Baptists often refer to themselves as “People of the Book”. That is not unique to Baptists as far as I can see, and is applied both internally and external in describing many in the evangelical and wider fundamentalist protestant communities. It expresses a great intent.
This reminds me of a true story from the family of another believer. Their children attended the publicly funded elementary schools associated with another branch of the Christian faith (I won’t mention who). One day in class, a member of the religious order that oversees the school was querying the class about their church affiliations. The child in question responded that they were Baptist. The functionary responded “Oh, you’re the ones that believe the Bible literally“. Although the child was not sophisticated enough to respond appropriately, the response could have been an equally sarcastic “And your point is?”. Our Lord left us one concrete thing, His Word. Had he considered anything else either necessary or authoritative, He would have told us so. The point is clear…
Within the Baptist paradigm the Bible is considered the only authoritative User Guide in all things. Having said that, and bearing in mind the way that we describe ourselves, one would think that a great, if not inordinate, amount of time would be spent on the Scriptures. On the surface it might appear so, but is that really the case?
There is a significant difference between spending a majority of time explicitly in something versus talking about that same thing. It is my experience that the majority of time is spent talking about the Scriptures, and not reading or addressing them directly. I often think it might be more honest to describe ourselves as “People who revere and talk about the Book”. And that is a shame.
Go into most any Christian store and as time goes on you will see fewer and fewer copies of the Bible. At that same time, there will be many, many books voluminously addressing snippets of Scriptural verse. From the store point of view this represents simple marketing reality, but it also reflects the growth of the issue under discussion.
Now, someone is sure to comment that the Bible is simply too difficult and obscure for most people, and that they need a predigested form that shows them the way. Althougth there is some truth here, is that not what the Reformation was about? To refresh your memory (and admittedly state things very simplistically), the Reformation proposed that the Scriptures be available and read by the masses. It implicitly proposed that direct contact with the Bible was the intent of the Lord, and that the average person was supposed to read it. The dominant church of that time (and in many ways its derivative today) proposed that this was not the case, that it was a recipe for error, and that the interpretation and even contact with Scripture must be left to scholars. These scholars would dispense understandable devotions and such Scriptural snippets as might be deemed appropriate and digestible without causing havoc, confusion or distressing the masses.
Is the bottom line effect today really much different? The real difference seems to be that the evangelical church in many instances chooses to impose a pre-reformation paradigm upon themselves. Does the fact that there is an apparent choice involved change the actual situation or result? I don’t think so. It may mollify one to thinking that they are studying the Word when they are reading about it, simply because they have a choice. But the result is still that the majority of people are largely ignorant of the actual Bible and are dependent upon a professional class of interpreters. Seems pretty pre-Reformation to me.
It was pointed out to me recently (by a clergyman) that if one was to go back 100 or 200 years within the Protestant church movement in general, they would likely find that Biblical knowledge and interest therein would be notably higher overall. If that is true, and even a brief look are historical church writings would seem to indicate that it is, then we are in fact accelerating towards the past.
Does this mean that commentaries, devotionals, and the like are bad? Not at all. But it does mean that in our complacency and laziness we are letting one of the primary freedoms of our faith slip quietly away. We are in fact embracing the past. After some time (and this is already evident in any church lobby) many believers can not now or will not be able to remember the actual Biblical truths and foundational support verses. They will still likely appreciate them experientially or emotionally, but without being able to articulate the reasons or basis. In that situation, what will happen when a stronger worldly stimulus arrives? Even more, what will happen when the time of tribulation arrives?