In an article at Christianity Today, Ryan Burge reflects upon the results from the General Social Survey about American Christians’ view of the Bible. The GSS has been asking the same question since 1984:
Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?
1. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word
2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word
3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men
Burge says, broadly, that these views may be fairly said to represent (1) evangelicals, (2) mainline Protestants and Catholics, and (3) those who are not Christians.
Here is a graph of the overall picture when it comes to Americans in general:
While the middle group has stayed rather consistent, the “literalist” group and the “fables” group have seen some change. Burge opines that this probably reflects the growing number of Americans who have become religiously unaffiliated over the past few decades. However a strong majority still sees the Bible as God’s Word.
However, when the sample is limited to those who belong to a Christian tradition, the picture has remained remarkably consistent since 1984. About 4 in 10 hold to the “literal” position, 1 in 10 hold the “fables” position, and about half of all respondents make the middle choice.
If the sample is further limited to those who are active in church attendance (at least once a week), then the number of “literalists” jumps to nearly 60 percent. (You can see the corresponding charts at Burge’s article.) Burge attributes this to the decline of the mainline churches and the growth of evangelicalism, and tries to reassure evangelical leaders that, among active Christians, America is not becoming more theologically “liberal.” In fact, we may even be more conservative today.
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What are we to make of data and commentary like this? Let me suggest a few perspectives today.
First, the “literal, word for word” questions represent fallacious thinking.
The first answer, if I understand it correctly, is not really even a legitimate option, except for the most anti-intellectual fundamentalist. A significant difference in answer 1 and 2 is that the first says the Bible is the “actual” word of God vs. the “inspired” word of God in the second. But unless you hold to a pure dictation method of revelation, you cannot make that kind of distinction. The first part of answer #1 thus does not accurately describe most evangelicals, who accept that people wrote the Bible, inspired by God.
There is another problem in the second parts of the first two answers. The choices are (1) the Bible “is to be taken literally, word for word,” and (2) “not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.” These choices reflect “Battle for the Bible” slogans rather than reality.
“Literalists” don’t take every word literally. They don’t believe the Lord is a shepherd, that he is a rock in which believers find refuge, or that Jesus is literally bread or light or a vine. They may insist that the Bible is historically accurate, that its moral precepts reflect universal divine standards, and that it is internally consistent and does not contradict itself when rightly understood, but I don’t know too many evangelicals who take the Bible “word for word.” They don’t insist that people shouldn’t wear polyester/cotton blend clothing, that rebellious children should be stoned to death, or that a brother should be required to marry his sibling’s widow if he dies. Heck, most of them don’t even have much of a problem with divorce anymore.
No matter what we say in slogans — God said it, I believe it, that settles it! — nobody reads the Bible that way and so questions like this just tend to reinforce tribal loyalties rather than get to any meaningful insight about how someone might actually read and understand the Bible.
Second, the questions represent false alternatives.
My misgivings about these choices are further reinforced by reading answer #3. I, for one, have no problem with saying “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men” AND “The Bible is inspired by God.” The Bible can be God’s word and the words of people at the same time. In fact, that’s the genius of God’s revelation — it is incarnational. God’s glory shines through human flesh, words, and activity.
Furthermore, although some who call themselves “literalists” may have a hard time understanding this, some of us happen to think that God can communicate truth through “fables, legends, history, and moral precepts,” as well as any other kind of genre. If Genesis may appropriately be called “myth” — the origin story of the Hebrew people — as some of us think it is, that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether it is inspired by God, whether it is “true” or communicates God’s truth, or whether it leads people to Christ. Some of us argue, in fact, that the “truth” communicated through various forms of literature can be more profound and help people draw closer to God much more effectively than historical reporting or “factual” narrative.
Third, the author’s conclusion totally misses the point.
“Pastors, denominational leaders, and curious Christians need to be reassured—American Christianity is not becoming more liberal.” This is what Ryan Burge wants us to take from this survey and its results.
I, for one, am not reassured at all. The answers and Burge’s misapprehensions represent the simplistic, jingoistic way too many people look at matters like religion in America. The answwers are more about what team I’m on than about any true appraisal of theological positions. This is most certainly not reassuring to someone like me who cares that people grow and mature in Christ and in their understanding of the faith.
But on the other hand, I’ve learned also not to put too much stock in people making the correct precise formulations about what they believe or don’t believe. I’m much more concerned with whether people read the Bible, listen to it, love it, and let it lead them to Christ than I do whether they can craft correct definitions.