What Evangelicals Believe–and Don’t Believe–about Theology

What Evangelicals Believe–and Don’t Believe–about Theology September 27, 2022

Every two years since 2014, Ligonier ministry, founded by the late R. C. Sproul, has partnered with LifeWay Research  to survey what the general public and evangelicals in particular believe about theology and moral issues.   The results are written up in a report called The State of Theology.  The findings are always instructive and not a little disturbing.  (See my post on the 2020 report.

The State of Theology 2022 is out, and it’s worth reflecting on.  Since we can’t really expect secularists to know much about theology, I want to concentrate our attention on the responses from evangelicals.  LifeWay Research defines “evangelical” as someone who “strongly agrees” with these four statements:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Other definitions don’t apply to us confessional Lutherans, but this one would seem to.  (That is fitting since Lutherans were the first to be described in that way, back in Reformation times, because of the centrality in their theology of the Gospel, the “evangelium,” or “good news.”)  These criteria also include, of course, the whole gamut of conservative Protestants, from Baptists and Pentecostals to “nondenominational” evangelicals.

So what do Americans who believe in the Bible, evangelism, the atonement, and justification by faith believe in 2022?

Regarding Jesus, 73% of evangelicals strongly or somewhat agree that He is “the first and greatest being created by God.”  That is to say, nearly three-quarters of conservative Christians are Arian heretics!  This was the very issue at the Council of Nicea, which crafted the Nicene Creed, with which we confess that the Son of God is “begotten, not made” and is “of one substance with the Father” (John 3:16, 14:9).

A whopping 43% of evangelicals agree that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.”  This is a significant jump in unbelief from 2020, in which 30% rejected the deity of Christ, a number that shocked me back then.

Another confusion about the Trinity is that 60% believe that  “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.”  This is the heresy of Macedonianism.

As for God the Father, 48% believe that  “God learns and adapts to different circumstances.”

Evangelicals are thought of as having a zeal to evangelize, but 56% agree that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”  In 2020, the percentage was a bad-enough 42%, but now more than half of evangelicals think “all religions” are acceptable to God.

But why not?  According to 57 percent of evangelicals, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.”  And 65% believe that “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God.”  So if everyone is so good, why do they need to be saved?  And why did Jesus die?

You can read the results of the other questions here.

It is not all bad news.  Despite their Arianism, 92% believe in the Trinity.   Despite their low view of Jesus, 90% believe He rose from the dead.  Despite their belief in human goodness, 80% believe in justification by faith.

Also, the evangelicals surveyed are surprisingly strong on moral issues:  97% agree that “God created male and female”; 67% believe that the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior still applies today; 59% deny that gender identity is a matter of choice; 91% agree that abortion is a sin; 94% believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin.

How do we account for these numbers?

Russell Moore, the Trump critic and new editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, observes that in evangelical circles, theological orthodoxy now takes a back seat to political orthodoxy.  That might help explain why evangelicals have stronger numbers on moral issues that have become flashpoints in the culture war–such as abortion, gender, homosexuality, and illicit sex.  I don’t know about that.  I think there is a larger perception that Christianity has more to do with Law than Gospel.  As a result, it’s easier to focus on bad works and good works (“most people are good by nature”) than it is to come to grips with who Jesus is.

My impression is that bits of theology that can be reduced to a memorable term, such as “Trinity,” are accepted, while the specifics of what that term means (the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit) are not understood.  The problem is theological illiteracy.  And since most evangelical congregations do not use the historic creeds and many are “non-denominational,” they tend not to teach actual theology.  (Though I shudder at what the results might be in our creedal and theological churches as well.)  While we aren’t saved by our theological understanding as such, in times when Christianity is under attack, theology becomes more important than ever.  Theological illiteracy is a major problem that pastors and congregations would do well to address.

 

HT:  Dr. Stephen Nichols

 

Illustration:  Arius the Heretic (1493) by the workshop of  Michel Wolgemut, print maker, Duits (1434–1519), in Rijksmuseum, Public Domain, via Look and Learn, History Picture Archive.

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