As my colleague Stefani McDade reported earlier this week, Lifeway Research released a survey conducted for Ligonier Ministries. It concludes that a shockingly high percentage of American evangelicals hold beliefs about Jesus and salvation that every wing of the Christian church would define as heresy.
If these results are accurate, what does that mean for where American evangelical Christianity is headed?
To recap, the survey showed that evangelical respondents expressed a confusing and sometimes incoherent mix of beliefs. Most affirmed the Trinity, but 73 percent at least partially agreed with the statement that “Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father,” which is, of course, the teaching of the heretic Arius.
I’m generally a little skeptical of these sorts of surveys, since they often seem to filter out those who believe but can’t articulate their beliefs in abstract terms. I’m not sure that any of my childhood Sunday school teachers would have agreed with a survey statement that “justification is by faith alone,” even though they all believed that. That said, Lifeway seems to have accounted for and filtered through many of those research problems.
I suspect most of us, though, are not surprised by the results. Today’s American evangelical Christianity seems to be more focused on hunting heretics internally than perhaps in any other generation. The difference, however, is that excommunications are happening not over theological views but over partisan politics or the latest social media debates.
I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to see fellow evangelicals embrace Christian leaders who teach heretical views of the Trinity or embrace the prosperity gospel but seek exile for those who don’t vote the same way or fail to feign outrage over clickbait controversies.
But something more seems to be going on here—something involving an overall stealth secularization of conservative evangelicalism. What worries me isn’t so much that evangelical Christians can’t articulate Christian orthodoxy in a survey. It’s that, to many of them, Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes.
Several years ago, a combative atheist wrote that his fellow atheists should drop the word atheism because it gave too much weight to theism. The ultimate goal, he argued, was not to spread atheism but to emphasize that belief in God is so lacking in credibility that it doesn’t deserves to be seriously entertained.
His arguments included no little sarcasm about the perceived stupidity of Christianity, along with strategies to move people away from their supernatural “myths” toward what he saw as realism—a world without God.
That same atheist spoke at a recent pastors’ conference. He has appeared in videos by evangelical groups to accuse other evangelicals of being “woke” and—in an unacknowledged, dizzying irony—of denying the sufficiency of Scripture. In his view, the dividing line between the “sheep” and the “goats” is the “correct” view on political causes, not belief in Christ or fidelity to the gospel.
I suppose the atheist’s strategy works in the long run. There’s no need to talk people out of believing in God or in preaching Christ and him crucified when the focus has shifted to politics. In that sense, theism—and Christianity itself—indeed cannot be taken seriously enough to oppose.
Interestingly enough, the Lifeway survey shows no such lack of orthodoxy when it comes to ethical questions about human life or sexuality. Is that because churches do a good job of catechizing people in a “biblical worldview” in those areas? Maybe. Or maybe these issues are at the forefront because they’re often discussed in a political or cultural context rather than a strictly theological one.
Some who (rightly) see troubling trends in surveys like these would argue that we need more theology books and conferences, along with more small groups, on systematic theology in our churches. I wonder, though, if the problem is bigger than that. Maybe rather than an information problem, we have an affections problem. Maybe before we have a theology problem, we have a priorities problem.
The missing piece right now is not so much the ability to articulate doctrines but a more fundamental literacy of Scripture. My fellow systematic theologians often chafe at “we need to get back to the Bible” talk, pointing instead to an ignorance of the Christian creedal tradition and of church history.
We saw that kind of imbalance in evangelical scholarship a few years ago, when interpreting the Bible without reflecting on the Council of Nicaea led some theologians to reject basic Christian doctrines such as the eternal generation of Christ.
That concern is fair, but it doesn’t go far enough.
New Testament scholar David Nienhuis makes the point that we have a generation of “Bible quoters, not Bible readers.” Sometimes even the most theologically inclined people know how to use the Bible in debate both inside and outside the church over controversies on gender, predestination, and so forth. But they don’t know the difference between Melchizedek and Mordecai, between Josiah and Jehoshaphat. They see the actual storyline of Scripture as a “minor” detail.
The Bible does far more than answer questions posed to it by current controversies, and far more than just undergird doctrine. The Bible shapes and forms its hearers. The Word of God does not return void. It reorients our priorities and our intuitions—even before we know they need adjusting. We as the church and as families need many different ministries and gifts—but maybe Awana Bible memorization classes or Sunday school “Sword drills” are more important than worldview conferences.
When Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, he responded with Scripture. But he was not just using proof texts against false teaching. By citing those particular passages from Deuteronomy, Jesus showed that he knew what the Devil was up to—tempting him to seek food, protection, and glory from somewhere other than God, just as the Israelites had been tempted to do in the time of Moses.
The people of God had failed in the wilderness before; the Son of God would not.
Jesus—the only Son of God, begotten not made, Light from Light, true God from true God, of the same essence as the Father, incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary—knew his Book and knew what mattered. If we don’t follow his lead, we might have our “values” right-side up and our theology upside down.
Russell Moore is the editor-in-chief at Christianity Today.