TheologyHow Digital Apps Are Changing How We Read the Bible Digital Bibles shape what we see—and don’t see—in the text and require us to be mindful of their power and peril. John DyerFebruary 6, 2024 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level Perspicuity is a fancy, hard-to-pronounce word that means just the opposite. In contrast to the complex, difficult-to-follow writing of academics, perspicuity means clear, direct, and understandable. The gist of the word is captured by the popular phrase “clear is kind” which applies equally to writing and personal relationships. Don’t beat around the bush. Just say what you mean. That is kindness. The Reformers applied the concept of perspicuity to the Bible, saying that the most important ideas in scripture can be understood by any reader. That doesn’t mean that every part of the Bible is easy to understand (even Peter admits some things are “hard to understand” in 2 Pet. 3:16). It means that the essential things we must know—who God is, and what he is doing for us—can be picked up by individual readers. The Roman Catholic tradition, in contrast, argues that the scriptures need an official authoritative interpreter. The Roman Catholic Church calls its teaching authority the magisterium, explaining that it was passed from Jesus to Peter and the leaders of the Roman church. A simple contrast between Protestant perspicuity and the Catholic magisterium on a non-essential issue would be a verse like Mark 6:4, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are His sisters not here with us?” Protestants would say that the most straightforward reading of this is that Mary and Joseph had children after Jesus who became his siblings. However, the magisterial teaching of the Roman Catholic church is that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth and therefore never had additional children. This leads them to conclude that “the brothers” (ἀδελφοί, adelphoi) mentioned here are cousins or some other non-blood relative. Dr. Dyer’s book explores the use of digital Bibles on Bible reading habits. The digital Bible So what does perspicuity have to do with digital Bible apps like Logos Bible Software, YouVersion, and biblehub.com? In the book People of the Screen, I explore digital Bibles in depth, looking at how app creators view their craft and mission and collecting data on how everyday Christians use Bible apps in their lives. Before focusing in on perspicuity, here are a few things I found. First, it turns out that, unlike the move from scrolls to the codex and the codex to the printing press, Bible apps aren’t replacing printed Bibles. Instead, my survey data indicates that most people use a mix of print and digital media depending on what they are trying to accomplish and what is available to them. For example, they like to use print for devotional and long form reading, their phones for shorter daily readings and quick lookups, and desktops for deeper study. The American Bible Society’s 2023 report confirms this overall trend with 69% of Bible readers using print in a given month and 50% using an digital Bible app (p. 149). Bible apps aren’t replacing printed Bibles. Instead, most people use a mix of print and digital media. In addition, digital media is enabling a return to the way people engaged with the Bible before the printing press, when people heard the Bible. From the time of Moses to the time of Luther, few believers had their own copy of the Bible and their only access to the Word was what they heard in church. Bible apps have made audio versions much more accessible, and many Christians report an uptick in listening to scripture as a mode of engagement. If you’re a regular reader of textandcanon.org, when you think of Bible software, you might be picturing tools that empower in-depth study of the original languages and offer commentaries and other resources such as Logos Bible Software and Accordance. These apps were originally only available on desktop apps, but there are now many excellent study-oriented Bible apps available for phones and tablet. It turns out that the presence of these study apps might be reforming how average Christians understand the Bible and its understandability. Related Illustration by Peter Gurry. How Bible Software Solves Differences in Versification for YouSoftware developers have to account for different versification in how Bible data is both stored and presented. Rick Brannan Digital hermeneutics As part of my study, I interviewed almost two hundred Bible readers and gave them an interpretive exercise to see how print and phone screen reading might differ. At several churches, I split the audience in half, asking one group to read on their phones and the other group to read their printed Bible. I asked both groups to read the book of Jude and then tell me (1) what the point of the book was, and (2) how it made them feel. Interestingly, two opposite trends emerged. The print readers said they felt Jude was about God’s judgment while the phone readers tended to emphasize God’s faithfulness. But then, on the second question, their answers seemed to split. The print readers, who felt the book was about God’s judgment, said they were encouraged by the reading. The phone readers on the other hand who said Jude was about God’s faithfulness, said after reading it that they felt discouraged and confused. So what can account for that difference? Why is a judgmental God encouraging and a faithful God discouraging? As I looked through the interview data on how people spoke about their Bible reading habits and the digital age, some themes emerged that might explain this. The free YouVersion App boasts 3,000 Bible versions in 2,000 languages. First, while there are a few outliers that are print-only or digital-only, as I mentioned above almost everyone sees the value in using both mediums for different activities (print for devotions, phones for audio, desktop for study, etc.). Second, most people tend to associate certain characteristics with the medium itself beyond what the text is saying. Over and over again, my interviewees would speak of a printed Bible as something they could trust, something that represented a faith they could literally pass on to the next generation. Someone might hold up a well-worn printed Bible and say, “This, this is what I believe.” On the other hand, when people spoke about Bible apps, they expressed appreciation for search functionality, audio Bibles, original languages, study notes, and so on. But they also tended to mention things like the distraction of notifications, the anxieties they feel when they read the news, and the pressure of social media. Over and over again, my interviewees would speak of a printed Bible as something they could trust. This recalls the Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying, “the medium is the message.” By this McLuhan meant several things, one of which was that a medium can influence how we perceive a message, much like tone of voice and body language when speaking in person. In this case, the medium of print itself sends a message of confidence, while screens seems to send a message of anxiety. It’s likely that we associate print with trust, but phones with all the complex emotions we experience on social media. It’s interesting to note that the text of scripture hasn’t changed at all, but when the medium changes, people perceive it differently. These kinds of observations are also seen in “materiality of religion” studies which focus on how material objects have a representative power within a community. For example, some traditions carry a printed Bible through the congregation as part of the liturgy and others give a Bible to someone at key moments in their life. In these cases, the printed bible is functioning in an iconic way that a digital Bible cannot. Secondary perspicuity The people I interviewed also indicated, albeit indirectly, that the presence of digital Bible apps had altered their understanding of perspicuity. While most people associated print with more certainty and trust, they also spoke about how Bible apps gave them a unique confidence. RelatedIs the Earliest, Most Complete Hebrew Bible Going on Auction?Kim PhillipsTwo Reasons There Are Variants in Our Copies of the BiblePeter J. GurryThe Day the Bible Became a BestsellerJeffrey Kloha Some spoke of the familiar small group scenario where a member says, “I think it says somewhere in the Bible that …” but no one is sure. Bible apps, they went on to say, ensured that such a verse could always be found and verified or shown to just be a popular phrase but not something in the Bible. Others discussed the role of Bible apps with study helps, saying that even the most difficult passage could be understood if one had the right app with the right resources installed. Long before Bible apps existed, Protestants and Catholics alike created printed Bibles with study notes and interpretive guides (e.g., the Geneva Bible in 1560 and the Douay-Rheims in 1582). But unlike the static study notes around the printed text, Bible apps allow for an exploratory feeling. Several participants spoke of an endless experience of tapping words and going “deeper and deeper” to find the “original meaning” of the text. Some readers even said that after long periods of using apps, they found themselves wanting to tap on the words of their print Bibles when they didn’t understand something. I call this phenomenon “secondary perspicuity” because the reader is still convinced that the meaning of the passage can be known—just as long as one has the right content downloaded. The digitally enabled Bible reader doesn’t need an authoritative Church to tell them what a passage means, but their understanding of the knowability of the text has shifted to include the necessity of outside helps and resources. This continues to evolve today with several new AI-generated Bible summary and interpretation tools, each of which reinforce the idea that the right tools can get us to the right answers, perhaps even apart from the Holy Spirit. Conclusion The point here is not that Bible apps are bad or that we need to go back to print (or back to exclusively encountering scripture through public readings). It’s to recognize the very subtle ways that mediums we use shape and form our encounters with content. Neither print nor screen are neutral. Both form us and our communities, shaping what we see and don’t see in the text and about God. As we seek to encounter the one true God, let us continually be thankful for the good gifts of technology, but also mindful of its power and peril. John Dyer John (PhD, Durham University) is Dean of Enrollment and Distance Education and assistant professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the author of From the Garden to the City: The Place of Technology in the Story of God and People of the Screen: How Evangelicals Created the Digital Bible and How It Shapes Their Reading of Scripture and has produced numerous digital Bible tools including yallversion.com.