Should We Dumb Down the Bible? Yes. (Sort of.)

I love the Jesus Storybook Bible, because it thrills me to think that my kids might grasp the central storyline of Scripture long before the age at which I did. And the colors and textures are cool. And I like a little whimsy in text and illustration.

As the leader of an outreach ministry which targeted kids in historically underperforming public schools in the deep South, I chose the Jesus Storybook Bible as the curriculum for the primary kids class. The kids seemed to like it. And so did the teachers.

But one day one of those teachers came to me with a concern. He felt that one piece of what I would’ve called vivid whimsy was a little irreverent—and precisely that it dumbed down the Bible. In particular, brilliant children’s book author Sally Lloyd-Jones (no relation to the Dr.) rendered God’s “Let there be light!” as “Hello light!”

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I felt a little defensive. I liked Ms. Lloyd-Jones and her work. I intuitively believed (and still believe) that it’s appropriate to bring Bible stories down to the child’s level—and to leave things out that get in the way of understanding. I admire people who understand something so well that they can explain it to kids. Sure, it would be great if kids could read and understand Genesis 1:3 with adult-level depth. But don’t let the best be the enemy of the good: teach kids what they can comprehend. I rose to justify “Hello light!”

But I couldn’t deny the wisdom of this teacher’s words (and I have his permission to relate this story):

I think that sometimes confusion can be caused when we don’t look far enough down the road into the person’s education. Someday they need to understand what the Bible really said. We can also teach students things—as innocent as they may seem—that the Bible is not trying to communicate. Is it asking too much of a child to understand ‘Let there be light’?”

We’re not just teaching kids; we’re teaching future adults.

But… If we teach them things they can’t possibly understand, are we really “suffering the little children” to come to Jesus?

Should we dumb down the Bible?

Yes: because understanding is more important than eloquence

Last week I said no—with special regard to one specific example, changing “chaff” to “dust” in a song I wrote for those very same Bible club kids. But at the end of that post I promised a yes answer in this post. And this question about “Hello light!” helps clarify why I was apparently double-minded on this question.

First: it depends on what you mean by “dumbing down.” Are you “dumbing down” the Bible or “dumbing down” the English? Those are two very different things. In my work teaching and evangelizing, I have consistently made my English less complex in the service of communicating the truth. You “dumb down” your Bible teaching when it is clear that your audience’s understanding and your eloquence have become competing values. Augustine knew this 1600 years ago:

This aim of being intelligible should be strenuously pursued . . . . What use is a golden key, if it cannot unlock what we want to be unlocked, and what is wrong with a wooden one, if it can, since our sole aim is to open closed doors?

Our concern in teaching Genesis 1:3 should be to teach as much of the truth of Genesis 1:3 as we can, even if we can’t hold on to the somewhat grandiloquent “Let there be light.”

In this case, every single major English translation, from the NASB to the NLT, has felt that the wording was intelligible and worth retaining. But we need to be open—and not just open but alert—to the possibility that this language may in fact be unintelligible to people. English speakers as a whole almost never use the “let there be” construction unless they are alluding to the Bible (though, admittedly, the creation of the universe is sort of a one-time thing). If the golden phrase “let there be light” doesn’t open the door of understanding, then we should deign to use a wooden one.

And “Hello light!” is, if not wooden, a good bit more familiar to normal English speech patterns than “Let there be light!” The mere fact that a gifted paraphraser such as Sally Lloyd-Jones felt that it needed a refresh (as did Eugene Peterson) could be an indication that it may have outlived its usefulness. If “Hello light!” is what it takes to get Genesis 1:3 across to kids, I’m fine with it.

Every Bible club kid in the American South knows John 3:16. That’s good. Every Bible club kid in the American South has memorized the phrase “only begotten son.” That’s not so good. These kids have memorized three syllables (be-GOT-in) which are meaningless to them. It’s a time-honored phrase; it’s one they’ll hear elsewhere; it’s in the vocabulary of biblically literate people; there are good reasons to hold on to a common standard Bible translation; and I attach a beauty and a nostalgia to the KJV language in this verse. But something just has to be wrong when the most well-known Bible verse in the country is 8% unintelligible (3 out of 37 syllables in the verse). I have found myself over the years “translating” Biblese on the fly as I read sentences from Scripture to people, and not only in the KJV. Eloquence is good (Acts 18:24), but not when it stands in the way of God’s words (1 Cor 2:1).

Yes: but be very careful of accidentally misconstruing

I will pause here, however, for a warning: translating on the fly can introduce accidental errors. Paraphrasing and “dumbing down” Scripture, even out of the best motives, can mislead your hearers.

“Hello light!,” for example, sounds to me like God is meeting light, not like He’s making it. Lloyd-Jones’s sentence structure in this and the following acts of creation makes it clear (to this adult reader who already knows Genesis 1) that God says hello and then things get created. But that’s a little rhetorically demanding. Will kids get that? In an effort to make the text more approachable, has the author made it less likely that children will grasp the essential element of its message?

And “Hello light!” is charmed with whimsy rather than awestruck with dignity. Is that okay?

When I myself have “dumbed down the Bible” for teaching or songwriting purposes, I have several times come to see later on that I was actually miscommunicating the message of the text.

A personal example: I’m not a top-flight, award-winning parent. My children’s projected future SAT scores are not where they ought to be, nor do they know as many Bible verses and catechism questions as they probably should. So when a fellow Christian parent mentioned that he felt his toddlers ought to know, at least, the Ten Commandments and a few other basic Bible facts, I was ashamed. I thought, “I can do this. I should do this. We’re doing this.” And I sat down to put those commandments in a form understandable by my (then) three-year-old and almost-two-year-old. This is what I came up with:

  1. There is only one God.
  2. Don’t worship statues.
  3. God’s name is important.
  4. God’s day is important.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. Don’t murder.
  7. Be faithful in your marriage.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t lie.
  10. Don’t want what isn’t yours.

We could quibble about whether “don’t” really captures the gravitas of “you shall not” (and whether “Thou shalt not” has a little too much gravitas). But I wanted these ten commandments to be useful for the nurture and admonition of my toddlers right away; I didn’t want to have to wait till they could grasp the significance of the commands before I could quote the commands to them during toy disputes. There’s an immediacy and power for toddlers in “Don’t want what isn’t yours” that “Don’t covet” just doesn’t carry. “Covet” would be, for them, a Biblese word disconnected from real life.

I felt good about my abridgements. But then I read The Unseen Realm by Faithlife’s own Michael Heiser, and he argued pretty persuasively that the Bible itself recognizes the existence of other (lower-case “g”) “gods.” (He leans in particular on Psalm 82:1, but we won’t get into that now.) I suddenly realized that my formulation of the first commandment, though motivated by love, was potentially misleading; I realized that God’s way of putting it had more depth and design than I was aware of: “Have no other gods before me” implies that there are gods vying for our affection, something I and my children need to know.

I still defend my impulse in abridging the Ten Commandments: I love my children, and I refuse to teach them things they can’t understand when, with a little elbow grease and a few less-immediately-necessary truths saved for later, I can make the Ten Commandments understandable. But I’ve got to be very careful.

Yes: but rely on gifted popularizers

And this is why we need gifted people like Sally Lloyd-Jones. And Kenneth Taylor. And Eugene Peterson. And you, if you’re a Bible teacher gifted by God to serve Christ’s body. This kind of “dumbing down” requires careful thought.

I want to defend the impulse behind Lloyd-Jones’s work, too, even if I run into a textual decision I’m not wholly sure of. Because I think Sally Lloyd-Jones engaged in that thought and is, like me, motivated by love for my children. And I think all Bible teachers who love their neighbors as themselves will constantly feel the pull of the needs and capacities of the audiences in front of them. If you’ve never slapped your forehead, as I have, and realized that you’ve gone too far, you probably aren’t trying hard enough to reach your audience.

And I think there are ways to simplify your Bible teaching which don’t misconstrue the text in front of you. For now, I’m sticking with “Be faithful in your marriage” as a faithful summary of “Do not commit adultery” for my young kids. And I got this idea from a gifted popularizer. Yes, I’m “dumbing it down” a bit. “Adultery” is a concept that I think would be difficult for them to grasp. I’m not sure I’m up to explaining it to them, at least. (I’ll leave that to their peers and popular culture.) (Just kidding.) What’s important is that they know Mommy and Daddy love each other and are going to stick together no matter what—and that this is God’s design. When I teach the seventh commandment to my children I am purposefully leaving out some of the truth God put there for mankind, but I think I’m communicating what’s essential, given their needs and capacities. And I’m looking to people like Sally Lloyd-Jones for help.

Yes: because you can’t communicate everything a text says anyway

There’s a final, clinching reason I’d like to defend Ms. Lloyd-Jones: Bible teachers are always leaving out truth, whenever they teach. We can’t say everything any given biblical text communicates, whether because it’s too much for the time we have, too much for the congregation we have, or too much for ourselves to handle! The question becomes: given my own gifting and knowledge and prep time (etc.) and the age and maturity (etc.) of the people I’m teaching, what is it from this passage that I need to make sure to communicate?

If you use Logos Bible Software to help you prepare sermons or Bible lessons, you will almost certainly end up knowing things about a passage that you choose not to communicate—simply because through your reading and study you’ll know a lot of things. Some of those things will be obscure grammatical points: please, for example, don’t tell your hearers that “let there be” is a “jussive” unless you’re in a Hebrew class! And don’t tell the second graders in Sunday School that the basic Hebrew radicals in the word translated “let there be” are the same radicals in God’s covenant name, Yahweh—even if you do choose to make that conceptual/textual link clear to an adult Sunday School while discussing aseity within theology proper (“The God who calls himself ‘I AM’ is the very foundation of being; he makes things ‘be.’ ”).

In one very definite sense, you should “dumb down the Bible” when you teach it. You should not tell people everything a given text communicates. You can’t. And in fact you very likely don’t know everything a given text communicates! Take “God is love.” You got that? Like, all of it? How about, “I am the vine, you are the branches…. Apart from me, you can do nothing”? How about “Tell them I AM sent you”? You may have an accurate understanding of those biblical statements, and I hope you do, but do you have a complete understanding? No: you’re fallen and finite. There’s always more you could learn about God’s holy word. You’re not expected to teach the Bible exhaustively, just accurately and lovingly.

Conclusion

Bible teachers, and pastors in particular, should be self-conscious about the truths they’re communicating from a given Bible text and those they’re leaving out. Every time. As long as you’re not miscommunicating the text, it’s part of your calling to be an expert (or at least to be good at getting help from experts) at putting cookies on lower shelves. They’re super healthy cookies, so the people eating them will grow. They’ll be able to reach higher soon enough, and then they’ll turn around and lift up others.

Next week, in a final installment, I want to offer a framework which can help you know when to “dumb down” your Bible teaching or not with self-conscious intentionality, for the good of your hearers and the glory of God.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. Steve D'Agostino says:

    Wow! Excellent follow-up. I do tend to “dumb down” the language of the Bible when explaining it to kids and youth, but this is not to diminish the message; only to make it more understandable so we can talk about it. Well done. I’m looking forward to the last installment!

  2. Wanda Tillman says:

    The apostle Paul said that even though he could speak in tongues, he believed it better to be clearly understood than to “show-off”. He speaks of the duty of teachers to give their students what they can comprehend at the time (1 Corinthians ch 3). I would say simplifying the language to be understood by the header is not o of a good idea, but also a Biblical idea!

  3. Sharon Shadle says:

    You mentioned Eugene Peterson but I believe his paraphrase of the Bible is quite irreverent. The other thing worth noting (I have 3 & 4 yr old granddaughters) is you used statues in place of idols. I explained idols as ANYTHING that is more important to us than God. They get it. When my son was 2, my husband used big words & I said, he doesn’t understand that & he said I will explain it to him. Consequently, we never talked “down” to our children & people are amazed at their grasp of the English language at the ages of 25 & 22. So, I’m sorry, I have to disagree with dumbing down the Bible…we need to teach it & then explain what we teach.

    • One private emailer accused me (nicely) of “waffling” (did you see my previous post in this series, in which I said don’t dumb the Bible down?), and this is why: when I hear a grandmother who has successfully raised highly literate children of her own, I tend to want to defer to her experience. I’m glad I wasn’t talked down to myself. Almost thou persuadest me!

      One thing I said to the emailer was that perhaps my concerns are driven a great deal by a huge portion of my own experience, namely that of teaching the Bible in lower-income neighborhoods for so many years (almost 15). I watched college kids whose grasp of English was very good rattle off memory verses to drunk single moms on their run-down porches without pausing to wonder whether any of what they rattled off was understandable in the least. I watched preachers who chose illustrations from experiences utterly foreign to their hearers. Don’t get me wrong—I also repeatedly saw love cross the cultural boundaries separating the educated and the uneducated. I preached the same biblical truths to the uneducated that I did to the educated, but I worked hard to moderate my language. I used a Bible translation made for poor readers. I wouldn’t say I “talked down” to anybody, but I didn’t assume the same level of background knowledge. The article you just read is part of my effort to formulate what I did differently and why.

      As for “don’t worship statues,” I chose that wording very carefully after long study and even years of reflection. The word there in Exodus 20 is not “idols”; it’s “images.” I came to believe that the second commandment is most likely not prohibiting worship of false gods but prohibiting false worship of the true God. Otherwise commandments 1 and 2 are redundant. But good friends of mine differ with me on this point. My kids are stuck with my theological/exegetical views and not those of my friends. =) FWIW, my kids are already old enough (all but one past the toddler stage) that I’m inclining back to using the direct wording of the verses.

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t mind pushback at all.

  4. Stephen Agnew says:

    I must disagree with you, but agree on some of your points. As someone who works in a translation ministry who translates Scripture to be easier understood by those with a low reading level, I passionately believe that understanding is more important than eloquence. However, that’s not what we’re talking about here.

    First, this goes back to the sad commentary of our education system today in the west. You are assuming that children are not capable of understand higher level ideas such that Scripture contains, when in fact the opposite is true. Children have an amazing capacity to live up to our high or low standards, and they have an amazing ability to absorb and learn. If our standard for the children is to not be able to understand adult concepts then they won’t. However, if our standard for the children is to understand adult concepts then they will. I see this all the time in the home school community, this children’s ability to understand adult concepts is directly tied to the educational standards that the parents have for the children.

    Secondly, the examples that you gave do not make Scripture understandable, it changes the meaning of Scripture all together. For instance, when you write “Hello light!” instead of “Let there be light!” then you make light out to be some passive object that just happened to cross God’s path and God is greeting it as he would a friendly neighbor, instead of communicating to the children that God created and commands the light. The message behind “Let there be light!” is not communicated at all to the children when it is changed to “Hello light!”.

    This is also seen in your example of the ten commandments. When you write “God’s day is important.” instead of keep the Sabbath day holy, then you are leaving the children with the all important question of “Well what is God’s day??” This commandment is incredibly specific for a reason, that God’s day is the Sabbath. Simply saying “God’s day is important” teaches the child nothing at all about that commandment and neuters it completely. Additionally, simply saying “God’s name is important” does not communicate the much higher identifier of “holy.” It places God’s name on the same level as “Doing your homework son is important” or “It’s important to do your chores.” In the context of communicating meaning, this relegates God’s name to a much lower level rather than communicating his name being holy and should be revered.

    Your example of pastors dumbing down Scripture is also a fallacy. Pastors do not dumb down Scripture, they read Scripture as it is and then explain it’s meaning in a way that the flock can understand—not dumbing down. Pastors do not reword Scripture, removing meaning from it, in order to cater to the supposed intellectual capacity of their flock.

    In the end, it is important to focus on communicating meaning of Scripture to children, not “dumbing down” Scripture for children. Dumbing down Scripture does not treat it with the holiness and reverence that it deserves, but denigrates it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Stephen. Did you read my first article in this series? I don’t know that we’re really disagreeing, and I probably painted myself into a corner by adopting the terminology of “Dumbing down the Bible” when what I really mean is “learning in stages.” That’s what I get for being purposefully provocative to attract readers…

      I hate to retreat to the old standby, “I was just trying to start a conversation,” but honestly I’m happy to get various perspectives here.

      I also tend to agree with you about my own rewording of the fourth commandment. It was my poor attempt at communicating to a two- and three-year-old.

      My questions to you would be:

      1) What do you do when you get 30 minutes of Bible-teaching time a week with a kid whose family and public school and community have failed him or her? Our church started a ministry that helped with homework (among other things), but that isn’t always possible. I believe with all my heart that these kids are gifted and are capable of rising far above the low level of expectations they’re given. But what can I do with such limited time?

      2) What do you do when you get 30 minutes of Bible-teaching time a week with middle-aged or even elderly adults who are functionally illiterate? There are certainly many things these people know that I don’t, but reading skill is not one of them. What do I do in that case, and how do I justify it given my task to preach the whole counsel of God?

      • Stephen Agnew says:

        Hi Mark, thank you for replying. You taking the time to reply to comments on your article is what made me want to comment in the first place, so thank you for taking the time our to reply. :)

        I sadly admit that I haven’t read your first article in the series, so it sounds like that I’m missing some critical parts of your opinion. I received an email with a link to this article so I clicked on it not knowing that it was but part of a series. Please forgive me if I jumped to any conclusions about your perspective.

        To answer your two questions:

        1) That’s a really good question with a challenging scenario. It seems to me that there are two options: Dumb down all of the Scripture that you want to share/teach because of time constraints, or be selective in what parts of Scripture you share/teach in their originally translated form while allowing time to explain the parts of Scripture that needs to be explained. I think the focus in those situations would be to focus on what parts of Scripture to share—being selective—and explain rather than changing the wording of the translation that you’re using.

        2) I think the solution in my answer to #1 would work as well. I realize that both scenarios are tough to maneuver, but I do think that you can faithfully share what Scripture says and explain when necessary when there are time constraints. I think this is where your pastor example comes into play. Pastors selectively share Scripture all the time with their flock because of time constraints and to adhere to the topic they want to communicate, while explaining along the way. What they make sure what they do is read Scripture as it is written in their chosen translation, even if the verses are few.

      • Speaking for the choir, I think you’re looking at this wrong. 1.) Illiterate is not stupid, so you need not dumb things down. You simply need to teach what they have not yet learned. If that means spending more times explaining something then preaching about it, then so be it. Also, have you thought about supplying them with CD players and audio Bibles? 2.) I doubt very much that there is theologically literate congregation in America, so I wouldn’t stress over whether or not to explain justification. Just do it. It will help those that don’t know and be a refresher for those that do. Not only that, sometimes you need to hear something two or three times before you truly get it. 3.) Not every sermon is going to be pertinent to the entire congregation because not everyone is in the same place. What you could do is try to gauge where the majority are and speak to them. For those that are above or below that, then give specialized classes. 4.) If you only have 30 min., then my suggestion would to start with those subjects that are critical for their salvation and right relationship with God.

        Good luck and God bless!

        • Becky, this is good, and I don’t disagree with any of it. (I’m also super embarrassed to say that audio Bibles did not occur to me.)

          I take the blame for the disagreements that have gone on among the comments. I feel like I wrote a post that was a little too exploratory rather than expressive of mature thinking. I’ve really profited from the comments here, and not just from those which expressed agreement.

          • I’m glad I could be of help and if you come up with a really good explanation of justification that is easy to understand, then I would like to hear it.

  5. It is my experience that “dumbing the Bible down” means having to lower the bar on all aspects of discipleship in a church; which is an issue that has a great deal of resonance with me. Currently I’m a member of a church in a low-income, low-decile area of Auckland, New Zealand. Although my wife and I are academics (she teaches at a Christian college and I am about to enter the post-graduate program of another), and our pastoral team is theologically trained, a large number of the congregation is underprivileged and undereducated, with roughly 15% being functionally illiterate and about 5% having mental health issues. Understandably, the preaching often eschews theological rigour for the sake of doctrinal accessibility. This means that the Bible study is fairly rudimentary, but the application of the lessons are easily understood.

    However, this has resulted in a congregation whose knowledge of the Bible (including its development) and things like Church history are sorely lacking. To me, who sees this kind of knowledge as necessary aspects of discipleship, this is a worry. After all, not only are those with a high capacity to learn not being discipled properly, but those with average capacity are not being challenged, either. I would like to know whether you and your readers think it is necessary to raise the bar for the entire church, or whether it would be best to target only those with the ability to learn. How would you go about doing either? Finally, is it even right to challenge our adult brothers and sisters to learn what they might regard as unnecessary information?

    • Jim, in another (private) discussion you told me that you are in awe of your pastor’s preaching abilities. And indeed, I do believe it is possible to preach carefully biblical sermons to underprivileged people. I’d like to think I did it for five+ years.

      I’ll tell you that I wrestled hard for all those years and more over how well educated Christians and poorly educated ones could both be fed in the same preaching session. I’m still wrestling. I tend to think that’s what a pastor in that situation has to do: wrestle constantly with where to place “the bar” in a given sermon, or for a given sermonic point. And that’s why we need pastors and not video screens replaying Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones or Sinclair Ferguson or something.

      I definitely do believe that pastors are called to raise the bar in a Christian congregation, in every way. And I definitely believe it’s right to challenge adult brothers and sisters to learn things they might regard as unnecessary information. That’s what it means to be a pastor, a shepherd: to know how to help the sheep God has placed under my care to take the next steps of sanctification. It isn’t just one’s life that needs to be sanctified but one’s mind. But in my time ministering to the disadvantaged, I learned quickly to be very patient, particularly with adults. We had some wonderful times of learning together, but we took our time.

      The more I go back and forth with the helpful comments of readers on this post, the more I become aware that this post came straight out of my wrestling over my experience teaching the disadvantaged. I want to be able to give a theological accounting for why I didn’t mention Calvinism and Arminianism while going through Romans, or why I gave up on a series which was set to explain a bunch of abstract theological terminology (justification, sanctification, glorification, regeneration, etc.) and instead purposed to explain those truths as they came up in biblical texts—and found (I think) more success.

  6. I frequently paraphrase the Bible in my preaching and informal conversations with people of all ages. But I rely on the fact that these same people are in the church and will hear the same passages in a good translation approved for church use. Each paraphrase is crafted or spontaneously uttered in an attempt to emphasize one aspect of the passage. And sometimes I paraphrase differently within a few sentences.

    I want people to remember the gist of a passage, applied to our lives today. I think that what is called dumbing-down works best when it is a leg up–one reason I think children should not be segregated from the regular church service, even if they are intellectually impaired and seem like they will never relate.

    • I like that: “dumbing down” works when it’s a leg up. That’s what I’m trying to say. I could’ve saved people a lot of time if I had just used that phrase. =)