Evangelicals have been in the news quite a bit recently. In the much ballyhooed US Religious Landscape Study, the Evangelicals were one rare breed of US Christians that remained relatively stable in the midst of an overall precipitous decline amongst religious adherents in the U.S. That alone makes Evangelicals newsworthy. Of course in an election cycle, Evangelicals become endless fodder for the 24 hour news cycle because they are an important voting block, with different parties making different attempts to appeal to them. In the midst of all this press, both positive and negative, one story about Evangelicals may have escaped your notice. The piece written for The Federalist, titled “Survey Finds Most American Christians are Actually Heretics,”(hat tip Lee Nelson) loses some important points amongst the snark, nevertheless it remains worth your time.
The piece is essentially an op-ed commentary on a survey conducted by Lifeway Research and funded by Ligonier ministries. The defining feature of the survey, at least to me, was an inability for those surveyed to think consistently about their faith. For example, 60% of respondents believed that Heaven is a place where “all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones” however 54% percent of respondents said that “only those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior” will go to heaven. Adding to the confusion, 64% believe that “God accepts all forms of religion.” It doesn’t take a seminary degree to see the incompatibility of the above viewpoints. The only way I could reconcile the above viewpoints would be with the theologically liberal solution of a Universalist Cosmic Christ, which is probably not what the respondents intended!
And while logical inconsistency might be the defining feature of the survey, it is by no means the most interesting. Apparently, for this survey LifeWay used “stringent criteria” in order to separate “Evangelicals” from Christians in general. Those respondents who identified as “Evangelical” must indicate the Bible as “their highest authority,” that personal evangelism was important and that “trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross is the only way to salvation.” The expectation was that the Evangelicals would perform better on the more theological/biblical portions of the survey than the more generic “Christian” respondents. But as Morris points out in his article for The Federalist, Evangelicals actually performed worse. And the points they scored worse on were not Bible trivia such as “who was the first Apostle called by Jesus,” but rather the Evangelicals struck out on fundamental articles of the Christian faith.
Let me briefly provide two examples before I spell out the implications. Seven out of ten Evangelical respondents agreed with the statement “Jesus was the first being God created.” Now I must admit this is a carelessly worded and potentially confusing statement, namely because “Son of God” would have fit the purpose better here than “Jesus.” Nevertheless, I think the point of the statement is easily discerned. The co-divinity and thus co-eternality of the Son of God with the Father is a truth seen clearly in in the New Testament and was proclaimed and defended by church councils and creeds. To believe that the Son of God was created in time, even if created first, is to fall into the ancient heresy of Arianism. The stunning implication here is that 7 out of 10 American Evangelicals are Arian heretics!
Here’s another example. 56% of Evangelical respondents agreed with the statement that “the Holy Spirit is a divine force and not a personal being.” This is an equally astonishing figure for the same reason. The personality of the Holy Spirit is a teaching clearly found in scripture both in terms of referencing the Holy Spirit by personal pronouns as well as personal characteristics. The matter was also discussed at length by the early church fathers (e.g. Tertullian’s Adversus Praxeam, Augustine’s De Fide et symbolo and commentary on 1 John 4, Basil De Spiritu Sancto, and Gregory of Nazianzus’ Fifth Theological Oration) as well as codified in early Christian creeds.
What does the above tell us? Creeds, from the Latin Credo (I believe), were statements of belief to determine who was and who was not an orthodox (right believing) Christian. The uncomfortable truth is that nearly 3/4 of the Evangelical population holds beliefs that would have prevented them from being considered orthodox Christians not only by the early church, but also the medieval church as well as those churches of the Magisterial Reformation. In other words, the vast majority of Christians who have lived since the time of Jesus would not recognize modern American Evangelicals as fellow Christians. That is the astonishing, hard reality. Hence the question: Are Evangelicals even Christian?
Now before people leap to conclusions, let me say briefly that simple faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as sufficient for salvation is a core evangelical conviction that I happen to agree with. I do not believe one must necessarily become acquainted with creedal orthodoxy for salvation. I doubt the thief on the cross would have been able to render a satisfactory Christology if put on the spot. At the same time however, an appeal to simple faith is not an excuse for willful or disinterested ignorance neither is it permission for bottom of the barrel doctrinal understanding. That Evangelicals have so magnificently failed to understand their own faith, much less to pass on the faith once delivered to the next generation should at the very least result in profound grief and self-examination, not to mention some level of godly fear.
At the same time I hope the above gives some hope to atheist, skeptic, and agnostic friends. If you have been turned off by what you thought was Christianity, there is a very good chance you’ve never even seen it before. If the survey is to be believed, the vast majority of people who have represented the Christian faith to you not only lack a basic understanding of what the faith is but they actually hold views that Christians have historically rejected. Perhaps this survey is an invitation to you to look into the Christian faith for yourself and not let it merely be represented to you by others. As a practical suggestion, I’d encourage you to pick up a New Testament and read John’s Gospel. Only 45% of Evangelicals even know there is such a thing as John’s Gospel, so at the very least you’ll be able to stump your Christian friends at your next neighborhood religious throw down if you actually follow up on this bit of advice.
The report from this survey is certainly gloom and doom, but that’s not where I want to end. We don’t want to mope around in light of this bad news but would rather take productive steps to right the disturbing trend. So in closing, I’d like to suggest a few practical steps you could take to make sure you’re not one of the unfortunate statistics listed above. Working through a catechism, perhaps even with a “catechist” (if you’re so fortunate) would be a good first step. I’m happy to see the revitalization of catechisms, a trend particularly vibrant within the Anglican Church in North America.
I’m also pleased to see a revitalization of advanced theological training within the local church, another trend particularly strong within the ACNA. You could take advantage of this trend by enrolling in an upcoming course at the Ridley Institute, either live or through our livestreaming service. Biblical Theology begins in January. Institutionally, Bishops can take seriously their duty to examine candidates for confirmation as well as ordination.
In a previous ecclesial life, I was astonished at how poorly prepared candidates for ordination were and how easily they slipped through the various checkpoints that should have prevented them from being ordained. Better to tell a candidate “no,” and send him back to do more work than tell him “yes” and inflict him on a congregation. If he hasn’t taken the study of the Christian faith seriously up to this point, he certainly won’t after he’s ordained.
Finally, parents have a multitude of age appropriate resources and its very important that parents take primary responsibility for the discipleship of their children. A good catechism is not to be overlooked (FYI: I’ve used New City Catechism with my children ages 8 and 5 and they love it). The Jesus Storybook Bible is a phenomenal Biblical and theological resource, as is The Ology.
I’m sure much more could be added to this list, but this should provide a good base of practical application to the above problem to get any interested person off to a good start.
This post was written by Rob Sturdy