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Twenty-five years ago, David Wells published No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans, 1993). It landed like a bombshell on the playground of evangelicalism.

In the opening pages of his introduction, Wells observes, “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical Church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy” (p. 4). And then page after page and chapter after chapter Wells unfurls his indictment. I have a distinct impression from first reading that book when it came out in 1993. That impression had to do with the research that backed up Wells’s claims. He had anecdotal data. He compared articles on Easter in early Christianity Today (under Carl F. H. Henry’s editorship) in 1959 to articles on Easter in the 1989 issue, concluding that solid exegetical reflection marking the 1959 articles got replaced with personal reflections thirty years later (p. 210). Wells also leaned on sociologists. He astutely listened to what was occurring culturally. So that impression I first had when reading Wells was simply that of seeing a theologian use data to make observations about the state of culture and, far more importantly, the state of the church.

The State of Theology survey does exactly that. It offers data to find out what Americans and what American evangelicals believe. This survey is not simply about general beliefs on the surface. Instead, this survey offers data on particular theological beliefs. At thirty-four questions, the survey provides a substantive data set for a deep dive below the surface (see TheStateOfTheology.com).

The survey, a joint effort by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research, was first undertaken in 2014, then again in 2016, and now again in 2018. Anyone looking at the results may very well echo the words of David Wells: “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.”

The data set well repays study. There is complete demographic data presented for each question. There is an “answer key” for each question, explaining the main theological ideas and pointing to biblical texts. Consider these brief observations.

God, Sin, and Christ

Many times, R.C. Sproul reminded us of the bedrock doctrines that matter: what we believe about God, what we believe about ourselves, and what we believe about Christ. R.C. stated it rather clearly and simply:

God is holy.
I am sinful.
I need a substitute.

Consequently, we have questions in the survey to reveal how close or how far away Americans are to these three fundamental propositions. Of the many questions touching on these three, consider these results.

A strong majority of Americans do not grasp that God is holy and that we human beings are sinful. American evangelicals are not too far behind them.

On the statement, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature,” 66% of the general American population agrees. When put to American evangelicals, 52% agree. Sixty-nine percent of the American population disagrees with the statement, “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.” American Evangelicals tallied 47% of disagreement. That is to say, a strong majority of Americans do not grasp that God is holy and that we human beings are sinful. American evangelicals are not too far behind them.

Concerning Christ, the only substitute for a sinful humanity before a holy God, the results also show fault lines. On the statement, “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam,” 66% of the general population agrees, while 51% of evangelicals agree. The majority of evangelicals do believe that Jesus is the substitute, but slightly over half of them do not believe he is the only substitute. Americans in general are two-thirds pluralists. Evangelicals only do slightly better.

The results are equally troubling when looking at the identity of Christ as the God-man. On the statement, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God,” 57% of the American population agrees with this heretical statement. Evangelicals fared worse. An overwhelming majority of 78% of American evangelicals would be considered Arians and would have been condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

In addition to exploring the survey’s results regarding evangelicals, there is also revealing data regarding age groups.

Millennials and Culture

In No Place for Truth, Wells writes, “Culture is laden with values, many of which work to rearrange the substance of faith.” Consider the results of Millennials (ages 18–34) on the two statements regarding homosexuality and gender identity. On the statement, “Gender identity is a matter of choice,” 38% of the general population agrees. But when you look at Millennials that number increases to 45%. Regarding this statement, “The Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today,” 44% of the general population agrees. When you look at Millennials, the number climbs to 51%.

A teen recently told me that his coworkers consisted of two openly gay young men and one transgender individual, along with two Muslims, and two others who celebrate Satanic holidays—and all this in a workplace of roughly a dozen. The culture millennials are coming of age in is very different from that of those who are over the age of thirty-four. Sadly, this culture’s values are serving to rearrange the beliefs of Millennials.

Across the Pond

For the first time, the survey was also conducted in the UK this year in partnership with ComRes. There is much to be learned here, as well. One initial observation from the data is the great number of those who say, “I don’t know.” When you look at the US findings, the “I don’t know” column typically hovers between ten and fifteen percent. In the UK, the same results spike to a consistent one-third. One-third of the population of the UK does not have a view on matters of eternal consequence.

These observations only scratch the surface. The website offers a summary of key findings and the data explorer, which allows you to set filters to see what various subgroups believe. The uses of this site and data are legion.

David Wells wrote No Place for Truth for a reason. He wasn’t finger-wagging. Instead, he was hoping the church would take note. He was hoping that the church would be the church and recommit to the task of making disciples. Many did pay attention to what he said. The book had an impact. Now twenty-five years later we have new data to consider. That data should lead us to take stock of our own theological beliefs. It should steel our commitment to proclaiming, defending, and contending for the truth. The State of Theology survey reveals how much we need the church to be a place for truth.

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