American Evangelicals: Heretics or just confused?

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The recent “State of Theology” survey conducted by Lifeway Research on behalf of Ligonier Ministries has yielded some strange results about the beliefs of a large percentage of American Evangelicals.

Of course the definition of “Evangelical” has become so broad in the US as to be almost meaningless, as far as theology or religious belief is concerned, so the survey tried to narrow its focus on those who agree to these four statements:[1]

  • 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.

The good news is that of the people who are considered Evangelical by these criteria more than 90 percent agree that

  • God is perfect;
  • God exists in three persons;
  • Jesus’ bodily resurrection is real;
  • People are made righteous not through works but through faith in Jesus.

However, of the Evangelicals thus defined, 

  • 26% agree that “the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true”;
  • 56% agree that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam”;
  • 73 % agree that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God”;
  • 43% agree that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” and
  • 60% agree that “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.”

Apart from the fact that some of these beliefs are remniscent of some classic heresies which the church has rejected throughout church history[2] these results indicate quite a bit of confusion and lack of logical thinking on the part of these Evangelical respondents:

  • How can one reconcile the belief that the Bible is merely a collection of helpful accounts of ancient myths with the belief that the Bible is the highest authority for what to believe?[3]
  • How can one believe that God exists in three persons while simultaneously believing that Jesus is a created being[4], a great teacher but not God[5] , and that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force rather than a person? Who then are the three persons in whom God exists? Mary, Joseph, and Jesus?[6] Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu?[7]
  • How can one say on the one hand that God accepts the worship of all religions, and on the other that only those who believe in Jesus are saved, being made righteous through faith in Jesus? Does it make sense to say that God accepts the worship of, say, Muslims, but nevertheless sends them to hell? If not, in what sense does God accept the worship of all religions?

Add to this the apparent fact that even Evangelicals trained in theology and whose beliefs are more orthodox and logically consistent than all of this [8] seem to prioritize a person’s political stance as expressed by who they vote for over that person’s faith and beliefs, and that generally, in the United States, the term “Evangelical” has come to denote a political affiliation (and an increasingly whacky one) rather than adherence to specific religious or theological beliefs.

As a European who, having converted from nominal Catholicism, was largely taught and socialialized as an Evangelical  by American Evangelical missionaries, I find this distressing. Knowing how extensive American Evangelicals’ influence is in Europe as well as other parts of the world, I wonder what the state of theological belief is in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, or South America, and whether American Evangelical missionaries are importing American partisan politics into the churches they plant and the ministries they establish and assist.

  1. These are somewhat similar to British Historian David Bebbington’s helpful summary of Evangelical distinctives, known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral”, which identifies four primary characteristics of Evangelicalism:

    • Conversionism — the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus;
    • Biblicism — a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority;
    • Activism — the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts;
    • Crucicentrism — a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.


  2. i.e. Arianism and Pelagianism[]
  3. The survey report points out that seeing the Bible as merely a collection of myths (albeit helpful ones) makes it easy for individuals to accept biblical teaching that they resonate with while simultaneously rejecting any biblical teaching that is out of step with their own personal views or broader cultural values. A few years ago someone coined the term “Cafeteria Catholicism”; here we have a severe case of “Eclectic Evangelicalism” or “Cafeteria Christianity.”[]
  4. I think partly this is due to not understanding the difference between “begotten” and “made” or “created.” After all, we talk about “making babies”.[]
  5. Of this belief, that Jesus was a great moral teacher but not God, C. S. Lewis famously said in Mere Christianity, “That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher … You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool … or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”[]
  6. As some very uneducated Catholics supposedly believe[]
  7. The “trinity” in William P. Young’s novel “The Shack”[]
  8. i.e. the president of the oldest and largest Southern Baptist Seminary[]
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