Memorizing Scripture

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
30th March 2011

Tagged: scripture

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Recently in discussing her childhood, the Prime Minister has raised the practice of memorizing parts of the Bible.   She has even joked about challenging the Leader of the Opposition to “go head-to-head on our ability to recite sections of the Bible by rote.”

Many of us as children were taught, encouraged, challenged, bribed and coerced into memorizing Bible texts.   In an era when memorizing times tables and poetry were a normal part of the daily routine of school, the activity of memorizing verses of the Bible was not strange - though like all drills not particularly exciting or fun.  

As with teaching grammar and other old fashioned views of education it was an activity that has been dropped by the wayside.   The argument was simple: Just as it is more important that we use English than analyse its components, it is more important that we understand what the scripture says than reciting it off by heart.   But fashions change and grammar has been reintroduced. 

I haven’t noticed many churches using memorizing scripture as part of adult education.  There have been some para-church ministries like the Navigators who specialised in it.   But their specialization in memorizing scripture marked them out as different not as normal.

Some individuals have undertaken the task. One friend learnt to recite whole books off by heart.  But again this is noticeable because it is so unusual.

There are some courses, such as the evangelism course Two Ways to Live, which require participants to commit some texts to memory.  But the surprise with which course members meet the task indicates that memory work is not normally part of their Christian learning pattern.

Two of the aids to memory are music and repetition.   These are well used by advertisers with their constant repetition of what used to be called jingles.   Certainly the repetition of choruses or hymns cements certain words into the Christian minds – but they’re not the words of scripture and sadly sometimes they’re not even the theology of scripture.  Furthermore, the speed with which modern songs pass from popularity reduces both the impact of the words on an individual and the possibility of corporate memory.  The weekly repetition of the prayer book was another great aid to memory, but the large number of variations that are now used reduces this benefit significantly.

One good modern development is the text of scriptures on mobile phones. People are finding it easier to have the Bible with them all the time and to read it in spare moments. 

So does it matter that we do not have the scriptures committed to memory? 

Clearly Jesus memorized scriptures for he was able to freely quote the Old Testament when teaching or in confrontation with opponents.   Yet he doesn’t tell us to commit the scriptures to memory – just to read and to recall what has been said and taught in scripture.   Learning the scriptures by heart is not a matter of obedience or godliness but of education and improved facility with the scriptures.    Just as using ten fingers and looking at the screen is much more efficient than typing with two fingers while looking at the keyboard.   All the Minor Prophets are in the Bible’s table of contents but finding one is quicker if you remember the order they are in the Bible.

However learning the scriptures is more than a matter of speed.  It is also a matter of accuracy, depth of reflection and integration.   In Bible study groups people often manifest confusion between what they think the Bible says and what it actually says.  Often when the leader asks a question, people start answering from their own thinking, as if it is what the Bible says, rather than from the passage under review.  Learning what the text of scripture actually says by committing the words to memory gives us time to think with greater depth and detail about God’s word than simply reading it.   Furthermore, choosing the key texts to remember gives an overall theological and Biblical framework in which to think. 

Choosing which verses to learn is important.  Not all verses of the Bible are of equal value.  Some are more significant than others (Matt 23:23), some better summarize important truths than others, and some are more meaningful extracted from their context than others.  There really is not a great point remembering, “My brother is a hairy man and I am a smooth man” though in its context it is an important part of Jacob’s deceit.  But John 3:16 is worth remembering on any and every criterion you may mention.  

Memorizing is not an end in itself.  God’s word is written to put into action (James 1:22).   It’s easy to rememberthe scriptures without understanding, belief or obedience - just as it’s possible to readthe Bible without understanding (Acts 13:27) or with a veil over your heart (2 Corinthians 3:14-15).   And having the scriptures on your lips is not as important as honouring God with your heart (Mark 7:6).   

The word of God transforms a person, bringing them to repentance toward God and trust in the Lord Jesus, through regeneration by the Holy Spirit.    Nicodemus was a teacher in Israel but he needed to be born again to see the kingdom of God.  The Spirit uses His inspired word as the imperishable seed, which brings just such a rebirth (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18, 21).  

It would be fun to see our Prime Minister competing with the Opposition Leader in recalling large slabs of the Bible from memory.  It would not be a demonstration of anything religious but purely of the mental ability of recall.  It could be Shakespeare – it happens to be the Bible.   But yet there is within her memory, the seed, which is God’s word that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, may yet germinate into repentance toward God and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ so she may find forgiveness of sins and a place in God’s kingdom.