By / Oct 20

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?

  • When our doctrine of God drifts away from orthodoxy, we drift away from the God of Scripture. In his place, we either substitute a god of our imagination or idolize some lesser thing and assign it ultimacy. Our allegiances become disordered and we give ourselves to the wrong things in the wrong ways, neglecting all the while to acknowledge the God who has made us and who has made himself known to us. 
  • When our doctrine of Scripture falls out of step with church history, our ethics follow suit. If we overlook that God has breathed out his Word we undermine its authority, question its necessity, and doubt its trustworthiness. When reverence for the Scriptures wanes, following its commands becomes optional at best, or dismissed altogether. And the Bible is foundational because, in the Bible, we learn who God is, what he has said, who we are, and what it means to bear his image. The people of God are a Word-formed people; when we neglect the Word we become a de-formed people.
  • When our doctrine of human nature and original sin is traded away for what’s culturally en vogue, we “exchange the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). We “call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20), preferring to minimize the use of biblical terms like “sin,” “iniquity,” and “transgression” and celebrate what the Bible prohibits. A denial of original sin is evidence of sin’s continued influence on us. 

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.”

By / Apr 21

Perhaps more than any other New Testament verse, 1 Timothy 4:16 arrives with both warning and promise for the ministry. The warning is more implicit; the promise is unmistakably explicit. Paul writes to Timothy: “Pay close attention to yourself and to the teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.”

Note carefully the truth contained here. Implicitly, if we are careless with our doctrine or our living, our soul – and the souls of those to whom we minister – are endangered. How is this the case? If our lives or doctrine are off, we will prove an untrue guide for the sheep. We will invariably point them off course, leading them away from the Chief Shepherd.

Yet this warning is also pregnant with promise. As we guard our lives and doctrine, we ensure salvation for ourselves and those to whom we minister. Sound doctrine and sound living indicate we are authentic followers of Christ. They indicate a steady guide who leads the sheep toward, not away from, Him. 

While in seminary, much time will be devoted to your doctrine. It is a time of doctrinal formation – and that is a good thing. A seminary that does not prioritize your theological formation is not worthy of your tuition.

If you are not careful, though, an imbalance can develop. Books commenting on Scripture can replace the reading of Scripture itself. Paper writing can dry up your prayer life. Exercises for ministry formation can supplant actual, hands-on ministry. In other words, your doctrine can flourish wile your spiritual life flounders.

In his must-read book Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson comments on this phenomenon by telling the story of one “Ernest Christian.” Ernest was converted in high school, was deeply involved in his college ministry, was growing immensely in Bible study and prayer, and sensed a call to vocational ministry. After being affirmed by his church, he moved off to be trained at seminary. Carson continues:

After Ernest has been six months in seminary, the picture is very different. Ernest is spending many hours a day memorizing Greek morphology and learning the details of the itinerary of Paul’s second missionary journey. Ernest has also begun to write exegetical papers; but by the time he has finished his lexical study, his syntactical diagram, his survey of critical opinions, and his evaluation of conflicting evidence, somehow the Bible does not feel as alive to him as it once did. Ernest is troubled by this; he finds it more difficult to pray and witness than he did before he came to seminary.

Anyone familiar with seminary life knows this story is too often true. Students arrive “bright eyed and bushy tailed,” ready to conquer the world for Jesus. They get immersed in academic work and theological debate – only to one day realize they have left their first love (Rev. 2:1-7) and forgotten why they are even at seminary to begin with.

This doesn’t have to be the case! There is a better way. Remember the apostle’s dual emphasis in 1 Timothy 4:16, and stubbornly guard both life and doctrine as you learn and grow. 

In truth, we must not choose between love of God and love of doctrine; it is not an “either/or” but a “both/and.” How do you truly love someone you don’t really know? The great Presbyterian theologian B.B. Warfield underscores this point:

Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. “What!” is the appropriate response. “Than ten hours over your books on your knees?” Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology.

The heart posture with which you pursue your education will make all the difference in the world. Reject a dry, stuffy faith built on knowledge alone; choose instead a thoughtful, deepening faith built on truth and love. 

Keys to guarding your life in seminary

In light of this danger, here is some practical wisdom that has proved helpful to me over the years. Consider five keys by which you can guard your life in seminary:

  1. Cultivate the spiritual disciplines. The spiritual disciplines remain the lifeblood for every believer. Prayer, worship, Bible intake, journaling, and others are essential for a growing follower of Christ – regardless of age or season of life. Forge these in seminary and prioritize them day by day. They will carry you through seminary and propel you forward for a lifetime of ministry.
  2. Establish healthy habits. Habits are easy to make and hard to break – bad habits at least. Good habits, meanwhile, require intentionality on the front end but can provide a lifetime of structure and reinforcing practices. Set your rhythms accordingly: awaken early, read your Bible before textbooks, commune with God before conversing with others, integrate fasting, pray with your spouse before going to bed, and so on.
  3. Prioritize prayer. As a nonquantifiable discipline, prayer is easy to gloss over. We know when we’ve read three chapters of Scripture; we may not be as aware when we’ve rushed through our prayer time. So keep a prayer list and a prayer journal. Tracking what you need to pray for will bring added motivation. Documenting God’s answers will inspire you all the more.
  4. Think devotionally about your studies. While some professors will draw the lines from their lectures to your spiritual formation, others will not. But you can draw them. Ask yourself questions like, What can I apply from their reading to my spiritual life? What sin does this lecture prompt me to confess? How will this assignment strengthen me for ministry in the local church? What new truth about God did I learn today? As you learn to ask the right questions, you will find yourself getting more out of seminary, spiritually speaking, than you ever imagined.
  5. Look for Jesus in all. Jesus is the apex of Scripture; therefore He should be the apex of your studies. Listen for Him in every lecture. Look for Him in every reading. Ask your professor how a given biblical passage connects to Him. For additional reading on this topic, I recommend How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell.

At the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned our move to Louisville for seminary training. That was early August 2001. Thankfully, for the three years prior, I served under Dr. Steve Lawson at Dauphin Way Baptist Church. Dr. Lawson was a pivotal influence on my life. He became not only a mentor but a dear friend and remains one to this day.

Dr. Lawson always took interest in young men called to ministry, and there were a number of them in our church. But I sensed he took a particular interest in me. One day I asked why. He reflected, “If a man has $100 to invest in a business, he wants to invest it in the business that will bring the greatest return. I am investing in you because I believe you will bring a return for the kingdom. Make sure you do just that.”

Dr. Lawson’s words inspired me then – and they still do. They convicted me then – and they still do. Such words remind me that my ministry is a stewardship – and so is yours. 

Many have invested much in you. God has called you. Christ has strengthened you. The Holy Spirit has gifted you. Churches have supported you. Pastors have mentored you. Family members have sacrificed for you. Benefactors have invested in you. Professors have taught you. Fellow students have encouraged you. 

You are a steward of a precious call, and so many others are invested in it with you. Therefore, you must guard your life and your doctrine. And seminary is one of the best places to establish healthy patterns to enable you to do just that. 


Excerpted from Succeeding at Seminary: 12 Keys to Getting the Most Out of Your Theological Education by Jason K. Allen (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission. 

By / Sep 16

Several years ago Christian Smith made waves with his book The Bible Made Impossible, which argued that the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” of Scripture within evangelicalism gave evidence to an inconsistent doctrine of Scripture. Other scholars such as Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks have more recently made similar arguments against the evangelical approach to Scripture. It is not uncommon to see more crude forms of this argument on social media also, where the evangelical belief in inerrancy is dismissed on the basis that evangelicals themselves so often disagree on the interpretation of Scripture. 

Enter Rhyne Putman’s new book When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity. Putman has formerly written on an evangelical understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and now he focuses on what could be called an evangelical doctrine of disagreement. Its starting point is similar to James K. A. Smith’s argument in The Fall of Interpretation that disagreement is a natural part of the interpretive process, which itself is a natural part of the human condition. Putman then charts the path forward from this truth. It is not written primarily as an apologetic to those outside of evangelicalism, but to evangelicals on constructive ways to approach doctrinal differences.

Why we disagree about doctrine

When Doctrine Divides the People of God is divided up into two major sections, with the first focused on the why question (“Why we disagree about doctrine”) and the second on the what question (“What we should do about doctrinal disagreement”). 

The first section describes the steps along the reasoning process where disagreements often arise. The first two chapters of this section focus specifically on hermeneutics and exegesis, areas that will be familiar for readers with training in biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. However, Putman’s eye toward doctrinal diversity within the hermeneutics discussion sets these chapters apart from typical textbook treatments. 

The third chapter on reasoning is where things get really interesting. Putman highlights the roles of deduction, induction, and abduction in the reasoning process. Particularly important here is the role of abduction, described as inferential reasoning through an incomplete set of data. Whereas deduction proves a hypothesis and induction tests a hypothesis, abduction forms a new hypothesis. He likens this process to the detective forming a hypothesis and then using clues such as fruitfulness, coherence, simplicity, and credibility to test the hypothesis. This separates abduction from mere guesswork and creative speculation. Although Putman notes the creative aspect of this process, he pushes the reader continually back to Scripture itself, rather than individual creativity, as the foundation of theological interpretation and formulation.

In the next three chapters Putman highlights several factors within the reasoning process that often lay in the background unchallenged such as intuition, feelings, and biases. As he notes, “Christian theologians have long recognized the role experience plays in our theological formation, but seldom mentioned in our hermeneutical and theological discussions is the crucial role emotions and intuitions play in the formation of Christian doctrine” (122). 

Many theological disagreements arise in just these areas, and so Putman’s walk through them in discussion with neuroscience and social psychology is a valuable tool for theological dialogue. Putman doesn’t let social or biological sciences have the last word in the discussion—he continually pushes back against naturalistic implications in the works he summarizes—but demonstrates how certain findings within these fields can provide opportunities for self-examination and reasoning in the process of theological development.  

What should we do about it? 

The second section of the book moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, focused on the response to doctrinal disagreements. Although this section is smaller than the first by page count, it’s where Putman’s work packs the greatest punch. It is one thing to acknowledge doctrinal disagreements, but another to move through them with both keen self-awareness and Christian charity toward other positions. This section provides the way forward in both manners. 

The first chapter of this section, chapter seven, magnifies the self-reflection process by asking the question, when should we change our minds? In this chapter Putman moves through a series of diagnostic questions related to theological disagreement. These questions include:

  1. Are we working with the same body of evidence?
  2. If I disagree with a tenet from a particular tradition, am I interacting with its best and most sophisticated representations or with a straw man?
  3. Who exhibits a more thorough understanding of the relevant background material?
  4. Who exhibits greater theological acumen and exegetical skill?
  5. Do both parties evidence adequate time spent assessing the disputed issue?
  6. Do both disagreeing parties display the intellectual virtues such as curiosity, studiousness, persistence, and intellectual honesty?
  7. Does the person with whom I disagree exhibit the fruit of the Spirit?

Each of these questions is important for thinking through theological disputes because they each force acknowledgment of the full weight of other positions.

The eighth chapter builds on Albert Mohler’s idea of theological triage by formulating a tiered system for thinking through doctrinal disagreements. He gives three tests for thinking through these tiers based on hermeneutics, gospel, and praxis, with an eye toward mediation between theological maximalism (everything is equally important) and theological minimalism (unity over doctrine). 

The final chapter provides a test case of this system based on the disagreement and eventual reconciliation of George Whitefield and John Wesley on the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Putman uses their personal friendship and professional fellowship as the basis for thinking charitably through disagreements with fellow believers.

Putman’s book is helpful on several levels of theological reflection. It combines hermeneutics, philosophy, and theological method to provide insight into personal doctrinal reasoning and doctrinal dialogue with fellow believers. This type of reasoning is particularly necessary and valuable in the age of social media, where disagreements often turn vitriolic and the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17 is dismissed in favor of winning arguments. Putman doesn’t dismiss doctrinal disagreements but gives place for thinking through them in community with other believers. This book will be a valuable asset for any student of theology as a tool for both personal theological formulation and doctrinal discussions with others.