The Demise of Theology (And Its Hopeful Recovery)
One can safely say that contemporary Western Christians may be the most theologically illiterate since the church began 2000 years ago. The woeful lack of basic theology and sound doctrine in so many churches today is coupled with a woeful biblical illiteracy.
The two go together of course. It is hard to have good theology if one knows very little about the source of good theology – the Bible. We expect the surrounding culture to be theologically malnourished, but it is a tragedy when the Body of Christ is also so spiritually sick.
And this in spite of all the many admonitions in the New Testament to teach sound doctrine, to be mature in Christian teaching, and to have a faith built solidly on the Word of God. I have written on this topic numerous times. In one such article I offer “Twenty Reasons Why Theology Matters”: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/26/in-defence-of-theology/
That Westerners are theologically impoverished is easy enough to measure and ascertain. Consider two recent studies that have come out of America. Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C Sproul, has teamed up with LifeWay Research twice now to help gauge the status of American theological knowledge.
And it is not looking very good. Their first bit of research was conducted in 2014, based on the views of three thousand Americans. And now a second such study has just been conducted, with the results now online. Called “The State of Theology,” it gives us a good overview of the low theological standards found in the US today.
Before getting into some of the results of the latest survey, let me offer part of an interview done by Tabletalk with two of the main players in the research project: Chris Larson and Stephen Nichols. Here is just one of the questions:
TT: How has the survey influenced the trajectory of Ligonier’s ministry?
CL: It intensifies our focus and reinforces the urgency of our task. In one sense, there are few surprises in the aggregate results. But it is interesting to dive deeper into the data to see how people from different denominational, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds answered in differing ways. Furthermore, there is a disconnect between that portion of Americans who believe society is getting progressively worse and headed in the wrong direction, and those who overwhelmingly state that man is by nature basically good. If man is basically good, why is society getting worse?
The survey demonstrates that we do not know who God is and we do not know who we are. God is holy. We are sinful. We need the clear proclamation of the authoritative Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The results of this survey tell us that we need to remain faithful to proclaiming the holiness of God in all its fullness to as many people as possible.
Now that we have conducted the survey twice in America, we are planning to do something similar in other areas of the world to serve the church there. Ligonier is seeing growing global interest in Reformed theology and we are moving more discipleship resources around the world through English and translated materials as quickly as we are able to do so as God provides.
SN: Faithful Christians can look at these survey results and lament and decry the state of theology in America. Or, we can look at these results and engage our Great Commission work with a renewed urgency and purpose. We are taking the latter approach. It is easy to get caught up in trends and apply our resources to chasing after current news cycles. This survey reminds us of the necessity of teaching the foundational truths, of teaching on God’s holiness, on Christ’s person and work, on humanity’s true need to be saved from the wrath of God, and on the Bible’s authority—even in the twenty-first century.
So let me look now in a bit more detail at the 47 statements that were offered, and what sort of responses Americans of various beliefs – or no beliefs – gave. Consider a few of these:
Statement: Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.
To whom: All participants
Findings: 61% of all participants strongly disagree with this statement.
Comment: The results jump off the page as the strongly disagree column spikes to 61%. That conviction is fundamentally a conviction about the character of God. If he is perfectly holy and just, he cannot let sin go unpunished. But God is no longer holy—in the minds of six out of ten Americans.
Statement: By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.
To whom: Self-identified evangelicals
Findings: Church attendance has a dramatic effect on Evangelical convictions.
Comment: What we believe about God, about sin, about salvation, what we believe about ourselves as human beings, about other religions and about the Bible, what we believe about controversial social issues—all of these beliefs are influenced by our culture. But this survey indicates that regular exposure to Christian worship may have a tremendous counter-cultural effect. Evangelicals who attend church each week are far more likely to hold biblical convictions than their less regular peers. Infrequent church attendance leaves many uncertain about their beliefs and adrift theologically, even if they still consider themselves evangelical.
Statement: Sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin.
To whom: Self-identified evangelicals who attend church once or twice per month.
Findings: Only 52% of self-identified evangelicals who attend church once or twice per month strongly agree with this statement.
Comment: see below
Statement: Abortion is a sin.
To whom: Self-identified evangelicals who attend church once or twice per month.
Findings: Only 48% of self-identified evangelicals who attend church once or twice per month strongly agree with this statement.
Comment: These are shocking numbers. One intriguing pattern revealed here is that evangelicals whose church attendance has slipped from weekly, but has not fallen to less than once per month, are the least likely to hold strong convictions about these issues. Their peers with less frequent attendance hold stronger convictions.
These are just a handful of the findings. All in all they indicate a real decline in American theological understanding, both in and out of the church. Admittedly they reflect a particular theological viewpoint (Reformed theology), but they nonetheless give a good overall picture of the theological state of play in the US today.
Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research plan to do at least three more of these projects in order to get a ten-year view of things. While the findings are rather discouraging, and we can expect future surveys to come up with even gloomier results, the authors state that this is not an exercise in despair, but a stimulus to do more in the area of theological training.
Let me conclude with the words of three champions of good theology:
“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
“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
“No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian. Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless. The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians.” R. C. Sproul
7 Replies to “The Demise of Theology (And Its Hopeful Recovery)”
Thank you for the research you have done on this piece, good study! The Reformed Theological College recently partnered with Ministry Training Strategy in a survey that examines training patterns for people preparing for gospel ministry, and in particular, the use of apprenticeships as part of a person’s training. A survey was sent out to our current students and RTC Alumni. While the survey questions may not all be relevant to the experience of RTC graduates, we believe it is valuable to be part of this wider survey and in this way help with strategizing effective ministry training in the future. The RTC will also be moving all classes to Melbourne in 2017, we have at least 13 men training for ministry in the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA) from around Australia an answer to prayer of many years. We are trusting in the Lord that more men from churches around Melbourne will also access the ministry training at the College and the units offered online.
Closer to home, churches from each denomination in town have dwindling numbers of faithful believers attending and the coffers are low, some of us can barely afford to pay-full time pastors and ministers of God’s Word. There is a sad lack of people with formal training in Christian Ministry and leaders in the church today or so it seems and there are those who appear to have something against the input of those who have studied at Bible College, preferring to make a big deal over a lack of communications it seems because of the internet and an imagined hierarchical system that does not fit certain Christian ideologies and wrong perceptions of a team ministry with a focus on building up the body of Christ with sound biblical teaching or counsel that prefers to inform the mind, examining everything in the light of the truth of God’s word rather than limiting our Christian thinking to devotional topics and insights. To avoid being “conformed to this world,” we are called to be “transformed” by the “renewal” of our minds, so that we might increasingly “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2)
In the past I have studied material with older members of our church on the subject of “The Holy Spirit” which was from Ligonier Ministries, I even wrote a letter to R.C. Sproul and received one in return encouraging me in my study of God’s Holy Word, it was in this group of senior faithful believers including my grandfather and mentor that the desire to study God’s Word began to grow in me, For this reason I like to encourage others to join a Bible study group with older church members, never mind that when you return from Bible College they don’t accept you back because you may know too much, truly can…”Lives be transformed through theological study” as the p3 article in Eternity this month reads. It is through editing our church paper and practicing Pastoral Care and Ministry in our church that I have found that those who say theology doesn’t interest them, have the most theologically based questions and the only way to answer them is with good sound Christian Theology. This is a subject close to my heart Bill you really know how to stir the heart and mind. Thank you again!
I`d bet many churches have the same problem as ours, no pool of eligible men for Eldership. Yes, we need to start preparing young men to seek the criteria, plan for it, and bring Scripture and teaching back. Our pastors need accountability, wise accountability and the council of Elders, less they find it via internet articles/trends.
Interesting how this was brought up as I was thinking today about how the Word is preached in churches nowadays. One guy i know in Europe got kicked out of his church by one of the head pastors, because he was preaching about sin…
Seems that quite a lot of pastors will have plenty to answer for because they are not doing their job properly. I put a lot of blame on them for the mess we are in today.
Try to prevent more trouble in Victoria:
Thank you Bill. A very good word for “Bring Your Bible to School” day.
May I wade in once more? To continue,..recently at the annual Reformed Theological College Preaching Conference on Preaching Genesis, there were some great books on sale and in the bookshop, some on special like the recent publication of a doctoral project, funded for publication by the Australian College of Theology and selected for their Monograph Series a book titled “Christ’s Under-Shepherds” An Exploration of Pastoral Care Methods by Elders in the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia Relevant to the Circumstances of Twenty-first-century Australia by Leo Douma and available at Koorong.
Leo focuses on the practice of Home Visitation and targets it as the reason members are not satisfied in our congregations and some are leaving to attend other churches although some are not anchored to the one place these days anyway, having allegiances with other churches, what ever takes their fancy at the time. Their were a great many books available at the conference another, I bought this one with our elders in mind and to read myself, another was RTC Principal Murray Capill’s new book “The Heart is the Target”, in this one Murray helps preachers to shape sermons that impact lives with lasting application. He takes preachers through the “living application” preaching process—moving the Word of God, via the life of the preacher, to the lives of the hearers, also available at Koorong. Another book highly recommended by the RTC Faculty is one called “The Imperfect Pastor” by Zack Eswine, discovering joy in our limitations through a daily apprenticeship with Jesus, these books could be just the thing to aid us in our strife at the moment, apart from your great articles of course Bill which make us think about what ought to matter most to us as Christ’s followers today. Blessings!
PS …and Bill, I just bought a copy of your new book “Dangerous Relations” as well.
Thank you for your comments Sandra and the reference to R.C. Sproul. Just yesterday I was listening to a lecture given by Sproul at the Westminster Theological Seminary, where he mentioned a discussion with Dr Francis Schaeffer, who was at the time dying. Schaeffer said to Sproul: “We live in a day when there is a crisis of truth” (or words very similar). I join you in gratitude to Mr Muehlenberg for his excellent article. Thank you.