What Americans Believe

© Igor Stevanovic | 123rf.com

There is a new poll out on the state of American theology. The “2016 State of American Theology Study” was sponsored by Ligonier Ministries and completed by LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The poll looked at six doctrinal areas, asking about: God, goodness and sin, salvation and religious texts, heaven and hell, the church, and authority. And it seems that there were some surprising findings.

First, a little background information. Ligonier Ministries had previously commissioned LifeWay Research to do a 2014 poll, “The State of Theology.” Many of the questions in both polls seem to be word-for-word the same, but some questions were new to 2016 poll and some were reworded. Both polls were national, online panels, with 3,000 surveys each. The 2014 poll was completed between February 25th and March 5th of 2014, and the 2016 poll was completed between April 14th and April 20th of 2016. Both polls sought to use wording that would be understood by typical Americans. Both asked multiple questions on each topic. Each doctrine or heresy was stated as fact, with respondents then asked to indicate their level of agreement.

According to Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier Ministries will post articles that interpret the key findings of the 2016 poll, but I thought it would be interesting to compare the 2014 and 2016 polls and reflect on the similarities and the differences between them. One significant difference between the two polls was how “Evangelicals” were identified. In the 2014 poll, Evangelicals were self-declared or self-identified. In the 2016 poll to be an Evangelical, respondents had to strongly agree with the following four statements:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage nonChristians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

In conjunction with the organization, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), LifeWay research constructed the criteria for Evangelical belief from historian David Bebbington’s four primary characteristics evangelicalism. See the “What is an Evangelical?” page on the NAE website. The NAE said they believe these distinctives and theological convictions define evangelicals—“not political, social or cultural trends.” They note how many evangelicals rarely use the term to describe themselves. Rather, they focus on “the core convictions of a triune God, the Bible, faith, salvation, evangelism and discipleship.”

Self-declared evangelicals are largely a different species than those individuals who strongly agree with the above four statements. Self-identification creates a larger evangelical population, while strong agreement with the four statements of faith limits the number of evangelicals. Given the radically different ways in which the faith groups of evangelicals were identified, it would have been helpful for each poll to give the percentages of individuals who fit the criteria of “Evangelical.” They did not. So when looking at how “Evangelicals” responded in the two polls, this difference should be kept in mind.

With regard to certain beliefs about God, there were largely no changes among Americans. For the statement: “God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake”, 50% of the 2016 respondents strongly agreed and 16% agreed somewhat. 2014 Evangelicals strongly agreed with this statement; 97% of the 2016 evangelicals agreed. The 2016 figure seems to be a combination of strong agreement and somewhat agreement from the respondents.

For the statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit”, 53% of the 2016 respondents strongly agreed and 16% agreed somewhat; 50% of the 2014 respondents strongly agreed and 21% agreed somewhat. Unfortunately, the responses for evangelicals were again not consistently reported for the two polls. 2016 evangelicals were more likely to agree (97%)—again a combination of strong agreement and somewhat agreement. 2014 evangelicals were only noted to somewhat agree (14%) with the triune declaration of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The question on the bodily resurrection of Jesus has similar results. 45% of 2016 and 2014 respondents strongly agreed; and 23% of 2014 respondents somewhat agreed while 19% of 2016 respondents somewhat agreed. 2016 Evangelicals were more likely to agree (98%) than 2014 Evangelicals (76%). But the data for 2016 seems to again combine strong agreement and somewhat agreement, while 2014 Evangelicals are only reported for strong agreement.

The same frustrating difference in reporting on evangelical agreement existed with the question on the two natures of Jesus Christ—divine and human. Americans in 2014 and 2016 again had similar levels of agreement—62% of 2016 respondents agreed, while 60% of 2014 respondents agreed. Then 85% of 2016 Evangelicals agreed (the combination of strong and somewhat agreement), while 77% of 2014 Evangelicals strongly agreed.

Two statements unique to the 2016 poll had some interesting results. Reflecting the false dichotomy between science and faith, 18% of Americans strongly agreed that modern science discredits the claims of Christianity; 26% agreed somewhat. While 17% disagreed somewhat and 23% strongly disagreed, 16% were not sure. There were no significant differences compared to those with Evangelical beliefs.

A second statement assessed religious differences by stating: “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.” Forty-four percent of Americans strongly agreed; 20% agreed somewhat; 7% disagreed somewhat; 17% strongly disagreed; and 12% didn’t know. Americans with Evangelical beliefs were less likely to agree.

This failure to provide comparable results from the two polls for the sense of Evangelicals continued through the other doctrinal areas. So I’ll stop commenting on those differences. Perhaps as Ligonier Ministries posts other discussions of their 2016 poll results, the distinction between self-identified Evangelicals of the 2014 poll and the NAE defined Evangelicals of the 2016 poll will be more clearly looked at. Unless specified, the following discussion is about the 2016 poll’s findings.

With regard to beliefs about goodness and sin, salvation and religious texts, there were similar percentages of agreement. With regard to whether “everyone sins at least a little, but most people are good by nature,” 22% of respondents strongly agreed; 43% agreed somewhat; 15% disagreed somewhat; 13% strongly disagreed; and 6% weren’t sure. The same agreement occurred with a statement of whether people have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative. Most 2016 respondents strongly agreed this was possible (55%), while 24% agreed somewhat; 5% disagreed somewhat; 9% strongly disagreed and 7% weren’t sure. The wording for the 2014 statement was reversed, but the results were still similar.

Most people strongly disagreed that even the smallest sin deserved eternal damnation (62%), 11% strongly agreed and 8% agreed somewhat. Fifty-five percent of Americans thought their good deeds contributed to their earning a place in heaven. A bare majority of Americans agreed that salvation always began with God changing the person (53%), while 76% agreed the person must contribute their own effort for personal salvation.

With regard to the Bible, 44% of Americans agreed that Bible was not literally true, although it contained helpful accounts, like all sacred writings. Thirty percent strongly disagreed, while 15% disagreed somewhat and 11% weren’t sure. Yet 52% agreed the Bible alone was the written word of God; and 47% agreed it was accurate in all it teaches. Most Americans (51%) thought the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses. When a church does not preach from the Bible, 23% agree it should not be considered a Christian church.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans agree that humans exist to bring God glory and enjoy Him. With regard to sex outside of marriage, 49% agree it is sin; 16% disagree somewhat and 27% strongly disagree. Ninety-one percent of Americans with Evangelical beliefs agree sex outside of marriage is sin. Americans with Evangelical beliefs are more likely to agree that abortion is sin (87%), while 49% of Americans disagree that it is sin. A similar divide exists regarding whether or not the biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior applies today. Forty-two percent think it does not apply today, while 44% think it does apply.

Where to begin? Half of Americans deny the eternal existence of Jesus as the Son of God, and believe that He was “the first and greatest being created by God.” Yet 61% agree that Jesus is truly God and truly man, and 69% agree there is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, 56% of Americans agree that the Holy Spirit is a force but not a person; He is divine, but not equal to the Father and Jesus (28%). Further, many Americans (77%) believe they contribute to their salvation; that by their good deeds they partly contribute to earning their place in heaven (52%); and that while everyone sins a little, most people are good by nature (65%).

I wonder if the attempt by these polls to express theological truths in language understood by the typical American undermined their intent to “ascertain the state of theological awareness and belief” of Americans. For example, take these statements seen as Beliefs About Goodness and Sin. “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature” and “People have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative” probe a belief in original sin. If the person understood “nature” as having the sense of the personality of a “good-natured” person, or thought of their life experience when “turning to God” in a time of difficulty, they might agree with these statements. Such agreement would not necessarily reflect their theological understanding of original sin, or their belief (or lack of belief) in original sin.

There is clearly a low level of theological sophistication among Americans. More Americans—especially those who see themselves as “Evangelical”—need a greater understanding of what is contained in the historic creeds and catechisms. While 58% thought there was value in studying and reciting historical creeds or confessions, 26% thought there was little value in studying and reciting them. If Evangelical churches and individual believers were more aware of how creeds and confessions provided a theological common ground, a statement of “mere” Christianity (a nod to C.S. Lewis here), perhaps they would not have had such high percentages of individuals agreeing with heresies and disagreeing with classic Christian beliefs.


Diluted Evangelicalism

© MiroNovak | stockfresh.com

© MiroNovak | stockfresh.com

The last twelve months have brought home to me the incredibly diluted sense that the term “evangelical” now holds. The political Twilight Zone of our current presidential race played a central role in that realization. The confluence of presidential politics and evangelicalism led me to see that many so-called American evangelicals are what a CNN Religion Editor, Daniel Burke, labeled as “cultural evangelicals.”

Burke described seven types of evangelicals that ranged from the “old guard” of James Dobson, Tony Perkins and John Hagee, to the “entrepreneurial evangelicals” of Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and Jerry Falwell Jr; and of course the cultural evangelicals (CEs). This last category consists, according to Burke, of individuals raised as Christian, but who don’t attend church or consider religion to be important in their lives. Yet when pollsters ask about their faith, they say they are evangelical. Tellingly, Burke commented how CEs don’t seem dismayed with Trump referring to communion as “his little cracker” or when he could not name a favorite Scripture verse.

During a speech he made at Liberty University in January of 2016, Trump said “2 Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” He made his biblical ignorance worse by blaming his misstep on Tony Perkins. “Tony Perkins wrote that out for me — he actually wrote out 2, he wrote out the number 2 Corinthians. . . . I took exactly what Tony said, and I said, ‘Well Tony has to know better than anybody.’” Perkins admitted he did exactly as Trump said. Then he remarked how this showed Trump was not familiar with the Bible.

Not surprisingly, in a Pew Research poll on Faith and the 2016 Campaign done in January of 2016, Trump was seen as the least religious of all the candidates. Although conventional wisdom says someone who is not religious cannot be elected president of the United States, both Clinton and Trump were among the three presidential candidates seen as the least religious in the Pew poll. Bernie Sanders was the third least religious candidate. The number of Americans who say Hillary Clinton is not a religious person is sharply higher than when she was seeking the nomination in 2007.

The new survey confirms that being an atheist continues to be one of the biggest perceived shortcomings a hypothetical presidential candidate could have, with 51% of adults saying they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. Indeed, in the eyes of the public, being a nonbeliever remains a bigger drawback than having had an extramarital affair (37% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had been unfaithful), having had personal financial troubles (41% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had had financial struggles), or having used marijuana in the past (20% would be less likely to support a former pot smoker).

Another Pew Research poll (Evangelicals Rally to Trump) published in July of 2016, as Donald Trump became the Republican presidential candidate, indicated that 78% of white evangelicals would vote for Trump, including almost a third who strongly backed his campaign. And yet, many evangelical leaders such as Russell Moore, Max Lucado, and Erick Erickson, have said that supporting Trump for president in incompatible with evangelical principles and beliefs. Erickson said he would not vote for Trump. Ever. “Donald Trump has had no ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. He only wants to date the preachers’ daughter.”

There were no differences between evangelicals who say they attend religious services regularly (weekly or more) and those who attend less often. “Fully three-quarters of both groups say they would vote for Trump over Clinton.”

In his article for The Washington Post, Thomas Kidd suggested that what is going on is “a watering-down and politicization of the term ‘evangelical.’” He said that in American pop culture, evangelical now means “whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.” Historically, early evangelical leaders like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards were fighting against the idea that Christianity was mostly cultural or political. “Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening of the 18th century preached against the idea of an in-name-only affiliation, declaring you must be born again.”

He proposed three factors that have helped accelerate the corruption of the term evangelical since the 1980s. First was the success of the evangelical movement. In the 1800s, evangelicalism became the de facto religion in many parts of the South and Midwest. By the mid 1900s many Americans grew up supposing they were evangelicals, because the term seemed equivalent to that of Protestant and even “American.” This cultural environment meant people “were now born an evangelical, not born-again as one.”

Second, in the 1970s and 1980s, evangelicals began drifting away from candidates with personal evangelical backgrounds, like Jimmy Carter. This came to a head with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. “Reagan mastered the art of talking like evangelicals and promising progress on issues such as school prayer and abortion.” From that time on, self-identified white evangelicals seemed satisfied with candidates who learned the lingo and promised good Supreme Court appointments. “This meant that the public could disassociate evangelicals from theology, or affinity with other evangelicals, and link them inextricably with GOP politics.”

The third issue and the most serious one in understanding “evangelical” political behavior is in letting respondents define their own religious affiliation. One example he pointed to was the evidence suggesting that evangelicals who did not attend church were likely to support Trump. “For those who have a deeper understanding of the term’s historic meaning, there can be no such thing as a non-churchgoing evangelical.” African American, Hispanic and other evangelicals of color are often excluded because of how the term evangelical has been associated with being white and Republican.

These vague associations have turned “evangelical” into a term that luminaries like Edwards and Whitefield would not recognize. And, more problematically, they represent a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization. That is a gospel that certainly cannot save.

Cultural evangelicals are not true evangelicals. But then what is an evangelical? The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College observed how the term “evangelicalism” is a wide canopy that covers a diverse number of mostly Protestant traditions. Originally adapted by Martin Luther as the name of his movement, in the English-speaking world, it describes the religious movements that were associated with a series of revivals in America and England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

By the 1820s, evangelical Protestantism was the dominant expression of Christianity in the U.S. Historian Martin Marty referred to a largely-evangelical “Benevolent Empire” that attempted the reshape American society in the decades before the Civil War. Cultural hegemony began to diminish after the war as American society changed from urbanization, industrialization and immigration. Millions of non-Protestant immigrants also came to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Nonetheless, evangelical Protestantism remained a powerful presence within American culture (as evidenced by the success of evangelists like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday). Going into the 20th century evangelicalism still held the status of a pervasive American “folk religion” in many sectors of the United States, particularly the South and certain areas of the Midwest.

Today, there are three ways in which the term evangelical is used. The first is to see evangelicals as all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practices. British historian David Bebbington identified four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: 1) conversionism, 2) activism, 3) Biblicism and 4) crucicentrism. Conversionism means there has to be a change in how the person lives. Activism means effort is made to express the gospel. Biblicism has to do with a particular regard for the Bible. And crucicentrism means you stress the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Criticisms of Bebbington’s approach see his categories as too broad and inclusive. Yet it has become the baseline used by most scholars. Refer also to the work of the Barna Group or my discussion of it within “What is an Evangelical?

A second sense is to see evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Here, evangelical denotes both a style and a set of beliefs; an attitude which insiders “know” and “feel” when they encounter it.

A third sense came from a coalition of individuals and organizations that arose during the Second World War. Individuals like Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga; and organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals played “a pivotal role in giving the aider movement a sense of cohesion” to the movement as a reaction against the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) also reviewed Bebbington’s summary of evangelical distinctives. They indicated evangelicals were a diverse group that cut across denominations, churches and nations. “Our community brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions.” There is a link to the NAE Statement of Faith on their website linked above.

The NAE commented how evangelicals are often the target of research. But the outcomes vary because of the differences in how evangelicals are identified by the researchers. Along with LifeWay Research, the NAE developed a tool as a consistent standard for evangelical belief.  Respondents must strongly agree with the following four statements to be categorized as an evangelical:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

When evangelicals are self-described, then someone who would refer to Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians as “2 Corinthians” could easily say he was an evangelical, and have his responses in the research codified as “evangelical.”  A true evangelical is something more than just a person who is considered to be an evangelical just because he or she says they are. Evangelicals need to self-consciously work against the watering-down and politicization of the term “evangelical.” We have to remember that the term comes originally from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” When we dilute the meaning of evangelicalism, aren’t we in danger of diluting the gospel itself? Remember that a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization does not save.


American Christianity is Evolving

© ribah | stockfresh.com

© ribah | stockfresh.com

The Pew Research Center recently released its new Religious Landscape study and it seems to have stimulated differing opinions on the status of Christianity in America. CNN reported that Millennials are leaving the church in droves. Ryan Bell, the former Seventh Day Adventist minister who took a year off (and counting) from belief in God, titled his article: “American Christians Scramble for Silver Lining in Pew Religion Poll.” But evangelicals like Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition and Ed Stetzer, a contributing editor for Christianity Today had a different take on the Pew Religious Landscape study.

Daniel Burke, the CNN Religion Editor highlighted the finding that the percentage of the Americans saying they were Christian dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.4% in 2014. This was attributed by the Pew Research Center to the fact that more millennials are saying they are not affiliated with any faith. Thirty-six percent of younger millennials (18-24) identified as unaffiliated as 34% of older millennials (25-33). Twenty-three percent of Gen Xers (34-49), 17% of Baby Boomers (50-68) and 11% of the Silent Generation (69-86) were reportedly unaffiliated.

Burke pointed to how almost every major branch of Christianity lost a significant number of members. Greg Smith, from Pew Research, was quoted as saying: “We’ve known that the religiously unaffiliated has been growing for decades . . . But the pace at which they’ve continued to grow is really astounding.” The declines were deepest among Catholics and mainline Protestants. Burke’s conclusion was that the older generations were not as effective in passing along their faith as their forebears were.

Ryan Bell simply concluded: “Americans are losing their religion.” He noted the surprising increase among nones (religiously unaffiliated) to 22.8% of the population. He cautioned that atheists who celebrated these results as a victory were being too enthusiastic. Of the 22.8%, 4.0% said they were agnostic (a 1.6% increase since 2007), 3.1% said they were atheist  (a 1.5% increase since 2007) and 15.8% said they were “nothing in particulars” (a 3.7% increase since 2007).

Several analyses of the Pew study have focused on the dramatic increase in the “unaffiliated” or “religious nones.” But look at what Pew Research means by “nones.” They are generally less religiously observant, but all nones are not nonbelievers. “In fact, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.” A better statement would seem to be that “Americans are losing their religious affiliation.” But this doesn’t appear to be happening with evangelicals. The Pew Research Center said:

The new survey indicates that churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition—including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, other evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations—now have a total of about 62 million adult adherents. That is an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007, though once the margins of error are taken into account, it is possible that the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged.

Bell didn’t seem to think much of the fact that there was only a minor decrease (-.9%) in the percentage of individuals saying they were evangelical, from 26.3% in 2007 to 25.4% in 2014.  He pointed to how 35% of childhood evangelicals left their faith as adults. But Bell neglected to say that 41% of evangelicals were converts from other faith groups. This meant evangelicals were the only Christian faith group that gained, rather than lost members as their children grew to adulthood. However, he was correct to say that most of the Catholics or mainline Protestants leaving their faith group are becoming unaffiliated and not evangelicals. Among adults with no religious affiliation, 28% are former Catholics and 21% are former mainline Protestants.

The unaffiliated religious group was the most fluid over time, with only 21% of individuals currently identifying as such being raised within that tradition, while 90% of Catholics were raised as Catholics. Mainline Protestants and evangelicals were in-between with 42% and 39% respectively having been raised in religious groups other than their current identification.

Joe Carter concentrated his response on what he saw as the important “takeaways” related to evangelicalism. He said claims that conservative forms of evangelicalism are rapidly declining because of pernicious sexism, religious intolerance and conservative politics don’t seem to be true. He wondered whether this new information would be enough to lead critics of evangelicalism to alter their conclusions. Among the important takeaways he pointed to were a few we’ve already touched on, namely: evangelical Protestants have increased slightly or remained essentially unchanged while mainline Protestants declined significantly. He also noted that 65% of adults raised as evangelicals still identify as evangelicals. But there were a couple of additional interesting facts about evangelicals to look at as well.

One of these was how racial and ethnic minorities now make up 24% of evangelicals. This was an increase of 5% since 2007, with most of that increase (4%) coming from Hispanics. Another finding is that more Americans who self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual say they are evangelical (13%) than mainline (11%), atheist (8%), or agnostic (9%). Only Catholics had more individuals (17%) who self-indentified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Among non-Christians, the four primary faith groups had very few individuals who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual: Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%), Buddhist (2%), Hindu (1%).

As a quick aside, among individuals who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, 41% said they were religiously unaffiliated—8% said they were atheist; 9% were agnostic; and 24% were nothing in particular.

Ed Stezer has written several articles about the Pew Research Center data, for Christianity Today and other media outlets, including USA Today, CNN and The Washington Post.  The link here for “Nominals to Nones” gives you access his other articles. Stezer made a distinction between three categories of Christians: cultural, congregational and convictional. He said the first two were nominal Christians who said they were Christian, but did not attend church services regularly or shape their lives around their faith convictions, as convictional Christians did. Cultural Christians were the least connected, calling themselves “Christian” because of heritage or culture. Congregational Christians had a connection to a local church, but rarely attended.

He said we see cultural and some congregational Christians now identifying themselves as “unaffiliated” or “nones.” Stezer supported this conclusion with a quote by Conrad Hackett, from Pew Research, “People with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to indentify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have indentified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.” In his CNN article, he looked at data from the General Social Survey (GSS) that suggested what we are seeing the death of is cultural and congregational Christians.

So, the big story is this: convictional Christians are remaining relatively steady with a slight decline. The nominals (cultural and congregational Christians) are often becoming the nones; and the sky is just not falling (unless you are a mainline Protestant).

His 3 key takeaways from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey were: convictional Christianity is rather steady; there have been significant shifts in American Christianity; and mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage. He said Christianity isn’t dying, but it is evolving. It’s becoming less nominal, more defined and more outside mainstream American culture. So we don’t need to run around saying, “The sky is falling!”

Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.


The Heart of an Evangelical

Sword On Old Bible

image credit: iStock

When I was in my early teens, my father went into the hospital because he was having heart problems, probably from smoking cigarettes. His doctors recommended what was then a radical surgical procedure: a coronary artery bypass. It wasn’t known if he would survive the operation, so he was permitted to come home for what could be his last Christmas. He survived the bypass operation and never smoked again.

The heart of evangelical, Christian thinking is the authority of Scripture. Belief that the Bible is the Word of God pumps the lifeblood of the Spirit within us. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) But there is an ongoing debate about whether this evangelical heart needs its own bypass operation.

The arteries of Genesis on Creation and the Fall, of understanding the relevance of Pauline statements on gender role (and others) are thought to be blocked by the plaque of traditional interpretations. It is believed that, as these arteries are less and less able to carry the lifeblood of the Spirit to the body of Christ, the church will eventually have a “heart attack.” So some evangelical heart specialists are recommending a kind of coronary bypass operation.

One of these evangelicals is Peter Enns, currently at Eastern University. In an interview with The Christian Post, Enns said people within evangelicalism desperately want to defend the Bible against its challengers by questioning the very foundations of evangelicalism:

What they’re saying is what some of the bad guys say about the Bible makes sense, whether its evolution, whether it’s Canaanite genocide, whether it’s human sexuality, whatever. They’re saying they want to rethink some of those issues, but they’re doing it from the point of view of having a deep connection with the tradition they were raised in. They don’t want to just leave it. … They want to transform and continue the evangelical journey.

Supposedly younger evangelical Christians want to rethink what it means to be an evangelical, but are being held back by the movement’s older leadership. According to Enns, this reluctance is out of fear of the repercussions. In other words, the leaders are afraid the bypass operation won’t take. “So much hinges on getting the Bible right that giving ground on issues like evolution runs the risk of upsetting the entire system.”

Returning to the heart metaphor, if we don’t maintain a healthy sense of the ultimate authority of the Bible, of its universal and eternal truth, then the evangelical church will have a heart attack and die. It’s not just a matter of the old guard holding on to its power. “Getting the Bible right” is a life-and-death issue for evangelicalism. Francis Schaeffer understood what was at stake. In a letter he wrote to a frequent visitor at L’Abri about the knife-edged balance required in the modern evangelical world he said:

What we must ask the Lord for is a work of the Spirit . . . to stand on a very thin line: in other words, to state intellectually (as well as understand, though not completely) the intellectual reality of that which God is and what God has revealed in the objectively inspired Bible; and then to live moment to moment in the reality of a restored relationship with the God who is there, and to act in faith upon what we believe in our daily lives. (Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, p. 82)

So let there be a consultation among the evangelical heart specialists. Let us have a respectful hearing of the various procedures proposed to clear the blocked arteries. But let us not forget that an evangelical will always have the objectively inspired Bible as its heart. And if it stops beating, we die. We don’t want a success operation that ultimately kills the patient.

For further information on what it means to be an evangelical, see the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Alliance. Also look at: “What is an Evangelical?” on this website.

Is belief in the authority of Scripture the heart of evangelicalism?