Imagine how Christine Bishop feels. She is head of Sutterton Fourfields School, in Boston, which came bottom of the Lincolnshire area league table for ‘value added score’. Yet the year before, the school was rated the most improved in the county.
Asked about her apparent failure she told the local newspaper: “The current figures are after a big influx of children into the school. We take in pupils regardless of ability – schools are about people, not about figures."
Bible and Theological Colleges take a lot of stick from those who think they know the sort of people they should produce. They see the colleges as a one stop training establishment to equip students for every kind of activity required for Christian ministry. Train them in leadership, preaching, counselling, pastoral care, leading every kind of service at every end of the age range; have a basic grasp of specialist ministries of evangelism, children’s work, youth work, and enough knowledge of the world to promote world mission. Oh and colleges should take every student through every book in the Bible too!
But as Christine Bishop found out – the quality of those graduating depends on the intake. Where are students starting from? Do colleges inherit students who have a good understanding about the Bible, upon which they can build? Or are colleges forced to do the theological ABC before they can get on to the meaty questions? After all, few students require any prior theological or scripture-based qualifications to enrol. But without a good grounding in the Bible it seems daft to expect training in the myriad of other skills to make any serious difference
I spoke to admissions tutors, deans and lecturers about the level of scripture knowledge they encounter in new students. Do new students know their exodus from their exiles (yes there were two), their Zechariah from their Zephaniah, and the contents of the books of Isaiah and Hezekiah? And what does this say about the wider level of Bible knowledge and understanding in the UK church?
Never read the Bible?
“Thank God for CWR,” I said to myself. “They have just saved me from embarrassing myself in front of 300 people.”
I was in my early 20s and a friend was preaching at Westminster Chapel, London. Having gone along for the ride, he asked me to do a testimony interview. Knowing it to be a place where ‘The Doctor’ preached (D Martyn Lloyd Jones, widely regarded as one of the finest preachers of the 20th century) and figuring I would be unlikely to get another chance to be in the pulpit, I somewhat nervously agreed. .
Early questions were easy – focusing on my Christian upbringing and how I came to faith in my youth. Then from left field came the question, “Do you believe in the Bible?”
“Yes,” I said, confidently.
“Have you read it all the way through?” A Jeremy Paxman-style probe if there was one!
“Yes, I have,” I was relieved to reply. CWR’s early ‘Cover to Cover’ studies had taken me through the whole Bible in a year, (though I might have taken over a year…)
My friend later explained that he had interviewed one person in a similar fashion who claimed to believe the Bible, but then had to admit that he had never read it all the way through. Phew - that could have been me!
But if I hadn’t read through all the Old and New Testament it seems I would have been in good company. David Firth an Old Testament Tutor at Cliff College, Sheffield, asks new students if they have read the whole of the Bible. “This is an exercise I have done in various parts of the world for the last 15 years,” he explains. “I have found that Bible knowledge in Britain is less than I have found in parts of Africa and Australia. Typically, about one in 20 students can say they have done this. If we go to the whole of the New Testament, then the response is about one in five. I've not yet come across someone who has read the whole Old Testament but not the New. Surprisingly, I normally find about one in 20 will admit to never having read the whole of any book in the Bible, even though they may use some daily reading notes (presumably those that are not too systematic).”
So chances are there will be quite a few that wouldn’t have spotted that there is no book of Hezekiah mentioned in the fifth paragraph of this article, though I’m sure you did...
Hazy on the Old
With these alarming findings, it is no surprise that other lecturers concur that the Old Testament is the least-known part of the Bible. Alison Yarwood, registrar at Nazarene Theological College, near Manchester, agrees with Firth: “Lecturers at the College tend to assume a fairly low level of Bible knowledge by new students who come to study here, although this is not always the case. However, it would be fair to say that in our experience the typical level of knowledge of the Bible by new students is quite low. In the foundation-level course units which all students take in their first year, it soon becomes clear that much of the material is new to them, particularly in relation to the Old Testament.”
“It soon becomes clear that there are gaps in students' knowledge - particularly in the overall story of the Old Testament and some of the epistles, says Dr Neil Hudson, vice principal at Regents Theological College, Nantwich, Cheshire. The understanding of the narrative of the Old Testament often peters out around the division of the kingdom and gets completely lost when the exiles and the return from exile is discussed.” All of which suggests that some students really don’t know their exodus from their exiles.
Those who struggle with elements of the Old Testament might of course argue that although not desirable, a student who is ignorant can at least be guided through its complexities by an expert. Indeed David Shepherd, principal at Belfast Bible College (BBC) explains, “The experience of myself and others here at BBC, suggests that when students are given a chance to experience the Old Testament, they begin to see not only that it has much to offer in and of itself, but also that it enriches immeasurably their appreciation of the New Testament and the story of God’s people as a whole. “
But maybe we have accepted too lightly an illiterate Christian public? It is hard to imagine people of other faiths, notably Islam having such a scant understanding and regard for its sacred texts, even if the Koran is 10% of the word count of the Bible (77,701 words compared to the 791,328 in the KJV).Andy Peck is the deputy editor of Christianity magazine.