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What the state of theology in America reveals

Seeing heresy as an opportunity for discipleship

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October 20, 2022

Does God change? Is God the Son a created being? Is the Holy Spirit a force or a person? Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? These are some of the most important and fundamental questions in the Christian faith, questions that the church has answered definitively for most of its history. Increasingly, though, as the biennial “State of Theology” survey produced by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research shows, self-professed evangelicals find their answers to these questions at odds with historic Christian belief. 

As a way of discovering what “Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible,” these organizations have teamed up every two years, since 2014, to “take the theological temperature of the United States” with the survey and to develop an interactive report of their findings called “The State of Theology.” With each new iteration, the report has consistently shown a pattern of dwindling theological proficiency both among the general American population and the men and women in our pews. And the 2022 report is no different.

So, what did the most recent report reveal, and what are we to make of it?

Report takeaways

In her analysis of the report, Christianity Today writer Stefani McDade highlights what she calls the “Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals,” resurrecting bygone terms like Arianism and Pelagianism to describe the theological slippage occurring within American evangelicalism. Commenting on the history of the “State of Theology” report, McDade says that “Overall, adults in the US are moving away from orthodox (i.e. historic) understandings of God and his Word year after year.” Here are three major takeaways from this year’s survey results.

  1. The Doctrine of God: In the survey, the overwhelming majority of evangelical respondents (96%) declared that they strongly agree with the following statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” And while this would seem to indicate that these evangelicals hold to an orthodox view of God, things grow murky as the survey digs deeper into the doctrine of God. For instance, 48% of evangelical respondents believe that God “learns and adapts” (i.e., that he changes); 73% believe that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” (an ancient heresy called Arianism); 43% stated that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God;” and 60% declare that “the Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.” Based on these numbers, McDade’s assertion that we “are moving away from orthodox understandings of God” appears exactly right.
  1. Inspiration of Scripture: Among evangelical respondents, 26% believe that “the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.” And while the surveyors could have worded this statement more clearly, respondents who answered in the affirmative communicated a belief at odds with the church’s historic confession that the Bible is the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God. Commenting on our apparent waning belief in the inspiration of Scripture, McDade pointed out that “Researchers called the rejection of the divine authorship of the Bible the ‘clearest and most consistent trend’ over the eight years of [survey] data,” both in the evangelical church and generally across the U.S. population. 
  1. Human Nature: On the topic of human nature, based on survey results, another ancient heresy—Pelagianism—is proving to be resurgent, even within the church. As Dr. Gregg Allison defines it, Pelagianism proposes “a denial of original sin” because, in the view of Pelagius (a 4th-century theologian), there is no “relationship between Adam and his sin and the human race.” According to Pelagian thinking, “people have no tendency to sin and may live without sin.” So, we learn in the survey that, in Pelagius-like fashion, 57% of evangelical respondents believe that “most people are good by nature” and 65% affirm that “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God,” two theological beliefs that the church has long denounced. 

Historic Christian belief

In analyzing a survey like this, we may be tempted to ridicule our fellow evangelicals and decry the collective lack of theological proficiency it reveals, or even to assume what my former pastor liked to call the role of “heresy hunter.” And while what we learn from the State of Theology survey should sober us, it should also compel us to define and teach what historic Christian belief actually is. If we want to “right the ship,” so to speak, and reverse the trend we’ve witnessed for at least a decade now, we’ll need to introduce evangelicalism once again to the church’s centuries-long confessions of the faith. And that’s what we’ll explore now. 

  1. Doctrine of God

Trinitarianism: Evangelical survey respondents confessed, nearly unanimously, their belief that God is Trinity. Yet, as we mentioned, when the survey dove deeper into some of Trinitarianism’s offshoots and implications, questions emerged regarding their “Trinitarian proficiency.” Even though Trinitarianism is a historically difficult doctrine to fully apprehend, there is no doctrine more central or more fundamental to Christian theology. Therefore, many of our errors downstream can be traced back to a faulty understanding of Trinitarianism, which is what we see in the State of Theology survey results. 

In his excellent book, Delighting in the Trinity, author Michael Reeves says, “because the Christian God is triune, the Trinity is the governing center of all Christian belief, the truth that shapes and beautifies all others. The Trinity is the cockpit of all Christian thinking.” But what does it mean that God is Trinity? How do we define “Trinitarianism”? In season nine of the Knowing Faith podcast, a season devoted to the hosts’ exploration of the doctrine of God, J.T. English offers the following definition: “God eternally exists as one essence in three distinct persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, each of whom is fully God, yet there is one God.” Author and professor Fred Sanders adds to the conversation, saying, “God is God in this way: God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love.” Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is essential because it introduces us to who God is. Herman Bavinck goes so far as to say, “the confession of the trinity is the sum of the Christian religion.” Thus, before we can understand more of what God is like with any real competence, we must begin with “the cockpit of all Christian thinking.” And it’s just this: God is Trinity.

Attributes of God: As mentioned, knowing what God is like and knowing his attributes flows from the confession that “God eternally exists as one essence in three distinct persons,” or that God is Trinity. Furthermore, Bavinck once again says, “It is in this holy trinity that each attribute of His Being comes into its own, so to speak, gets its fullest content, and takes on its profoundest meaning.” The doctrine of the Trinity, then, is not only a prerequisite for knowing God rightly, but it also enables us to see the beauty and glory of his attributes in full.

When we derive our knowledge of who God is and what he is like from the Bible, and with help from the creeds, councils, and confessions of church history, instead of the prevailing moods and whims of culture, for instance, we will find ourselves on firm theological footing. We will know, as the majority of evangelical respondents affirmed on the survey, that “God is perfect and cannot make a mistake.” But, contrary to 56% of survey respondents, we’ll also know that God does not “accept the worship of all religions;” and we’ll know that he does not “learn and adapt to different circumstances”—he is immutable (48% of evangelical respondents disagreed). It is these and all of God’s attributes that we can truly proclaim “only when we recognize and confess” that they belong to the one true God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

  1. Divine Inspiration

While every evangelical respondent affirmed that “The Bible is the highest authority for what [they] believe,” once again, when pressed further the survey identified several holes in evangelical bibliology. Despite confessing the Bible as their highest authority, responses were mixed on whether it “has the authority to tell us what to do,” whether it’s accurate in its teaching, and as we mentioned, whether it is “literally true.” These responses illuminate a defective view of Scripture.

“The absolute authority of the Bible,” Michael Svigel says, “is a doctrine that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (i.e., all Christians). But historic Christian belief in the absolute authority of the Bible lives or dies with the doctrine of divine inspiration—that Scripture has been “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). And if Scripture has been inspired, or breathed out by God, then the Bible necessarily possesses specific characteristics. Namely, as it relates to the survey questions mentioned above, the Bible is authoritative (what the Bible says, God says) and inerrant (everything it affirms is true). Or, as Christopher Morgan puts it, “Scripture originates with God, who speaks forth his Word . . . Because this is so, Scripture is God’s Word, authoritative, inerrant, sufficient, clear, and beneficial.” To confess that the Bible is God’s inspired Word is a confession that, by definition, places us under its authority. And in that case, it has the power and the right to teach, reproof, correct, and train us in the ways of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

  1. Original Sin

As we’ve mentioned, research shows that evangelicals are steadily growing less doctrinally proficient year over year. But there may be no doctrine that has fallen more out of fashion in recent years than the doctrine of original sin. Pelagianism (see above), which is a denial of original sin, has become much more palatable.

The doctrine of original sin teaches that, at the fall of Adam and Eve, all of humanity rebelled against God with them, participating in what Barry Jones calls “the vandalism of shalom.” More than merely rupturing our relationship with God, which would have been bad enough, our participation in this “originating sin” has infected us in our very nature, rendering us totally depraved, or morally corrupt, and totally unable to reconcile ourselves to God. Reflecting on that “original sin,” Herman Bavinck writes that,

The first sin which man committed did not long stand alone. It was not the sort of action which, having done it, man could shake off or brush aside. After that sin, man could no longer go on as though nothing had happened. In the very moment in which man entertained sin in his thought and imagination, in his desire and will, at that moment a tremendous change took place in him.

That change, as John Calvin explained is the “hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul.” The doctrine of original sin, this historic confession of the Christian faith, uncomfortable as it may be, is the belief that “all people at birth” inherit a corrupt and depraved nature all the way down. 

Practical theology

Virtually all of our societal ills, both inside and outside the church, can be traced back to a break in our theology. Everyone is a theologian, after all, whether they’re an atheist, a Christian, or anything in between. And our theology—whether it’s good or bad—leads us to live in particular ways. In other words, our theology has practical implications. Indeed, as my former pastor once said, “theology is the most practical thing in the world.”

A.W. Tozer is famous for saying that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” There are many reasons why Tozer’s statement is true, not least of which is that what we think about God informs what we think of ourselves, how we view the world, and, practically, how we act in the world. So, what are the practical implications of evangelical theology as represented in the State of Theology report?

The results of this year’s State of Theology survey revealed what’s been obvious for a long time now: our biblical literacy is weakening. Our Christian practice, or lack thereof, has long betrayed our waning theological proficiency. We see it in the way we behave online, in the way we have messianized various leaders, and in our lack of commitment to holiness. So, where do we go from here? In response to what we can rightly recognize as heresy, our instinct might be to furrow our collective brow and speak of church discipline and ex-communication. Instead, I’d argue that we should view our current theological crisis as an opportunity for discipleship.

Heresy as an opportunity for discipleship

American evangelicalism is in a theological crisis. We have lost our way, and “in order to find the way home,” Svigel says, “we must first admit we’re lost.” The State of Theology survey is our admission that we’re lost. But once we’ve confessed that we have lost our way we need a plan for returning to the “ancient paths, where the good way is” (Jer. 6:16). We must return to what J.T. English calls “deep discipleship.”

Deep discipleship is the remedy for heresy. It is about developing “the ability to connect all of reality to the Triune God,” and it is the vocation of every Christian. From the lips of Jesus, we have been called to “go and make disciples” and teach them to observe his commandments (Matt. 28:19-20). To put it provocatively, we have been called to continually teach that truth that transforms heretics into disciples of the Triune God who know him and his Word, who love him and his Word, and who follow him and his Word. While there is much to fret about from this year’s survey, the responsibility of the church remains clear: “go and make disciples.”

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author