A new study of evangelicals has found a surprising amount of out-and-out heresy when it comes to their understanding of the Trinity–particularly in regards to the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. Among other things, such as a basic relativism and a repudiation of the church’s authority over them.
Mathew Block, communications director of the Lutheran Church-Canada, discusses the findings. He argues that part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the authority of the Bible. People say the Bible is their authority, then consider that to be a license to interpret scripture any way they want to. Instead of sola scriptura, we have solo scriptura.
From Mathew Block, Evangelicals, Heresy, and Scripture Alone| First Things:
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 myFirst 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 Todaysummarizes 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.)