We now have data showing how American attitudes on the Bible have shifted over the past forty years. First, here’s a graphic from atheist John Loftus’s blog, posted back in 2014. It shows three choices from a Gallup poll regarding what someone thinks the Bible is and compares the results from the poll in 1984, 2004, and 2014. Here are the choices:
- The Bible is the ACTUAL word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.
- The Bible is the INSPIRED word of God but not everything should be taken literally, word for word.
- The Bible is an ancient book of FABLES, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.
None of these is a great option, but if I had to pick one, I’d go with option two.
Option three denies or at least downplays the Bible’s divine inspiration, but option one denies the Bible’s human composition. It suggests that the Bible is only a record of God’s words spoken to human secretaries. But that’s not what the church teaches, as can be seen in this excerpt from the Second Vatican Council:
In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which he wanted (Dei Verbum 11).
The Bible is the word of God, but its human authors didn’t just blindly transcribe God’s voice. If they did, how do we explain Paul’s lack of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 1:16, where he says, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.”
The human authors were true authors, which means God allowed their personalities and worldview to be present in the words they wrote. This means that in their writings, we see a worldview that is less advanced—not just scientifically, but also theologically. That’s why Dei Verbum notes that the books of the Old Testament “also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show[ing] us true divine pedagogy.”
Pope Benedict XVI recognized that the Bible is not just a sterile collection of God’s explicit commands and descriptions. It is a story of human redemption told over centuries. He wrote the following in his 2010 apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini: “It must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them” (42).
For example, since the ancient Israelites were often tempted to worship false, pagan gods, the true God did not explicitly reveal to them that he is a trinity. Doing so early in Israel’s history might have confused them and led to false worship of a triad of separate divine beings instead of true knowledge of the Trinity. Instead, God first taught that he is the God to be worshiped above all other gods, without explicitly saying those gods are false. Later, he revealed that he is the only uncreated Creator, and then, later still, he revealed his triune nature.
So, just because the biblical text says something, that doesn’t mean God is saying that exact same thing to us today. That’s why the Second Vatican Council taught that “since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”
The key phrase in this passage is “asserted by the inspired authors.”
The fact that something is said in Scripture does not mean it should be taken in an uncompromising literal way—like when the Psalmist says we take refuge under God’s wings (91:4). The Bible is the inerrant word of God, but it comes to us through human words in a variety of genres. There is history, but there are also poetry and other non-literal ways of expressing truth, like when the Bible describes God the Father having physical body parts like a strong right arm.
Consequently, an overly literal approach to Scripture produces many more difficulties for atheists to marshal as evidence that the Bible isn’t divinely inspired. For example, some alleged “Bible contradictions” related to genealogies arise only when one falsely assumes genealogies were exact records and not approximations that often skipped generations. As a result, the biblical fundamentalist may create a contorted explanation for the difficulty, whereas the atheist sees a difficulty that doesn’t actually exist.
So let’s go back to this Gallup poll and notice the change over thirty years.
Loftus takes this to mean that Christian fundamentalists are losing. In one sense, they are, but in another sense, they are just, as my friend Randal Rauser says, switching sides. Biblical fundamentalists who have an overly literal approach to Scripture have become “fundamentalists” or “new atheists” who reject the Bible based on an overly literal reading of it. The percentage of those who see the Bible as the literal but not the actual word of God has remained constant and even increased in recent years. When Gallup asked this same question in 2022, here were the results:
- The Bible is the ACTUAL word of God and should be taken literally, word for word (20%).
- The Bible is the INSPIRED word of God but not everything should be taken literally, word for word (49%).
- The Bible is an ancient book of FABLES, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man (29%).
Once again, the middle ground position picked up points. As for the other two options, more people are ditching one extreme view of the Bible—it’s all God and has no truly human elements—in favor of another extreme view: the Bible is all human and has no truly divine elements.
In many cases, this “side-switching” happens because a person pits what the Bible says against what the facts of science, history, and ethical reasoning say. He thinks only one can be right, and so if the Bible is right, then science, history, and philosophical approaches to ethics must be wrong. But if this person accepts modern views of science, history, and ethics, then the Bible has to be wrong. He doesn’t step back and say that maybe it isn’t the Bible that’s wrong, but his overly literal reading of it.