to want to teach timeless Christian themes that spring from [Bible] stories, while leaving the stories themselves behind.
But the stories in the Bible are not written primarily to teach moral lessons (though this is an important secondary point). The Bible isn’t mainly about humans and what they have done or ought to do; it’s mainly about God and what He is doing to redeem His fallen creation. So chronology is all-important. The Bible traces God’s hand through history, showing how He worked out His promise to crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3) and bless every family of the earth (Gen 12).
To know the Bible’s stories, you have to know the Bible’s story.