Examining "The State of Theology": Introduction

Updated: Jul 3, 2020


In the last post, we discussed worldview and saw that each worldview includes truth claims, logical consequences that follow from those truth claims, and a certain interpretation of, and way of coping with, human experience. This is leading us into a deeper discussion about how we can properly defend our faith. However, in order to defend our faith, we need to understand it. In other words, it is necessary to know the Christian worldview before one seeks to defend it winsomely. This series of posts will be an attempt to, over the next several weeks, explicate the main points of the Christian worldview, those claims within it to which any follower of Christ should ascribe.


I have two groups of people in mind here. In the first group are other Christians. As the survey, on which this series of posts is based, makes clear, many Christians have no clear understanding of the main points of the Christian faith. Many are biblically illiterate, meaning that they simply don't have a clear understanding of the Bible. There is a lack of clear commitment to doctrine and theology in what is called evangelicalism. In my experience, many Christians lack a firm understanding of biblical truth, which prevents them from being effective apologists.


The second group are non-Christians. I have also often found that people who are not Christians lack a clear understanding of the Christian worldview. In this case, they often reject a thin caricature of Christianity that reflects nothing of the fullness of the Christian worldview. I have found myself, in discussions with non-Christians, hearing them describe Christianity and saying, "Well, yeah, I reject that, too." If you're reading as a non-Christian, let this be an opportunity for you to ask yourself, "Do I really understand the Christian worldview?" I think that people would generally agree that it's intellectually honest to reject a claim only when you understand it properly.


That brings me to this survey called "The State of Theology," a study conducted every two years by Ligonier Ministries in partnership with LifeWay Research, the most recent of which was conducted in 2018. According to Ligonier, the study included a survey of 3,000 Americans on a variety of questions relevant to the Christian worldview. The survey also included demographics on the respondents, including factors such as age, gender, region, education, income, marital status, ethnicity, faith, and attendance. The most interesting of these is faith, which includes evangelical, black protestant, mainline, Roman Catholic, and other. The Data Explorer allows you to change these factors in order to view the results along different demographics.


In my examination of the study over the next several weeks, I'm going to focus on the results without taking into consideration any of these specific factors. This will skew the data somewhat. For instance, as the data shows, respondents of mainline denominations, which includes denominations considered to be more liberal theologically such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Methodist Church, generally answered in a way that presented a more liberal approach to theology than, say, evangelicals. Because of this, it can be easy to interpret the data to mean that Christians, as a whole, are beginning to lean away from biblical orthodoxy. While the data does show that, it probably shouldn't be much of a surprise that the mainline denominations are skewing further left in their theology. We shouldn't have expected the opposite.


Why not focus merely on evangelicals? Because these other groups still claim to be Christian. My intent is also more limited than to show that evangelicals are leaning this way or that in their theology. My main focus is to discuss, using this study as my springboard, the main points of the Christian worldview. A secondary purpose is to show that, if this data is representative, there is a massive invasion of non- or anti-Christian ideas into the Church today, something which the Church should work to reverse.


I also will not focus on every single question in the survey. That would make for a very long series. I will focus mainly on questions of orthodoxy, those claims that make the Christian worldview truly Christian. Not all of the questions in the survey are points central to Christian orthodoxy. For instance, I would answer "Strongly Disagree" to #9 on the survey, and other Christians would answer "Strongly Agree." Good, God-fearing Christians disagree on that statement. Because of that, I will only focus on those questions that divide the Christian from the non-Christian.


Finally, I don't want to give off the impression that the church in America is overrun with people who believe false teaching. That kind of a claim goes beyond the evidence and beyond what I think is reasonable. In fact, I think that what this data will show is that Christians are, by and large, confused theologically. It's not that they're invading the churches and teaching false doctrine. What this shows, I think, is that the wider secular culture and its worldview(s) are invading the church, and often, Christians just absorb the culture like a sponge. Some questions and their results in particular represent this unfortunate fact.


Now that I've introduced you to the survey, follow the links in the text or in the Sources section below to check out the survey for yourself. I think that you'll find the results to be interesting. Now, I want to explain some of the language in the survey that will help us to contextualize the results.


The main thing that I'd like to explain is what it means to be evangelical. This term is vague and has two understandings in the United States, one political and the other religious. The political way of describing an evangelical came to prominence with the growth of conservative religious factions on the Right, called Religious Right, which began as a movement in the 1970's. This is not what I or the survey means by "evangelical." Instead, I (and the survey) intend to use the word in its religious sense. This refers to those who broadly believe what may be considered biblical, orthodox Christianity.


As a label for Christians, evangelicalism is broader than any particular denomination. Other than biblical, orthodox Christianity, one could describe it by using what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity," those beliefs central to Christianity, which any Christian can be expected to believe. From the central beliefs of mere Christianity, one can then come to more specific convictions in doctrine that will lead them to a particular tradition, such as Anglicanism, the Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterianism, etc. The point is that all evangelicals, whether Anglican, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, etc., believe the main tenants of mere Christianity.


What are those main beliefs? There is some debate among Christians as to those claims that are so central to the Christian worldview that one must believe them in order to be a Christian (another way of describing the beliefs of mere Christianity), but there is certainly more agreement than disagreement. One must believe, for instance, that God exists. That seems pretty obvious. The answer to that question (i.e. what are those main beliefs) is, for the most part the topic of this series. We're going to look at where people who claim to be Christians broadly stand on these questions and see why it's necessary to get these questions right.


This is a short post, but it sets us up nicely for the ones to come. Next week, I will start with the nature of God, which is expressed in four questions on the survey. As the pastor A.W. Tozer famously wrote, "What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us" (13). Do professing Christians in the U.S. believe in the God of the Bible? This is a very important question.


I hope that this series interests and edifies you in the weeks to come. If you find yourself continuing to come back to the blog, please consider subscribing to it, so that you will get notified of each new post. With a subscription, you can also comment below and start a discussion! Also, please consider sharing these posts on social media, since that is the easiest way to ensure that more people will find their way to this content. As we get the word out, my prayer is that the blog will continue to bolster and advance the Kingdom of God. Finally, if you have any questions or comments about the blog, then you can send me a message from the bottom of the homepage. I look forward to receiving messages from you. Thank you for reading!


Sources


If you want to read about some of the details in the survey, see Bingham, Nathan. "The State of Theology: What Do People Really Believe in 2018?." Ligonier Ministries. Ligonier Ministries, 16 October 2018. https://www.ligonier.org/blog/state-theology-what-do-people-really-believe-2018/.


If you want to check out the content of the survey in detail, see The State of Theology. "Key Findings." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/. and The State of Theology. "Data Explorer." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018.https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer?AGE=30&MF=14&REGION=30&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126&ETHNICITY=62&RELTRAD=62&ATTENDANCE=254.


Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. In A.W. Tozer: Three Spiritual Classics in One Volume, 9-214. Chicago: Moody Publishers.

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