01/9/18

Their Way or the Highway

© bruno1998 | stockfresh.com

Writing for Christianity Today, Tim Stafford related what he thought was the most sobering moment of the BioLogos “Theology of Celebration” conference held in March of 2012. That was when David Kinnaman of Barna Research presented findings that more than half of U.S. pastors profess a 6-day, 24-hour creation view of Genesis 1. Fewer than one in five followed the BioLogos view, affirming an evolutionary process as God’s method of creation. The cited statistics illustrate the ongoing dispute within conservative Christian circles on how to interpret Genesis 1 and the role (if any) of evolutionary processes in creation.

BioLogos also posted an essay by Tim Keller, who was one of the participants at the 2012 conference, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople.” Keller wanted to provide guidance to pastors ministering in the cultural context where “Many secular and many evangelical voices agree on one ‘truism’—that if you are an orthodox Christian with a high view of the authority of the Bible, you cannot believe in evolution in any form at all.” He noted there were many Christians who questioned the underlying premise to this truism, namely that science and faith were irreconcilable. He added how this left “many Christian laypeople … confused because the voices arguing that Biblical orthodoxy and evolution are mutually exclusive are louder and more prominent than any others.”

Keller sought to describe in his essay how Christians could approach three of the main difficulties presented by the current scientific account of biological evolution for orthodox Christians. Those three difficulties were:  Biblical authority, the confusion of biology and philosophy, and the historicity of Adam and Eve. In his concluding thoughts Keller cited Psalm 19 and Romans 1, which teach: “that God’s glory is revealed as we study his creation.” Nevertheless, he said, we must interpret the book of nature by the book of God.  His conclusion was that Christians who seek to correlate Scripture and science “must be a ‘bigger tent’ than either the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists.”

He’s faced strong criticism of his paper from several creationist sources. For example, Lita Cosner of Creation Ministries International said he was struck by the weakness of Keller’s assertions. He questioned Keller’s understanding of Genesis and implied he had subordinated Scripture to science. E.S. Williams on The New Calvinists said Keller was a firm believer in theistic evolution who promoted “this false view of creation in the Christian Church.”

Ken Ham was more oblique, saying Keller had misrepresented or taken a shot at him. He also implied Keller had a low view of Scripture for Genesis 1-11 because he didn’t agree with Ham’s (Answers in Genesis’s) interpretation of those chapters. “For Genesis 1–11, they allow man’s fallible beliefs about evolution or millions of years to override the clear words in Scripture so man’s ideas can be accommodated into Scripture.” The message is clear. Any disagreement a young earth creationist (YEC) understanding of Genesis 1-11 means you have a low view of biblical authority; or you’ve misinterpreted Scripture. It’s their way or the highway.

Ted Davis noted how theistic evolution or evolutionary creation has been controversial among Christians for over one hundred years. “It was contested hotly in the 1920s, when William Jennings Bryan sought to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools and universities.” Bryan saw theistic evolution as “an anesthetic which deadens the pain while the patient’s religion is being gradually removed.” Yet Answers in Genesis (AiG) said Bryan himself allowed “compromise on the days of creation.” In an excerpt of the trial transcript from the Scopes Trial, as Clarence Darrow cross examined him, Bryan said he did not did not think the days in Genesis 1 were necessarily twenty-four hour days; and that the creation could have been going on for a very long time. “It might have continued for millions of years.”

Along with Bryan, AiG’s list of past and present “compromised” evangelical leaders include: Charles Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, James Montgomery Boice, Gleason Archer, Bill Bright, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Billy Graham, Bruce Waltke, and Tim Keller. “Those leaders all made the enormous mistake of interpreting Genesis differently than AiG.” As a result, they failed to contend for “the literal historical truth of Genesis 1–11, which is absolutely fundamental to all other doctrines in the Bible,” according to AiG.

It is astonishing that any given alternative to the YEC interpretation is painted as an unacceptable “compromise” arising from a cowardly desire to mute one’s faith in conformity to the world. This tendency to demonize legitimate differences of opinion or interpretation is surely one of the main reasons why so many young Christians are leaving their faith behind.

Ken Ham and AiG, of course, have a different opinion on why so many young people are leaving the church. In a 2016 article he co-authored for AiG, Ham said young people are not getting solid answers to their questions about the Bible. “Research”  (AiG research?) shows how many of these questions “are related to Genesis and scientific issues such as evolution, long ages (millions of years), dinosaurs, and Noah’s Ark.”

These young people are not getting solid answers from church leaders and parents but, sadly, are often told they can believe in the big bang, millions of years, and evolution; they’re then admonished to reinterpret or ignore Genesis while being told to “trust in Jesus!” These young people recognize the inconsistency of reinterpreting the first book of the Bible and yet being expected to trust the other books that talk about Christ. If we can doubt and reinterpret Genesis, where do we stop doubting and reinterpreting?

AiG (Ham and his co-author) pointed out a Pew Research Center study that looked at “Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind.” A ‘none’ is a person who does not identify with a religious group. According to Pew, 78% of religious nones report they were raised in a particular faith before shedding it in adulthood. Forty-nine percent of these said they left their childhood faith over a lack of belief.  But here we run into some apparent difficulties when interpreting the Pew data.

Pew Research said the 49% of religious nones whose lack of belief led them away from religion “include many respondents who mention ‘science’ as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings.” AiG reported this as Pew Research finding the same thing they did: “A large percent of young people are leaving the church because of questions about science that lead to doubts about God’s Word.” The Pew quote was from their above article, but the article itself didn’t give anything more specific than what was quoted. I did some searching on the Pew website and couldn’t find any further data on nones saying science was the reason they don’t now believe religious teachings, so we’ll assume what the article said is all that is available.

I don’t read the above two quotes as saying the same thing, as AiG does. There may be a significant number of young people who say they left the church or don’t believe in religious teachings because of science, but you can’t draw that conclusion from the Pew report. Pew didn’t give any data on that issue; they merely said many respondents gave ‘science’ as a reason they no longer believed in religious teachings. Another factor to consider is the Pew data is a reflection of all faiths, and not just Christianity. So it seems AiG is illegitimately co-opting the Pew findings to support their own views when they say Pew Research found the same thing they did. Then they proclaim: “If we can’t trust the historical portions of the Bible that deal with our origins, why should we trust the message of Jesus Christ? We’ve been saying this for years now—it’s nothing new!”

Research done by the Barna Group on “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church” indicated there was no single reason that dominated “the break-up between church and young adults.” However, there were six significant themes for why 59% disconnect after the age of fifteen. One of those six themes was how the church comes across as antagonistic to science. The research showed that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science. The Barna Group findings seem to be in line with Ted Davis’s above opinion on why many young Christians are leaving their faith—because of their church is demonizing legitimate differences of opinion or interpretation. The most common reasons given by young adults who felt disconnected from church or faith because of perceived antagonism to science were as follows:

“Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.”

There were five other reasons in addition to how churches come across as antagonistic to science in the Barna Group findings. So perceived antagonism with science is only one of six significant themes why young Christians disconnect from church life. It is a factor, but can’t be said to be the primary reason. Now let’s look at the results of another Pew Research study: The Religious Landscape Study, which “surveys more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states about their religious affiliations, beliefs and practices and social and political views.” One of the social questions was on the participant’s views on evolution.

Among Christians, 42% said humans always existed in their present form, 5% said they didn’t know, but 54% said humans evolved in one way or another. Twenty-one percent said humans evolved through natural processes, 29% said they evolved due to God’s design, and 4% said they evolved but didn’t know ho it happened.

Most evangelical Protestants (57%) said humans always existed in their present form, 5% said they didn’t know, but 38% said humans evolved in one way or another. Eleven percent said humans evolved through natural processes, 25% said they evolved due to God’s design, and 2% said they evolved but didn’t know ho it happened.

Another question asked in the Religious Landscape Study was on interpreting Scripture. Among Christians, 39% said the Bible was the Word of God and should be taken literally; 33% said the Bible was the Word of God, but not everything had to be taken literally; 18% said is was not the word of God; the rest weren’t sure in one way or another.

Most evangelical Protestants (55%) said the Bible was the Word of God and should be taken literally; 29% said the Bible was the Word of God, but not everything had to be taken literally; 8% said is was not the word of God; the rest weren’t sure in one way or another.

A literal interpretation of the Bible and believing humans always existed in their present form are beliefs consistent with a YEC position on creation. And the percentages of evangelical Protestants holding those beliefs corresponds to the Barna Group research reported above, that half of U.S. pastors profess a 6-day, 24-hour creation view of Genesis 1. Yet there are significant percentages of evangelical Protestants (38%) who hold to some form of human evolutionary development and believe that while the Bible is the Word of God, not everything had to be taken literally (29%).

Despite the detractors, it seems that Tim Keller’s advice in “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” is particularly relevant to the church today. When Christians draw the line of orthodoxy at a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 to 11 and deny the possibility of a creation older than a few thousand years, they make their tent too small and in the process send those who can’t agree on their way. Hopefully they will encounter a pastor and a church who are trying to minister in the manner suggested by Keller.

12/29/17

Protestants Without Sola Fide, Part 2

© kehli | 123rf.com- monument of Martin Luther on the market place in front of the townhall, Wittenberg, Germany.

Some of the reported findings of the Pew Research Center’s “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation Era Controversies” have left more than one person scratching their heads. Surprisingly, only 27% of Protestants correctly said that Protestants alone traditionally teach that salvation comes through faith alone; 44% of Protestants said that both Catholics and Protestants hold this doctrinal belief. Confusingly, the survey also found that 24% of self-identified Protestants said they were not familiar with the term “Protestant.” What does it mean when 24% of Protestants aren’t familiar with the term “Protestants”?

In Part one of this article, I looked at the confusion with how Pew defined one of the fundamental doctrinal differences between Protestants and Catholics, sola fide: justification by faith alone. The Pew survey linked sola fide with salvation and not justification within the questionnaire when it said: “faith in God alone is needed to get into heaven.”  This Pew definition was not the classic Protestant understanding of sola fide. Nevertheless, only 46% of self-identified Protestants said they thought “Faith in God is the only thing that gets people into heaven,” 52% said: “Both good deeds and faith in God are necessary to get into heaven”—a Roman Catholic sense of salvation.

The Pew study does seem to suggest that: “U.S. Protestants are not united about – and in some cases, are not even aware of – some of the controversies that were central to the historical schism between Protestantism and Catholicism.” Most American Protestants (57%) believe the two Christian traditions are more alike than different. And as noted above, 52% of Protestants believe that faith and works are necessary for salvation. This is a dramatic shift from the position of the Reformation.

In his article on justification in the New Dictionary of Theology, N.T. Wright said popular Protestantism has suppressed the distinction between justification and regeneration, while Roman Catholics have continued to be influenced by Augustine, “who saw it as God’s action in making people righteous, through pouring into their hearts love towards himself.” The emphasis on the change brought about by God’s action has continued into modern Roman Catholic theology, with the consequence that the reference of the word has been broadened significantly “to include far more than Paul (or the Reformers) intended.” So it seems worthwhile to review here the essential Protestant doctrines, noting where they are distinct from Roman Catholicism.

Writing for Themelios, Scott Mantesch said in “Is the Reformation Over?” that Protestant Christians often summarize their primary doctrinal commitments with the five “solas”: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria. He noted that Calvin wrote the five solas should not be treated as discrete or independent doctrines. “They cohere with, inform, and require other important biblical truths.” For example, there is a theological inconsistency in affirming the doctrine of justification by faith alone, while remaining committed to the sacrament of penance. “Calvin recognized that whatever authority the Catholic Church ascribed to Scripture in theory, Rome undermined Scripture’s authority in practice by commanding the exclusive right of interpreting the biblical text.”

P. Chase Sears said in his article on “New Testament Theology” for the Lexham Bible Dictionary that the Reformers insisted that the church return to sola Scriptura—Scripture alone as the authoritative source for theology. They emphasized the grammatical-historical method of interpretation in order “to grasp the overall structure of the biblical understanding of God and his relations with mankind.” Martin Luther saw Jesus Christ as the heart of Scripture, but he wrestled with the problem of unity in diversity within Scripture. In order to resolve this difficulty, he distinguished between law and gospel, “with the doctrine of justification by faith as his hermeneutical key to piecing the entire Bible together.”

Mantesch said the following on how the Reformer’s understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith distinguished Protestant and Roman Catholic theology from each other:

For the Protestant reformers, justification was a first-order doctrinal concern. Not so with many contemporary Catholics. The most recent edition of the Catholic Catechism gives only brief attention to the doctrine of justification.Clearly, sacramental grace, not justification, occupies the central position in Catholic conceptions of salvation. American Cardinal Avery Dulles admits as much: “Justification is rarely discussed at length except in polemics against, or dialogue with, Protestants.”It is noteworthy that the official Catholic formulations of the doctrine of justification found in the “Catholic Catechism” and the “Joint Declaration” make no mention of the positive forensic character of justification—that sinners are acquitted before God on account of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Moreover, both of these documents describe justification as including divine pardon and the process of renewal of the inner person. The “Catholic Catechism,” for example, reaffirms the definition of justification formulated at Trent in 1547: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” [See Chapter VII of the Council of Trent]

Mantesch then asked how Protestants should respond when contemporary Roman Catholic churchmen affirm one or several of the solas. In the Joint Declaration of 1999 Roman Catholic officials approved “by grace alone” and “by faith alone.” Responding to his own question, he said we should be grateful that Catholics are willing to affirm these central biblical truths, while remaining cautious and realistic.

The Gospel Coalition now has a series of free online courses available, one of which is on The Five Solas. In “Remembering the Reformation by Reflecting on its Solas,” Stephen Wellum said: “The solas remind us about the God-centered nature of Christianity and how human beings, as important as we are as image-bearers, are completely dependent upon God’s sovereign initiative to create, reveal, rule, and redeem.” Each of the five solas is addressed and there is a wealth of information (written and video) on each doctrine.

Similarly, in his lecture on “Sola Fide: Lady Jane Grey & the Rediscovery of Justification by Faith,” Steve Nichols said: “Salvation from start to finish is the work of God for his glory.” The doctrine of justification reminds us that we don’t have to do anything for our salvation. Indeed, we cannot. “Christ has done it for us.” Nichols went on to suggest that Martin Luther used two words to describe the doctrine of justification: alien and immediate. By alien he meant justification is outside of us. “The doctrine of justification reminds us that it is nothing that we muster.” By immediate, Luther meant “without a mediator.” Where the medieval Catholic church saw salvation between Christ and sinful humanity mediated by the church and its sacraments, for Luther there was no mediator between humanity and Christ. The video for the Nichols lecture is under The Gospel Coalition material on Sola Fide. A link there will take you to Ligioner Ministries, where there are additional links to the lectures Dr. Nichols gave on the five solas.

In its attempt to assess differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics on one of the classic Reformation solas, The Pew Research Center study treated sola fide as a discrete and independent doctrine from the remaining four, something John Calvin said should not be done. Together the five solas, “cohere with, inform, and require other important biblical truths.” Additionally, by removing the term justification from its definition of sola fide and asking participants to choose whether “faith in God” or “good deeds and faith in God” were necessary for salvation, Pew effectively neutered what was a first-order doctrinal concern for Protestants—at the time of the Reformation and today.

Thomas Schreiner in his lecture on Sola Fide for the 2015 Theology Conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it was right to say faith alone saves us “since imperfect works don’t pass muster to make us right with God.” Good works are necessary for eternal life, but they can’t be the basis for our right-standing with God since He demands perfection. “Good works are a fruit of faith and a result of the Spirit’s work.” As Shreiner and others have said: “We are justified by faith alone and yet our faith is never alone.” In conclusion, I think it’s worth repeating another statement Schreiner made in his lecture:

When we speak of justification by faith alone, we aren’t saying that our faith justifies us. We see here how the five solas are closely linked together, for righteousness is by faith alone because our righteousness is in Christ alone as the crucified and risen one. And if our righteousness is by faith alone and in Christ alone, then it is by grace alone since our works don’t constitute our righteousness. And our righteousness is also to the glory of God alone since he is the one who has accomplished our salvation. Justification by faith alone doesn’t call attention to our faith but to Christ as the redeemer, reconciler, and Savior. [As an aside in the video, Schreiner noted he didn’t mention sola Scriptura here. “But everything I said supported that.”]

12/19/17

Protestants Without Sola Fide, Part 1

© Cora Miller | 123rf.com | Doorway where Luther nailed his 95 Theses

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther is credited with sparking the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Classically, there were two fundamental ideas that drove Luther: sola fide, meaning that justification is dependent upon faith alone; and sola scriptura, that Scripture is the only ultimate authority for Christian belief and practice. There were other concerns over religious practices such as the sale of indulgences, but sola fide and sola scriptura “became the rallying cry for many Protestant reformers.” Yet a recent Pew Research study suggested less than half of U.S. Protestants (46%) affirmed a belief in either doctrine, and only 30% affirmed a belief in both; another 36% did not believe in either sola fide or sola scriptura. This raises the question, are modern Protestants no longer Protestant?

A Pew study, “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies,” found that half of American Protestants (52%) thought that both good deeds and faith in God were needed to get to heaven. The same percentage (52%) also agreed that in addition to the Bible, Christians needed guidance from church teachings and traditions. While Protestants are almost evenly split on sola fide and sola scriptura, U.S. Catholics are mostly aligned with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which affirms both of these declarations. Eighty-one percent believe both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven and 75% agree that in addition to the Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings and traditions. “Overall, two-thirds of Catholics take the traditional positions of the church on both of these issues.”

Among Protestant subgroups, two-thirds (67%) of white evangelicals say salvation comes by faith alone, with 33% saying that both faith and good works are needed. White evangelicals also had the highest percentage of believers in both sola fide and sola scriptura (44%). See the following chart from the Pew Research Center report.

Above sola fide was said to mean: “justification is dependent upon faith alone.” This doctrine reaches back to Martin Luther and his understanding of Galatians 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Luther’s theological insight here was the heart of his personal spiritual change and his theology that followed. In The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Notger Slenczka added the following:

This exclusion of works as a ground of justification does not mean the isolating of faith but singles out justifying faith because it receives the righteousness of Christ that is given by grace alone. The formula thus has the implication of solus Christus (Christ alone) and sola gratia (grace alone).

But here is where it gets a bit tricky theologically.  The Pew study said sola fide was: “faith in God alone is needed to get into heaven,” but getting into heaven is related to salvation. The statement alone is true as far as it goes (“For by grace you have saved through faith”, Ephesians 2:8), but the problem is where Pew equated it with the Reformation principle of sola fide. In doing so, Pew confounded what has historically been a crucial theological distinction between the Protestant and Catholic understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith. In the Lexham Bible Dictionary, Michael Bird gave the following explanation of differences between Catholics and Protestants on justification by faith:

The primary debate between Protestants and Catholics is whether justification is a forensic declaration based on the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to believers [Protestants], or based on the infusion of righteousness into the believer through the sacraments, enabling them to do works of charity by which they might be justified [Catholics]. . . . While fresh new ecumenical ground has been broken, thus far no consensus has been reached. The Catholic Catechism remains firmly committed to the teachings of the Council of Trent, which remains a barrier to any consensus emerging.

The Council of Trent stated in Chapter VII about justification: “[It] is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”

In Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos added the following aboiut the Roman Catholic understanding of justification:

The Roman Catholic church makes a distinction between a first and a second justification. The first consists in the infusion of habitual grace, by which original sin is suppressed and expelled. The formal cause of the second justification is to be sought in good works that man himself performs. This is a confusion of sanctification and justification, and makes the fruits of the former meritorious. As justification becomes sanctification, so sanctification again becomes justification in the hands of Rome—naturally, a legalistic justification.

With regard to second justification, Roman Catholicism said in the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.” What Roman Catholicism condemned here is the clear Protestant understanding of sola fide, justification by faith alone.

My systematic theology is not sharp enough to have picked out that problem with the Pew survey on my own. I read an article by Joe Carter for The Gospel Coalition, “New Survey Finds Majority of Protestants Are (Maybe) Not Protestant,” that brought the Pew study and how it framed sola fide to my attention. He updated his original article on the Pew survey, as he himself had missed the Pew Research Center’s “mistake.” He explained how he originally read the Pew description as referring to justification, which a theologically minded Protestant who associates sola fide and justification by faith, would do. Here is an example of what Pew said that was confusing: “For example, nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide).”

As Carter pointed out, belief in sola fide was determined by how Christian respondents answered the following question in the Pew survey: “Which statement comes closer to your view, even if neither is exactly right?” Their choices were: 1) “Both good deeds and faith in God are necessary to get into heaven” and 2) “Faith in God is the only thing that gets people into heaven.” Similarly, sola scriptura was determined by how they responded to this question: “Which statement comes closer to your view, even if neither is exactly right?” Their choices were: 1) The bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need” and 2) In addition to the Bible, Christians also need religious guidance from church teachings and traditions.” See the “Survey Questionnaire” attached to the Pew Research Center article on the survey.

Carter went on to indicate he thought there was a priming bias in how the survey questions here were worded, meaning “the types of questions that are asked tend to prime a respondent to assume later questions are of the same type.” This led him to conclude that respondents were set up to look for a distinction between what Protestants and Catholics believe. His own mistake was evidence of that. “ I was primed to follow Pew’s reasoning even though when I wrote this article I was explicitly on the lookout for the effects of priming on the survey results.”

He concluded that it was impossible to know based on these results how many people are “pseudo-Protestants” and how many (like him) were reading too much into the survey questions. “The conclusion I draw is that some people were reading the question as I did as being about justification, while many others were seeing it as merely about salvation.” Given this confusion, it might be helpful to have a more comprehensive discussion of sola fide.

In his article for Themelios, “Is the Reformation Over?” Scott Mantesch noted how John Calvin believed the doctrine of justification held an essential place in the Christian gospel. He also believed it was one of the most significant issues separating Protestants and Catholics, saying it was “the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.”  While Calvin emphasized that justification must be distinguished from regeneration or sanctification, he still insisted that justifying faith necessarily resulted in spiritual renewal and growth in godliness. While it is faith alone that justifies, “yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” Calvin said:

As God justifies us freely by imputing the obedience of Christ to us, so we are rendered capable of this great blessing only by faith alone. As the Son of God expiated our sins by the sacrifice of his death, and by appeasing his Father’s wrath, acquired the gift of adoption for us, and now presents us with his righteousness, so it is only by faith we put him on, and become partakers of his blessings.

Not only is justification by faith doctrinally important, it is pastorally vital. In order to illustrate this point, Thomas Schreiner, who, wrote Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, asked when we stand before God on Judgment Day, what will we plead before him? “Will we plead our own righteousness and goodness?” The doctrine is not a matter of indifference.

Thomas Schreiner is a New Testament professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At a 2015 Theology Conference on The Five Solas, he read a paper summarizing his book. All the papers presented at the conference can be found here, in an edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. There is also a link to a video of Schreiner’s presentation under The Gospel Coalition’s page on The Five Solas.

He said the shorthand phrase of sola fide, meaning justification by faith alone, “summarizes in short form the theology that has been hammered out exegetically, historically, and theologically.” An untutored individual may think this means that good works are not necessary or important. But when most advocates say that justification is by faith alone, they quickly add that such faith is never alone. “Hence, when they affirmed that justification was by faith alone, they were ruling out the notion that our works were a basis of justification. So, the slogan justification by faith alone is useful as long as it is rightly understood.”

When we speak of justification by faith alone, we aren’t saying that our faith justifies us. We see here how the five solas are closely linked together, for righteousness is by faith alone because our righteousness is in Christ alone as the crucified and risen one. And if our righteousness is by faith alone and in Christ alone, then it is by grace alone since our works don’t constitute our righteousness. And our righteousness is also to the glory of God alone since he is the one who has accomplished our salvation. Justification by faith alone doesn’t call attention to our faith but to Christ as the redeemer, reconciler, and Savior. [As an aside in the video, Schreiner noted he didn’t mention sola Scriptura. “But everything I said supported that.”]

Schreiner observed that Roman Catholics believe that justification comes in part from our adherence to the moral law. They will point out that the Scriptures only address whether justification is by faith alone once in James 2:24 in the negative: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” But Schreiner argued that in James 2:14-26, James is rejecting a saying faith, a faith where works are absent. “It is this kind of faith that doesn’t save, for it is a faith marked by intellectual assent only.” When James says faith without works doesn’t save, he is thinking of a “dead” faith (2:17, 26), a useless or idle faith (2:20).

But genuine faith, a faith that embraces all that God is for us in Jesus Christ, saves, and such a faith inevitably produces works. But this accords what we mean when we speak of sola fide. We are justified by faith alone and yet our faith is never alone.

The problem may have been that Pew researchers believed (in all likelihood correctly) that the typical person taking the survey would not have previously heard of, or understood, the differences between the Catholic and Protestant views of sola fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. So they redefined sola fide as described above, and chose to not use the term “sola fide” in the questionnaire. Apparently Pew thought the phrase: “Which statement comes closer to your view, even if neither is exactly right,” was enough to guide those individuals who did understand the classic sense of sola fide to their redefinition. Given Joe Carter’s confusion and that of others (See the endnote “correction” for Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s article on the same Pew survey in Christianity Today), it was not.

If Carter and other Protestants could misread or confuse the Pew “mistake” with sola fide, doesn’t that add further validity to the point of the Pew article? Namely, there may be a significant number of American Protestants who are Protestant in name, but not necessarily Protestant in theology. What then does it mean to be “Protestant” in theology, and how does that differ from Roman Catholicism? We’ll examine these questions in Part 2 of this article.

02/7/17

No Contest; No Victory

photo of the Scopes Trial; Clarence Darrow and the defense team.

A few years ago Rachael Gross wrote an article for Slate entitled: “Evolution is Finally Winning Out Over Creationism.” She noted how few issues have divided Americans as bitterly as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. She thought it was “woeful” that “the majority of people in Europe and in many other parts of the world accept evolution,” while 4 in 10 adult Americans believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Evolutionary theory does not exist in a vacuum, she said. It is supported by findings in geology, paleontology, biomedicine, and other fields. “If we want to be a nation of politically and scientifically literate and informed people, then we have to teach good science—and that starts with evolution.”

But we need to ask what kind of evolution and what kind of creationism she means. Is it evolution that occurred entirely through natural processes or did a supreme being use evolution to bring about and develop nature? There also should be a consistent distinction between individuals who hold that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning (PFB) from those who believe in evolution guided by a supreme being (ESB), and those who affirm humans evolved by natural processes (ENP). Gross also cited two polls in her discussion. Although each poll used a different construct to describe what they meant by “creationism,” she did not point out the differences between them.

One poll was by Gallup and one was by the Pew Research Center. When Gross discussed changes since 2009 in the Pew surveys, the 2009 data can be found here. The Pew 2014 poll looking at evolution did not break down all the age groups by the three categories on origins. But it did report that US adults overall were as follows: 31% said humans existed in their present form from the beginning (PFB); 24% believed their evolution was guided by a supreme being (ESB); and 35% believed evolution occurred from a natural process (ENP). When looking at individuals between the ages of 18-29 in 2009 and 2014 from the Pew polls, on their views of human origins, we get the following data.

So there is evidence suggesting younger American adults are adjusting their position on human origins to the secular evolution position. But when Gross said that 73% of US adults under 30 believe in some kind of evolution, she combined believers in evolution through natural processes, or secular evolution, with those who believed in evolution through a supreme being. There is a significant philosophical gap between the action of a supreme being creating human beings, either through evolution or as fully formed individuals, and humans evolving through an entirely natural process without the action of a supreme being. See “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution” on this website for more on this difference.

Within the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 73% of individuals between the ages of 18-29 were fairly certain or absolutely certain there was a God; another 8% believed in God, but were not too certain of that belief; and 19% did not believe in God or did not know if they believed in God. So there would seem to be a large portion of 18 to 29 year old individuals (perhaps 32%) who believed in God and who also believed in natural evolution. I don’t think they should be referred to as necessarily gravitating towards secular evolution. If their belief in God holds, a category like deistic evolution would seem to better describe them.  The category of individuals who believe God created through evolution, ESB, also has the potential to grow larger as views on human origins shift. It is not an inevitable transition to an entirely secular sense of evolution as the older group of people believing humans existed in their present form from the beginning die off.

The Gallup poll Rachel Gross mentioned added a further distinction to the humans created in their present form by adding that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. This position on human origins would be consistent with a group of Christian believers known as young earth creationists (YEC), which hold that all things were created within the 10,000-year timeframe. However, there is a necessary distinction between YEC and PFB—humans existed in their present form since the beginning—if the beginning of the heavens and earth was billions of years ago, and the creation of beginning of humans was significantly longer than 10,000 years ago. This position is what Denis Lamoureux and others have referred to as progressive creationism. See his web lectures in “Beyond the ‘Evolution’ vs. ‘Creation’ Debate,” particularly “Views on the Origin of Universe & Life.”

But an option consistent with a progressive creationist position of human origins was not offered in the Gallup poll—or in any other poll on human origins that I am aware of. The Gallup poll has been asking the same three-part question about human origins, given as follows, since 1982:

Which of the following statements comes closest to you views on the origin and development of human beings? 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but god guided this process. 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God has no part in this process. 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

The Gallup and the Pew polls implicitly include the evolution—creation dichotomy in the structure of their questions. In both surveys there are two evolutionary positions and one creationist position. The Pew questions more accurately focused on the flash point issue of human evolution, while the Gallup poll collapses the age of the earth variable—held only by young earth creationists—into their creationist position. Not surprisingly, the percentages between the two polls show some differences. The following Gallup chart illustrates the results on the issue dating back to 1982.

As a result, a creation-evolution dichotomy is perpetuated. Arguing that Christians need to choose between science and religion has become entrenched in the dispute since the Scopes Trial. And “fundamentalists” are as much to blame as those holding to a secular or godless sense of evolution. Ironically, William Jennings Bryan held and publicly affirmed a human origins position consistent with what I’ve identified here as progressive creation. He saw Darwinism as a dangerous idea because he thought people would lose their consciousness of God’s presence in their daily lives.

In a speech he first gave in 1904, “Prince of Peace,” Bryan said he had a right to assume a Creator back of the creation. “And no matter how long you draw out the process of creation, so long as God stands back of it you cannot shake my faith in Jehovah.” In Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson commented how this allowed for an extended geologic history and even for a kind of theistic evolution. But Bryan “dug in his heels” regarding the supernatural creation of humans. He saw it as “one of the test questions of the Christian.”

I do not carry the doctrine of evolution as far as some do; I am not yet convinced that man is a lineal descendent of the lower animals. I do not mean to find fault with you if you want to accept the theory; all I mean to say is that while you may trace your ancestry back to the monkey if you find pleasure or pride in doing so, you shall not connect me with your family tree without more evidence than has yet been produced.

He concluded his speech by saying that one of the reasons he objected to the theory of evolution was because if man was linked to the monkey, it became an important question whether humanity was going towards the monkey or coming away from him. “I do not know of any argument that may be used to prove man is an improved monkey that may not be used just as well to prove that the monkey is a degenerate man, and the latter theory is more plausible than the former.” You can listen to a vocal dramatization of his speech here on YouTube; there is a text only copy here. There are content differences between the two because Bryan gave the speech repeatedly over the years. The given quotes are from the text of the oral YouTube version of “Prince of Peace.”

The Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate in 2014 had neither the historical significance nor the drama of the Scopes Trial. But it does illustrate how times have changed and how, rightly or wrongly, the young earth creationist position on human origins, represented by Ken Ham, has become identified as the default view of biblical Christians. You can watch a video on the debate here.

An NPR article, “Who ‘Won’ the Creation vs. Evolution Debate?,” noted the live online debate drew 500,000 viewers at one point. By the middle of November in 2016, the YouTube video had over 5,700,000 views. Britain’s Christian Today website took a poll on who “won” the debate and had 42,567 responses. Ninety two percent thought Bill Nye won, while only 8 percent thought Ken Ham won. Michael Schulson, writing for The Daily Beast, thought Nye’s willingness to engage Ham in a debate threatened to reduce substantive issues to mere spectacle.

The televangelist Pat Robertson thought Ken Ham made a mockery out of Christians. Quoted in The Christian Post, Robertson said he was able to find his faith in the evolutionary process itself. “I don’t believe in so-called evolution as non-theistic. I believe that God started it all and he’s in charge of all of it. The fact that you have progressive evolution under his control. That doesn’t hurt my faith at all.” You can watch a short video of Robertson’s views on The Christian Post link. Robertson further said: “Let’s be real; let’s not make a joke of ourselves.”

A little over a month after the Scopes Trial concluded, Clarence Darrow wrote to H. L. Mencken, one of the reporters who covered the Scopes Trial: “I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he [Bryan] was and I succeeded.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Christians believing in creation are still seen and portrayed as ignoramuses. The Memphis paper, the Commercial Appeal made the following comment about the infamous exchange between Darrow and Bryan in the Scopes Trial:

It was not a contest. Consequently there was no victory. Darrow succeeded in showing that Bryan knows little about the science of the world. Bryan succeeded in bearing witness bravely to the faith which he believes transcends all the learning of men.

If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, try this page about the Scopes Trial Museum or the Wikipedia page on the Scopes Trial. You can also read: Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes Trial and “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution.” Also, look at: When All the God Trembled, which discusses Darwinism and the Scopes Trial.

10/14/16

Diluted Evangelicalism

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© 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.

07/10/15

American Christianity is Evolving

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© 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.

06/30/14

Is Legalizing Reefer Madness?

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image credit: iStock

The Pew Research Center found that for the first time since 1969, more Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana (52%) than those who oppose it (45%). The change started after 1991, when 78% of Americans opposed legalization and merely 17% supported it. The greatest support for legalization was found within youngest age group, individuals born since 1980. Sixty-Five percent of these Millennials favor legalizing marijuana.

The past three years have seen a rapid shift in support of legalization. In 2010 only 41% were in support of legalization. “Since then, support for legalization has increased among all demographic and political groups.” Boomers, born between 1947 and 1964, have seen their support for legalizing marijuana increase from 24% in 1994 to 50% in 2013.

Along with the increased support for marijuana legalization, there has been a corresponding decline in negative attitudes about marijuana. Currently, 32% believe that smoking marijuana is morally wrong, an 18 point decline since 2006 (50%). Over that same period, the percentage of people who said that smoking marijuana was not a moral issue rose 15 points from 35% in 2006 to 50% in 2013.

Over the past three decades, attitudes on whether or not marijuana was a gateway drug have shifted as well. A 1977 Gallup survey found that 60% of people believed that marijuana was a gateway drug. In 2013, only 38% believed so. Most of this shift is the result of generational change. Gen X and Millennials were far less likely to say that marijuana use leads to the use of hard drugs (36% of Gen X and 31% of Millennials).

The efforts of organizations like NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project seems to be paying off. They have been working to “legalize the responsible use of marijuana,” so that marijuana is “legally regulated similarly to alcohol.”

But I wonder if the momentum towards legalization is moving in right direction. NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project cited various studies on the safety profile of cannabis, the therapeutic potential of cannabis and how long-term cannabis use does not cause permanent cognitive impairment. But there seems to be an opposing consensus on the potential harmful effects of marijuana use.  Just a few of these concerns are noted below.

  • The potency of marijuana has doubled since 1998; tripled in the past 20 years.
  • In 2010, marijuana was involved in more than 461,000 ER visits nationwide.
  • In 2011 around 872,000 individuals received treatment for marijuana use.
  • In 2012 4.3 million individuals could be diagnosed as dependent upon or abusing marijuana.

There is also clear evidence of an association between marijuana use and psychosis. NORML gave a summary of the 1995 Lancet study that said smoking cannabis, even long-term use, was not harmful. Yet they ignored the Lancet’s retraction of that support published in the July 2007 edition of the Lancet:

In 1995, we began a Lancet editorial with the since much-quoted words: “The smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health.” Research published since 1995, including Moore’s systematic review in this issue, leads us now to conclude that cannabis use could increase the risk of psychotic illness. Further research is needed on the effects of cannabis on affective disorders. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will have plenty to consider. But whatever their eventual recommendation, governments would do well to invest in sustained and effective education campaigns on the risks to health of taking cannabis.

A web site, Cannabis & Psychosis, was recently launched to “increase awareness and understanding of the relationship between cannabis use and psychosis from the perspective of youth.”

Public support for the legalization of marijuana is growing. The potency of marijuana is increasing. And the evidence for the harmful effects, especially psychosis and other mental health issues is becoming clearer. Marijuana will likely surpass alcohol and tobacco as a public health concern once it is legalized. For more information on the health concerns with marijuana go to “Marijuana Research Findings” on this website.

Do you think marijuana should be legalized despite its potential harmful consequences?