Is the Bible the literal word of God?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I received in my electronic mail inbox a 41-page report with the following portentous title: "What it Means to be American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years After 9/11." The mathematical construct "9/11" doesn't require explanation to anyone who has been conscious for the past decade. Everyone knows what it means without elaboration.

The report, issued by something called the Public Religion Research Institute, is a long review of various polling data. I'm usually suspicious of polls, fearing that the sample size may be too small, that the questions may be too imprecise and that the methodology (calling people on the telephone) may be a poor way to glean information. As it happens, 2,450 adults ages 18 and older were contacted by phone during the first two weeks of last month by pollsters. One-third of the calls were made to cellular units. (Realizing how spotty cell reception can be, I'm already a little worried about trusting the results.)

With my skepticism firmly in place, there was one piece of data that I found interesting. Only 23 percent of young adults regard the Bible as the literal word of God compared to 40 percent of seniors. Frankly, in both cases, I was surprised the percentages were that low. Just 23 percent? Just 40?

Phyllis Tickle, founder of the religion department of Publishers Weekly magazine, has a theory that may help explain the aforementioned low percentages. She says Christians today -- whether they realize it or not -- choose between what she calls a "sola Scriptura" belief and a Micah 6:8 belief.

Sola Scriptura ("Bible alone") is a phrase that goes back to the days of the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who believed that unless something was supported directly by the revealed canon of Scripture, it should have no weight for the believer. Tickle argues that the complete reliance on "sola Scriptura" began to fall apart in the 19th century when slavery was eradicated after the Civil War. (The Bible does have verses that seem to tolerate the institution of slaveholding.)

A further erosion occurred in the 20th century when women began to be accepted as full partners with men in the clergy ranks of several Protestant denominations, including my own. (The Bible does say, in the writings of St. Paul, that women are to be given no authority to teach a man in church, that they -- in fact -- should keep silent.) Tickle says in these two instances, some Christians have put the literal word of God aside and instead embraced a Micah 6:8 theology.

Micah 6:8 reads this way in the New International Version (the best-selling Bible translation in the U.S.): "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Of course, Micah 6:8 is part of the literal word of God, too. I'm reminded of a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song from the '70s, which includes these lyrics: "You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by." What's your code, reader? What do you live by: sola Scriptura, Micah 6:8 or something else?

Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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