From Think on These Things, Feb. 2017; used with permission.
Both statistical research and anecdotal observation come to the same conclusion—America, a nation once steeped in Scripture if not always living in obedience to God, has joined the ranks of the biblically illiterate from around the globe. Both theologians and sociologists speak of our “post-Christian” culture, which, while still being fueled to some extent by the capital of Christianity, is now all but coasting on empty.
Albert Mohler, in a short article entitled “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem,” quotes pollsters George Gallup and Jim Castelli as saying, “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”1 As a result, Mohler documents that fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospels, identify more than 3 disciples or name even five of the Ten Commandments. Eighty-two percent of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.
More comical are the studies that reveal 12 percent of adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, a considerable number think Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount, and 50% of graduating high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A survey not referenced by Mohler indicates that some believe the epistles are the wives of the apostles.
These findings and stories drawn from secular society should not surprise us too much—after all, biblical instruction is seldom found today in our schools, media, clubs or any place else apart from the church. But sadly the church is catching up to society.
In 2014, a study was conducted by LifeWay Research for Ligonier Ministries in which self-identifying evangelicals were found to have unorthodox views concerning a number of essential doctrines such as those dealing with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation and inspiration. These views were often equal to, or worse than, views held by their secular counterparts.
Questioning the results of this survey, some analysists assumed that allowing individuals to self-identify as evangelicals skewed the outcome. This is a real possibility, especially since there has been widespread confusion in recent times over exactly what an evangelical is and who can claim to be one. The standard definition for a number of years is one developed by historian David Bebbington.
Bebbington claimed an evangelical, at least since the mid-1800s, had four distinguishing marks: belief in conversion by faith alone, the final authority of the Bible, the substitutionary death of Christ as necessary for our salvation, and activism, especially in the sense of sharing the gospel with others.2 Bebbington summed up these enduring priorities of the evangelical movement as: “crucientrism, conversionism, biblicism and activism.”3
Recently the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and LifeWay Research (Southern Baptist) sought to sharpen the definition, in order to better understand and analyze their research, by providing the four-statement tool below. Respondents are expected to strongly agree to the four statements to be considered evangelicals by belief (as opposed to merely self-identifying). The statements are:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe [a somewhat weakened form of Bebbington’s biblicism, in which Bebbington’s “final authority” is reduced to NAE’s “highest authority,” allowing for competing authorities].
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior [Bebbington’s activism].
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin [comes short of Bebbington’s crucientrism of penal substitution].
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation [leaves out the Reformers’ “faith alone” and thus falls short of sola fide].4
The NAE/LifeWay’s definition of an evangelical is not quite at the level of Bebbington’s understanding of the word as used in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. And at best it is a minimalistic doctrinal statement which leaves room for unbiblical dogmas of many kinds (for example, nothing is said of the Trinity or the person and work of the Holy Spirit). For survey and research purposes it can be seen that those now considered evangelicals “by belief,” not merely self-identified, may in fact hold to many errant views. Nevertheless this is the definition most common today and it is superior to the nebulous definitions which are the norm. At least it is an attempt to define an evangelical.
We are now ready to compare what evangelicals, by the NAE/LifeWay definition, believe in contrast to what the general public believes. Since the 2014 survey in which evangelicals self-identified yielded discouraging results, a new study was commissioned in which self-confessed evangelicals had to pass the four-statement test highlighted above.
The theory was that this study, published in September, 2016, would surely yield better results than the previous one. Unfortunately, it did not. In the new study, 47 statements about Christian theology were presented to 3000 American adults, 586 of whom met the NAE/LifeWay definition of an evangelical. Here is a sampling of the results:5
- While 97% of evangelicals believe in the Trinity, oddly 71 percent said Jesus was the first and greatest being “created” by God, thus identifying with the ancient heresy of Arianism. This doctrine of a “created” Jesus Christ is essentially what is taught by the Jehovah Witnesses and Latter Day Saints today. 52% of the general population believes that Jesus was not created, which means, that concerning the deity of Christ, the secular public were more orthodox than evangelicals.
- And the Holy Spirit fares even worse. The Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being, according to 56% of evangelicals. In addition 28% say He is a divine being, but is not equal with God the Father or Jesus. This is a rejection of the revised version of the Nicene Creed of 381 which affirmed the person of the Holy Spirit.
- Fifty-four percent of evangelicals agreed with the statement, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” This means that 46% of evangelicals do not recognize the fallen, depraved nature of humanity as expressed in Scripture.
- If depravity is not understood by evangelicals, it is no wonder that they are also confused concerning salvation and how one comes to Christ. Eighty-six percent believe that the sinner must take the first step in seeking God and then the Lord responds to him with grace (vs. 65% of Americans in general). And a disturbing 74% believe that “an individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.” However, when asked to respond to the statement “By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven,” only 39% agreed. This demonstrates the confusion even evangelicals have regarding salvation. Those who believe that their merit is necessary for personal salvation would be buying into the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, which says either that mankind can come to Christ on their own, or at least aid Christ in their salvation (synergism), often called semi-Pelagianism. No wonder many today claim that “God helps those who help themselves” is their favorite verse of Scripture, even though it is not found in the Word of God.
- That God accepts the worship of all religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam is embraced by 64% of the general public (no surprise here), but strangely 48% of evangelicals agreed.
- Sixty-four percent of evangelicals agreed that “heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones.” Sixty-percent of Americans agreed. Some form of universalism is apparently accepted by both groups.
- Almost all evangelicals agree that the Bible is the highest authority for what they believe, but 30% see biblical interpretation as left up to the individual and 17% believe the Bible is not literally true and contains myths.
- Church attendance among evangelicals did not fare so well either. Forty-two percent believe that “worshipping alone or in response to the survey results, with family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.” Mohler places the blame for such biblical and doctrinal ignorance on “churches that marginalize biblical knowledge. Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing faction of the local congregation’s time and attention.”6
Surveys of this type can be interpreted a number of ways. At best this one demonstrates the confusion among those who meet today’s recognized definition of an evangelical; a confusion resulting from wide-scale lack of scriptural teaching and minimized attention or interest in theology within our churches and parachurch organizations. Almost anything else besides careful instruction from the Word will draw crowds, raise funds and sustain ministries, and therefore not surprisingly, exposition and Bible teaching have fallen largely by the wayside. Many have recognized this inattention to Bible teaching and general lack of interest in theology to be at the root of the illiteracy problem. For example, Howard Snyder
blamed the overall lack of orthodoxy on the fact that “most evangelical churches have largely abandoned catechesis (or a functional equivalent)… . Theologically informed discipleship is mostly absent from churches.”7
Beth Jones, professor of theology at Wheaton College states,
The survey underscores our desperate need for sound doctrinal teaching in the local church… . I fear that we’re spending too much time in cults of personality around charismatic superstar pastors, who often focus more of their personal theological idiosyncrasies and pet ideas than on basic Christian orthodoxy.8
Kenneth Briggs, author of The Invisible Best Seller: Searching for the Bible in America, says the faith taught in “mega-type churches” is a “Bible-less … alternative version of Christianity. … [Scripture has become] a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.”9 And G. Shane Morris summarizes the results of the survey as an embarrassment to us all: “But they should also serve as a kick in the pants to re-familiarize ourselves with our own religion.”10
1 Albert Mohler, The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem, Jan 20, 2016, (www.albertmohler.com/2016/1/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-ou…
2 David W Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), pp. 21-40.
3 Ibid., p. 23.
6 Albert Mohler.
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute and MBS and ThD degrees from Cambridge Graduate School. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.