The State of Theology: An Interview with Chris Larson and Stephen Nichols
Tabletalk (TT): Why did Ligonier do The State of Theology survey?
Stephen Nichols (SN): One of the cardinal rules of giving a speech is “Know your audience.” Back in 2014, we partnered with LifeWay Research to conduct a survey of the theological beliefs of three thousand Americans. We decided to undertake the survey again in 2016 and expand the visualization of the data into a new website, TheStateOfTheology.com. Our ultimate purpose for this survey is to help churches, Christian ministries, and Christians live as the body of Christ in our place and in our time.
Chris Larson (CL): Dr. Sproul has said often, “Everyone’s a theologian.” And the point he is making is that everyone has an opinion on theological matters, but not all opinions are created equal. Some are right, some are not. This study demonstrates the stunning gap in theological precision and awareness throughout our nation. We are a ministry that seeks to serve the church by providing helpful resources that God’s people can use as they grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. This ongoing survey can be used to focus our aim as Christians as we proclaim the light of God’s truth to a darkened world. We believe it is essential to know the core beliefs of Americans and share those findings freely with pastors and church leaders.
TT: What were some of the key findings of the survey?
SN: All of the questions deal with crucial theological and ethical issues. Working through the results of all of the questions could be very worthwhile and revealing in terms of what Americans believe. The results of three questions in particular are telling. We kept most of the 2014 questions in the 2016 survey. One new question, however was this:
Only 40 percent disagreed with that statement, while 44 percent agreed and 16 percent were unsure. Admittedly, the margin is narrow, but the result is significant and the implication is even more significant. Americans think we know better now in the twenty-first century than the authors of Scripture.
Another one is this:
You need to look at the bar graph results for this question. Most of the answers are fairly evenly distributed along the “Agree Strongly” down to “Not Sure” scale. The answer scale on this particular question jumps off the page at you. “Disagree strongly” spikes to 61 percent. Another 12 percent “disagree somewhat.” Only 7 percent are not sure, which leaves only 20 percent who agree, and only 11 percent of them “agree strongly.”
Seventy-four percent of Americans do not grasp the true nature and consequences of sin. We cannot have a clear understanding of Christ and the gospel if we do not grasp our true need as sinners and the heinousness of our sin before a holy God.
A third question involves the identity of Christ. Actually, we can look at two questions and see some significant theological confusion. When asked if Jesus is truly God and has a divine nature and if Jesus is truly man and has a human nature, a strong majority of 62 percent agree. Six out of 10 Americans think Jesus is the God-man. Yet, consider this. When asked if Jesus is the first being created by God, 53 percent agree. This is a contradiction. To say Jesus is created by God is to deny His divine nature and to deny that He is truly God. To say that Jesus is the first created being is actually to repeat a heresy that echoes through the early centuries of the church, the heresy of Arianism. The answers to this question reveal that this old heresy is still prevalent. When put over and against the question that asks if Jesus is truly God, this question also reveals how confused Americans are on the essential issue of the identity of Christ. “Who do you say that I am?” was a question Jesus Himself asked. We must point people to the right answer.
In addition to what we can learn from these individual questions, likely the most significant overall finding of this survey regards church attendance. In some cases, the spread between regular church attenders and non-church attenders reaches as much as 30 percent. Quite simply, those who attend church are far more likely, by a significant margin, to give a biblically and theologically correct answer. Church attendance played a far more crucial role than any other control factor, including self-identifying as an evangelical. This finding stresses the imperative of the church and church attendance. Parents, go to church. Make sure your kids are there.
TT: How has the survey influenced the trajectory of Ligonier’s ministry?
CL: It intensifies our focus and reinforces the urgency of our task. In one sense, there are few surprises in the aggregate results. But it is interesting to dive deeper into the data to see how people from different denominational, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds answered in differing ways. Furthermore, there is a disconnect between that portion of Americans who believe society is getting progressively worse and headed in the wrong direction, and those who overwhelmingly state that man is by nature basically good. If man is basically good, why is society getting worse?
The survey demonstrates that we do not know who God is and we do not know who we are. God is holy. We are sinful. We need the clear proclamation of the authoritative Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The results of this survey tell us that we need to remain faithful to proclaiming the holiness of God in all its fullness to as many people as possible.
Now that we have conducted the survey twice in America, we are planning to do something similar in other areas of the world to serve the church there. Ligonier is seeing growing global interest in Reformed theology and we are moving more discipleship resources around the world through English and translated materials as quickly as we are able to do so as God provides.
SN: Faithful Christians can look at these survey results and lament and decry the state of theology in America. Or, we can look at these results and engage our Great Commission work with a renewed urgency and purpose. We are taking the latter approach. It is easy to get caught up in trends and apply our resources to chasing after current news cycles. This survey reminds us of the necessity of teaching the foundational truths, of teaching on God’s holiness, on Christ’s person and work, on humanity’s true need to be saved from the wrath of God, and on the Bible’s authority—even in the twenty-first century.
TT: What is the biggest take away for churches in light of the survey’s results?
SN: Since church attendance is a key factor in answering the survey questions correctly, we all need to renew our commitment to the local church and to worshiping together with God’s people on the Lord’s Day. We have so many activities clamoring for our attention. Youth sports programs have filled the weekend, including Sundays. We all have very full weeks, and the temptation may be to look at Sunday as the new Saturday. We must resist that temptation and give priority to being in church. Of course, there are employment or other circumstances that can come into play, but Scripture plainly teaches that the church is the institution that God has established.
Another takeaway is that while professing evangelicals answer better than Americans in general, the survey reveals some rather bad trends for the theological beliefs of evangelicals. Paul exhorted Timothy “to continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3:14b). The church must educate Christians. And Christians in turn must be men and women of conviction, holding firm to those beliefs.
CL: The sanctity of truth is a guiding principle for Ligonier because we stand on the Word of God. While there is moral collapse around us leading to pragmatic political and ethical solutions in society, the pressing issue Christians must emphasize is the collapse in orthodox Christian theology. Our crisis is profoundly theological in nature, not methodological.
TT: Why do you plan to repeat the survey every two years?
SN: We intend to repeat the survey every two years for, we hope, three more cycles at least. We think the longitudinal data collected over a ten-year period could reveal significant trends. We have already seen trends over this two-year period. What we are seeing is not only more wrong answers, but we are seeing the “strongly” column grow the most. The sad conclusion is this, not only are Americans evidencing increasingly wrong beliefs, they are growing more adamant in holding those wrong beliefs. Consider this one question:
In 2014, 40 percent agreed strongly. In 2016, the number jumped 10 points, with 50 percent agreeing strongly. Here we are in 2016, on the eve of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. We see the parallels here to 1516, the eve of the Reformation itself. The Reformers faced a culture in darkness. So do we. May we, too, pray that again God will shine the light of the gospel into the darkness. The State of Theology is simply a tool that helps us see the greatness and the urgency of our task. We hope this ministry initiative helps the church to be confident in the gospel and renew our commitment to proclaiming it faithfully.
TT: How can people find and use this new resource?
CL: Visit the new website at TheStateOfTheology.com and use the data any way you would like. This isn’t “Ligonier’s data.” Freely share it with pastors, missionaries, researchers, seminary students, and interested laypeople. Encourage your family, friends, and colleagues to stay the course (2 Tim. 1:13). Continue to emphasize active participation in a faithful local church, the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Pray that God would bring an awakening in America and around the world so that His elect would be gathered in to love Him and His truth.
- The State of Theology: A Poll of Eternal Significance
- The State of Theology: An Interview with Chris Larson and Stephen Nichols
- The State of Theology: By Whose Authority?
- The State of Theology: Does Even the Smallest Sin Deserve Eternal Damnation?
- The State of Theology: Who Is the Christ We Are Following?
- The State of Theology: Suspicious Of Authority
Chris Larson is president and CEO of Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.
This post is also published in Tabletalk magazine.