The End of Biblical Literalism

The Bible by fourbyfourblazer - flickr.com/photos/chrisyarzab/5533558309/

The Bible by fourbyfourblazer – flickr.com/photos/chrisyarzab/5533558309/

For the last 40 years Gallup has polled Americans on their view of the Bible.  For the purposes of this research, respondents are asked to choose between

  • inspired by God not to be taken literally
  • actual word of God to be taken literally, and
  • fables, history, and moral precepts recorded by people.

Over the entire 40 year period the most common way Americans have interpreted the Bible is as a book that is inspired by God but not to be taken literally.  That perspective has held rather steady varying between 45% and 51%, but never outside that range.

The actual word of God perspective was highest when the polling began back in 1976 at 38%.  It dipped to the mid 20s in the late 1990s and has remained there ever since.

The final view that understands the Bible as a book of fables, history and moral precepts recorded by people was the least common perspective when the survey began and remained so in every survey until the 2017 survey.  In 2017, this view became America’s second most popular at 26% (compared to 24% who hold it is the actual word of God).

So What?

The shift of the actual word of God to the least common perspective is significant.  Its new last place position is likely to continue, and further drops in its popularity are projected since the decline in this view is most significant among the youngest adults.

As someone who has served congregations in which each of these three positions was the most common, I know well how important this single issue is in determining how a given person or group of persons not only addresses the biblical text, but also how they understand the call to follow the Way of Jesus in the 21st century.

  • Which view best describes your understanding of the Bible? Why? Has your view changed over time? If so, how?
  • Which of the 3 views do you think is most common in your congregation? How sure are you that your answer is accurate?
  • What do you think are some of the most significant implications for the actual word of God perspective becoming the least common and being projected to continue to decline in popularity in the years ahead?

Note: To see how rapidly views have changed, check out my post reflecting in the 2011 edition of this survey.

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