The Case for Pew Bibles

The Case for Pew Bibles

Written by William E. Boyce and K. J. Drake |
Saturday, February 18, 2023

The pew Bible has a valuable place. It is a celebration of the gospel, the triumph of the early church, and the spirit of the Reformation. And for a generation of digital burnouts, the pew Bible helps us connect with a crucial truth: that salvation is physical, tangible, earthly, and available for all.

Do pew Bibles matter? Churches of all styles have had to ask this question in recent years. The increase of church plants using secular spaces for worship means that church planters must contemplate the extra weight, hassle, and expense of providing Bibles for their congregants each Sunday. The rise of technology means that many congregants come to church with merely their phone for a Bible. On top of those societal factors, the pandemic forced most churches to remove pew Bibles for a season, leaving room to reevaluate their utility in worship.

But these questions are not just theoretical; they can be profoundly personal and pastoral. Recently, I (Billy) had the opportunity to worship in the pews with my kids. As a pastor, my preaching schedule rarely affords me the opportunity to spend the entire service with my family. So it was a special treat to watch my kids interact, not only with the liturgy, but with the liturgical tools around them. What grabbed my attention most was this: at some point, each of my four kids (ages 5.5 through 11.5), took out a pew Bible for personal use.

So, we must ask: in this post-COVID, post-modern, post-literate, technological, consumer society, do pew Bibles matter? Does the connection between the Word and the form of accessing the Word matter? Is something lost when we depend on digital media for our Scripture consumption? Is projecting the Scripture passage onto the screen adequate for whole-person and whole-church discipleship and mission, or can a case be made that pew Bibles are an essential part of making God’s Word accessible for all?

Part 1: The Accessible Word: Christian History

The physicality and accessibility of the Word of God is a continual theme across Christian history. From the Scriptures themselves through the Early Church and Reformation, there has been a constant mandate for spiritual leaders: make God’s Word physically accessible. God’s people are a people of the book.

In Deuteronomy 17, for example, Moses makes an odd requirement for Israel’s future king: “he shall write for himself in a book a copy of the law … it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them.” (Deut 17:18-19) Such a bookishness was unknown as a requirement of the Ancient Near East ruling class, and yet before all things — military power, courtly procedure, or administration — the king ought to write by his own hand the Law of God. For the king, the Word was to be accessible.This theme recurs throughout Scripture. The biblical authors presume that meditating on the Law, which is the precursor to actually obeying it, requires the external composition of a literary work. Oral culture was not enough; God’s spoken Word needed to be written and re-written as a whole, in order to be absorbed (e.g. Deut 6:9; Jer 30:2).

This focus on the written text has been a prominent feature of Christianity throughout the centuries. One of the key characteristics of early Christianity, according to scholar Larry Hurtado, was its unusual bookishness. The early Christians were committed to making God’s Word physically accessible for others, going so far as to eschew dominant forms of producing texts by using the codex, rather than bookrolls or scrolls. Says Hurtado,

The bookroll was the prestige bookform of the day, and so, if Christians wanted to commend their texts to the wider culture, especially the texts that they read as scripture, it would seem an odd and counterintuitive choice to prefer the codex bookform for these texts. Indeed, it would seem like a deliberately countercultural move. … It certainly had the effect of distinguishing early Christian books physically, especially Christian copies of their sacred books.[1]

This shift had several advantages. First, because of the cheaper production of the codex, more physical copies of Scripture could be produced. The codex made the sacred Scriptures more physically available to the people of God. Second, the codex form allowed for greater ease of study and cross reference as opposed to the cumbersome nature of the scroll. In God’s providence, this widespread availability of the codex empowered later Christians to more accurately translate and further propagate God’s Word. Indeed, the widespread historical attestation of Scripture — far more than any other classical text — owes to the early church’s commitment to the accessible Word.

This emphasis on the availability of the Bible is shot through the Reformation as well.

As Luther was hiding in the Wartburg, avoiding the wrath of the emperor and pope, he turned his attention to translating the New Testament in German, which would definitively shape the national tongue. Luther’s motivation was to make the very words of the Lord accessible to Christians: “Neither have I sought my own honor by it; God, my Lord, knows this. Rather I have done it as a service to the dear Christians and to the honor of One who sitteth above, who blesses me so much.”[2] William Tyndale, the famed English Bible translator, is said to have aspired, according to John Foxe, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than [a learned Catholic theologian] did.”[3] As these few examples show, the Church has a historical commitment to making Scripture available in written form. The accessibility of Bibles is a venerable part of Christian history.

Part 2: The Accessible Word: Phenomenology

At the same time, pew Bibles make a valuable contribution to the experience of worship. Without pew Bibles, something is tangibly missing from our liturgical space. As we see constantly in the Old Testament, and reaffirmed through the Reformation, liturgical space has a catechetical effect. The physical things in our worship space teach us about God and about the anticipated experience of worship.

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