Most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.
A survey released today by LifeWay Research for Ligonier Ministries “reveals a significant level of theological confusion,” said Stephen Nichols, Ligonier’s chief academic officer. Many evangelicals do not have orthodox views about either God or humans, especially on questions of salvation and the Holy Spirit, he said.
Evangelicals did score high on several points. Nearly all believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead (96%), and that salvation is found through Jesus alone (92%). Strong majorities said that God is sovereign over all people (89%) and that the Bible is the Word of God (88%).
And in some cases the problem seems to be uncertainty rather than heresy. For example, only 6 percent of evangelicals think the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God, but an additional 18 percent aren’t sure and think it might be.
Jesus, Almost as Good as His Father?
Almost all evangelicals say they believe in the Trinity (96%) and that Jesus is fully human and fully divine (88%).
But nearly a quarter (22%) said God the Father is more divine than Jesus, and 9 percent weren’t sure. Further, 16 percent say Jesus was the first creature created by God, while 11 percent were unsure.
No doubt, phrases like “only begotten Son” (John 3:16) and “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) have led others in history to hold these views, too. In the fourth century, a priest from Libya named Arius (c.250–336) announced, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning. … There was a time when the Son was not.” The idea, known as Arianism, gained wide appeal, even among clergy. But it did not go unopposed. Theologians Alexander and Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, argued that Arius denied Christ’s true divinity. Christ is not of similar substance to God, they explained, but of the same substance.
Believing the debate could split the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical church council in Nicaea in A.D. 325. The council, comprising over 300 bishops, rejected Arianism as heresy and maintained that Jesus shares the same eternal substance with the Father. Orthodoxy struggled to gain popular approval, however, and several heresies revolving around Jesus continued to spread. At the second ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381, church leaders reiterated their condemnation of Arianism and enlarged the Nicene Creed to describe Jesus as “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
In other words, the Son is not a created being, nor can he be less divine than the Father.
The Holy Spirit: May the Force Be with You?
But if evangelicals sometime misunderstand doctrines about Jesus, the third member of the Trinity has it much worse. More than half (51%) said the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being. Seven percent weren’t sure, while only 42 percent affirmed that the Spirit is a person.
And 9 percent said the Holy Spirit is less divine than God the Father and Jesus. The same percentage answered “not sure.”
Like Arianism, confusion over the nature and identity of the Spirit dates to the early church. During the latter half of the fourth century, sects like Semi-Arians and Pneumatomachi (Greek for “Spirit fighters”) believed “in the Holy Spirit”—as the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) taught—but said the Spirit was of a different essence from the Father and the Son. Some said the Spirit was a creature, and others understood the Spirit to be a force or power, not a person of the Trinity.