Biblical Literalism I – Barna Survey

Barna recently published survey results on how Americans understand and interpret the Bible. Gallup has asked similar questions for many years, and the results are relatively stable. When asked, “Which of the following statements comes closest to describing what you believe about the Bible?”, people gave the following results:



A] “Actual word of God, and should be

           taken literally, word for word”                       22%

B] “Inspired word of God, no errors,

            some verses symbolic”                              30%

C] “Inspired word of God, has some

            factual or historical errors”                         16%

D] “Not inspired, tells how writers understood

            the ways and principles of God”                   9%

E] “Just another book of teachings written by

            men that contain stories and advice”           15%


That is, over half of Americans believe the Bible is literally true, apart from a small number of “symbolic” verses. (The definition of “symbolic” must be extraordinarily broad, and is never provided.)

For well over a century, no expert on the Bible has claimed that the Bible is literally true. Perhaps a few would go along with option B. But nearly everyone would admit the Bible contains errors, and choose option C, D, or E. Most experts argue rather stridently against option A, both on factual grounds, and because some biblical passages seem quite immoral.

Official Catholic doctrine corresponds to option B, although Catholic scholars often acknowledge the existence of biblical errors. I assume most Protestant schools and seminaries teach option C, but this is hard to ascertain. Some “conservative” schools might teach option B. But 22% of Americans believe the Bible is literally true, word for word, and virtually no school teaches this. A lot of pastors have either rejected their formal training or have had none.

Nearly a century ago, the Scopes “Monkey” trial was fought over the issue of biblical literacy. Defenders of this approach were widely ridiculed, and literacy was pronounced dead. They were wrong. This is one of those zombie issues that keeps coming back.

This is a rich subject with many implications and a long history. In future articles I’ll discuss some of these ramifications.


A Postscript on Catholic Literalism

I had originally assumed that Catholic doctrine acknowledged the existence of errors in the Bible, since nearly all Catholic scholars do. But I was wrong. The Catholic Church insists the Bible is divinely inspired and without error.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this perfectly clear. Article 3, Section Two is titled “Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture.” Verse 105 says “God is the author of Sacred Scripture.” Verse 106 says “God inspired the human authors of the sacred books,” and verse 107 declares “The inspired books teach the truth.” It continues, “we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

The Catechism makes no attempt to explain the existence of contradictions or blatant factual errors in the Bible. It simply pounds the table for inerrancy. That is Church tradition, and the Church almost never admits that it has been wrong. It took centuries to admit its mistake about Galileo, and it still insists that contraception is a mortal sin. (It is now silent, however, about the virtues of the rhythm method.)

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