The high degree of orthodoxy is not altogether encouraging.

Jesus once asked his disciples for a report on opinion polls about himself. “Who do men say that I, the Son of man am?” George Gallup was not among the Twelve, and the disciples had no background in scientific sampling. But they came up with a quick survey. Jesus was said to be: (1) John the Baptist; (2) Elijah; (3) Jeremiah; (4) some other prophet.

Then Jesus put the same question directly to his twelve disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer was more than an opinion: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed his answer, told him that the heavenly Father had revealed it to him, and promised to build his church upon the confessing apostle, together with the others who shared with him the power of the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:18–19; 18:18). The apostolic confession expressed bedrock Christian faith. Jesus could not accept a lesser confession.

A more recent poll, conducted by the Gallup organization for CHRISTIANITY TODAY, continues to compare the opinions of the population at large with the convictions of those who are the special servants of Jesus Christ.

The apostolic witness seems to have had some effect over the centuries. Better than one-quarter of the sampled American population (26 percent) claim to believe that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. They would stand with Peter, who was not satisfied with an estimate of Jesus that regarded him as a prophet—even the greatest of prophets—alive from the dead. The pollsters did offer an option for folks today who would agree with the common opinion in Jesus’ day. They phrased it: “Jesus was a man, but was divine in the sense that God worked through him.” That is a rough modern equivalent to allowing that he might be Jeremiah raised from the dead. But the option was sweetened up (and confused?) in the questionnaire by the added words: “He was the Son of God.” More than half the American public tested bought that composite option (57 percent).

The apostles, in their survey, did not report the least favorable estimates of Jesus. We know there were some: Jesus had enemies who claimed to believe that he was Beelzebub, a devil. But then, as now, few thought of Jesus as merely a great religious teacher (11 percent on the Gallup Poll).

But what about the clergy? If Jesus were to turn to our Christian clergy today with the question “Who do you say that I am?” what answer would he receive? The Gallup organization says that 87 percent of the clergy believe “Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man.” Only 1 percent view him as no more than a great religious teacher, but there are 12 percent who deny his full deity. Among Catholic clergy and in three of the largest Protestant denominations surveyed, the apostle Peter has more followers: the Southern Baptist clergy chose the orthodox God-man answer almost unanimously (99 percent), followed by Catholics (98 percent), other Baptists (96 percent), and Lutherans (95 percent).

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The one other large Protestant denomination identified in the survey pulled the average down. No less than 30 percent of the Methodist clergy refused to affirm the full deity of Christ. One is left to speculate on how many smaller “mainline” denominations have a comparable number of clergy who shrink back from the apostolic confession.

Other questions in the poll provide further comparisons of the opinions of Americans generally with the convictions of the clergy. These questions raised the issues of the authority of the Bible, life after death, the existence of the devil, and the origin of man. Most surprisingly, and regrettably, no questions were asked about the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion or about the reality of his bodily resurrection on the third day. With such central questions for evangelical orthodoxy set aside it is difficult to assess the doctrinal positions reflected in the responses.

Concerning such additional questions as the poll did ask, biblically the clergy were clearest on the issue of life after death. These were the options given in the poll: (1) There is no life after death. (2) There is life after death but what a person does in this life has no bearing on it. (3) Heaven is a divine reward for those who earn it by their good life. (4) The only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ.

About four out of five clergymen chose the last statement. Since it is the only statement connecting Christ with the life to come, one might expect that even those who want to add merit to grace would have chosen it over the third statement, which is in no sense Christian. Yet incredibly, of the Catholic clergy polled, 61 percent chose the third statement, while merely half that many (31 percent) chose faith in Christ as the only hope of heaven. It seems clear that Martin Luther’s discovery of the message of Galatians has yet to be made by the great majority of Roman Catholic clergy. Here the Catholic clergy are far outdistanced by the general public, for 45 percent of the public chose the fourth statement, that only through personal faith in Christ is there hope for heaven. Of the general public, 26 percent chose the works religion of number three, and an evenly divided 20 percent chose one of the first two answers.

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Mariano Di Gangi, Canadian director of the Bible and Medical Missionary Fellowship, observes, “The fact that 61 percent of Roman Catholic clergymen suppose heaven to be the reward of man’s good works should provide fresh incentive for the evangelization of such a significant segment of Christendom still plagued with a misunderstanding of the gospel.”

Evangelist Leighton Ford found reason for hope on the other side of these statistics: “The high percentage of Catholics who hold orthodox positions on the person of Christ especially, and the authority of the Bible to a lesser extent, is very interesting. Even more interesting is that nearly one-third of the Catholic clergy see personal faith in Christ as the only hope for heaven. It strikes me that evangelicals need to find out who these Catholic clergy are and start building some bridges of friendship and encouragement to them.”

Perhaps the response of the Catholic clergy might have been anticipated, but can it be true that nearly half of all Americans believe that their only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ? When faced with Dr. James Kennedy’s question, “Why should God let you into his heaven?” better than 4 people out of 10 can give the gospel answer. The burning question remains for those who in their heads know the right answer: have they also put their personal faith in Christ? Are they living as believers?

While, as we have seen, only 26 percent of the general public affirmed the full deity as well as the humanity of Christ, in all the other doctrinal areas more than a third (and up to half) of those questioned gave the most orthodox answer. Orthodox Christian beliefs are widespread in America. Beyond the company of the orthodox and converted who attend church with some regularity there is a large population that claims to have, in opinion at least, Christian answers.

Beliefs about the devil and Adam and Eve were included in the questionnaire, presumably on the assumption that these doctrines would be particular targets of a scientific and humanistic world view. Again one might wish that this issue had been addressed in relation to Christ’s miracles and his resurrection.

Answers on the origin of man were surprising. Here the biblical orthodoxy of the general public almost reached that of the clergy. Half the public affirmed that “God created Adam and Eve, which was the start of human life.” They chose this over the options of theistic evolution, with or without God’s intervention to create man. The clergy picked Adam and Eve by 57 percent, while 31 percent favored an evolutionary concept with God beginning the process and intervening at a later point to transform man into a human being in His image.

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Again the Catholic clergy differed strikingly from most Protestants, although not this time from the Methodists. Only 27 percent of Catholic clergy chose Adam and Eve, theistic evolution being the choice of 66 percent. Methodist clergy chose a historical Adam and Eve by 29 percent, theistic evolution with intervention by 48 percent, and theistic evolution with no divine intervention by 18 percent.

Methodist liberalism shows up again in questions about the devil. Eighteen percent of the Methodist clergy deny the existence of the devil altogether, while another 36 percent regard him as an impersonal force. Less than half (42 percent) think of him as a personal being. Baptist and Catholic clergy are most convinced of the existence of Satan (Southern Baptists 96 percent; Catholics 82 percent).

People in general seem much more convinced about Adam and Eve than about the Tempter. While half of our friends and neighbors accept Adam and Eve, only 34 percent believe in a personal devil. Now that demons have enjoyed so much prime time in movies about the occult, it would be interesting to see if minor devils have gained more credibility than the prince of darkness.

What about the Bible? The survey offered an orthodox answer: “The Bible is the word of God and is not mistaken in its statements and teachings.” No less than 42 percent of the general public chose that high view of the Bible, preferring it to a parallel declaration that said: “The Bible is the word of God but is sometimes mistaken in its statements and teachings.” This lower view was chosen by 30 percent, and 23 percent viewed the Bible as no more than a collection of ancient religious philosophies.

Clergy disagree with the last opinion. Only 3 percent were ready to write off the Bible as less than the Word of God. As to whether God’s Word is free of mistakes, the preachers are divided. About one quarter of them, both Catholic and Protestant, think the Bible is sometimes mistaken in its teachings. Sixty-nine percent affirm an inerrant Bible. Sharp divergence again appears between Southern Baptists and Methodists. Ninety-four percent of the Baptists think that God’s Word is without mistakes, while only 41 percent of Methodist clergy will affirm that.

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The authority of the Bible divides Catholic from Protestant clergy. Only 5 percent of the Catholic clergy would turn to the Bible first to test their religious beliefs, while 77 percent would turn first to the church. These figures are almost exactly reversed among Protestant ministers: 76 percent would turn to the Bible first, and only 4 percent to what the church says.

Just how biblical authority operates among Protestants may not be so clear when applied to a test case—the ordination of women. This is opposed by 63 percent of the Catholic clergy, presumably on the ground of the church teaching so recently reemphasized by Pope John Paul II. But only 40 percent of Protestant clergy are opposed to the ordination of women, while 52 percent favor it. We may assume that most, if not all, of the Protestant opposition would claim that they go to the Bible first, and appeal to such biblical texts as 1 Timothy 2:12, “I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.” That leaves at least 36 percent of Protestant ministers in the class of those who go to the Bible first and favor the ordination of women. No doubt many or most of these may believe that the Bible should be interpreted to support the ordination of women. Yet the real tests of the operational authority of the Bible can only appear when biblical teaching runs counter to the pressures of contemporary culture. Biblical authority seems to stand the test on the crucial doctrine of eternal life through faith in Christ; indeed, more Protestant clergy believe that doctrine (86 percent) than would claim to go to the Bible first (76 percent).

When Protestants do not go to the Bible first, they turn someplace other than to church authority. The other source of authority, put ahead of the Bible by 11 percent of the Protestant clergy is “what the Holy Spirit says to me personally.” This is the primary source of authority for 23 percent of the Methodist ministry.

Most clergymen claim to have had a life-changing religious experience (78 percent). This claim is made by more Protestants (82 percent) than Catholics (56 percent), and ranges in Protestant communions from 100 percent among the Southern Baptists to 52 percent among the Lutherans. Of those who profess such an experience almost all said that it involved Jesus Christ (94 percent) but fewer identified it as “asking Jesus Christ to be your personal Savior” (73 percent). Lutherans (26 percent) even less than Catholics (34 percent) identified their experience in this way. The survey distinguished between orthodoxy and conversionism as patterns for classifying responses to the questionnaire.

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Leighton Ford felt that “the wide gap between the number of Southern Baptists and Lutherans who have had a religious conversion experience indicates the effect that expectation has on our experience. When conversion is preached and expected in our church fellowship, it seems to happen more regularly!”

Even so limited a survey provides the beginning of a weather map of the currents of religious opinion moving across our continent. One fact of religious barometric pressure is the “high” of Christian orthodoxy and conversion experience in the general population. Better than a third of the population are in this pattern.

Among the clergy, major differences of religious conviction do exist, and the general perceptions of these differences are well founded. Catholic clergy really do believe in salvation by works and put church authority rather than biblical authority first; Southern Baptists are strongly conservative; and the Methodists have many more liberal ministers than Baptists or Lutherans have.

But what may not be expected (at least by those who have not attended the Urbana missionary conventions or visited evangelical seminaries in recent years) is the orthodox and conversionist “high” among the younger clergy. Ministers between the ages of 18 and 29 are much more conservative in their views of the Bible (78 percent are for inerrancy), salvation by faith in Christ (87 percent), the creation of Adam and Eve (70 percent), and in testing their beliefs by the Bible first (76 percent). They also lead in professing a conversion experience (83 percent). Only one in a hundred of the younger clergy would put church authority ahead of Scripture, but 17 percent put the speaking of the Spirit rather than the Bible as their first authority in testing belief. Presumably this reflects a charismatic strand in the renewal movement, a movement that has so profoundly influenced the younger generation of Christians, and therefore of Christian pastors.

Orthodox Christians cannot write off sub-Christian views among the clergy on percentages. Jesus was betrayed by only 8 percent of his disciples!

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Yet the burning questions raised by the survey come from the orthodox answers given by so many. Dr. William Iverson, scholar-evangelist in the streets of Newark, New Jersey, notes that more than a quarter of the whole American population professes evangelical faith. “A pound of meat,” he says, “would surely be affected by a quarter-pound of salt. If this is real Christianity, the ‘salt of the earth,’ where is the effect of which Jesus spoke?” Iverson looks for the care of the poor that should mark the gospel. Reflecting on the survey of the clergy as a whole, Leighton Ford concluded that “our theological education must give much more attention not only to helping clergy to come to clear beliefs themselves, but even more so to helping them communicate these beliefs effectively to their congregations and to those outside the faith.”

John E. Kyle, missions director of Inter-Varsity, notes the missionary potential of so many orthodox and converted ministers and such a large community of Christians in America. “There is need,” he says, “for at least 120,000 missionaries to reach the 2.7 billion people unreached by the gospel.… Such orthodoxy could well fuel the great reservoir of young people in the United States to embrace Christ as Savior and enable them to be called out to serve as missionaries of the gospel of Jesus Christ overseas.”

Biblical Christianity in America has withstood the fires of secularism and the floods of materialism. About one-third of the population and two-thirds of the clergy have kept the faith, and their conviction seems to be deepening with the younger generation. To whom much has been given, much shall be required. “If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17).

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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