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How Well Do Americans Know Theology?

  • David Murray Professor, Pastor, Author
  • 2014 29 Oct
How Well Do Americans Know Theology?

Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research have just published the results of a survey that measured Americans’ theological knowledge. The aim was to “help to point out common gaps in theological knowledge and awareness so that Christians might be more effective in the proclamation, teaching, and defense of the essential truths of the Christian faith.”

I’m deeply grateful to these Christian organizations for funding and carrying out this research. It’s true, there are some discouraging findings; but I was surprisingly encouraged by some of the results.

First, though, the bad news, in three particular areas:

The Doctrine of The Trinity

Although there was evidence of good Bible knowledge in some areas, there was also significant doctrinal confusion. For example, more than 6-in-10 Americans deny the doctrine of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. 64% say the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being. There’s also widespread uncertainty about the equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It could be argued that these are fairly fine points of doctrine and that we shouldn’t expect accuracy among the general public about such sophisticated doctrines. Even mature Christians can struggle to understand and articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Doctrine of Salvation

For me, the most alarming findings were found in answers about the doctrine of salvation:

  • Only 16% agree with the doctrine that says “People do not have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative.”
  • Instead of acknowledging depravity, the majority of Americans believe the good in people can outweigh the bad.
  • 67% agree “Everyone sins at least a little, but most people are by nature good.”
  • 4-in-10 agree “God loves me because of the good I do or have done.”
  • 71% of Americans agree that “an individual must contribute his/her own effort for personal salvation.” 
  • 64% of Americans agree “a person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.”

The church clearly has much work to do in teaching more effectively about total depravity, spiritual inability, and that “salvation is [totally and completely] of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9; John 1:13).

The Doctrine of the Church

The third area of major concern was that 52% of Americans agree “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid
replacement for regularly attending church.” That’s horrifying, and perhaps reflects the historic American traits of independency and individualism. But we also have to face the possibility that it may indicate the poverty of spiritual nourishment on offer in many churches.

The Good News

But it’s not all bad news, Sure, if we’re comparing the statistics with the America of 20 and 50 years ago, then yes there’s a serious slide in biblical knowledge, faith, and practice. I don’t want to underestimate or minimize that and the work that’s needed to change this.

But if we compare the findings to almost every other country in the world, the picture suddenly looks a lot brighter. I’d be delighted if some of these statistics were true in places like Scotland or England – it would be considered a revival! I’d be surprised if most Western European countries would even make it into double figures compared to these quite stunning American statistics:

  • 60% agree that Jesus is fully God and has a divine nature, and Jesus is fully man and has a human nature.
  • 71% agree that there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
  • 47% agree that God is the author of Scripture.
  • 61% agree that hell is a real place, not just a concept
  • 67% agree that heaven is a real place, not just a concept.
  • 42% agree strongly that there will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all people who have lived.
  • 43% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches.
  • 53% agree that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone.
  • 61% agree that God has authority over people because he created human beings.
  • 66% agree  that God continues to answer specific prayers.
  • 68% believe the biblical accounts of Christ’s resurrection

Of course, we can flip these round and highlight where the glass is half-empty, but in many cases the glass is more than half-full! So let’s not discourage and depress ourselves too much.

Yes, lots of room for concern, some strange inconsistencies, and many areas for the church to focus attention and resources on. But to me these are also massively encouraging statistics. I doubt if there are many places on earth, or even in all of history, that would have such high numbers.

Considering all that we know about human nature, about the unceasing malice of the devil, and about the fanatical anti-Christian cultural pressures over the last fifty years, these figures are remarkably strong and resilient and give much cause for thanksgiving and motivation as we continue the work of teaching, preaching, and evangelizing both the world and the church.