“The State of Theology”: It’s Not Good
Fifty percent of the participants in a recent study believe the Bible means what they interpret it to mean.
When his 1994 book, No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, theologian David Wells was reviled for his pessimism about theology in the American Church. That theology had fallen on hard times, Wells wrote, was obvious, “in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent … in the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, in its reveling in the irrational.”
His critics called it sour grapes. Good theology was everywhere, but Wells’ persnickety brand of Reformed theology was disappearing and hence his critique.
As it turns out, his critics were wrong, wrong, wrong.
Commenting on a new survey by LifeWay Research about “The State of Theology” in America, Eric Metaxas says in a recent BreakPoint, “Many of the answers revealed a mishmash of heresy and confusion about Christianity’s most basic doctrines.”
Regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, Metaxas says, while believing in the authority of the Bible, “huge percentages of these folks appeared to affirm major tenets of ancient heresies like Arianism. An astonishing seventy percent, for instance, say Jesus is a created being. Fifty-six percent say the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, ‘is a divine force but not a personal being.’”
This is already a train wreck, but there’s more.
On the one hand, God, the Author of the Bible, “is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake” (67% agree). Yet only half of the participants believe that the Bible is “one hundred percent accurate in all it teaches.” Huh?
As Metaxas comments, “It’s not just the departures from these historic doctrines that should concern us, but the contradictory answers. It shows not only that Americans in general and evangelicals in particular have the wrong answers on basic Christian doctrines, but that they don’t really understand the concept of doctrine itself.” Or perhaps it’s more than that.
Consider that 62% of all respondents say, “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe” and 50% agree that “the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses.”
Add the two together and it’s clear that for at least half American Christians — evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Black Protestant, and “other” — the highest authority for what I believe is me since the Bible means what I interpret it to mean. This, I suspect, explains the strange answers to the survey and defines the great problem we face today in the Church and in the culture.
In his new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, editor of First Things, theologian R. R. Reno points out that the American dream is above all the dream of maximum freedom defined as personal autonomy. And that dream, he writes, “has a metaphysical cast: Nobody’s destiny is fixed at birth; the future is ours to make.” We should all be free to think and do as we choose.
In politics, as Reno writes, “We can govern for the sake of all — the people — only if we challenge and dethrone the power of the peoples to shape our destinies and control our lives.” That is, no person or group should impose beliefs, morality, or even reality on anyone else. To do so makes the other less free and freedom is the highest good.
Thus, Reno argues, there is a moral purpose to multiculturalism, “which reflects the American commitment to freedom above all else. For if one way of thinking is as good as another, then all of us are freer to chose how we wish to think and thus how to live!”
While Reno’s book addresses politics and culture, it applies to theology as well. Aren’t we all freer and thus better off if the Bible is open to everyone’s personal interpretation? If doctrines as old as the Trinity are thrown open once again for all believers to decide on their own?
And so we view creeds, catechisms, and pronouncements from the pulpit as nothing more than input for our personal choices since authoritative statements would limit personal freedom.
Eric Metaxas notes that one cause of “the widespread cluelessness” is a lack of teaching. “Catechesis,” he correctly notes, “has fallen by the wayside.” True. If congregations only sang the Gloria Patri and Doxology and recited the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed every Sunday it would help reestablish the doctrine of the Trinity.
But this assumes people want to submit to the doctrines and moral teachings of their church something that is debatable at best. As long as we view freedom as the lack of any restraints on the individual, renewed catechesis will have limited success.
We need instead, as R. R. Reno writes, to understand that “freedom is fullest not when it serves itself but when it serves truths freely held.” And for too many American Christians, that requires a tectonic shift in worldview.