Does John Piper overplay literacy and diminish the glorious power of sermon-centered missions in oral cultures. It’s a pushback from a podcast listener named Miles. “Pastor John, my wife and I have our lives on the trajectory toward doing Bible translation as a career, so I’m in no way suggesting that I think the Bible is unimportant. But when I think historically of the practice of believers prior to the advent of the printing press, and when I think globally about the millions of believers who don’t currently have the Bible in a language they can understand, it seems that our American evangelical ideal of Christian discipleship might be too dependent on assumptions about literacy and access to cheap copies of the Bible. There was a video of you, Pastor John, on Facebook (April 19), and you said: ‘You don’t have a chance against the devil unless you know how to read and understand God’s word.’ This statement was obviously not intending to convey that people without access to Scripture are hopeless, but I think it reflects to some degree what I’m getting at here. Literacy is obviously a good thing, but have we made it a test of genuine faith and obedience?”
I’m really glad for this question, especially to correct either a misunderstanding of what I said or to correct a misstatement of what I said (like, I mean, I made a mistake, not anybody else). The whole issue of orality in missions has been an issue for me for about twenty years or so. I’m really glad to say some clarifying things about it. First, let’s make some missiological observations and then some biblical observations.
It’s a plain and important fact that there are several thousand languages in the world that do not have complete Bible translations. The exact number right now is not important for the point I’m making. Just the fact that there are any is the point that I’m making.
Those languages have real people who speak them, people that need to believe on Jesus Christ in order to be saved from the wrath of God. Some of these people speak only that unwritten language rather than a trade language in which the Bible exists. Many of them are not yet able to read at all. That’s one fact.
Years of Labor
Another fact is that translating the Bible into a language often takes many years, sometimes decades. It seems to me patently clear that the people who are without Christ should not have to wait until they have a Bible in their own language in order to hear the gospel, to be saved, to be disciples, form churches, and grow in grace and in knowledge of the Lord.
“Christianity is not magic but a historical reality mediated through inspired writings and believed by the Spirit.”
That implies that someone who knows the Scriptures, either because they can read or because someone else told them, must speak. They must speak orally. They must speak the gospel to the people groups so that they may believe and be saved and grow in grace.
Therefore, the last thing I want to do is discourage missionaries from penetrating people groups who are preliterate as if evangelism and discipleship were not possible until the people have their own written copies of the Bible, or have the ability to read for themselves.
We take people where they are and give them what we can, and we do it as soon as we can. I don’t doubt that God, in his mercy through the faithful, oral teaching of the Scriptures, can grow for himself mighty devil-defeating saints.
Defeating the Devil
What I said, or at least what was heard, is wrong. What did I say? I said that you don’t have a chance against the devil unless you know how to read and understand God’s word. If I said that, and I didn’t put any qualifiers around it, then I’m just plain wrong.
What I mean by qualifiers is that I hope I said or implied that if you can’t read the Bible for yourself, you have to depend on somebody else who can read the Bible. Reading is essential because, in fact, without the word of God — I’m going to say this — without the word of God, we cannot defeat the devil.
Let’s be clear. A new convert who believes the gospel and cannot read can defeat the devil. Got that? I’d say it. A non-reader who’s preliterate can defeat the devil, but he can only defeat the devil by faith (see 1 Peter 5:9). But faith flourishes by the word of God. As Romans says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
If a person can’t read, he’ll be dependent for his devil-defeating power to be fed the word by somebody who can read or has been taught by somebody who can read. Christianity is not magic. It is faith in a historical reality mediated through inspired writing and believed by the power of the Spirit.
Speaking the Gospel
Now here are the biblical observations I had in mind when I said missiological observations and biblical ones. Here are three. I’m so glad to hear that Miles and his wife care about Bible translations because that really clues me in to where they’re coming from. They don’t want to minimize the necessity of oral dimensions of discipleship, which is what I’m trying to rectify here.
1. The apostle Paul said in Ephesians 3:4, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.” This is absolutely astonishing. Paul is the inspired representative of the risen Christ, and he’s been given profound insight into the mysteries of Christ. He says, “by reading.” It’s a participle; he says, reading. By reading, you can join him in spiritual perception of divine reality.
“When the written word of God is in your hands, you hold a treasure better than tens of thousands of gold pieces.”
Nothing could elevate reading more highly than that sentence. All of us should want that for ourselves and want it for everybody we can help. The priority of reading is huge. Christianity has always been building schools and building hospitals wherever they go.
2. The second biblical observation is that the words of the Lord are true and righteous. Psalm 19:10 declares, “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” Or Psalm 119:72, which says, “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.”
In other words, to possess the words of God is a great treasure. To be sure, somebody who can’t read, but has the word of God stored up in his heart orally, is better off than a literate person who has a Bible, and it just sits on the shelf collecting dust. But when you are holding the written word of God in your hands, you are holding a treasure better than tens of thousands of gold and silver pieces. Every Christian virtue I can think of inclines me to want others to be able to hold it in their hands as well and read it.
3. The last biblical observation would be to simply observe that paternalism of missionaries over new churches and the breeding of perpetual dependence in younger churches is something to be avoided like the plague in missions. As long as we have the Bible, and we are the readers, and we are the teachers, and they don’t have the Bible, and they don’t have the teachers, and they can’t read, they’re in a position of dependence, and we’re in a position of power and control. That should not go on indefinitely. This is what has lamed so many younger churches over the centuries: a perpetual dependence on outside influence for the understanding and teaching of the word of God.
My conclusion is, by all means, give the gospel. Let’s give the gospel to preliterate people as soon as we can. Let’s not postpone disciple-making until a written Bible is available in their language — even in our own culture, if there are people who, for various reasons, are not able to read or find it very difficult to read. I remember asking a young man one time, “What are you reading?” He’s about 30 years old. He said, “I don’t read.” I said, “You mean not even magazines?” He said, “No.” I thought, “What a revelation.” There are people, who either by disposition or dyslexia or other kinds of things, just don’t read. They don’t ever read.
We must not neglect those people. We must not. We must be about the business of strategies of disciple-making. We do what we can do, for nobody lives by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes.