As a young evangelical convert, I learned three things right away: God commands us to pray and read our Bibles every morning (the quiet time), if we listen closely enough we can hear direct revelation from God apart from Scripture (the still, small voice of 1 Kings 19:12), and when we are converted we ought to come forward at the altar call to make a profession of faith. Indeed, though our congregation was Southern Baptist, which is a direct reference to one of the two divinely instituted sacraments, our two functional sacraments were the quiet time and the altar call. Baptism was a second blessing and the Lord’s Supper was a third blessing.
In this essay, I wish to address the quiet time. At the outset, let me say once again that I am entirely in favor of daily prayer and Bible reading. Indeed, in our Heidelberg Catechism we ask and answer:
Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.
Prayer is the chief (i.e., the principal, the first) part of thankfulness. In short, there is no such thing as a Christian who does not pray or a Christian who impenitently refuses to pray. I did not write “there is no such thing as a Christian who struggles in prayer.” Indeed, the converse is true. All Christians struggle in prayer.
Problematic Proof Texts
What about Bible reading? Never in the history of humanity has it been easier to read Scripture. We have it on our devices (our phones, tablets, computers). To refuse to take advantage of the great blessing of sound translations, printed Bibles, and online Bibles would be monumentally foolish. But is it sin? Well, that is a more difficult question than it might seem. When I was first taught the Christian life, my teachers quoted Mark 1:35 as proof that it is required that Christians should rise early to pray daily: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (ESV). Now, we certainly learn by example and it might be that this is an implied command by example, but using our Lord as an example is more difficult than it might first appear. Let us go back toward the beginning of the gospel of Mark. What do we see? He first appears in the Gospel in his baptism (1:9–10), standing in the Jordan, where he was sprinkled just as the high priest was sprinkled (Nu 8:5–22).1 He was beginning his priestly ministry. I am not a high priest and certainly not the high priest. Jesus is. Then, in the next two verses, we see Jesus confronting and being challenged by Satan. Again, this belongs uniquely to Jesus as God the Son incarnate, to do battle with Satan as the Messiah and Mediator of the covenant of grace. We could go on this way. Jesus calls disciples. I am a disciple, not the Messiah who calls disciples. He heals a man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21–28). This belongs to Jesus, not to a mere Christian. Then he heals more and casts out more demons (1:29–34). This is the context for Jesus arising early to pray. To be sure, one need not be God the Son incarnate to rise early to pray, but why did God the Spirit inspire Mark to record that verse? Was it intended to be used as proof that every Christian is obligated to rise early to pray? If we are going to treat Mark 1:35 that way, what about the previous verses and passages in Mark? I am confident that you see the difficulty.
Where exactly in Scripture do we find an explicit or implicit command to read the Bible daily? The verb “to read” occurs relatively infrequently in the New Testament. Jesus could read. The Scribes and Pharisees could read and they argued with Jesus about the correct interpretation of Scripture (e.g., Matt 12:1–8). 1 Thessalonians 5:27 illustrates for us how most Christians would have accessed Scripture: “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (ESV). One of the few literate people, probably the minister, read the Scriptures to the congregation. We see this in Colossians 4:16; Ephesians 3:4; 2 Corinthians 1:13 and 3:4. In each of these cases the Scriptures are being read (or are to be read) by a literate person to the illiterate congregation. No one in the Apostolic Church was commanding everyone to go home and read their Bibles every day. Such a thing was impossible.
The Historical Problem
There is another problem. Virtually no one in the first century, when Scripture was first given, first copied, and first delivered by hand to the various churches, had opportunity to read Scripture for himself. Very few people could read. Even fewer could afford to hire a copyist to make a copy of a book of Scripture, which is all of the New Testament that would have been available. It might have been possible for a literate person to see the Torah scroll (i.e., the text of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures read in the Synagogue), but it seems unlikely that every literate person in a village or town could go visit the synagogue each morning to read it. Even were this possible, it seems unlikely that the synagogues would have permitted a flock of literate Christians to do it.
Before the invention of the printing press (1439), copies of Scripture remained relatively inaccessible and unaffordable. Literacy was relatively unusual. Universal literacy did not occur until some time in the 19th century or perhaps not until the 20th century. Scripture began to become more widely available in print through the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, but it did not become easily available until the 19th century, when printing became mechanized. In other words, had a preacher, prior to the 19th or 20th centuries, said to most people, in most places, “read your Bible every day,” it would have been an impossible condition to fulfill.
These are just historical facts and facts matter. Thus it is difficult to understand the force of some recent comments (on Twitter) by a well-known pastor who wrote, “To be honest, the whole ‘most Christians across history didn’t own Bibles’ rebuttal to daily Bible reading is a bit silly … unless people really want to discuss—and adopt—the myriad alternative practices that saints across history used (with rigor) to internalize the scriptures.” No, it is not silly, unless history and good exegesis are silly and they are not. I agree with him, in part, when he writes, “But I don’t think Bible reading legalism is our generation’s big problem; I think we tend to be mostly allergic to the very discipline and rigor that marked those pre-Gutenberg disciples.” It is true that our biggest problem may not be “bible reading legalism” but I do think that, in some quarters, it is an issue.
I wonder what this writer has read that leads him to think that every lay Christian in antiquity was as rigorous about hearing and meditating on Scripture as he seems to imagine? Certainly, there were monks who were rigorous but not all monks would have been—that is why they were monastic rules and those rules were not always consistently enforced. We should not indulge in romanticism about the past. Christians before our time, including those in the pre-Gutenberg era, were not necessarily more sanctified than we are.
Did Christians memorize Scripture in the pre-Modern period? Certainly, they did. Should we memorize Scripture? Yes. Did all Christians memorize great chunks of Scripture? I am unaware of evidence proving that most pre-Modern lay-Christians had the leisure to memorize, from hearing, great portions of Scripture. That began to be more possible when more people began to become literate and when they began to have access to the Scripture in printed form.
What This Means
The significance of this discussion is that we need to be precise about what we require of our brothers and sisters. The plain truth is that there is very little evidence from Scripture that God has commanded Christians to read their Bibles daily. When we impose such commands on people, as if that command was self-evident, we risk making the Christian faith seem arbitrary. We have a right to obligate Christians to that which is clearly revealed or implied in Holy Scripture. The biblical case for daily Bible reading is thin.
The practical and prudential case for daily Bible reading is much stronger. Our problem is that we are not satisfied with this categories and thus we put ourselves in a bind. We want the best for other Christians and we believe that it is best for them, for their spiritual maturity and sanctification to pray and read Scripture daily—and we are right. The problem is that we jump too quickly to law. Before we make a law of daily Bible reading (or the daily quiet time) we ought to stop at the categories of practice and prudence (wisdom) first.
Is it foolish to refuse to read Scripture daily? Most certainly. It is a poor practice not to take advantage of the riches available to us in God’s Word? Absolutely. To fail to make use of the Word of God, to feed one’s souls, to study it, to meditate on it, and to memorize it is to deprive one’s self of one of the greatest blessings of the Christian life. It is like refusing to eat.
Why would a Christian refuse? Well, let us go back to the monastery for a moment. Consider those monks who lived for decades under harsh, even inhumane conditions in monasteries. Imagine them hearing Martin Luther at the Heidelberg Disputation (1518). Imagine that they realize that they are being held captive under a series of man-made laws and under the law before God for their righteousness. Imagine the freedom they felt upon being released from ungodly, unbiblical, man-made monastic rules. The Reformation is replete with such stories. Those ex-monks suffered from a kind of PTSD. They labored with false guilt for not adhering to the the vows they had made and the rules that had become so familiar. They needed to hear the gospel again and again. They needed to be taught about the Freedom of the Christian Man. Luther and the others sought to do just that. So it is for those who labored under the quiet-time law of the well-meaning Pietists (“how long was your quiet time today?”). Tragically, for those who labored under that system, reading Scripture daily became a law by which we were to present ourselves to God as righteous. Some Christians wrestle with daily Bible reading the way some people have eating disorders. Those of our brothers and sisters so laboring need grace and prayer not law and condemnation, which never led anyone to sanctification and growth in Christ.
The way forward is to persuade our troubled brothers and sisters to see the value of Scripture and to see daily Bible reading and prayer as an expression of freedom and a great blessing from God. The way forward is not to push but to draw them sweetly to the wonders of the Word of God.
1. Thanks to Harrison Perkins who made this connection for me in correspondence.
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