Bibles on a library shelf

I Passed the Bible Content Exam and You Can, Too (or, What to Say to Someone Who Has a Lot to Read)

The Bible Content Exam(*) is coming up.

(*)Aside for those who don’t speak Presbyterian: The Bible Content Exam is one of the required ordination examinations for would-be ministers in the PC(USA). The denomination gives it twice a year, on the Friday before Labor Day in the Fall and the first Friday of February in the Spring. Seminarians typically take it after their first year of seminary, though there are exceptions.

Like all the ordination exams, it’s a high stakes test. If you don’t pass it, important things, like seminary funding, and sometimes CPM approvals, can get put on hold until you do. If you don’t pass it more than once, you and others can begin to have second thoughts about your call.

There can be a lot of angst around the Bible Content Exam.

There has been a lot of … let’s say “conversation” … around the fact that the denomination has a Bible Content Exam, has the particular kind of Bible Content Exam that it has, and whether that kind of exam tests something that people seeking ordination ought to be required to know.

In this day and age of smartphones with electronic concordances like Bible Gateway, some people question whether anyone “really needs to know” where in the Bible it says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians, by the way; 5:22-23 to be precise). We can just Google that, the argument goes.

Another aside: Sure, we could just Google that. Unless our phone is almost dead; or we’re in class and the teacher has asked us to keep our phones out of sight; or we’re in a hospital room having a conversation with a sick parishioner and don’t want to break the mood; or are in our office having a conversation with the Stewardship Committee Moderator and ditto; or are teaching Sunday school and want to make that point quickly before the teachable moment passes; or … you get the idea. I use my phone and the internet a lot, including for the Bible, but I am old and old fashioned enough to agree that it’s a good thing to have it “in you,” too.

Here comes the exhortation:

Yes, the Bible is formidable.

The Bible is formidable because it is big. (Granted, it is not as big as the Vedas or the Mahabharata, but it is big enough.)

Getting familiar with it, with what is in it and where, takes practice. It takes practice of a very specific kind: actually reading the whole actual Bible, ideally a lot.

That kind of practice takes time.

Some test takers have had a lot of that kind of practice, over a long period of time, for whatever reason; for those test takers, the Bible Content Exam is, frankly, not difficult.

What makes the Bible Content Exam difficult for other test takers, probably more than anything, is that they simply have not had as much of that kind of practice, over as much of that kind of time, as it takes to make this kind of test easy, again for whatever reason.

In other words, some called, dedicated people are even now working to prepare in a short time for something it would be easier to prepare for over a long time.

Their task is possible, though daunting. It may help to recognize that for what it is.

HOWEVER, that said, there ARE some attitudinal obstacles to putting in the necessary time on the necessary practice. Some of those obstacles are reinforced, rather than dismantled, by well-meaning (I assume) professionals, like pastors and seminary professors, who say UTTERLY UNHELPFUL THINGS about the Bible, or the exam itself, that undermine the BCE Prepper’s will to undertake the challenging, necessary practice of actually reading the whole actual Bible in a focused, effective way.


“Yes, the Bible is so hard.”
This is UTTERLY UNHELPFUL because thinking “the Bible is hard” is one of the attitudinal obstacles that needs to be dismantled. It does not help people to go in to something thinking it is SO (i.e., potentially impossibly) hard. It helps to be reminded that we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us Philippians 4:13.

Besides which, it is UNTRUE. The Bible is not really all that hard, at least not on the surface, which is what we are concerned with when it comes to Bible Content. Everyone who has graduated college, which includes all seminarians, has read harder texts than the Bible. Organic Chemistry for Beginners comes to mind, or Introduction to Statistics & Probability. Everyone in seminary WILL read harder texts than the Bible. Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology comes to mind.

Let’s stop saying this unhelpful thing.

“The Bible is so boring and tedious.”
This is UTTERLY UNHELPFUL because thinking “the Bible is boring” is one of the attitudinal obstacles that needs to be dismantled. It encourages people to procrastinate – who wants to rush right off to do something boring and tedious? – when that is the opposite of what people who need to be actually reading the actual Bible need to be doing.

Besides which, it is largely UNTRUE. There are, yes, some swaths of Biblical text that are detailed (Exodus 25-29 comes to mind), or are repetitive (Numbers 7 comes to mind), or are genealogies that we will feel get in the way of the narrative when we are in a big hurry (1 Chronicles 1-9 comes to mind), or are talking about places we don’t recognize and don’t feel like we have time to go look up on a map (Joshua 13-21 comes to mind).

But that’s not most of the Bible. Most of the Bible is either narrative, a lot of it full of sex and violence and political intrigue and people behaving horribly and heroically and all kinds of fascinating ways, or else passionate prophetic denunciations of evil and poetic sketches of steadfast love and redemption, or else instructions for how to live as the ancient Israelite people of God which has got to make you wonder why and whether you would have been able to do it, or else Jesus, or else the practical daily life of the church, which is about as boring as – oh, wait, not boring at all.

Let’s stop saying this unhelpful thing.

“Oh, the Bible Trivia exam.”
This is UTTERLY UNHELPFUL because thinking “I already know the important stuff, the stuff I really need to know about the Bible” is a genuinely fatal attitudinal obstacle. It needs to be crushed, not target-hardened. Who knows everything they need to know about the Bible? [Rhetorical question! No one.]

It is UTTERLY UNHELPFUL to encourage people to think that what they are about to gird their loins for, their heroic effort to buff up enough [figuratively] to take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” Ephesians 5:17 is (a) something “of little value or importance, trifling, insignificant” (the literal meaning of “trivial”) and (b) possibly amusing but intrinsically pointless (as in “trivia night”) and therefore (c) should not require this much effort, which now starts to look like “pain disproportionate to purpose.”

This, too, is UNTRUE. What in the Bible is actually trivial? (See the definition of “trivial,” above.) Another rhetorical question! You already know the answer.

Let’s stop saying this unhelpful thing.


“I passed the Bible Content Exam once, and I am confident that you can, too.” Message: This is possible. Real people like you pass this test.

“Yes, I read a lot of the Bible for that.” Message: Real people like you actually read the actual Bible.

“Yes, I worked really hard on that.” Message: We can do hard things.

“Yes, I am more familiar with the Bible now that I studied for Bible Content.” Message: There is something valuable to gain from this hard work.

“This is what I did: …” Message: We do hard things step by step. Maybe the steps that helped me will help you.

“I will pray for you.” Message: God loves you, and so do I.

“I will help you make time for studying by …” [e.g., taking on childcare, or making sandwiches, or doing a load of laundry, or whatever … you know. If it’s appropriate.] Message: I know you could use some extra time, so here’s some of mine, free gift. Because like I said, God loves you, and so do I.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of Christ, because you know that in Christ your labor is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:58

Bibles on a library shelf

4 responses to “I Passed the Bible Content Exam and You Can, Too (or, What to Say to Someone Who Has a Lot to Read)”

  1. I’m an admitted digital Bible searcher. There, I’ve said it. I comfort myself believing at least I “know there is a verse that says something like this somewhere.” I even Bible Google when speaking with people. I have no shame. I pull out my phone and say “I know it’s here somewhere.” I think I get away with more of this odd behavior because it matches the rest of my behavior ….

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL – in reality, me, too – especially in class, where everything is a little more informal. That “knowing it’s in there somewhere” brings up a whole other issue, too – the matter of being able to recognize related texts – which you need to have read a lot in the Bible to be able to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am preparing to take the exam shortly. After looking at some of the past exams, it makes me wonder who came up with some of the questions. It is clear to me that some are deliberately misleading, and I’m not sure why. I’m a teacher, and when I have students consistently fail an exam, I do not blame the students, as some do–I take a look at the questions I’m asking and how I’m asking them. I go back and ask the students “Why was this question a challenge for you?” so that I can determine how better to ask what it is in a clearer manner. I hope the PCUSA does this, and considers deeply what the purpose of those questions is. And yes, I do indeed wonder how many current pastors could pass the more recent exam.


    • First off, best wishes on your preparation and for your success on the exam!

      I’ll admit, I did experience a couple of the questions on the test I took as misleading: one about “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” where choices included Psalms and Proverbs, and I thought, well, it DOES show up in Psalms … but surely they mean Proverbs … And another one about food offered to idols, which IS mentioned in Romans, which I’d just been reading, but the longer, more explicit discussion is in 1 Corinthians … so from that I suspect that misleading-ness may depend on what one knows. Still, I’m afraid that I didn’t say, to my everlasting shame, that “I am crucified with Christ” was in Romans because the question was misleading; I just forgot to think about context.

      I’m not sure, though, what leads you to think the misleading-ness you’ve encountered is deliberate, rather than inadvertent. I’m afraid your sensible recommendations for question assessment won’t do much to reduce the deliberate kind.

      My guess is that most pastors who’ve been pastors for many years would have little difficulty passing the current exam. From what I can tell, the main variable is familiarity with the whole Bible. Because of that, I suspect the test discriminates against people who are (a) younger, and (b) have done less reading in the whole Bible over time. Practicing pastors will have had to have done a lot of Bible reading through most of the Bible, just in the course of their work; preparing sermons and Bible studies for 10 years or so would be great prep for Bible Content. “All I did” to study for Bible Content was read the Bible through every year, a few chapters a day, for 15 years or so. Neither of those are methods one can recommend a month or so before the test.


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