As King Solomon wisely stated, some things never change, and according to a new survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries, old heresies may be the greatest proof that old habits--and old ideas--die hard.
Conducted recently by Ligonier, and reported on two days ago by Bob Smietana of Lifeway Research, the study reveals "the stunning gap in theological awareness throughout our nation," says Stephen Nichols, Chief Academic Officer at Ligonier.
You can find the full article below, and the accompanying piece from Christianity Today can be accessed here.
Here is my big idea on this Theology Thursday: Biblical Doctrine, like set of dominoes, operates in a system of interdependence. When you push one to the side, it affects all the others. Casual observation of what people in American evangelical churches are saying about the trinity, the person of Jesus, and the exclusivity of salvation explain the cultural "ripple effect"that has resulted in more "ground level" heresy that we witness on a more day to day basis.
We may sometimes wonder how, for example, more progressive evangelicals could possibly arrive at certain conclusions about morality, sexuality, and evangelism, or have such anemic, short-sighted views of issues like social justice. At least part of the answer must lie in the statistics we see in these two articles--which also polled more conservative evangelical churches. Even in conservative churches, heresy is present, even if more silent. Though the discussions we are having in our current cultural environment seem new, they are motivated by heretical ideas that are, in fact, as old as Christendom itself.
When you get the doctrine of God wrong, everything else just goes down hill from there!
Studies like these are a clarion call for pastors to emphasize the importance of sound doctrine in their churches, and to do so in a way that clearly demonstrates the practical applications and consequences of theology. The trinity is far from an abstract issue that doesn't affect me personally. Without it, there is no Gospel!
I have often used this venue to advocate for stronger emphasis in expository preaching, and connecting practical "felt needs" to something deeper and more eternally profound than the needs themselves. In short, evangelical pulpits need to anchor this world with the next one, and demonstrate in practical ways the central role of sound doctrine in making that connection.
But based on the results of this survey, we have a tall order ahead of us!
By Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Most Americans believe in heaven, hell, and a few old-fashioned heresies.
Americans disagree about mixing religion and politics and about the Bible. And few pay much heed to their pastor’s sermons or see themselves as sinners.
Those are among the findings of a new study of American views about Christian theology from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The online survey of 3,000 Americans was commissioned by Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries. Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries, says the study was intended to “take the temperature of America’s theological health.”
Ligonier founder and chairman, R.C. Sproul, says, “What comes screaming through this survey is the pervasive influence of humanism.” Researchers asked 43 questions about faith, covering topics from sin and salvation to the Bible and the afterlife. They wanted to know how people in the pews—and people on the street—understand theology.
Many Americans get the basics right, but they’re often fuzzy on the details, says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “People like to believe in a generic Christian-ish god with cafeteria doctrines,” says Stetzer. “However, when we asked about harder beliefs—things that the church has and still considers orthodoxy—the numbers shift.”
Among the study’s findings:
Americans say heaven is a real place. But they disagree about who gets in.
Two thirds (67 percent) of Americans believe heaven is a real place. That includes, following standard demographic categories, 9 in 10 Black Protestants (88 percent) and evangelicals (90 percent), three quarters of Catholics (75 percent) as well as a third of non-Christians (37 percent).
Just under half of Americans (45 percent) say there are many ways to heaven—which conflicts with traditional views about salvation being linked to faith in Jesus.
Catholics (67 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are most likely to say heaven’s gates are wide open with many ways in. Evangelicals (19 percent) and Black Protestants (33 percent) are more skeptical.
About half of Americans (53 percent) say salvation is in Christ alone. Four in 10 (41 percent) say people who have never heard of Jesus can still get into heaven. And 3 in 10 (30 percent) say people will have a chance to follow God after they die.
Hell is a real place, too. But you have to be really bad to go there.
About 6 in 10 Americans (61 percent) say hell is a real place. Black Protestants (86 percent) and Evangelicals (87 percent) are most likely to say hell is real. Catholics (66 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are less convinced.
Overall, Americans don't seem too worried about sin or being sent to hell. Two-thirds (67 percent) say most people are basically good, even though everyone sins a little bit—an optimistic view of human nature at odds with traditional teaching about human sin.
Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans (18 percent) say even small sins should lead to damnation, while about half (55 percent) say God has a wrathful side.
When it comes to faith, Americans like a do-it-yourself approach.
Most Americans (71 percent), and in particular Black Protestants (82 percent) and Catholics (87 percent), say people must contribute some effort toward their own salvation. Two thirds (64 percent) say in order to find peace with God, people have to take the first step, and then God responds to them with grace.
That sounds right to many people, says Stetzer, especially in our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture. But it doesn’t reflect the Christian idea that faith is a response to God’s grace.
Many Americans also don't mind being disconnected from a local church. About half (52 percent) say worshiping alone or with family is as good as going to church.
Almost all (82 percent) say their local church has no authority to “declare that I am not a Christian.” More than half (56 percent) believe their pastor’s sermons have no authority in their life, while slightly less than half (45 percent) say the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose.
Americans believe in the Trinity. But the details don’t reflect traditional views of orthodoxy.
About 7 in 10 (71 percent) Americans believe in the Trinity. That’s the idea that one God exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But few—even those in evangelical denominations—seem to grasp the details of how Christians have historically taught the Trinity. More than half of evangelicals (59 percent), for example, say the Holy Spirit is a force – not a personal being. Ten percent are not sure, while 31 percent agree the Spirit is a person. Overall, two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say the Holy Spirit is a force.
More than 1 in 7 Americans (15 percent) say the Holy Spirit is less divine than God the Father and Jesus. A third (33 percent) believe God the Father is more divine than Jesus. One in 5 (19 percent) say Jesus was the first creature made by God. All of those run counter to Christian doctrine as found in historic creeds of the Church.
Some Americans like the Bible. Others are skeptical.
About half of Americans (48 percent) believe the Bible is the Word of God. Four in 10 (43 percent) say the Bible is 100 percent accurate, while a similar share of Americans (41 percent) say it’s helpful but not literally true.
Evangelicals (76 percent) and Black Protestants (67 percent) are most likely to say the Bible is accurate. Mainline Protestants (50 percent) and Catholics (49 percent) lean toward the Bible being helpful but not literally true.
The Bible is not the only religious text Americans disagree on. About half (54 percent) disagree when asked if the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God. About 10 percent say the Book of Mormon was revealed by God, while another 36 percent say they are not sure.
Americans disagree about sex, God and politics.
About 4 in 10 (42 percent) Americans—and more than half (55 percent) of non-Christians—say churches should remain silent about politics.
Among Christian groups, Catholics (47 percent) and Mainline Protestants (44 percent) want less politics in church. Black Protestants (31 percent) and Evangelicals (26 percent) are less likely to want their church to skip politics.
Less than half (48 percent) of Americans say sex outside of marriage is a sin. Christian groups are split on the topic. Mainline Protestants (44 percent) and Catholics (40 percent) don’t see sex outside of marriage as sinful. Three quarters of Black Protestants (74 percent) and evangelicals (76 percent) believe it is.
The study’s overall results, Nichols says, show churches have a lot of work to do. “This study demonstrates the stunning gap in theological awareness throughout our nation, in our neighborhoods, and even in the seat next to us at church,” Nichols says.
Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine.
A demographically balanced online panel was used for interviewing American adults. Three thousand surveys were completed February 25 – March 5, 2014. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the online panel does not exceed +1.8%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Slight weights were used to balance religion and gender and remove constant raters.