In the introduction to the State of the Bible USA 2021 report, John Plake, Director of Ministry Intelligence at the American Bible Society, suggests that we might be asking, “Where is the Bible needed most?” He says, “It’s a good question.” So what’s the answer?
Drawing on the history of the American Bible Society and the church in America, Plake suggests the Bible is needed most “where it’s not available … where people are hurting … and where wisdom is in short supply.” He also submits that the data from the State of the Bible research indicates that the Bible is needed to help Americans face their “challenges with hope and resilience.”
Plake’s suggestions may be good PR, but they’re bad theology. While it’s true to say the Bible is needed where people don’t have access to the Bible, by people in pain and needing comfort, by people who lack knowledge, and by people seeking courage, these reasons are not the main reason people need it.
This is not a sidebar issue. What we believe the Bible is, directly relates to where it’s needed most.
Here’s my concern: Plake wittingly or unwittingly downgrades the Bible to something less than God intended it to be. The Bible is more than a therapy manual (moralistic therapeutic deism) and more than a sourcebook to glean understanding (Gnosticism). Providing succour for suffering, sorrow, or sickness is not the primary focus of the Bible. Countering ignorance or increasing what Plake calls the “short supply” of wisdom is also not the primary focus of the Bible. Nor is contact with the Bible (accessibility) the chief reason why the Bible is needed. Access to the Bible (Plake considers access a “human right”) is not a freedom that belongs to every person in the world, and it’s not a biblical injunction.
So what is the main reason people need the Bible, and where is the Bible needed most? Jesus is the reason, and where people don’t have Jesus is where the Bible is needed most.
Bible engagement is about Jesus engagement. People need to receive, read, reflect, and respond to the Bible to connect with Jesus. This is the principle belief and primary doctrine of Scripture engagement. The theme of the Bible, from the beginning to the end, is Jesus. He is the theme of the Bible because He’s what people need most.
In other words, wherever people don’t know Jesus as King and aren’t citizens in His kingdom is where the Bible is needed most. The main reason why people need the Bible is that they’re separated from God. Being healed, or finding answers to life’s questions, is secondary to being saved and sanctified. We must be unequivocal on this point: The Bible is needed most by people who don’t know Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” John 14:6.
Practically this means atheists, agnostics, animists, nones (people who say they have no religious affiliation), fence-sitters (people who view Christian faith favourably but haven’t committed themselves to Jesus), secular, and religious people need the Bible most. That’s not to say that Christ-followers don’t need the Bible as much as those who don’t follow Christ. It’s simply a recognition that those who are furthest away from Christ are usually the ones who are furthest away from His Word, and therefore the ones who need the Bible the most.
[Note: I highly value the work and ministry of the ABS and the Bible societies worldwide and have many friends who serve in these agencies. This to say that this article is not a criticism of the ABS per se. It is, however, a brief review and critical analysis of the introduction to the State of the Bible USA 2021 report. As such, it’s consistent with our biblical responsibility not to believe everything we hear and to carefully weigh and examine what people tell us (1 John 4:1). Hopefully, I’ve done this tolerably.]
© Scripture Union Canada 2021