There are many aspects that are foundational to the development of Western civilization. It emerged over many generations and many places. In order to understand it, we have to think about those foundations that were laid down.
Most historians would agree that the earliest influences in Western thinking came to us from the Greeks. Consider the influence of Greek culture on how we think and what we do. Whether it’s politics or architecture, mathematics or medicine—the way the ancient Greeks pursued knowledge, and the results, have come down to us today. In turn, when the Romans conquered the Greeks, they added their own stamp. Their ideas have also greatly influenced us: the notion of empire; the development of several European languages from Latin; certain building and engineering practices; forms of administration, law and agriculture—all come to us from ancient Rome.
Overlaying these Greco-Roman foundations is another that has come under a lot of abuse in recent times. The influence of the Bible on Western culture is well known but increasingly avoided, even trashed.
In the case of the English-speaking world, the Bible framed a couple of very important developments: an enlightened government and, eventually, human rights. A key player was Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon king. Alfred became one of the most influential English rulers, earning the title “Great.” Like Charlemagne, whose example he probably followed, Alfred was a scholar king who knew the value of learning. Concerned about his people’s ignorance of God, he ordered the translation of religious works from Latin and encouraged the nobility to read and write English. Alfred was equally dedicated to justice for the weak and dependent. One of his most far-reaching decisions was to codify laws based on those given to Moses in the book of Exodus. This became the basis of English Common Law and Magna Carta, setting down principles that were in turn transferred to the New World, becoming fundamental to the Constitution of the United States.
What Alfred was able to achieve in his 28-year reign was the reintroduction of values-based learning, and for a while he partly broke the grip of the Dark Ages. Today we may be on the verge of a similar time of ignorance of things biblical, another kind of dark age.
Craig Evans is a respected author and university professor. I asked him about the state of biblical knowledge among the general public. His reply was troubling, in that he suggested that even believers, who claim to live by its principles, are becoming more and more ignorant of what it actually says.
“A generation ago you could assume that the general public had a basic understanding, you might say, of the biblical narrative—the basic story of the Bible. You cannot assume that now.”
Evans: “A generation ago you could assume that the general public had a basic understanding, you might say, of the biblical narrative, the basic story of the Bible. You cannot assume that now. Not only in the general public but in most congregations—church congregations—the biblical illiteracy is simply amazing. So people who regard themselves as Christians, they hardly know what is in Scripture. And that is the big change, in my view, from the last generation to where we are today.”
But what has happened is not just an increase in biblical illiteracy; the problem goes deeper. Over the past 150 years, basic biblical truths and values have come under attack on all fronts. The influential thinkers of the 19th century—men such as Darwin, Marx and Freud—put forward such convincing falsehoods that most today cannot believe that humanity had a Creator. Instead we’re told that blind and random chance fathered us to live out desperate lives of competition for survival at the mercy of our unconscious minds.
And there are other reasons for the decline in biblical understanding. Contributing to the problem is the growth of skepticism about God and any thought that there might be absolute values. Much of the biblical narrative has been trashed for no good reason.
I asked Craig Evans why we should listen to the skeptic rather than the believer.
Evans: “I don’t know. The skeptic doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The sad thing is that a lot of believers don’t know what they’re talking about either. And so it’s a toss-up between two groups arguing about things they don’t know very well. But the skeptic, I find, is either arguing from a personal perspective—it’s autobiographical, a problem relationship with a parent or something, a personal tragedy, a divorce or something that’s happened, but it’s not well rooted in either the evidence or the facts—or it’s not well argued. Unfortunately, for a lot of Christians, they can’t see through that either, and the way they respond to that is hardly better. That concerns me, and that’s why I believe that we’ve got to get past this postmodern, irrational, subjective thing and get back to the idea of “You know what? It’s good to be informed.” We need to know what’s really going on, what the actual evidence is, what really is there so we can sit down, study, look at and understand what it is.
That’s exactly what we encourage on this website, vision.org. Here you’ll find many articles, books, videos, and even a study course dedicated to overcoming biblical illiteracy. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t believe in God because I know nothing about Him.” It’s not enough to say, “I’m skeptical about God because I haven’t read or studied His book.”