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Clearing Up Confusion About Religious Belief and Objective Truth

Since 2014, Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research have conducted a biannual survey called “The State of Theology” to track what Americans in general and American evangelicals in particular believe about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith. It’s merciful that the results come out every other year, for that affords ample time to recover from what are often distressing findings. The most recent results were published in September 2022. A demographically balanced online panel was used for interviewing 3,011 American adults. Questions focused on six key doctrinal areas: beliefs about (1) God, (2) goodness and sin, (3) salvation and religious texts, (4) judgment and punishment, (5) the church, and (6) authority. Under each of the six categories, a series of statements were stated as a fact, and respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement by selecting one of the following: strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, or not sure.

The survey allows for comparison of the general American public and those who hold evangelical beliefs. However, respondents were not identified as being evangelicals based on self-reporting. Instead, those who conducted the survey applied an indicator of evangelical beliefs devised by the National Association of Evangelicals and Lifeway Research. Participants in the survey who indicated strong agreement with the following four statements were considered as having evangelical beliefs: (1) “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe,” (2) “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior,” (3) “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin,” and (4) “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” According to the application of this method, the number of respondents surveyed who held evangelical beliefs was 711.

There is reason to be encouraged, at least in some areas, when comparing the responses of those holding evangelical beliefs with the responses of those who do not. Indeed, many of the results are to be expected. For example, Americans with evangelical beliefs are more likely to agree with the statement “There is one true god in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit” than those without evangelical beliefs (97% v. 64%). With regard to the basis on which one is counted as righteous by God, it’s a good sign that adherents to evangelical beliefs are more likely to agree with the statement that “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ” (93% v. 48%). Another promising sign is that 94% of Americans holding evangelical beliefs agreed with the statement “Sex outside of traditional marriage is sin” compared to 42% of those without evangelical beliefs.

All is not well, however. In some cases, large percentages of U.S. evangelicals deviated from historic Christian orthodoxy. One example of this is the fact that almost two-thirds (65%) agreed with the statement “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God,” contradicting Scripture’s testimony that we are, by nature, objects of God’s wrath on account of our sinfulness (Eph. 2:3). In addition to deviation from cardinal Christian doctrines, the survey reveals several areas of blatant incoherence and inconsistency in the minds of those allegedly holding evangelical beliefs. I’d like to concentrate on one because it is something I have frequently encountered in students in the course of teaching apologetics.

Statement number 31 in the survey reads: “Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth.” More than a quarter (28%) of respondents with evangelical beliefs strongly agreed with the statement with 9% saying that they somewhat agreed. This is far fewer than U.S. adults with non-evangelical beliefs, in whose case 32% strongly agreed and 33% somewhat agreed. Nevertheless, the number is too high. And it gets higher among those in the age range of 18–34 with 40% strongly agreeing with the statement and 14% somewhat agreeing.

To say that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion and not about objective reality is tantamount to saying that religious belief is a completely subjective choice. To deny that it is about the real world, that religious beliefs are making claims as to what is really true about God, the world, and ourselves is to implicitly affirm a fashion of religious relativism, a form of “true for me but not for you.” This is totally incompatible with Christian faith. Christianity professes that the true and living God has given humanity revelation that is true, trustworthy, and which we are obliged to accept as a reliable picture of reality.

Saying that religious beliefs are about objective truth is not the same as saying that all religious beliefs are true, just that they are all making truth claims about what is objectively true. Which claims are to be embraced is something we have to explore, and Christian apologetics is the discipline by which we seek to explain why it is that we have the hope in Christ that we do and why others should as well (1 Pet. 3:15). Recall that one of the statements to which those surveyed had to strongly agree with in order to be counted as holding evangelical beliefs is “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.” But to say that religious belief is simply a matter of personal opinion, not having anything to do with objective truth, is contrary to that claim. If religious belief is simply a matter of our individual preferences and tastes, it is not the Bible that is functioning as the highest authority for our beliefs—it is ourselves.

What is to account for this disconnect in the minds of those supposedly committed to biblical revelation as ultimately authoritative? The answer is no doubt multifaceted. However, I’m convinced that a major contributing factor is the imbibing of a culturally pervasive and deeply ingrained secular assumption that relegates terms such as objective truth, knowledge, and factuality only to claims that can be empirically verified and about which there is general consensus. It is an outlook that rests upon a philosophical pre-commitment to what theologian Paul Tyson calls “physical reductionism.” In keeping with this narrative about the nature of reality, “objectivity” is understood in a particular way. Here is how he describes it in his book A Christian Theology of Science: Reimagining a Theological Vision of Natural Knowledge: “‘Objectivity’—a stance that suspends ethical, theological, philosophical, and aesthetic judgment and simply seeks to accurately observe and logically describe whatever it is that is present to sensory awareness—becomes, over time, equated with factual truth.”

Obedience to the scriptural command not to conform to the world (Rom. 12:2), presupposes awareness of the forms that worldliness takes (ideologically, attitudinally, and behaviorally) in the sociocultural setting in which we live. The “State of Theology” survey is one of many indicators that there is a great need for what Tim Keller refers to as “counter-catechesis,” which he defines in his book How to Reach the West Again as “using biblical doctrine to both deconstruct the beliefs of culture and answer questions of the human heart that culture’s narratives cannot.” Cairn University is committed to educating and discipling our students in this manner. But this is not a task only or even primarily for institutions of Christian higher education. It is for parents, pastors, and local churches. Yes, there is cause for much concern from findings such as those yielded by the “State of Theology” survey. But Jesus has promised to build His church and thus, there is even greater cause for hope.

Dr. Keith Plummer is the dean of the School of Divinity and has been teaching theology and apologetics at Cairn University since 2010. He is a contributor to two recent works: The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society (B&H Academic, 2023) and Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (The Gospel Coalition, 2021).


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