II Timothy 3:14-17
Until very recently, literacy has been a rare thing. According to the U.N., in 2015 the global literacy rate among adults was 86.3%. In 1970, that was only around 67%, and if you push back to the year 1500, in England only about 10% of men and 2% of women could read. That seems to have been about the same overall level as in the Roman Empire, although the fact that Roman ruins often show graffiti suggests that the ability to read was spread across classes, like any other skill. After all, if you can afford a slave to read to you, why waste the time learning to do it yourself?
But there were scattered groups for whom reading was important on a level that lifted it above other abilities. One of those was the Jews. They had, like everybody else, their own alphabet and their own way of writing. It had developed, as other writing had developed in the Middle East, for religious purposes. Eventually, when successive empires sent them into exile, they took their writings with them and they eventually translated some of them into the common Greek language that was used all over the Mediterranean world.
It was that version of the collected books that we now call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures, in a Greek translation, that one Jewish convert to Christianity named Paul, born in the Roman city of Tarsus in what is now Turkey, recommended to a younger Jewish follower named Timothy, born and raised in a similar background. For the Greeks and Romans and others, to be able to read was useful. For Paul, it was a tool to reach out to God, and to be transformed.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
[II Timothy 3:14-15]
What you can learn from that book, he was saying, can open your mind and prepare you for an encounter with Jesus that will change you for good. That doesn’t rule out those who cannot read, but if you can read, and have this library of books on hand, you have a head start.
Not every book is the same, and they don’t all serve the same purpose. There are legends and there are histories. There are love poems and there are war chants. There are lists of people’s ancestors and there are instructions for priests working at a temple that was destroyed long ago. There are ethical instructions and there are stories about some exceedingly unethical people. There are declarations of despair and prayers of thanksgiving or expressions of hope. But when you take them all together, and let them sort of stew together inside you over time, they form a rich nourishment for human life lived in the presence of God himself.
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:16-17]
It’s one of those rich ironies of God that the letter where Paul said that, along with a lot of other writings being set down around the same time, give or take a generation, would themselves come to be considered in the same way and treated with the same respect.
The strong intellectual tradition of Greece came to mingle with that originally Jewish tradition of honoring the scriptures to create the whole stream of Christian theology. A thousand years later, an Italian living in England, Anselm of Canterbury, said that theology is “faith seeking understanding”, and it was Christians living in that Greek culture who had set the early example. Start with faith. Start with the living experience of the living Savior, then use all your mind’s resources to understand his love. You’ll never entirely succeed, but the effort itself is part of getting to know him and keeping the relationship fresh and exciting.
The Greeks who played a large part in the earliest centuries of the Church’s life knew how to do that. The Creeds that we still honor are their efforts to put into words the mystery of God’s being, and to explain how it is that he has come to us in Jesus, and acts among us in the Holy Spirit. They hashed them out through long and sometimes heated controversies, always coming back to the scriptures to test what they were saying, those scriptures being
“the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” [II Timothy 3:15]
Studying the Bible is a discipline that keeps our encounters with God in daily life alive. Real study isn’t trying to pile up facts or sound learned. Real study is honest evaluation of ourselves and our world in a way that keeps us from living entirely in our heads or entirely in our emotions. The Bible deals with complex humans and a complex God in a balanced and complete way, and forces us to do the same thing. A theologian trained in philosophical technicalities might warn us not to put God into a box by saying:
“the ambiguity of religion shows its effect on these processes of reductive profanization, just as it shows its effect in the center of religious self-transcendence.”
But if you want to remember that point, if you want to learn humility before the Lord, you go to Isaiah [55:8-9]:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Even Jesus, when tempted to misuse his power, turned to what Deuteronomy had said about finding guidance beyond ourselves. In a moment of both spiritual and physical vulnerability, he remembered,
“It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
We should do as well. We, who are blessed to be able to read those words, should know them.
So, said a first-century evangelist educated both in Greece and in Jerusalem:
“as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
[II Timothy 3:14-15]