CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Whither Theology?

Oct 29, 2014

Today it seems that theology is as popular for Christians as a ham sandwich is for Muslims. Most Christians avoid it like the plague. The surrounding culture says that the main thing is to feel good and be happy, so clueless Christians follow suit.

Who needs sound doctrine when you can just have a good time? Why bother with pesky things like theology and dogma when all we hear from the pulpits is that we can be happy and have our ‘best life now’? After all, we are told that ‘doctrine divides’ and we all just need to get along.

theology 5Things like the emerging church movement have not helped, adopting the postmodernist spin on things, claiming that only relationships matter, not old-fashioned things like theology. So a world which disdains truth and eschews a sure word has filtered into the churches, and we now act just like pagans do in this regard.

And it shows – big time. A recent survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries in the US examined just how theologically informed Americans are. The results of “The State of Theology” survey are quite revealing, and demonstrate how little of a role theology now plays. The study breaks down responses according to whether a person is a non-Christian, an evangelical, and other options.

The report begins with this Executive Summary:

Ligonier Ministries is “committed to faithfully presenting the unvarnished truth of Scripture to help people grow in their knowledge of God and His holiness.” Anecdotal evidence has shown an increasing lack of theological understanding in America, both outside and inside the church. Ligonier Ministries wanted to understand with accuracy the extent of the need to improve that understanding.
Ligonier Ministries commissioned a research study by LifeWay Research to measure the theological awareness of adult Americans. Ligonier Ministries identified specific doctrines and heresies that they wanted to test. LifeWay Research helped refine these questions and to conduct a survey of 3,000 Americans. Questions focused on seven key doctrinal areas and included a number of specific areas where Americans differ from historic and orthodox views.

The Summary continues by looking at these key areas. It says this about “Beliefs about God”:

While the majority of Americans believe God is perfect, the answers reveal that Americans want God on their own terms. Some results reflect healthy thinking, but many of the results show the lack of orthodox thinking about God. This is especially true of questions related to the Trinity. 1-in-5 Americans deny that Jesus is the God-man. One third of Americans think the Father is more divine than the Son. The member of the Trinity that is the least understood in the United States is the Holy Spirit. Nearly two thirds (63%) think the Holy Spirit is a force and not a person.

The first link below gives a handy brief overview of the survey’s findings. If you want much more detail, the full 26-page report is found in the second link. So let me look at these findings in more detail. First let me look at some of the quantitative findings on ethical and social issues:

Sex outside of marriage is a sin
Agree strongly 31%
Agree somewhat 17%
Disagree somewhat 17%
Disagree strongly 26%
Not sure 10%
Self-identified Evangelicals who attend church Once a month or more (77%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Other Christians (29%) and Non-Christians (14%). Non-Christians (42%) are more likely to Strongly Disagree than Self-identified Evangelicals who attend church Once a month or more (3%) and Other Christians (23%). Evangelicals (63%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Black Protestants (50%), Catholics (17%) and Mainlines (21%).

The church should be silent on issues of politics
Agree strongly 22%
Agree somewhat 21%
Disagree somewhat 24%
Disagree strongly 23%
Not sure 11%
Non-Christians (36%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Self-identified Evangelicals who attend church Once a month or more (8%) and Other Christians (17%). Evangelicals (40%) are more likely to Strongly Disagree than Black Protestants (27%), Catholics (19%), and Mainlines (16%).

Some of the theological findings include:

Salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone
Agree strongly 35%
Agree somewhat 18%
Disagree somewhat 17%
Disagree strongly 18%
Not sure 12%
Self-identified Evangelicals who attend church Once a month or more (87%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Other Christians (33%) and Non-Christians (13%). Evangelicals (3%) are less likely to Strongly Disagree than Black Protestants (8%), Catholics (18%), and Mainlines (14%).

The Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches
Agree strongly 27%
Agree somewhat 16%
Disagree somewhat 21%
Disagree strongly 25%
Not sure 12%
Self-identified Evangelicals who attend church Once a month or more (78%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Other Christians (23%) and Non-Christians (9%). Evangelicals (61%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Black Protestants (43%), Catholics (12%), and Mainlines (17%).

Hell is a real place, not just a concept
Agree strongly 41%
Agree somewhat 20%
Disagree somewhat 10%
Disagree strongly 12%
Not sure 18%
Self-identified Evangelicals who attend church Once a month or more (88%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Other Christians (44%) and Non-Christians (14%). Black Protestants (68%) and Evangelicals (75%) are more likely to Strongly Agree than Catholics (35%) and Mainlines (32%).

As is pretty clear from these results, evangelicals are among the best when it comes to adhering to basic biblical doctrines and ethical positions. But even there we find many who do not. America as a whole has lost its biblical bearings, while evangelicals are doing better, but they too are weakening in key areas.

We expect a largely secular culture to not affirm basic biblical doctrines, but when so many Christians of various stripes also seem to struggle with these basic beliefs, then you know we are in trouble. Let me finish with the thoughts of three great Christians on this issue:

“If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you will have a lot of wrong ones.” C.S. Lewis

“Why do you balk at the doctrine of the Trinity – God the three in One – yet meekly acquiesce when Einstein tells you E=MC2?… I admit, you can practice Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion. But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar.” Dorothy Sayers

“Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.” John Piper

www.ligonier.org/thestateoftheology/
ligonier-static-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/thestateoftheology/TheStateOfTheology-Whitepaper.pdf

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11 Responses to Whither Theology?

  • Love the quotes at the end of the article.

  • Especially Sayers’!

  • Thanks Bill – what a sad state of affairs. A bit off topic but I am so fuming about a situation I have to let you know. My daughter has just come home from her HSC exam for legal studies. One of the areas she studied was family law. This covered a very wide range of topics. One of the many topics was same sex relationships. It was never a major area of study but whenever it came up the slant taken was that the law is not keeping up with society and needs to change.

    In all past years when a HSC question is given it is very general. What do you suppose the question was today? “To what extent has law reform achieved just outcomes for those in samesex relationships?’ My daughter (who happens to be the top student in her school) knew that what they wanted was for students to write strong cases in favour of SSM. Fortunately there was one other option for her to choose, on a more obscure area. She has come home completely deflated. Although it was not directly asking for students to be pro SSM, that is definitely the way that topic was taught. (And my daughter attends a supposed ‘Christian ‘ school.) And the students know that that is how they have to argue if they want a good mark.

    The Board of Studies should certainly be chastised over this.

  • A really excellent post, Bill. Well done.

    Just a coincidence, but this morning I was re-reading the first few pages of J.I. Packer’s book, Knowing God, in which he quotes from a sermon delivered by the Prince of Preachers, Charles H. Spurgeon, in 1855, when Spurgeon was only 20 years old!

    Spurgeon’s sermon is incredibly mature for one so young. Perhaps his daily immersion in God’s Word made him that way.

    Here is a short quotation from his sermon: “It has been said by some one that ‘the proper study of mankind is man’. I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.

    “There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, ‘Behold I am wise.’ But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with the solemn exclamation, ‘I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.’ No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God.”

    The full text of Spurgeon’s sermon can be found here:
    URL: www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0001.htm

    Best wishes,

    John Ballantyne,
    Melbourne.

  • Annette, it sounds like it could be time to talk to LEM (lem.org.au) in Canberra about home education, Open University and similar options.

  • This is a very timely and practical article as true truth is no longer promulgated by our church leaders, who think that they can siimply “preach the gospel” without addressing the attacks that are being made on foundational Biblical truths.

    A week or so ago, a contributor to this site recommended Francis Schaeffoer’s series, “How then should we live?”. May I recommend the last one, No 10.
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTOGXeI7YfA

    David Skinner. UK

  • One of my old lecturers used to say that every Christian is a theologian and it’s too important to leave it up to professional theologians and clergy.

    Some KJV only extremist street preachers seem to think that true Christians shouldn’t get involved in theology. They also don’t know how to properly pronounce “theologian.” They put the emphasis on the wrong syllable.

  • I’m surprised that more people agree strongly that hell is real (41%) than agree strongly that the Bible is 100% accurate (27%), given the beating that hell has taken in Christian circles in recent times. Although perhaps it’s because “hell” can be vague whereas “100%” is pretty specific.

    But I wonder about that 27% for the Bible being 100% accurate. Do they all actually believe that? I heard an anecdote once about a Christian who believed in evolution, including that man evolved from ape-like creatures.
    “So you don’t believe that God made Adam from the dust of the ground?”
    “Sure I do. We are all composed of the minerals and chemicals found in the ground; it’s just that we went through a lot of evolutionary steps going from the dust to man which the Bible skips over, but I believe it”.

    “So do you believe that Eve was created from Adam’s rib?”
    “Yes, I believe that too. I don’t know what it means, but I believe it”.

  • I am fuming with you Annette. And I bet Bill is too. Re “To what extent has law reform achieved just outcomes for those in same sex relationships?” A question in a HSC exam! God bless your daughter. Looking forward to Bill’s response.

  • I think this reports on the same thing. Still rather depressing reading:
    www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/new-poll-finds-evangelicals-favorite-heresies.html

  • Thanks Bill, I am hoping the survey is wrong, or people weren`t reading the questions right.
    I too love the quotes you added at the end.
    I pray that my and other Christians will have our comfort zones rocked before it`s too late, I have heard wishy-washy sermons for too long and need something to boost me again into addressing it, but this time, wisely, prayerfully, diligently, lovingly and remembering to leave the door open for more discussion. The basics of salvation are simple, but so many of us make them anything but, when sharing.

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