A new survey on American Evangelical beliefs reports grim news, according to an article published yesterday by Christianity Today. The first line says it all: “Most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.”
The story goes on to highlight widespread confusion among Evangelicals on core doctrines like the Personhood of the Holy Spirit and the divinity of Christ. A full 51 percent of Evangelicals apparently deny that the Holy Spirit is a Person, instead conceiving of Him as “a force.” An additional 7 percent aren’t sure what to think on the subject. At the same time, 16 percent of Evangelicals think Jesus is a created being (another 11 percent were unsure), while 22 percent further believe He is less divine than the Father (with 9 percent unsure). The survey also suggests a large portion of Evangelicals hold Pelagian thoughts when it comes to the doctrine of salvation.
These are not small problems: there’s a reason these views were condemned by the early Church. So how are theologies condemned well over 1500 years ago finding a resurgence in contemporary Evangelicalism? The Christianity Today article suggests a failure in adult Christian education as one cause. Let me suggest another: these heresies are finding a resurgence because too many Protestants misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. Too many Christians mistake “Scripture alone” as if it were a license for them to read the Bible aloneto read it apart from other people. You know the idea: “All I need is me and my Bible.” But that’s not what it means. It means that Scripture is alone authoritative, not that your personal (“alone”) interpretation of Scripture is authoritative.
While Scripture itself is clear on matters of salvation, it nevertheless can be (and often is) misinterpreted by sinful people. Jesus Himself faced this danger when the devil suggested to him misinterpretations of the Word of God (Matthew 4:5-6). We fool ourselves if we think we are somehow exempt from this danger. Christ, of course, did not fall for the devil’s suggested misreading. Unsurprisingly, the Word of God made Flesh knows the written Word of God better than does Satan. But we on the other hand can and do fall into such errorbe it error suggested by our own sinful minds, the errant teachings of others, or, indeed, by the devil himself.
Personal piety and a desire for truth are not guarantees that we always read Scripture aright. Consequently, we must rely upon our brothers and sisters in the faith to correct and rebuke us when we err, demonstrating our errors by Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). And this reliance on brothers and sisters refers not merely to those Christians who happen to be alive at the same time as us. Instead, it refers to the whole Christian Church, throughout time. We rely on those who have gone before us. They too get a say in the matter. As G. K. Chesterton has wonderfully put it, this sort of tradition is a “democracy of the dead.”
Of course, doctrine is not itself a matter of democracy per se; we don’t (or at least ought not) vote for dogma in the Church. Dogma is a matter of truth, not popular opinion. But Chesterton’s words remind us that it is arrogant to ignore the teachings of our forefathers in the faith. They faced many of the same theological questions we do today, and their answers have stood the test of time.
Regrettably, too many churchesand this criticism applies not just to Evangelicalsoperate as if the history of the Church were unimportant. Our individualistic society no doubts feeds into this “just the Bible and me” mentality. But Scripture was not given for the benefit of you or me alone. Instead, it was given for the benefit of the Church, throughout history and throughout the world. Consequently, we ought to read Scripture together as a Church. The Church as a body has centuries of experience of reading the Word, of immersing itself in the language of God. We should take it seriously, therefore, when it suggests our own individual readings of Scripture are straying from the mark.
We don’t follow the theological pronouncements of the Church merely because such and such a person says we should. Bishops and councils, after all, can err (remember the Robber’s Council?). But certain pronouncementslike the theological statements of the Ecumenical Councilshave long been recognized by the Church at large as true and faithful understandings of Scripture. They have codified important Scriptural truthson the Nature of Christ, for example, and on the Personhood of the Holy Spiritand so we refer to them as authoritative. That’s how the Nicene Creed came to be. These pronouncements do not invent new dogma not found in the Scriptures; instead, they clearly and carefully reproduce the teachings of Scripture. Consequently, they rightly norm our interpretation of the Scriptures. It’s Tradition in service to Scripture, not Tradition on the same level as Scripture.
This is a more accurate understanding of the Reformation understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition (and, indeed, explains why Lutherans can consider the Lutheran Symbols authoritative). We cannot simply reject the history of the Church. True, where Tradition is appealed to as a source of new dogma, we are right to resist it. But when Tradition codifies and clearly re-presents the teachings of Scripture, it is to be accepted as a norming influence on our individual reading of Scripture.
Philipp Melanchthon explains the Lutheran position well: “Let the highest authority be that of the Word which was divinely taught,” he explains. “Thereafter that church which agrees with that Word is to be considered authoritative.” And again: “Let us hear the church when it teaches and admonishes,” he writes, “but one must not believe because of the authority of the church. For the church does not lay down articles of faith; it only teaches and admonishes. We must believe on account of the Word of God when, admonished by the church, we understand that this meaning is truly and without sophistry taught in the Word of God.”
Christianity Today’s report suggests that some Protestants have forgotten this right relationship between Scripture and Tradition. We are right to trust in Scripture alone; but it is foolhardy to read Scripture by ourselves.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?