Berding, Kenneth. Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves To One Book. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2013. 121 pages, paperback. ISBN 978-0-9891671-3-0.
Correcting deficiencies of the contemporary church has been the focus of a number of recent texts. Deficiencies found in need of correction have included a “gospel” that fails to properly emphasize repentance and tangible obedience as evidences of genuine conversion and failure of professors of the faith to commit themselves to a local church (the latter failure being among the sinful inclinations I must sometimes struggle against, I admit.) Kenneth Berding’s Bible Revival takes on an additional deficiency, probably the most central of all: failure to commit to the Bible as required by its status as God’s own words. Berding laments: “Christians used to be known as ‘people of one book.’ Sure,” he admits, “they read, studied, and shared other books. But the book they cared about more than all others combined was the Bible. They memorized it, meditated on it, talked about it, and taught it to others. We don’t do that anymore, and in a very real sense we’re starving ourselves to death” (16).
The book comprises six chapters and two appendices (reviewed individually below). Excluding the preface and appendices, each chapter ends with a suggested or model prayer (for confessing, and for requesting God’s assistance in correcting, ways in which one falls short of the scriptural ideals set forth in the chapter) and review questions (to encourage reflection upon, and application of, the material). Though the author is an academic (New Testament professor at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology), he intends the book for a general Christian audience, considering it “ideal” for small groups and for individuals seeking “to be stirred and guided into a greater commitment to the Bible” (12).
In chapter 1 (15-28), “A Revival of Learning the Word,” Berding contrasts past eras, when believers mastered Bible content and memorized whole passages, with the present, when many professing Bible-believers show (as polls indicate) little interest in learning more than what little they’ve picked up through casual interactions and past church attendance. After presenting the problem, Berding reflects upon possible causes (such reflection forms the important “Digging Deeper” section of each chapter). The causes he suggests include “our commitment to fun” (distractions), failure to prioritize Scripture reading and study (spending “More time watching television than reading/studying/memorizing God’s Word,” for example), mistaken belief that one already knows enough Bible to get by (I myself know a few Christians who prefer reading secular novels because they find the Bible too familiar in too many places), and “The Pretext of Being Too Busy” (failure to make time for the Bible because doing so isn’t “easy”). While the suggestion that a working unwed mother should consider sleeping less to make time might strike some readers as extreme and unrealistic (if sleep deprivation is really the only way to get to one’s Bible, I think it’s time for outside help from one’s congregation), the chapter as a whole is quite sound and edifying.
Chapter 2 (31-45) addresses the need for “A Revival of Valuing the Word.” As evident from chapter 1, Christians today do not value the Bible the way they should. Why? Berding suggests that the problem is that Christians today doubt both the Bible’s sufficiency (“All things needed for life and godliness are here in the Bible”) and its clarity (“All things needed for life and godliness are clear in the Bible”). (For Berding, one should note, “life and godliness” here means “to come to salvation [and] live a God-honoring life”; he does not assume that Scripture can satisfy all forms of idle curiosity or provide all information needed for every worthwhile activity.) Berding provides an overview of what Scripture claims about its own sufficiency and clarity, identifies some cultural influences that weaken Christian trust in these qualities of Scripture (general distrust of authoritative texts, tendency to assume that existence of multiple “interpretations” proves lack of clarity), then “digs deeper” into widespread failure of Christians to value Scripture as the clear and sufficient divine utterance that it is. This “digging” suggests these important problems Christian must seek to correct: a “self-sufficiency” inclining us to follow our own judgment, even to the point of challenging Scripture’s sufficiency and clarity when Scripture’s apparent solutions don’t match our own; simple lack of awareness of what the Bible teaches (Berding tells of how one young couple he knew only became aware some time after converting that their living together outside of marriage was unbiblical); and failure to perceive what a Bible text one is reading clearly teaches (a species of “lack of awareness,” possibly motivated by a desire to persist in some sin). (The situation with the unmarried couple who lived together highlights how truly post-Christian our culture has become. Apparently, this couple was able to reach marriageable age never having encountered, in movies or books or television or personal interactions, indication that Christians and their Bible condemn cohabitation outside of marriage. Whereas past generations of unbelievers made everyone aware of the Christian viewpoint by mocking it, today’s unbelievers have apparently moved on to ignoring it entirely.) While Berding’s refusal to explain what “because of the angels” means in 1 Corinthians 11:10 disappoints my idle curiosity, this chapter is sound overall and will benefit readers.
Chapter 3 (47-60) suggests that the key to “A Revival of Understanding the Word” is more general and careful application of five essentials of biblical interpretation, namely: attention to context, awareness of literary category or genre, care to take into account differences between one’s own culture and that of the Bible’s writers and original receivers, attention to what other scriptures (and Scripture as a whole) say on the topic of any specific passage one happens to be reading (“Allow Scripture to interpret Scripture”), and keeping “the big story” of divinely-planned redemption through Jesus Christ in mind during all one’s reading and study. What factors already mentioned might be causing Christians to neglect these essentials? Berding sees three: shallowness or superficiality (taking for granted that a passage means what it seems to mean taken in isolation rather than checking the passage and its context; people, myself once among them, do this constantly with Isaiah 55:8, I note), “An Attitude of Superiority” (sticking to and defending your use of a “proof text” even when shown context and cross references cast that use into doubt; I’ve found 2 Peter 3:9 widely subject to such resistant proof-texting), and the assumption that correct understanding of a biblical passage should come “easily” or “instantly” (rather than doubting Scripture’s clarity, as the error of a prior chapter, this error assumes “clear” must mean “easy”). This chapter, though good, does contain one noteworthy annoyance, a misleading and unfair parenthetical: “In 2 Timothy 2:14-16,” Berding writes, “Paul challenges Timothy to ‘do your best’ or ‘be diligent’ (not ‘study’ as the King James Bible [KJB] translated it)….” This suggestion of translator error misrepresents matters. Not only was “to make an earnest, concerted effort” the meaning of “study” when the KJB was translated (Melvin Elliot, The Language of The King James Bible [New York: Doubleday, 1967], 188), but “to apply oneself; endeavor” remained acceptable usage at least until 1999 (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, electronic edition, v. 3.0 for 32 bit Windows systems [Random House, 1999], s.v. “study”). I know from my own seminary study that contemporary New Testament professors find it very difficult not to censure the KJV at every opportunity; they can only be true to their training. The censure in this chapter, however, has no warrant (though it does rightly point out a misunderstanding some have of the passage).
Chapter 4 (63-76) seeks “A Revival of Applying the Word.” A basic point of this chapter is that proper interpretation (see chapter 3) is essential to correct application; the prevalent tendency to “apply” Scripture subjectively (I suggest calling this “reader response application”) must be rejected. As Berding “digs deeper,” he identifies three contributors to poor application in our day: influence of “special interests” (coming to Scripture with axes to grind, such as political agendas), “therapeutism” (treating the Bible as a source book for meeting one’s own “felt needs”), and failure to depend on the Holy Spirit (“when you read the Bible, you should approach it with openness, availability, and the recognition that you need the Holy Spirit to show you how to think, respond, and act,” not assume that your own efforts at interpretation, however essential, are sufficient by themselves). Not everyone will find Berding’s discussion of “special interests” wholly satisfactory. For instance, that “the Bible nowhere explicitly speaks to the role of the government in regulating economics” will seem to some far from sufficient reason not to seek out what may rightly be inferred (by “good and necessary consequence”); some, in fact, may accuse Berding of doubting Scripture’s sufficiency in an area of godly living where it in fact is sufficient. This quibble aside, the chapter remains useful, meriting study and reflection.
Chapter 5 (79-91) calls for “A Revival of Obeying The Word,” urging us to join Berding in learning “to bend [our] will[s] in submission to the One who inspired the Book,” even when that means we must “believe God’s Word rather than [our] own intuition,” seeking always to obey “(1) quickly, (2) without argument, and (3) with the right attitude.” Contemporary Christian reluctance to obey God’s Word can be traced in part, Berding’s “digging deeper” suggests, to (1) sentimentality (reading Scripture just for its emotional effects upon one, such as to appreciate its beauty without striving to understand and apply what it says), (2) avoidance (sinfully finding excuses for putting off or pretending ignorance of something we have seen Scripture requires us to do), (3) “thinking we have a right to decide” (behaving as though, in spite of having accepted Jesus as our Lord, we may legitimately do other than what he, through Scripture, orders us to do), and (4) some of us who claim the label “Christian” not in fact knowing the Lord savingly. This is an excellent chapter; I find the following passage particularly quoteworthy: “It is true that the Bible….was written first and foremost so that we might come to know God through Jesus Christ. But when the Bible calls us to action, that call is authoritative….We do not have the right to decide whether it suits us to obey.” (Readers familiar with Verbal Advantage may wish Berding had spoken of our reluctance rather than “our reticence to obey” God’s Word. Alas, this insult to the historical meaning of “reticence”—reserved, reluctant to speak—has been popular long enough to be listed in dictionaries as permissible even back in 1999 [Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1999 electronic edition, s.v. “reticence”].)
Desire for “A Revival of Speaking the Word” is the burden of chapter 6 (93-106). Far from being just a call to “proclaim the gospel,” this chapter calls Christians to make conversations based upon and related to Scripture a pervasive part of their everyday lives, whether interacting with coworkers and other “secular” acquaintances, with family members, or with fellow Christians. Drawing upon some recent scholarship by his colleague Joanne Jung, Berding suggests that today’s Christians might do well to reappropriate the Puritan practice of godly conversations (“conference”) as an intentional means of edification. In “digging deeper,” Berding finds the popular error of setting “speaking” and “showing” in opposition (“Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words”), as well as the similarly prevalent misconception that speaking about Scripture is a job that should be left to paid ministers, noteworthy contributors to the problem. If you’re a Christian in the job market who has had other Christians repeatedly urging you to tone down and obscure your Christian convictions, involvements, and education in order to more easily acquire work in our post-Christian culture, you may find this chapter will help you feel superior while remaining unemployed. This is not Berding’s intent and I’m sure he would disapprove, but it works for me. Thumbs up for chapter 6.
Finally, the appendices. Appendix A (109-111) suggests that “The Easiest Way to Memorize the Bible” is to read over the material a bunch of times before beginning the rote memorization process. This isn’t quite the level of memorization ease one would expect after noting Berding’s association with the Sing and Learn New Testament Greek study aid (back cover). Where are the musical mnemonics for mastering chapter outlines or other information that would make memorization easier? Also lacking is any emphasis on the need, or at least advisability, of committing to a specific version of the Bible before embarking on a program of English Bible memorization. (Even if one knows and will be memorizing the original languages, one must still choose a text before beginning word-for-word memorization. Will one use the latest critical reconstruction? Or does one prefer something traditional?) While persons focused just on learning doctrine and mastering overall content might continue utilizing an assortment of English Bibles, persons wishing to begin memorizing passages verbatim may find the use of multiple Bibles a less than ideal approach. In fact, the prevalence of divergent English wordings in our Bibles might be among the factors discouraging word-for-word memorization, might it not?
Appendix B (113-14), “A Method for Attaining Bible Fluency,” is essentially an advertisement for the “Bible Fluency” learning program Berding and his publisher are working on. This program, which will include “materials…accessible electronically free of charge” and should be available in summer 2014, will “equip Christians to recognize and locate the Bible’s 400 most important events, characters, and themes.” This sounds like it will be a useful resource, but we who lament the state of the church (and of ourselves more often than not) may have little reason to hope this latest resource will turn things around. Great resources for Christians hungry to learn and grow (and strong enough to turn away from the empty but ever-pleasing effusions of our entertainment culture) are already legion: the Trinitarian Bible Society (numerous free articles online, plus Bibles and printed materials for sale; of special interest to those who care most about scriptural authority), the Answers in Genesis (AiG) and Institute for Creation Research (ICR) Web sites (much free material; regular discounts on materials for sale; Scripture-honoring perspective), Chapel Library (sound free material, primarily reprints of older literature), Grace to You (freely downloadable sermons dating back as far as 1969; articles; stuff for sale), Biblical Training (free seminary-level courses; evangelical mainstream), and doubtless others. The same technology that has made it possible for any who wish to entertain and/or corrupt themselves during every waking minute outside work has also made it possible for all Christians who wish to learn and grow to do so to the limit of their God-given potentials. (The addition of secular resources like Coursera, Udacity, and MIT Open Courseware make this all the more true. If there are areas of knowledge relevant to your Christian walk or calling that Christian sites don’t cover, you can probably find whole college-level courses available free whenever you need them.) While the New Thought idea that anyone can become anything one has the desire and will to become has never been more than a delusion (kept alive by biased selection of personal success stories confirming the belief), technological advance has made the delusion more nearly true now than ever before. Though certainly a welcome addition, the Biblical Fluency site will be just a drop in a growing ocean (or, at least, a very large lake) of resources. If only the church’s current shortcomings were due to a lack of resources! In fact, however, good resources are so plentiful as to be intimidating, which intimidation may contribute to Christians’ joining both in pop cultural escapism and in broader society’s shortening attention spans. (Pop culture itself has nicely illustrated the poor-focus-on-too-many-things aspect of the contemporary scene with the image, repeated in numerous movies and television shows, of a person trying to monitor many televisions set to different stations all at once. Then there’s Twitter.)