Do you have to read the Bible to be a good Christian?

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Not far from where I live is a towering stone monument to one of the greatest figures of the English Reformation. It's just east of the M5, at North Nibley in Gloucestershire, and it commemorates William Tyndale, the Bible translator whose work formed the basis of the King James Version.

Famously, he told a hostile clergyman: "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!" He paid for his passion with his life.

The Bible was the foundation of the Reformation, as Christians sought to cut through the centuries of theological dross that had accumulated around it. Preachers analyse it to a minute degree. We're encouraged to read it every day and to memorise it if we can. Every word is precious; great theological battles have been fought over 'inerrancy' and 'infallibility'. There are well-resourced organisations whose sole purpose is publicising and translating the Bible around the world. Protestant Christians are expected to 'know their Bibles'. 

You can't possibly be a good Christian if you don't read the Bible.

But there's a problem with that, and here it is.

Most Christians, throughout most of history, have not had Bibles of their own. And if they had, they wouldn't have been able to read them.

It's a simple matter of history. Up to the invention of the printing press in about 1440, books were hand-copied or printed laboriously off woodcuts. Books of any kind were expensive, and the Bible fabulously so – far beyond the reach of ordinary people. The notion that every Christian might have a Bible of their own would have been ludicrous.

In the very earliest days of the Church, copies of the letters of Paul and the Gospels would have been circulated around the churches and treasured by them. But Christians wouldn't have had their own copies – and they wouldn't for at least another 1500 years, and probably much longer.

And, of course, the other problem was literacy. If you don't have books, you don't need to read. Monks and priests could read, but the mass of English peasantry couldn't.

So were these people worse Christians than we are today?

Did a human technological advance – Gutenberg's invention of the printing press – result in Christians becoming more spiritual?

At one level, we might say that it did. The Bible is full of treasures for us. It would be foolish to deny what God gives us in its pages. It feeds our souls and it witnesses to Christ. What we know about him we know because the Bible tells us so.

But knowing most Christians haven't had Bibles ought to make us pause. Either we can say we're better Christians than they were – problematic and a bit arrogant – or we can ask how they lived without them, and how they sustained their spiritual lives.

So perhaps we have something to learn from our ancestors. Here are four things Bible-less Christianity might have to teach us about being Christians.

1. Our ancestors were fed through worship. Attendance at church gave them a rhythm of prayers and songs that sank into their hearts and formed their characters. Constant repetition of the liturgies gave them a spiritual foundation that served them well. It helped them think and act spiritually.

2. They heard the stories read. The fact that they didn't have their own Bibles didn't mean they were ignorant of the Bible. If they had conscientious priests, they would have known what the Bible said – not in the detail that we know it today, but the broad sweep of it. They knew the stories, even if they were vague on the subtle details of Paul's theology. They understood the main thing, which is that God loves us and Christ died for us, even if they might have been hazy about the detail.

3. They were part of a Christian community. And it's worth remembering that the Bible was designed to be read aloud, and heard by the people rather than just being a private experience. The parts of Scripture these communities knew were shared. They could talk about them and understand them together.

4. They knew they had to act. One of the perils of focusing too much on the Scriptures and not enough on the Lord of the Scriptures is that we forget that our faith is about what we do, not just what we think. In Mark 12:18-44, Jesus engages in verbal jousting with the Sadduccees. Then he warns his disciples against being taken in by them: "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the market-places, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets..." Then he offers a counter-example: the woman who puts two tiny coins into the Temple offering, "all she has to live on". Today, we can spend a lot of time reading our Bibles and accumulating knowledge about the ancient world, and still not do what Jesus said.

Is this an argument for doing without Bibles? Of course not. But it might encourage us to think a little harder about the other ways in which God speaks to us and builds up his people, and it might stop us being too hard on those who don't find Bible reading easy. God will always bless those who seek him, and he doesn't always need a book to do so.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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