NCLS Research

View of the Bible

NB.  This discussion is based on NCLS 1996 data.

Despite the relatively high levels of agreement among attenders about basic Christian beliefs, there are some issues on which Christians hold diverse views. An example is people's attitude to the Bible. Attenders were asked to choose, from a list of statements, which statement best represented their view of the Bible. Based on their responses, the following positions in regard to the Bible can be identified:
Literalist: Attenders who believe that the Bible is the word of God, to be taken literally word for word.
Contextualist: Attenders who believe that the Bible is the word of God, to be interpreted in the light of its historical and cultural context.
Traditionalist: Attenders who believe that the Bible is the word of God, to be interpreted in the light of the church´s teaching and traditions.
Unique book: Attenders who believe that the Bible is not the word of God but a unique book through which God's word may come to us.
Valuable book: Attenders who believe that the Bible is not the word of God but is a valuable book.
Little value today: Attenders who believe that the Bible is an ancient book with little value today.

The responses of attenders are shown in the Figure below. Two major conclusions can be drawn from these results. First, the vast majority of attenders (91%) believe the Bible is the word of God in some form. This ranges from 89% to 98% across denominations. There are relatively low levels of attenders who see the Bible as only a unique or valuable book (5%) or of little value today (1%).

Second, no denomination is characterised by unanimity about how the Bible should be understood. Even in those denominations with high levels of assent for a particular view (for example, 64% of Pentecostals are literalists; 50% of Catholics are traditionalists), large numbers of attenders in each case hold different views. In most denominations no view is predominant, with around 40% accepting one position. See Taking Stock for more information

This, in part, reflects the fact that many attenders actually wish to hold together what are sometimes finely tuned differences. On the basis of official teaching, many Catholics may well want to accept both the contextual and traditionalist positions, a point reinforced by other CCLS questions.

Literalists are relatively evenly spread across age groups in the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting churches. In most other denominations it is a position more likely to be adopted by older attenders. Across nearly all denominations, younger adults are more likely to take a contextualist position.

In most denominations, older adults are more likely to affirm the place of the churches´ traditions in reading the Bible. In the Catholic Church, however, traditionalists are found in similar proportions across every age group.

There are striking differences between the 1991 and 1996 NCLS regarding attenders´ attitudes to the Bible. Anglican and Protestant attenders in NCLS96 are more likely to take a literalist or a contextualist view of the Bible. The proportion of literalists has increased across denominations (eg Uniting +4%; Anglican +6%; Assemblies of God +7%; Baptist +8%). The proportion of contextualists is also up in general, and more in the Anglican and Uniting churches. By contrast, the percentage who see the Bible not as the word of God but only as a valuable book is down significantly.

Some caution needs to be exercised in the interpretation of these results. The 1996 question about the Bible used in the main surveys was different from the question in 1991. A smaller random sample of attenders in 1996 was given the question used in 1991. It is from this directly comparable question that the results reported above have been derived. However, nothwithstanding sampling error, the evidence suggests the sample is representative of all attenders. Furthermore, the results for the primary question on the Bible in NCLS96 support the trends seen here.

Source:Taking Stock, 1999.

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