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.

04/18/17

Porn is a Public Health Hazard

© stevanovicigor |stockfresh.com

In a strange but true way, there was a study published in the Journal of Sex Research that found a correlation between some measures of religiosity and Google searchers for the term “porn.” In states with higher percentages of Evangelical Protestants, theists and biblical literalists—as well as states with higher church attendance rates—predict higher frequencies of searching for “porn.” Higher percentages of religiously unaffiliated persons in a state are related to lower frequencies of searching for porn. “Our findings support theories that more salient, traditional religious influences in a state may influence residents-whether religious or not-toward more covert sexual experiences.”

The above discussed study, “Unbuckling the Bible Belt: A State-Level Analysis of Religious Factors and Google Searches for Porn,” raised some questions when I saw graphics from the study on Twitter. Here is the link to the Twitter post. The linked study abstract and graphic on Twitter may be somewhat deceiving, as they plot and discuss searches done for the actual word “porn,” which could be done for a variety of reasons besides just wanting to view pornography. Yet the concern over the adverse social and spiritual effects of viewing pornography is a very real concern among a wider audience than just Evangelicals, theists and biblical literalists.

The state of Utah passed a resolution in March of 2016 declaring that pornography was a “public health hazard.” The resolution recognizes pornography leads to a broad spectrum of individual and public health concerns. It pointed to how young children are increasingly exposed to pornography, with the average age of exposure now 11 to 12 years of age. This early exposure leads to a multitude of personal and social problems, including: adolescents engaging in risky sexual behavior; an increase of sexual behavior at a younger age; depicting women and children as sex objects and rape and abuse as if they were harmless.

Writing for the Evangelical website The Gospel Coalition in May of 2016, Joe Carter described how pornography is increasingly being seen as a public health problem. Studies from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s concluded pornography had “no marked social effect.” But that was before the Internet. Since the late 1980s, there has been a wealth of social science research demonstrating the negative effect of porn on individuals, families, children and communities. Carter linked two meta-analyses that found sexual aggression among males and females was associated with the consumption of porn; and an overall positive association between pornography and attitudes supporting violence against women.

In “The Science of Pornography Addiction,” Gary Wilson described the effects of watching porn on the brain. He said that 25% of all Internet searches are for porn. It is the fourth most common reason people give for going online. In many ways, it acts like a drug. With prolonged exposure, it will lead to tolerance, loss of control and the compulsive desire to seek it out despite negative consequences. And there is “withdrawal” when it goes away. “The issue is that continued exposure can cause long term or even life-long neuroplastic change in the brain.”

There is a release of dopamine in our brains as a reward whenever we accomplish something, including sexual activity. “It alters and forms the brain cells to motivate certain actions. It rewires your brain.” The more time you spend doing a certain action, like viewing porn, the more dopamine is released—which then reinforces the behavior. As you begin to imagine the images away from the computer or while having sex, they become reinforced as well. “It’s a feedback loop that becomes harder to escape.”

The good news is this can be reversed or extinguished. Wilson said the brain is often described as “the use it or lose it system.” Like with muscles, the neural connections you use become stronger and want to be activated, while the ones you ignore become weakened. So the same neuroplastic system used to acquire these habits can be used to acquire healthier ones.

In another article on pornography and the brain, Joe Carter recommended “The Science of Pornography Addiction” video. He also summarized the thoughts of William Struther, an associated professor of psychology at Wheaton College. Commenting on the dopamine process described above, Struther said: “Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond.” Overstimulation of the reward circuitry, as when repeatedly viewing pornography, creates desensitization. “When dopamine receptors drop after too much stimulation, the brain doesn’t respond as much, and we feel less reward from pleasure.”

The psychological, behavioral, and emotional habits that form our sexual character will be based on the decisions we make. . . Whenever the sequence of arousal and response is activated, it forms a neurological memory that will influence future processing and response to sexual cues. As this pathway becomes activated and traveled, it becomes a preferred route—a mental journey—that is regularly trod. The consequences of this are far-reaching.

Internet porn is unique in a number of ways. First is its extreme novelty. Second, unlike food or drugs, there is almost no physical limit to its consumption. Third, a user can easily escalate to more novel “partners” and unusual genres. Fourth, unlike food or drugs, the brain’s natural aversion system is not activated. Like with drugs, the age users start using porn is a crucial factor. “A teen’s brain is at its peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity, making it highly vulnerable to addiction and rewiring.”

A nonprofit organization called Fight the New Drug is trying to raise awareness on the harmful effects of porn and get this information to a wider audience. They use science, facts and personal accounts to bring the issue out in the open and get people talking about it. The organization’s website said not only are we the first generation to face the issue of pornography at this intensity and scale, “we’re also the first generation with a scientific fact-based understanding of the harm pornography can do.”

Then there is Elizabeth Smart. On June 5, 2002 when she was 14, Elizabeth was awakened by a strange male voice saying that he had a knife to her neck. She was told to get up without making a sound and come with him or he would kill her family. She remained a captive by this man and his wife for nine months, where she was repeatedly raped by the man. Sometimes he brought her hardcore porn, which he looked at and forced her to look at. Then he acted out with her what they had seen. Here is a short video of Elizabeth telling her story.

Looking at pornography wasn’t enough for him. Having sex with his wife after he looked at pornography, it wasn’t enough for him. Then it led to him finally going out and kidnapping me. He just always wanted more.  I can’t say that he would not have gone out and kidnapped me if he had not looked at pornography. All I know is that pornography made my living hell worse.

The morning following her rescue, her mother gave her a piece of advice that changed her life. She told Elizabeth the best punishment she could give to the people that did those things to her was to be happy. Elizabeth went on to become an advocate for abuse prevention and an advocate against pornography. She married in 2012 and gave birth to a daughter in February of 2015.

P.S. Elizabeth Smart lived in Utah when she was abducted.

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.