Heresy Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Are you a Christian? Are you sure? A new survey finds that most American evangelicals embrace heretical notions. More evidence that the real meaning of “evangelical” isn’t really theological, but something else.religion as personal belief

Christianity Today reports on new data from Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. Even among evangelical believers, majorities of respondents disavowed orthodox theology. As CT reported,

When it comes to Americans with “evangelical beliefs”. . . the survey found that a majority say:

  • Most people are basically good (52%)

  • God accepts the worship of all religions (51%)

  • Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father (78%)

The last point, especially, has a long and contentious history. The ancient church kind of settled it at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but as this survey proves, ideas about a three-part God are still thinly settled.

Why does it matter? Just like other large religious bodies (by way of comparison, ask any self-described Catholic about Catholic theology), evangelical Protestantism in practice is not defined by theology. Rather, American evangelicalism is a cultural identity that includes religious ideas, but isn’t actually based primarily on religious ideas. To make things more confusing, most religious identities assume that they are based primarily on theological definitions.

In other words, when you ask an evangelical what makes her an evangelical, she’ll likely give you a religious answer. But if you ask her about actual beliefs, she is likely not to know or care much about evangelical theology. The reasons she identifies as evangelical are described in religious language, but they are really a bigger mix of family, tradition, politics, and culture.

This was a big part of my argument in Fundamentalist U. If we really want to understand American evangelicalism we need to push beyond and behind the official dogma that evangelicals have used officially to define themselves. Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, the leaders of evangelical colleges had to continually prove to a nervous evangelical public that they maintained the standards of evangelical culture—even when those standards weren’t really based in conservative evangelical theology.

To cite just one example, when fundamentalist intellectual J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Seminary in 1929 to open his own, purer Westminster Seminary, he got grief from other college leaders because Machen allowed his seminarians to drink alcohol.

There was no theological reason to ban alcohol, Professor Machen concluded, so he didn’t. Other college leaders were scandalized. The ban on alcohol might not have been a theological requirement–at least for Presbyterians–but it was written so deeply into the cultural bones of America’s conservative evangelicals that it had assumed sacred status.

We can see similar examples everywhere we look today. For instance, why was administrator Randy Beckum chastised at Mid-America? Theologically, there can be little reason to criticize a reminder that Christians need to put their faith before their patriotism.  Culturally, however, that can come as a shocking notion.

Evangelicals like to talk about doing more than just avoiding sin, but even avoiding the appearance of sin. If we want to make sense of the complicated realities of evangelical identity, we need to add a cumbersome caveat. It’s not only that evangelicals need to avoid the appearance of sin, but that they need to even avoid the appearance of things that aren’t really sins but America’s evangelicals think they are. On the flip side, they are free to embrace heresy as long as no one seems to care.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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