Is Bible memorization a good use of our time?

I just wrote a post in which I gave advice to a younger Christian, and I urged him to memorize Scripture. A reader questions the value of  Bible memorization compared with other Bible activities.

He says: I would say focus on reading comprehension and understanding what you are reading and ask questions whenever possible – instead of memorizing Scripture (unless you are illiterate). I found that simply understanding is hard enough, and to place memorization on top of that when any of us here in the US can pull up our Bibles on our smartphones is not a good use of time. It is not evil in and of itself of course, just not a good use of time (if one is literate, that is). Otherwise if illiterate by all means get audio and memorize!

Dear Reader: Thanks for the stimulating comment, it made me think through whether my opinion was really self-evident.

As a professor I keep in mind the insights of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. The learning facilitator is supposed to push the learner higher and higher in the pyramid: that is, not just Applying but further toward Analyzing. This is why I have my students memorize certain facts (REMEMBERING dates of important biblical events) but push them further up the pyramid (an essay where the student is critically ANALYZING a certain view of historiography).

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Nevertheless, Bloom’s point was not that the lower levels of cognition are inferior; in fact, they are the base upon which the higher thinking is built.

In the case of the Bible, we want to push people beyond merely memorizing verses; they must also learn to employ it to life situations, to discern what is Biblical thinking and what is not, etc. Nevertheless, that drive does not eliminate the value of simple memorization and repetition of the text. In fact, since we are a “people of the Book,” memorization of the text should be of high value for the Christian, likewise the names of the books in order and other basic data. To give a parallel, a chemistry major could look up the periodic table of elements every time he or she needs some information, but I would tell them, “Oh, why not just memorize the thing!” The same goes for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

As a professor who teaches in a second language – Spanish – I can tell you how much Bible memorization in Spanish would have helped me. Often I have to say something like, “Now, remember what Paul said in Romans 15 – someone help me, it goes something like this,” and I’ll give a rough translation from English into Spanish, until someone says they know it. As a Bible teacher, it should be shameful for me not to be able to simply quote important verses, but the fact that I haven’t done much Bible memory in Spanish is my justification.

I know that there are people who are stuck in the bottom rung of REMEMBERING, who can parrot Scripture but who make little connection between text and life. Myself, I’ve met very few of these cases. My impression in general is that there is a sturdy positive correlation between knowledge and memorization of Scripture and the application of it. Or to put it negatively, I never saw a man who was spiritually harmed because he knew too much Bible.

A side thought: There is also a school of thought today that says that people in antiquity “got” the text of Scripture better than we do. The typical Christian of Corinth was illiterate; he or she heard the Bible read aloud in church and memorized portions. Paul was literate and apparently had memorized the whole Old Testament, both in Hebrew and in the Greek Septuagint – when he quoted the Bible in his epistles he didn’t have to look it up. A church’s “Scripture reading” on Sunday, according to the early church fathers, might consist of someone standing up to quote a passage from memory. While this was a handicap – I can’t imagine life without my Logos Bible Software – it takes advantage of the fact that the Bible was originally dictated and meant to be read aloud. Hence Rev 22:17 – “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book.” There’s great value today in reading the Bible aloud or listening to one of the wonderful professional recordings.

“Is Bible memorization a good use of our time?” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

11 thoughts on “Is Bible memorization a good use of our time?

  1. I can understand the initial question of the reader, especially when considering the amount of knowledge available through smartphones/ipods, but I don’t think it can replace memorization. As someone who works with unchurched youth, having Scripture memorized is pretty important. When theological discussions come up, most won’t wait for me to google the passage I can’t quite remember, which perfectly addresses their question, (now is it in Romans or Ephesians, or was it Timothy?) Even those that are willing to sit there while I look generally aren’t very impressed.

    1. Sam, I recognize who this is! Thanks for the insight.

      I like Shakespeare, but his plays are not my main mission in life. So, when someone quotes him I might be able to say, “Hamlet speaking to Gertrude, Act III”, but I’d have to look it up to get it exactly right.

      But the Bible is the main text of my goal in life – what message am I sending to the world if I can’t quote key passages or remember where “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is located?

  2. Dr. Shogren,

    I would not dispute memorization of the Bible in the examples you gave where one is teaching in a second language or if you live in Afghanistan, let’s say, where access to many modern conveniences are very rare (oddly not solar panels though). In that case one does not have easy access to Scriptures and either did Paul.

    You say you have met few, but I have known many people in my lifetime who have memorized Scripture and yet their life does not reflect it. If one can find the time to memorize more power to them. I know I do not have the time to do it. I also find that when I study a passage in depth, it ends up being memorized anyways, but in a much more fulfilling sense.

    1. Very good, thanks. I’m not saying that Spanish-speakers don’t have access to the Bible – where I teach they have plenty of access, often using smartphones. What I’m saying is that it’s problematic that I can’t quote verses off-hand without looking them up.

  3. I think it’s important. It keeps the word close to your heart and enables you to recall it. I know that I have a few verses that I am able to recall from having memorizing them that have helped me in everyday life. Great blog post! Blessings!

  4. Prof Shogren, this article grabbed my attention because i help aid believers in the memorization of scripture, via music. Geat article! As you know, many don’t “like” to memorize scripture, per se, especially in (spoiled) western civ, because of the many ‘obstacles’ we allow to interfere (such as TV, pending hobbies, lethargy, etc), but i’ve noticed we can endure listening to audio bibles or bible songs, much more than we can trying to manually memorize scripture. I want to integrate Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning into the music memorization system my band mate and i have developed. Music? How can that be akin in any way. Well, it’s the perfect synergist for what we’re trying to do. Since we make literally ZERO income creating what we call “bible songs”, i don’t consider this spam in the least (due to the overwhelming response we’ve gotten). The only two techniques to bible memorization, using music, is two fold: 1) The music must be awesome and 2) it must really be spectacular 🙂 ..both of which many have testified to over and over again. I’m i bragging on our music? Well, only in the the sense that i know it will help my brothers & sisters in Christ. For instance, we placed an enter chapter (Cor 13) to music, all with accompanying instruments, in a type of ‘cinematic rock’ using no electric guitars or drums, and people everywhere of ALL AGES have reported that they LOVE it (pun withstanding, it’s called The Love Chapter and can heard at wordsong dot info). These ‘bible songs’ WILL help you memorize scripture without you “trying” to do it on your own. Just sit back, enjoy the music, get ministered to, and memorize, all at the same time. Our next major project will be the entire crucifixion & resurrection story. It will probably take an entire year to complete (since each song is comprised of nearly 100 tracks – that’s a lot when you take into account that The Beatles cut their first LP using only
    4 tracks).

    p.s. I love your new work on Thess! I think it’s getting like 5 stars on both Amazon and CBooks dot com.

    1. Hi Timothy, thanks! It’s true that people for ages have used music in order to structure their memorization of the Bible and other texts. Enjoy Thessalonians!

  5. Thanks, Gary. My experience in Bible memorization in Portuguese has been similar to yours in Spanish. It’s frustrating when the key verse is not on the tip of your tongue; makes you lose momentum in the process of looking it up.

    I just reread the famous passage where James tells his readers/listeners to be doers of the word (1:19-27), and it seems to support your thesis, i.e., that memorization and application are two wings of the same airplane! First, listening (19) is connected with a righteous life (20)! Then there is the image of the word “planted in you” (21), giving the idea of both permanence and growth. Third, we have the image of a man looking into a mirror “intently” and continually, “not forgetting” (25). The wrap-up (26-27) emphasizes keeping a tight rein on the tongue, which links back to the beginning of the paragraph (“quick to listen, slow to speak”, 19). All of this seems to be consistent with the concept of being saturated in God’s word as an assumed prerequisite for right living. If we consider James as NT wisdom literature, this makes the connection between word and deed even stronger.

    I think the ultimate challenge in Bible memorization is to get the big picture. It is easier (for us moderns) to memorize small portions of Scripture, but in doing so we sometimes neglect their context. Your suggestion of taking advantage of the many audio Bible options is one remedy for this problem.

  6. Gary,
    For about two years, I worked as a volunteer, in a Christian school, helping out one day a week. The school employed the American A.C.E.system. One of my tasks was to listen to a child’s recitation of Scripture verses. Some were very good, and hardly missed a beat. But often I would ask questions about a particular verse, they were absolutely clueless! They rattled verses out like Robots. I questioned the principal about this, he said that it didn’t matter, because as long as the verses were committed to memory they could learn to understand later.
    These children were generally between the ages of 8 and 11, so maybe he was right?
    My problem is the opposite, I have a general (very limited!!) knowledge of the verse of Scripture, but can’t remember the verses!
    Jack Van Impe impressed me with his Scripture memorisation skills, but not his knowledge!

    1. Hi Colin, I think Van Impe claims to have the whole King James Bible memorized. I wish I had that, but am not impressed by what he does with it.

      My experience working with children – in a summer camp, in AWANA – is similar, especially when they are earning points or in a competition. And unlike the principal, I DO think it matters. Nevertheless, anything kids memorize (the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, for us Americans, the Pledge of Allegience) can be a mechanical thing, but I wouldn’t urge anyone not to memorize them or simply to read them off a card.

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