How well does the average American understand basic Christian doctrine? For that matter, how about the average evangelical?
Perhaps not all that differently. And perhaps it matters how the questions are asked.
Reprising their ground-breaking study from two years ago, LifeWay Research and Ligonier Ministries released an update today on the state of American theology in 2016. Researchers surveyed 3,000 adults to measure their agreement with a set of 47 statements about Christian theology—everything from the divinity of Christ to the nature of salvation to the importance of regular church attendance.
About two-thirds of Americans said that God accepts the worship of Christians, Jews, and Muslims (64%); around the same number agreed strongly or somewhat that there is one true God (69%), that he is perfect (65%), and that he still answers prayers (66%).
Of the 3,000 respondents, LifeWay identified 586 as evangelicals by belief: those who strongly agreed that the Bible is the highest authority for Christian belief; that personal evangelism is very important; that Jesus’ death on the cross was the only way to cancel the penalty of sin; and that trusting in Jesus is the only way to eternal salvation.
In the previous study, evangelicals identified themselves. The results revealed that they had a surprising level of confusion surrounding core Christian doctrine, including whether Jesus was fully divine, whether the Holy Spirit was a force or a personal being, and whether salvation depends on God or humans making the first move.
But this year’s study showed similar results, indicating that not only are those who self-identify as evangelical confused about the basic tenets of their faith, but so are those who fit the National Association of Evangelicals’s definition of evangelicals based on their stated beliefs.
Here are the 12 questions where American evangelicals (as defined by belief) were most likely to deviate from traditional Christian orthodoxy—or at least demonstrate confusion over it—in 2016:
While virtually all of Americans with evangelical beliefs agreed that there is one true God in three persons (97%), that he is perfect (97%), and that he answers prayer (94%), respondents stumbled over the nature of Jesus. Seven out of 10 said he was the first and greatest being created by God (71%), an enormous jump over the 19 percent of self-identified evangelicals who agreed that Jesus was “the first creature created by God” last year.
The church largely settled the question of Jesus’ origin in A.D. 325 with the Nicene Creed, which states that Jesus is “begotten not made.” The belief that Jesus was created is called Arianism, named after the fourth-century priest Arius who argued from Bible verses such as John 3:16 and Colossians 1:15 that “there was a time when the son was not.”
But Timothy Larsen, professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College, said the fact that nearly three-quarters of evangelicals are confused about Jesus’ origin isn’t as dire as it sounds.
Evangelicals believe in “dramatic, life-changing adult conversions,” he said, and such conversions mean that new believers may have little training in the core tenets of their new faith.
“Much depends on how a question is phrased,” he said. “There is a lot in this survey which shows that the respondents are not even being internally consistent, but have been led to contradict themselves based on how the question sounded to them.”