Why memorize the Scriptures? What would be the benefits of this practice that most people would consider obsolete today, in an age in which the digital revolution has all but made it redundant? These and many other questions about the rationale of Scripture memorization are legitimate and must be answered before any considerations are given to methodology, techniques, short and long-term goals, and other such matters.
There are many reasons to engage in this spiritual discipline. First, the practice of memorizing God’s Word is equally commended and commanded throughout the Bible. Sometimes this is done in an explicit way, as in the well-known passages: “but his delight is in the Law of the Lord and on His Law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:2, ESV), or “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,” (Ps 119:11, ESV), or “this Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it,” (Josh. 1:8, ESV), to name just a few.
Other times, it is there implicitly, as in the paramount example of our Lord, who quoted the Scriptures repeatedly in his sermons, in his teachings, and in his debates. In fact, even in the most agonizing moments of his life he turned to the Psalms, the prayers of his Scriptures. Doubtless, he memorized them by devoting the same amount of effort, time, concentration, passion, and intentionality as we would need to do if we are to follow his example.
Second, anyone who has been involved in Scripture memorization can attest to the diverse spiritual benefits that result from this exercise. There are countless recounts of people recalling the right Scripture verse at the right time when facing a critical situation: a temptation to avoid, a promise to claim, a praise to bestow, an example to follow, etc. A spiritual discipline that has proven its usefulness for the hearts and minds of Christians, with a track record that goes back for millennia, must find in every generation advocates not merely for its usefulness but for its indispensability for a normal Christian life.
The pathway to Scripture memorization that is promoted, discussed, assessed, and exemplified in this series is memorization of Scripture book-by-book: memorization not of separate verses, not even of mere passages, but of entire books of the Bible. Indeed, for those engaged in the study of the Scriptures in the original languages, the proposal moves one step further to advocate for the memorization of the Scriptures not in a translation, as good as the enterprise might be, but in the original languages.
While memorization is not a new spiritual discipline, I have not yet encountered an approach to theological education based on the memorization of entire books of the Bible. In the Christian academy one can safely say that Scripture memorization, while not completely absent, is certainly not a dominant presence. Furthermore, even outside the established institutions for theological education, Scripture memorization, which in the past was a prominent spiritual discipline, seems today an unpopular practice. When not altogether forgotten, Bible memorization is conducted primarily as a topical / thematic approach, such as the Navigators’ Topical Memory System, one of the most widely known and used programs. While this venue definitely has its value, Scripture memorized in this fashion is seldom understood in its original context, literary or theological context, and it runs the risk of conveying a non-contextual understanding of the passage, a danger that must be eagerly avoided.
The proposal advanced here is a commitment to memorize entire books of the Bible, with nothing less than the entire canon as a lifetime goal. Such a goal might seem unachievable to most, but when one is committed to memorizing the Scriptures, several decades of disciplined memorization can achieve surprising results.
The main rationale for choosing this method is the fact that the Bible itself consists of a canonical collection of originally separate writings. To memorize the Bible book-by-book primarily does justice to the intrinsic nature of the Scriptures, which are the result of a very complex process of writing, preserving, collecting, and canonizing a corpus of sacred writings, all done on a book-by-book basis. The emphasis on the individuality of the biblical books does not and should not minimize the importance of their inter-relatedness and intrinsic unity; on the contrary, it enhances it. Focusing on one book at a time has also the advantage of providing an experience similar to that of the Christians in the first century, a time when most congregations had access to very few of the apostolic writings. In that context, they had to focus by necessity on one writing at a time, with most of the other writings being either physically unavailable or not yet written. Memorizing Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians today would not be dissimilar to the experience of a Christian in first century Ephesus in the wake of receiving Paul’s letter.
Why Memorize Book by Book?
There are several benefits that become evident when the Scripture is memorized in a book-by-book fashion. Some of the more significant ones, with either cognitive or spiritual dividends are briefly stated in what follows.
First, memorizing an entire book gives a solid, thorough knowledge of the biblical text, something that cannot be achieved at this level by any other exegetical means. The primary cognitive benefit of memorization is a mastery and an intimate grasp of the biblical text in its canonical form. Issues such as vocabulary and style of the author, themes deemed important by the author, the overall message of the book, the atmosphere of the writing, particular theological nuances, the structure of the book, the intricacies of the argument, and many other aspects are depicted by book memorization with more ease and precision than by any other exploratory tools. As the memorization progresses, the analytic and synthetic processes of thought bring together a unified and coherent message, hidden many times behind the apparently scattered details of the text.
Second, memorization yields great spiritual benefits. Besides the ones aforementioned, one benefit in particular merits highlighting: the joy of memorizing the Scriptures. The spiritual discipline of memorization promises a level of spiritual satisfaction and inner joy that, personally, has been unsurpassed by any other spiritual discipline. There is nothing more thrilling than to know that truths, which once were in the mind of the divine Author, which were then disseminated through the channel of divine inspiration to the human author, are presently there in the Scriptures to be found, explored, gathered, embraced, and enjoyed. I can confidently say that, when done properly, I cannot think of a spiritual experience that surpasses the elation and enjoyment of Scripture memorization.
A further benefit from memorization is acquiring the ability to assess critically the work of other specialists. To memorize a book does not mean to withdraw from the theological dialogue. On the contrary, memorization is a means of entering into that dialogue with vigorous personal convictions in the scholarly debate. Memorization is particularly beneficial as preparation to face the massive volume of secondary literature. It provides the best venue to understand the positions held on particular issue, to be a better informed and more capable critic, to assess more easily the arguments and the reasons why a particular position is taken. Knowing a text by heart proves to be an antidote to calm, perhaps, the guilty conscience of the scholar who might give priority to secondary literature over the Bible. The escalating number of studies, commentaries, monographs, easily become the focus of research, threatening to push aside the Bible itself. There is nothing inherently wrong in secondary literature; but does the theologian, either the student or the seasoned scholar, who can devote only so many hours a week to theological studies, do justice to the importance of the biblical text?
Another cognitive profit of Scripture memorization is directly related to memorizing the text in the original languages. The emphasis on studying the Scriptures in the original languages is deemed by many as the sine-qua-non of advanced theological studies. Seminary programs require the acquisition and proficiency in biblical languages, and most students become convinced of the importance and benefit of this endeavor for their future ministry. They embark on a two or three years of assiduous work with introductory and advanced grammars, lexica, the memorization of vocabulary and paradigms, which equip them with the basics for reading, exegeting, and interpreting the Scriptures in the original languages. After memorizing a first book of the Novum Testamentum Graece, it dawned on me that memorizing the biblical text in the original languages is far more beneficial for acquiring proficiency in biblical languages than the classical approach. Memorizing verses in the original languages automatically leads to a good grasp of vocabulary, morphological paradigms, syntactic functions and discourse style, just a few aspects which are better perceived in their natural, linguistic context, and not in the artificial context of a lexicon or a grammar textbook.
I would conclude this brief list of memorization benefits with the passing remark that book memorization lends an almost inexhaustible resource for lecturing, preaching and teaching on that particular book to the delight of both the speaker and the audience. Memorization is indeed one simple tool that has the ability to explore the depths of the Word of God in a way that few – if any – other approaches to Scriptures can.