A. W. Tozer once said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. . . . Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.”
That statement reminds of me of the late R. C. Sproul, who was fond of saying that everyone—whether they realize it or not—is a theologian. That is, everyone has some view of who God is and what he’s like, or a view of humanity, our history and future, and the ultimate questions of life.
The State of Theology
We may all be theologians, but that doesn’t mean we’re good ones. Since 2014, the State of Theology survey, a partnership between Ligonier and LifeWay Research, has been taking the theological temperature of Americans. The newest results were released earlier this week. There’s a lot to explore. You can look at the views of Americans in general or break down the results by categories.
Most interesting to me is the state of evangelical views on theology and doctrine. These statistics stand out because this survey doesn’t include just anyone who identifies as “evangelical.” To be classified this way, the respondent must strongly agree that the Bible is the highest authority for faith, Jesus’s death is the only sacrifice that removes our sin, faith in Christ alone is the only way to receive salvation, and it’s personally important to encourage non-Christians to trust in Christ as Savior. The respondent who lines up with those four affirmations gets counted as “evangelical” whether they embrace the label or not.
What Evangelicals Believe
When you pose a series of theological and ethical questions to those who, based on their beliefs, would likely be placed in the historic evangelical category (theologically, not politically), you expect to see encouraging responses, and this is the case in certain areas. Ninety-one percent of evangelicals believe abortion is a sin, for example. Also, 94 percent of evangelicals say sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin.
But there’s a lot of confusion in these answers, and even if you quibble with the wording on some of the questions (there could be various shades of meaning in the mind of the respondent), that doesn’t remove the problem of glaring errors in evangelical views of theology.
If more and more Americans believe “religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth,” an increasing number of evangelicals aren’t far behind (38 perecent). People are prone to view religion as helpful and beneficial for its moral or therapeutic benefits but not really about the truth of God and the world. Religion gets relegated to the realm of values, not historical events and facts about the way the world actually is. No wonder, then, that even with an emphasis on the responsibility to tell others about Jesus, a majority of evangelicals in 2022 (56 percent) answered a question about religious pluralism in the affirmative, saying “God accepts the worship of all religions.”
A couple eye-popping stats show that evangelicals are terribly wrong on doctrines of central importance. Two-thirds believe that humans are born in a state of innocence, not sin. The one doctrine of Christianity that G. K. Chesterton quipped could be “empirically proven” is denied outright by most evangelicals. Even worse, the number of evangelicals who say Jesus is just a good teacher but not God in the flesh jumped from 30 percent to 43 percent in this survey.
Theology and the Study of God
Answers like this make my heart hurt. We’re not talking about arcane doctrines that don’t have significance for daily life. The word “theology” means “the study of God.” Can there be any greater subject than this?
This is the burden of my book The Thrill of Orthodoxy. I believe theology involves an encounter with the most beautiful, most awe-inspiring, most worthy One. We think about him, read about him, praise him, implore him, commune with him—the one true God, the only One whose glories give us joy as we behold and ponder their number. I want more Christians to encounter this God in all his glory.
To those who shrug off the results of a survey like this, or who say it doesn’t matter how Christians think as long as they do good to their neighbors, I’d say this: theological precision matters when it’s a matter of love. Diligence in defining doctrine requires the effort of better describing the God who created us, the God in whom we confess our faith, the God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures and whom the church has described in the creeds. The details matter because we want him and love him.
If theology is the study of God, then Christian theology is the study of God as he has revealed himself in Christ. The heart of our faith is not a series of theological propositions or a list of ethical positions (as important as those are), but a Person. “Behold the man!” Pilate said as he stood next to the thorn-crowned Jesus. All Christian theology is a response to that command, an attempt to answer Christ’s own question to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
If we’re going to turn around the results we see in surveys like this, we must help Christians understand that theology isn’t an arduous task of arranging irrelevant details. It’s an invitation into greater knowledge of this Jesus who has saved us. We care about the details of doctrine because we love the God those doctrines describe.
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