The George Gallup polling organization follows trends over decades by continuing to ask the same questions every year or every few years. It has revealed trends on how the public has felt on every subject from marriage to presidential approval ratings.
Asking the right questions, however, can prove to be difficult, and as the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” And a question that may have sounded correct to people’s ears in the 1970s can cause a different reaction in the 2020s.
I’m no theologian, but when Gallup asks, “Which of the following statements comes closest to describing your views about the Bible?” and then offers me only three choices, none of which any Christian ought to choose, how am I to respond?
In its July 6 report entitled, “Fewer in U.S. Now See Bible as Literal Word of God,” Gallup reports that the number of people who believe the Bible is the “actual word of God, to be taken literally” has dropped from a 1980 high near 40% to a 2020 low of only 20%.
Gallup further notes that those who believe the Bible is “inspired by God, not to be taken literally,” has pretty much stayed the same over the years, currently at 49%. And then it rounds out the survey with those who believe the Bible is a collection of “fables, history, moral precepts recorded by man” at a new high of 29%.
But do those questions mean the same thing to every Christian? If not, how are we to understand the “trends” Gallup is reporting on.
For example, if you searched the Focus on the Family website for guidance as to whether the Bible should be taken literally, you get a response that most evangelicals today might give you:
Only the parts that are meant to be taken literally. Of the many kinds of writing in the Bible, some are literal, while others are metaphorical. But isn’t that true of most writing? When the poet William Blake wrote “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,” he didn’t expect anyone to picture a flaming tiger sprinting through the jungle and smelling of burnt fur, did he? He didn’t mean it literally. And in the Bible, when Jesus said, “I am the door,” He didn’t mean He was made of wood or that He swung on hinges. When He told parables, He was using metaphors.
But when we read about Moses or King David, these are accounts of historical events. They were written that way, and they’ve been read that way for centuries. Most important, Jesus read them that way.
And wouldn’t Gallup’s second choice be equally confusing to many Christians today: “inspired by God, not to be taken literally.” God’s word is, of course, “inspired” or God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and when intended to be – see above – should be taken literally. But the way Gallup phrases it, it seems to exclude the possibility of Scripture being both “inspired” and literally true.
It’s that use of the word “literal.” It means different things to different people.
Should Gallup be asking something like, “Do you believe the Bible is completely true?”
Would you, as a Christian, have an easier time answering that question?
Or, another possibility: Do you believe the Bible is inerrant – without error – in its original manuscripts?”
Would those questions be more meaningful for Gallup in parsing trends among believers today?
Personally, I’d like to see Gallup ask something like this, from Hebrews 4:12: Do you believe that the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart?”
Responses to that question over time might give us some truly meaningful information as to what people believe about the Bible, don’t you think?
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