Desert Island Texts

I recently heard a sermon that included the point about the value of biblical memorization. Along with it came the warning about what would happen if we found ourselves in a situation without access to the Bible. If believers do not hide the word in their hearts, the logic goes, they will not have any spiritual nourishment when either deserted or imprisoned. The idea of finding yourself in a situation either hostile to Christianity or without the public ministry of the word is obviously troubling.

But upon further reflection, so is the Marcion-like canon one might actually have stowed away in one’s heart in preparation for such circumstances. Unless you are Jack Van Impe – the prophecy guy who has the entire Bible memorized (I think) – you are like me left with a very odd assortment of memorized biblical passages that may or may not come to mind in solitary confinement. In my own case, I have at one time or another memorized Psalms (1 and 23), the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the Luke birth narrative, the Magnificat, and John 3:16 (does John 3:16 actually count?). And to pass Hebrew in seminary (received an A, mind you), I memorized the entire book of Ruth from which the final exam came. That way, as long as I knew enough Hebrew to see there the passage assigned for translation began and ended, I could “translate” “competently” for a satisfactory grade.

But again, unless you memorize the entire Bible, doesn’t committing to memory an isolated passage undermine the point of why God gave us the entire Bible? Does memorizing a passage on the love of God, or on the free offer of the gospel, or a specific parable help us to know all of what God has revealed? Granted, isolated texts contribute to the whole. But without the whole, could the isolated texts lead us astray and defeat the point of sermon exhortations to memorize more Scripture? Surely, a selective approach to the canon did not work out well for Thomas Jefferson or Marcion.

Perhaps a better memory aid to all of God’s truth is the catechism. Here is a tool that is a summary of all of Scripture. It gives the high points about God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, and Christian duty. It also is relatively easy (except for the Larger Catechism) to memorize.

This is another way of suggesting that the gap between man-made creeds and God’s word is not as large as people think. Of course, if the gap is as large as the biblicist strain of Protestantism alleges, then Christians like Gilligan better have mastered large portions of Scripture if they are going to withstand the wiles of Ginger. But if it is possible and even right for those appointed by God to teach his word to develop faithful summaries of biblical truth in the pedagogical device of questions and answers, then the texts that Christians should be memorizing in preparation for Bible-less conditions is the catechism.


20 thoughts on “Desert Island Texts

  1. I don’t think I could agree more. I’ve also wondered about Christians during the first century or two who may not have had access to all the books of the Bible? Maybe you were the one who provoked the question for me, but what do we say about them?


  2. hi i just wanted to know if and how much your back issues for the journal are?
    sorry, your contact form doesnt work.


  3. Meditation on sections of scripture taken in context and with the intent of getting at what the writer intended is what is profitable according to Luther. Memorizing those sections can also be profitable if done with meditation and brooding on the meaning of the text. Anything that takes us out of ourselves and our subjective meaning on the text will help in our becoming confessionalists rather than pietists.


  4. Dr. Hart,

    I’ll be honest, I’ve somewhat bothered by this line of thinking. I’d like to make a few comments about it, but don’t take it to mean I don’t love the catechism. I memorized it when I was a kid, and I’m re-memorizing it now. Nonetheless, I have several concerns about this:

    (1) The Scriptures (particularly the Psalms) repeatedly talk about “hiding God’s word” in your heart, meditating on it day and night, etc. It seems like a stretch to me to say that what God really wants from us out of there is to memorize some summaries about what his word says, and meditate on those.

    (2) It seems that your argument is this: If we memorize Scripture, we’d only memorize parts, and we might not see the connection to the whole, so we should probably just memorize the catechism which boils it down for us. But it seems to me that (a) that assumes a terrible method of memorization of Scripture, one in which you memorize random things and never talk about how it relates to the whole, and (b) that there isn’t much more that we should know from memory than the catechism. The catechism is great, but there are plenty of topics that are important for the Christian life that the catechism doesn’t mention (it’s only 107 questions after all).

    (3) If what is most important to God is for us to know short summaries of his Word (catechism), then why didn’t he just give us that? (Note: I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn the catechism, I do think it is highly beneficial.) Rather than giving us a Q&A on what we should believe, he gave us his word, with all the variety in language and style that it has. Coupled with #1, it seems that we ought to be concerned to know Scripture as God has given it (in story, in wisdom literature, in didactic portions), not just as we would summarize it.

    (4) Surely you are suggesting a bifurcation that doesn’t need to be there (as Matt hints at above). We wouldn’t tell preachers (at least I don’t think we should) that they should just preach from the catechism because it summarizes God’s word better, and because the passage is only one passage among many. So surely we should learn Scripture well, along with learning the catechism (and church history) so that we know the Scriptures and how to articulate biblical teachings well.

    Sorry for the length, but this seems to me to be of fundamental importance for how we train kids and teach the Scriptures in the church.


  5. Even without extreme examples(desert island,etc), if Dr. Hart’s argument isn’t valid, the value of catechism/confession would plummet for me personally. Confession is an aid, not a supplement.


  6. Here are some suggestions that help avoid a canon-within-canon mentality. (1) Memorize blocks or larger texts of Scripture. Romans 8 is profitable. Any chapter of Romans would be. Had a friend who once memorized 1 John. (2) Memorize a string of verses that follow a thought process. Navigators memory program had a number of those. Same thing would be true for learning the “proof texts” associated with a given catechism or confession topic. (3) Memorize structures or organizations of Scripture. Can you give a main or major theme for each book of Scripture? Can you summarize a given book with a simple outline? This is the benefit of Hendriksen’s Bible Survey. Actually # 2 & #3 are just the kinds of things you might need to do to pass Bible exam for licensure.

    Of course, broad reading of the whole counsel of God will help prevent canon-within-canon attitudes no matter how many discrete verses you might care to memorize. And stubborn hearts will indulge in blind spots and canon-within-canon attitudes, no matter how broadly the stubborn one reads.

    To Joel S: if the Shorter Catechism’s 107 is too few or too narrow, bump up to the Heidelberg’s 129, or the Larger Catechism’s 196. If you are really energetic, I think there are 374 Q/As in Calvin’s Genevan Catechism of 1545!


  7. Hi Chris,

    Those are excellent suggestions, and seems to fit well with what we have to do for licensure and ordination (in the vein of Chapell and Meek’s study guide).

    Well…I’m not saying it’s too few for me to memorize (I wish…I’m only up to 35 in my re-memorization), but only that it doesn’t cover everything, so we could have the same problem as only memorizing random Scriptures about the topics covered in the Catechism. There’s certainly the WLC as well, but it seems to me that memorizing large portions of Scripture along with aids like the Catechism would be ideal.


  8. Well, I see now we have moved into the realm of what’s expected of ministers. The post was intended to address what is expected of the laity. I personally believe that pastors (and elders to some extent) need to know the contents of Scripture in pretty full ways, like knowing what’s in each chapter in each book of the Bible. Whether they can actually memorize the entire text is another matter. And whether they need to memorize it is the question behind the post. If a pastor is on a deserted island and knows his catechism, why can’t he meditate on that?

    But to address Joel’s question, it seems he has engaged in his own bifurcation. If God didn’t give us sermons (or summaries of Scripture), then why listen (memorize) them? In other words, if you push too hard on the Bible only, don’t you undermine preaching, the work of pastors, seminaries, church bodies? After all, God gave us his word. Doesn’t that settle it?


  9. Dr. Hart,

    I wasn’t really referring to what’s expected of ministers in my comment. I’m thinking particularly of the training of kids.

    I’m still not sure how you would fit the approach of your post with (1) and (2) in particular. However, I think my point can be construed to suggest such a bifurcation as you mention. I’m in favor of the Catechism. I’m in favor preaching. I’m in favor of summaries of Scripture. I think they are all useful. What I am not in favor of is replacing the learning of the Scriptures directly with them. I think they should go hand in hand. In other words, it seems to me that many fundamental Baptist types go with the error of only memorizing random verses (and maybe random hymns) and never really teaching doctrine or catechisms, etc. It seems to me that what you’re suggesting would suggest the opposite problem: replacing Scripture with summaries of Scripture. I’m saying wouldn’t it be best to memorize a lot of Scripture, memorize the Catechism, and teach thoroughly both how they fit together, and how each part fits the whole.


  10. I had to read your post twice to get the full meaning of it. I enjoy reading what you have to say. It’s unfortunate that more people do not understand the benefits of coaching. Keep up the good work.


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