Scholars explain what is most discouraging and encouraging about Ligonier theology survey that found 3 out of 4 US evangelicals are “Arians.”
In this analysis, CT theology editor Caleb Lindgren compares Ligonier’s 2018 theology survey to the 2016 version, followed by nine expert reactions to the overall results.
Are American Christians really this bad at theology? Are we simply just a band of unwitting heretics? Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research’s recent State of Theology study seems to indicate that, yes, a large percentage of us are.
But while it may be tempting to declare a state of theological emergency, a further look at the groundbreaking survey, now in its third wave, shows there is room for optimism amid the concern.
Clearly the theological acuity of Christians in the United States could improve. But the findings from Ligonier’s study actually indicate that where instruction and education do occur, at least evangelicals can be remarkably orthodox. By comparing the questions and the results between this year and the previous study from 2016, we can gain a better idea of what these results do and don’t say about how heretical we American Christians are.
Let’s focus on just evangelicals by belief, as defined by the National Association of Evangelicals, and start with the questions that were reworded between the 2018 study and the 2016 study. In 2016, the survey phrased one question as follows: “People have the ability to turn to God of their own initiative.” About 8 in 10 respondents agreed (82%). Compare that to this year’s question about the same concept but worded very differently: “Only the power of God can cause people to trust Jesus Christ as their savior.” This phrasing garnered an essentially identical agreement of 83 percent. This means that between 2016 and 2018, nearly the same percentage of evangelicals believed diametrically opposed positions on the very same issue. (To be fair, the Council of Orange in A.D. 529, which attempted to clarify this matter, struggled with just this question. But church leaders ultimately kept the initiative solely in God’s hands.)
Another example of how the wording of a question greatly influences the results appears in the question regarding faith and works. The 2016 version states, “My good deeds help me earn my place in heaven,” to which 39 percent of evangelical respondents agreed. This year’s wording reverses the emphasis: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus,” to which 91 percent agreed. That’s a 30-percent swing, when you account for the opposite wording. Again, different phrasing yields very different—and more orthodox—results. (One explanation: In both cases, the 2018 wording sounds much more like standard confessional statements evangelicals would be familiar with.)
Also, the 2018 versions allow respondents to agree with an orthodox statement rather than disagree with a heterodox one. As church history shows us again and again, it’s much easier to agree with orthodoxy than to identify heresy.
Occasionally, the study used a clearer wording and yielded different results. For instance, the prosperity gospel saw an uptick in popularity of 9 percentage points off the back of more specific wording (additions in italics): “God will always reward true faith with material blessings in this life” (46% of respondents agreed). Likewise, there was a drop of 24 percentage points of people who think political engagement is a problem as long as it is “Christians” doing it, rather than “the church.”
Now in cases where the wording remained the same, the study found slightly more evangelical respondents departing from the historic doctrines of Christianity than in 2016, but there were also a few new questions in this year’s survey that provide food for thought and even some encouragement.
In the 2018 survey, nearly all evangelicals (99%) agreed with the statement, “God created male and female,” and high numbers affirmed that “sex outside of marriage is a sin” (89%), and “abortion is a sin” (88%). (At the same time, 30 percent of evangelicals said that “gender identity is a matter of choice,” a striking number considering that almost all believe that “God created male and female.”)
Likewise, while the majority of evangelicals hew to the traditionalist perspective on homosexuality, 1 in 5 agreed that “the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today.” Yet all 581 of the evangelical respondents in the survey had to strongly agree that “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe” to be classified as “evangelical by belief.”
Another new question that was similar was “the Holy Spirit can tell me to do something which is forbidden in the Bible,” to which 21 percent of evangelicals agreed. While this is a relatively low percentage, it is still higher than we’d expect at 1 in 5. As with the question on homosexuality, these responses are hard to square with the high view of Scripture evangelicals are supposed to have and indicate quite a bit of confusion about the Holy Spirit, which the theologians we queried two years ago noted in the 2016 study.
One surprising aspect of this study is how comfortable evangelicals are with hell and judgment. Eternal judgment and a real place where that happens are classic barriers to faith for non-believers. But evangelicals don’t seem to have much concern about these ideas: 93 percent agreed that “hell is a real place where certain people will be punished forever,” and a whopping 98 percent agreed that “there will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all the people who have lived.” So while hell and judgment are very unpopular in the general culture, evangelicals are sticking with Scripture on these.
CT also asked nine scholars to explain what they find most discouraging and encouraging about Ligonier’s 2018 State of Theology survey:
— Read on www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/october/evangelicals-favorite-heresies-ligonier-theology-survey.html