Practical Application of the Word of God
Several years ago, I read a book – The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Post-Modern World, by Arthur W. Hunt III – that made a lasting impression on me as it discussed how low and high rates of literacy (the ability to read, write, process, understand and apply) throughout humanity’s history has impacted the actual history.
One of Hunt’s main points is that God wanted and expected His people to be literate.
Hunt points to the 10 Commandments in which visual images to depict God or to worship – which were extant in the Egyptian culture that God had delivered Israel from – were expressly forbidden by God.
Words that God spoke, on the other hand, were repeated over and over and commanded to be taught and written and remembered and applied from the beginning of scripture to the end.
I am in the middle of reading another book – Masters of the Word by William J. Bernstein – that shows how the development of language (alphabets, words, reading, and writing) and advances that made wider accessibility to literacy available have paralleled the course of major events in human history.
This book is an excellent companion to Hunt’s book. My major complaint with Bernstein’s book is that he subtly interjects – at least in the beginning – his subjective opinions (which I disagree with) into what he expressly states is an objective history.
I also completely disagree with his premise in the forward in which he states that humanity is more literate now than ever before and that has kept the dystopian society that George Orwell portrayed in 1984 from ever developing.
The reality is that we are, more than ever, in the grips of dystopia that Orwell presaged and the world is in a second iteration of the Middle Ages, where literacy was almost non-existent and power and control was centralized in a very small and elite group of people at the top of a very elaborate hierarchy.
Human institutions mirror the structures around them, so it is no surprise to see institutions, businesses, organizations, and man-made religious organizations following this pattern of structure and power and control.
To understand the modern redux of the Middle Ages and its inherent risks to us as Christians, we must first look briefly at the literacy and illiteracy in original Middle Ages to discern both the parallels and the distinctions of each one (how they originated is different in each).
The first Middle Ages – generally accepted as spanning from the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. to Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492 A.D. – was a time characterized by almost non-existent literacy among most of the western world’s population.
The single, small, elite and only literate group of people that positioned itself at the top of human hierarchy was the Catholic Church, which ruled the Middle Ages with an iron fist.
Literacy gave the Catholic Church control and power over the rest of the western world.
Educational opportunities were limited to nobility and children of wealthy people – who were often not literate – who generously supported the Catholic Church financially.
The purpose of education was not to learn, but to be steeped in Catholic dogma – the theological foundation of the Catholic Church was not the Bible, which most Catholic clergy had never actually read and knew little to nothing about, but instead the ideas, opinions, and decisions made by the “church fathers” – and go into Catholic clergy.
The Catholic Church said it alone – and generally this meant only the top brass in Rome – could interpret God, speak for God, understand God, and communicate with God.
In other words, the Catholic Church hierarchy were the only ones on earth with access to God and special knowledge and understanding that God wouldn’t share with any of the little people.
Additionally, the Catholic Church alone could decide – for a price – who had favor with God and who didn’t.
In this way, the Catholic Church made an illiterate western world completely dependent on them for everything, including salvation. In effect, it had absolute power from cradle to grave and over life and death.
Power and control were reinforced by fear: of disfavor, of death, and of damnation. Because death, in particular, was by gruesome and unfathomable means, for most of the first Middle Ages there was little dissent against the Catholic Church.
Beginning in the 14th Century, a mere three literate people would, over the next 150 years or so, not only lead the challenge to bring widespread literacy and the Bible as the word of God and the authority – instead of the Catholic Church – to whom humanity was subject to the the entire western world, but would also, at great personal cost and peril, stand up the egregious errors and rampant corruption within the Catholic Church.
Even in the Middle Ages, Latin was a “dead” language with its use – and understanding – limited to the Catholic Church, scribes (who did all the writing), and the educated clergy.
In the western world, most of humanity had their own unique languages and they did not understand Latin at all. This was one of the means of control that the Catholic Church wielded over the general population.
Wycliffe saw in the Catholic Church the opposite of what he read in the Bible: a politically-grasping hierarchy that had nothing Christian or godly about it.
Wycliffe began attacking both the practices and the doctrines of the Catholic Church using the word of God against the religious hierarchy.
Wycliffe came to understand that the scriptures were the only reliable guide to the truth about God. Wycliffe said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy.
Wycliffe also strongly maintained that all Christians should rely solely on the Bible rather than the teachings of popes and clerics for spiritual truth.
He decided, therefore, to translate the Bible into English and teach people how to read it so that the English populace could know God themselves and know what He expected of them.
Because Wycliffe’s translations preceded Guttenberg’s printing press, which made disseminating vernacular versions of the Bible infinitely easier, Wycliffe handwrote his English translation and taught other people who taught other people, which is how his version began to permeate the English population.
Needless to say, none of this put Wycliffe in the good graces of the Catholic Church and it fought vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to suppress all of Wycliffe’s tracts, which detailed where and how the Catholic Church was wrong, and his Bible translation.
However, after Wycliffe’s death of natural causes, astonishingly in light of the Catholic Church’s Inquisition (this was not an event or series of events, but one of the primary functions of the Jesuit order) being fully in place by this time, more than a century would pass before another highly-visible challenge to the actions and doctrines of the Catholic Church would emerge.
It came in the early 1500’s when the German Martin Luther (1483-1546) attacked the greedy hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Pope Leo X issued an edict to the clergy in 1516 to focus solely on selling indulgences – a method by which the Catholic Church said that the punishment for sins could be reduced (not scriptural) – in every contact with the church’s members, including sermons. The purpose was to raise money to build what is now St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Martin Luther protested this edict and refused to comply, both because it was in conflict with the Catholic Church’s own dogma and because it was in conflict with scripture.
This led Luther to study the Bible intently and he, like Wycliffe, became convinced that the word of God had sole authority over humanity, not the Catholic Church.
Luther benefited from Guttenberg’s printing press in gaining a wide audience for both his voluminous tracts against the practices and doctrine of the Catholic Church and his translation of the Bible into German, so that his fellow Germans could have a Bible they could read and understand.
Because of the proliferation of printing presses around Europe and the advances in the process and materials used, which made printed materials affordable for everyday people, Luther’s Bible quickly became available throughout Europe.
Although the Catholic Church’s attempts to suppress Luther’s writing and Bible version were ultimately unsuccessful, many people died horrific deaths because of them at the hands of the Inquisition in the Church’s attempt to control and retain power over the people by fear.
This spark by Luther, who also astonishingly escaped the Inquisition and died a natural death, initiated what became the turbulent and violent – mostly at the hands of the Catholic Church – Protestant Reformation.
Luther had an English contemporary, William Tyndale (1494-1536), who stood up against the spiritually ignorant hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Tyndale, who became a clergy member after college, was appalled that older clergy around him, who had also graduated from college, had clearly never read the Bible. Many didn’t know how many commandments God had given nor did they have any clue where to find them in the Bible.
As appalling to Tyndale as their complete ignorance of scripture was their dogma: “the Pope’s laws are more important than God’s laws.”
Tyndale realized that his countryman were not being taught spiritually, so he also undertook an English translation of the Bible (unlike Wycliffe, Tyndale was able to finish his version) and the mission of literacy for the common man.
Unlike Wycliffe and Luther, who died natural deaths, Tyndale was executed on the orders of the Catholic Church and his body was burned post-mortem.
We are now in an emerging modern Middle Ages where the literacy rate among the general population is shrinking. Remember what literacy encompasses: the ability to read, write, process, understand and apply.
Technology has replaced literacy – most of society has chosen to be illiterate because they are just going with the flow – with all its bells and whistles (visual imagery) and quick answers (even if they’re wrong, everybody just accepts them as right).
True literacy is now limited to a shrinking minority.
Like the clergy in the Catholic Church, religious organizational preachers don’t read deep nor widely (skimming is not reading and it is not literacy) and more and more they are teaching organizational dogma instead of God’s word. But they are presenting the dogma as being from God.
This includes misusing, twisting, and skewing biblical words to their own purposes.
An example that drives me crazy every time I hear it is “doctrine.”
Paul tells Timothy that all scriptural is profitable for doctrine (in other words, the entire Bible is doctrine).
Religious organizations, on the other hand, use the word to mean a list of things they purport to believe. This is an example of deceit.
And most of their audiences accept it hook, line, and sinker without ever questioning it, thinking about it, testing it, or proving it against God’s word.
As Christians, we cannot afford to be illiterate. Our salvation depends on us, with the help of God’s Spirit, being able to read the Bible, process the Bible, understand the Bible and apply the Bible.
Because the shift into societal illiteracy is more subtle this time around (it looks like people are literate on the surface, but they are not and ignorance abounds), very few people have recognized it’s happened. But we must know that it’s happened and it will get worse.
Religious organizations will again hold all the power and control and their dogma will be the only truth. If we, as Christians, do not remain and grow in our literacy especially in God’s word, we will be swept up into believing things that are totally false and totally contrary to God’s way, God’s law, and God’s word. Christ warned us of this in Matthew 24.
This is already happening. Every time we accept anything without running it thoroughly through the filter of God’s word as to whether it is true or false, no matter who says it (including me on this blog), then we are on the path of illiteracy and, if we do not correct the path, religious deception.
We must be immersed in God’s word continually, asking God without ceasing to renew His spirit in us and use His spirit to teach us and give us wisdom, understanding, discernment, and ability (knowing is not enough; action matters) in how to apply His word in every part of our lives.
James, in his letter, uses the phrase “the implanted word.” This is something I pray for because something that is implanted is put there – in this case, by God – and is not temporary, but a permanent part of the person.
God’s word can’t be a permanent part of us if we’re not studying it, but instead, with no excuses like the general populations of the original Middle Ages had with regard to language, we’re ignoring it, too busy for it, and/or choosing to have human words, opinions, and ideas that are not tested and proven to be true implanted in us.
We must wake up. If we’re still reading our Bibles, which I don’t see a lot of evidence that most people who claim to be Christians are, then it would be prudent to read and consider these scriptures (this is just a sampling) as they apply to each of us individually:
These scriptures apply just as much – even more, in my opinion – to us today as to the ekklesia they were written to originally.
If we willingly choose to abandon our literacy (because literacy takes time, effort, diligence, and quiet – all of which our society increasingly lacks and loathes), then we have no one to blame but ourselves for being deceived.
Choosing literacy and choosing to remain faithful to God, Jesus Christ, and the word of God may mean we will have to stand alone. All alone. Like Wycliffe, Luther, and Tyndale, we may have the whole world against us – including those who claim to be Christians.
It may mean, at some point, that we lose our lives. It’s important to remember three things about this life.
First, we’re going to lose it at some point anyway. Second, death is protection from anything further physically. And, third, there are many, many things that are a whole lot worse than death.
Are we ready to go that far? Are we willing to go that far? That is what we agreed to at baptism, that we would go all the way, no matter what.
I certainly didn’t really understand that at the time, and probably neither did you. But that was our promise to God and Jesus Christ.
We know they keep and will keep all of their promises to us. Will we keep our promise to them?