Back in 2014, LifeWay Research published a worrying study that suggested most Evangelicals hold views the early church long ago declared heresy. Now, a follow-up to that study has been released, and the numbers are just as concerning—and in some cases even worse—on core Christian doctrine.
When the first study came out, I questioned here at First Things whether the confusion over basic Christian theology was in part an outworking of a misunderstanding of the idea of “Scripture alone.” “Too many Christians mistake ‘Scripture alone’ as if it were a license for them to read the Bible alone—to read it apart from other people,” I wrote. “You know the idea: ‘All I need is me and my Bible.’” In other words, I suggested, Christians today tend to elevate their own personal, private interpretations of Scripture, failing to hold them up to the Church’s history of interpretation, especially as expressed in the creeds.
Christianity Today’s Ted Olsen pushed back in the comments section against my initial interpretation, noting rightly that the original study focused on “self-described evangelical Protestants.” (Meaning, many who “self-describe” as Evangelicals may not be representative of practicing Evangelicals.) And while he pointed out some further possibilities that might bolster my theory (e.g., the fact that Evangelicals in the first study denied that their local church had the right to declare whether they were or weren’t Christian), Olsen nevertheless suggested that “further research” might undermine my thesis about misreadings of “Scripture alone.”
The newly released study from LifeWay Research puts some of our discussion to the test. It addresses the issue of identification by designating Evangelicals by their beliefs, rather than by self-identification. Evangelicals, in this study’s usage, are those who strongly agree that: 1) The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe; 2) It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior; 3) Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin; and 4) Only those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
We might expect that identifying Evangelicals by these core beliefs (rather than by self-identification) would give us more orthodox results than the study published two years ago. Sadly, that isn’t the case. First, the good: As a group, Evangelicals express confidence in the perfection of God (97 percent), his authorship of Scripture (94 percent), the accuracy of Scripture in all that it teaches (95 percent), the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (98 percent), and that God exists as a Trinity (97 percent), among other doctrines.
But there is significant confusion about the equality of the persons of the Holy Trinity—and even whether some of them are persons at all. A significant majority said that Jesus is fully God and fully man (85 percent), but that number is surprisingly smaller than the high nineties expressing trust in the resurrection. What is worse, an astounding 71 percent of Evangelicals said they believe Jesus is a created being (“Jesus is the first and greatest creature created by God”). That is a significantly higher number than the 16 percent who said the same in the previous study, so perhaps we can attribute some of the confusion to misunderstanding the question.
But confusion doesn’t seem to be behind widespread heresy regarding the Holy Trinity. A majority of Evangelicals deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit, with 56 percent saying he is a “divine force but not a personal being.” That’s slightly worse than the previous study, when only 51 percent of self-identified Evangelicals said the same. Moreover, 28 percent of Evangelicals this time around said “the Holy Spirit is a divine being, but is not equal with God the Father or Jesus.” That number is up significantly from the previous study, where only 9 percent of self-identified Evangelicals said the same.
So what’s the source of this errant theology? More than the 2014 report did, the new study from LifeWay Research delves into that question somewhat. In so doing, it addresses issues I raised in my First Things column on the first report—namely, what it means to read Scripture alone, and the importance of church history and creeds as a norming influence in our understanding of Scripture.
Christianity Today summarizes the first issue succinctly: “Evangelicals were surprisingly relativistic as well, especially when it comes to the Bible. While all evangelical respondents strongly agreed that ‘the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe,’ and nearly as many (95 percent) said ‘the Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do,’ nearly a third (30 percent) believe that ‘the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses.’ This could indicate that while evangelicals want the Bible to have the last word, they want the freedom to understand what that means in their own way.”
That’s precisely the concern I raised in my analysis of the 2014 report—the idea that many Christians seem to think saying Sola Scriptura is the ultimate authority somehow means it is my personal “solo” reading of Scripture that is authoritative. They reject the witness of the Church down through the ages in favor of a personal, private understanding of Scripture (which is not at all what the reformers meant by the term “Scripture alone”). Consequently, we see that many Evangelicals deny that the historic Church’s creeds and confessions have any relevance today. In fact, the 2016 report indicates that 23 percent percent of Evangelicals believe “there is little value in studying or reciting historical Christian creeds and confessions,” while a further 9 percent are unsure.
Because they privilege their own personal understanding of Scripture over the historic witness of the Church, it’s not surprising that Evangelicals deny that their congregation should have any meaningful authority over them: For example, 57 percent denied that their local church should have “the authority to withhold the Lord’s Supper from me and exclude me from the fellowship of the church.” In other words, Evangelicals believe the Bible is authoritative; and that authority is mediated by individual believers, rather than the church (even though the Bible explicitly says that authority is to be exercised by the church—e.g., Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, Titus 3:10-11, etc.)
If we are going to address the rise of heresy in our churches, then Christians must rededicate themselves to reading the Bible in community—with the local church, yes, but also with the Church throughout history. If the Bible is truly the authority Evangelicals say it is, then we must also recognize that God has exercised that authority over Christians other than ourselves. The history of the Church, in its creeds and confessions, is a witness to other Christians who have been shaped by and wrestled with the Word of God.
If instead we ignore the ways in which the Church has expressed its beliefs—if we ignore the ways in which God has shaped the faith of the Church historic through His Word—then we are really denying that the Scriptures are authoritative at all. We are in effect saying that we do not trust God’s Word to have acted on any Christians other than ourselves. Instead, we are elevating ourselves—our own hearts—as the ultimate judge, both over Scripture and the God who has shared that Word with the Church down through history. And that is heresy of the highest degree.
As an aside, there are a few things I would love to see in future follow-ups on this study. For example, the theology of my church body (Lutheran Church–Canada, a sister church to The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) as well as that of conservative Anglicans (e.g., the Anglican Church in North America) might well place respondents in the “Evangelical” camp, given this study’s definition of the term. But unlike many other Evangelicals, we tend to stress the use of the liturgy and the historic creeds in worship. Do active, church-going liturgical Evangelicals fare better or worse than active, church-going non-liturgical Evangelicals? That’s a question I would very much like to see answered.
Because this study focuses on Evangelicals to the exclusion of other Christian traditions, we don’t get to see what church-going Catholics, Orthodox, or mainlines believe. A clearer comparison with other church traditions—and a breakdown of Evangelicals by church affiliation as well—might be helpful in identifying groups that are doing a better job passing on core Christian doctrine. That would allow us to study those groups that are doing well to determine what it is about them that is working. Of course, such additional research must be as careful in defining these groups as this 2016 study is in defining Evangelicals. (The 2014 study separated Evangelicals from mainlines and Protestants, but further isolated the results of church-going Evangelicals vis-à-vis the larger category of self-described Evangelicals; no such breakdown was made for Catholics or mainlines. See more on my criticism of this in my response to Ted Olsen’s comment on my 2014 post.)
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for Lutheran Church-Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets @captainthin.