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John W. MartensJuly 08, 2011

The data for a new poll on the Bible is up on the Gallup website. I am slightly confused by what the poll was attempting to measure, as it seems to confuse "literal interpretation" of the Bible with belief in the Bible as the "actual word of God. Here is an excerpt from the accompanying description of the poll:

Three in 10 Americans interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God. That is similar to what Gallup has measured over the last two decades, but down from the 1970s and 1980s. A 49% plurality of Americans say the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally, consistently the most common view in Gallup's nearly 40-year history of this question. Another 17% consider the Bible an ancient book of stories recorded by man.

The phrase that I found confusing was in the first sentence: "three in 10 Americans interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God." I interpret the Bible "literally" when I understand the words of a text to signify the things they describe. That is, I believe that Mary was "literally" the mother of Jesus. "Literal" could also describe this sense of the Bible in general, that is, the foundational sense from which all other senses, spiritual, moral, and other, emerge.

Yet, how one understands the Bible as "the actual word of God" is an interesting question also. I suspect the pollsters mean that the Bible as "the actual word of God" indicates that God has directly "spoken" these words as opposed to a view of the Bible as written by human beings, somehow under the inspired direction of God, or inspired by God, yet that is not clear. I do, for instance, think the Bible is the word of God, inspired by God and written by people. The three views available to choose are as follows: the Bible is the actual word of God, the Bible is the inspired word of God, or the Bible is a book of fables, legends history and moral precepts recorded by people.

Gallup has consistently found strong differences in views of the Bible as the "actual word of God" by religiosity and education. The current poll also finds significant income differences, with 50% of lower-income respondents believing the Bible is the actual word of God, compared with 27% of middle-income and 15% of high-income respondents. These income differences are larger than what Gallup has measured in the past, with a higher percentage of low-income Americans believing the Bible is literally true.

Apart from educational differences, Catholics also score lower than Protestants on thinking that the Bible is the "actual word of God" (21% to 41%), but higher on believing that the Bible is the "inspired word of God" (65% to 46%). Now, I am certain that your view of the Bible is not dependent upon polls or poll questions, but if you were given these three options, even with some confusion regarding "literal" and "actual word of God," what would you choose?

John W. Martens

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Leo Zanchettin
12 years 11 months ago
What's a Catholic to do? The Bible is the "Actual" word of God. And it is the "Inspired" word of God. And it does consist in part of "Fables and Legends" that happen to the the actual, inspired word of God.

If I were given this poll, I would probably heave a sigh of frustration and place myself in the "Inspired Word of God" category, as the authors seem to be equating "Actual Word of God" with a Fundamentalist reading. But "Inspired" can be a fuzzy catch-all between two extreme alternatives. I suspect that there are plenty who would place themselves in this category, but who would use that descriptor as a way of respectfully dismissing the demands of Scripture. Their religious sensibility would not permit them to use the word "Fable," but it may be just a matter of semantics.

Frankly, I think someone should get the Gallup folks in touch with the CARA folks at Georgetown. They would have a better idea of how to frame the questions. I wonder, in fact, what kind of research CARA has done on Catholics' relationship with the Bible. That would be very illuminating!
Jim Brunner
12 years 11 months ago
The Galluip poll come up with the same results, as far as I am concerned for the past 40 years. I am in full agreement, that the Bible is the ''Word of God'', but not necessarily the ''words'' of God. I also keep in mind two important facts: The Bible came AFTER the Church, AND the Bible was written in the Church, by the Church, and for the Church.
Michael Barberi
12 years 11 months ago
I think Jim means that the New Testament came AFTER the Church. The Bible consists of the Old and New Testaments and the Old Teatament came BEFORE the Church.

I also agree that the Bible is a mixture of the Word of God, the Inspired
Word and some fables. I also agree with Fr. Martin that some texts can be interpreted as the Word of God, while some are the Inspired Word of God. However, how one is to interprete the Bible is complex and one needs to understand the culture, knowledge, and beliefs of the period in question including how the words are translated and what they mean. For example, in ancient times the male seed was thought to be the entire embodiment of the human person. The only contribution of the female was her vessel to bring the seed to fruition as a human person. Hence, coitus interruptus was akid to quasi homicide from ancient times to at least to the 14th century. Hence, could this belief influenced the writers of the Bible and the various ancient codes of Law? How does one interprete the Bible in terms of current knowledge, such as in how a marriage is consummated? If the male seed is not desposited in the female vagina, was the marriage consummated....as in coitus interruptus? If the marriage was not consummated, then coitus interruptus was akin to fornication. Also, the Church teaches that God killed Onan because he violated Divine Law. However, God did not kill Lot for incest and his daughters for fornication with their father; nor did God kill David when he lusted after Bashsheba, committed adulltery and murdered her husband. It seems that the more you study the Bible, the more confused you can become. Sometimes, keeping things simple and going with one's faith is the wiser option.

Surveys are important but one needs to understand the meaning of the results and not rush to conclusions.

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