Survey: Evangelicals don't know Central Tenets

New survey reveals that most evangelical Christians don’t know the central tenets of their own religion

I’m not sure that this survey itself isn’t biased, but I’ll let people judge for themselves. Story here:

You can see the actual survey results here:

Survey results based on an online survey with a sample size of 3000.

Wait. 31% of Evangelicals believe that even the single smallest sin is going to lead to eternal damnation?

OK, guys, forget religion, we’re all going to hell anyway.


That headline embodies one of my pet peeves, which is that “real” religion is what theologians say it is. The Christians surveyed know the central tenets of their own religion, since what they believe and practice is their religion. What they don’t do is adhere to quite the same religion that certain authorities think they should be following. (Comparably annoying for me, and for similar reasons, would be a headline that read, “Most Americans don’t know how to speak their own language”.)


“The Bible is clear that the gospel is the only way of salvation.”

Bible is certainly not clear about this. For example, take a look at David Bentley Hart who made several cases for incusivism, none of them refuted.

“However, on an encouraging note, evangelicals overwhelmingly agree that justification is by faith alone.”

Of course it’s through faith alone, not like Jesus told us that we should help others, love our neighbour and die for a friend if need be. No, he said: as long as you believe in me you can be the biggest asshole on earth and you’ll be just dandy.

Yeah, that works.


That pretty much covers my own concern, and who gives these guys the authority to speak on behalf of Evangelicals anyway?
I figured someone here would know better that I do.

I’m partly sympathetic with your objection, Glipsnort. It’s true that religious belief and practice can exist prior to being systematized by theologians. On the other hand, there is such a thing as “historical Christianity”, i.e., what most Christians have believed for centuries, at least since the fourth century, in the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc. communions. The article references beliefs popular among current Christians which are out of tune with that historical Christianity:

According to the summary, “A majority of evangelicals said (1) that most people are basically good, (2) that God accepts the worship of all religions, and (3) that Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father. However, all these beliefs are contrary to the historic Christian faith.”

Let’s just take point 3. None of the denominations mentioned above would say that Jesus was “created”, since the Son is co-eternal with the Father, and Jesus is the Incarnation of the Son. So it’s not just a question of “theologians” or “authorities” defining something for everyday folks; the everyday folks themselves, by their own assent (and remember many Protestant churches are congregational, and nothing gets by there without popular assent), have said that Jesus was divine, not a created being as mountains, elephants and oak trees are created.

I’m not raising the question whether traditional Christian faith is adequate, true, false, good, bad, etc. I’m merely pointing out that it is not merely theologians or authorities, but the whole body of the church, which has affirmed the divinity of Jesus, the need to come to God through Jesus, and the reality of the Fall (which means that human beings are not any longer “basically good” as that term is meant in post-Enlightenment parlance).

So sure, it can be arrogant for particular theologians to try to impose their own private view of Christianity on everyone else – I’ve protested against that myself when TEs have tried to impose the views of Barth, Newman and Pascal regarding natural theology on the whole Christian church – but I don’t think that this is what the article, in context, is about. I think it’s about a tendency of modern Christians to pay very little attention to the actual statements of the Bible or to centuries of tradition underlying their own denominational and confessional traditions.

Of course, that is nothing new if one is a member of the United Church of Christ or the Episcopalians, who have been steadily diverging from classical Christianity for several decades now – and not just the lay folks, but the theologians and authority figures in those denominations (in fact, in those denominations it has been the theologians and the authority figures who have led the departure away from tradition, often against the kicking and screaming of the plain lay folks who think the theologians and leaders are too liberal); but it is new for evangelicals not to know their Bibles and base their faith on a careful reading of it. So if I were an evangelical, I’d be concerned about developments along this line.

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Here’s Randal Rauser’s thoughts on that survey. He does say that surveys tend to be too black and white, intrinsically, and so potentially misleading:


Oh, these are super Calvinists. That explains a lot.


The timeless truths of ANY cherished view are not determined by a popular vote, even of its most ardent current adherents. That is a matter of historical research, careful assay, and analysis. There are no shortcuts to true literacy within ANY subject, other than, perhaps, anarchism… : )

I agree that we can identify something we can call historical Christianity, but I don’t agree that we know that most Christians have in fact believed it. I think 21st century American evangelicals are more likely to adhere to “official” doctrines than believers in most times and places: they’re mostly literate, they have easy access to lots of religious information, and their clergy are typically very well educated. A typical medieval European peasant, by contrast, was illiterate and had virtually no exposure to formal doctrine apart from his parish priest, who was probably of peasant stock, minimally educated and quite possibly illiterate himself. Even officially sanctioned Christianity of the time involved rather more attention to relics and saints than one would guess from reading the creeds, and unofficial religious practice and belief included all sorts of decidedly nonstandard things: e.g. charms, evil spirits, fairies, animal sacrifice. I think assuming that most lived Christian experience has closely tracked official doctrine is a mistake.


I would tend to agree with this. It would seem to me that the Nicene Creed is as close as we get to the central tenets of Christianity, and they don’t mention some of the tenets listed in the article.

Am I wrong to think that the Nicene Creed is the basis for the central tenets of Christianity?

I wouldn’t say it is the “basis”, but the Apostles Creed, the Althenasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed are important articulations of the central tenets.



I agree that the typical medieval peasant was illiterate and would not have been studying the Bible or the writings of theologians. I agree that the level of systematic thinking would have been less for most peasants than for someone living in Calvin’s Geneva or Knox’s Scotland or Jonathan Edwards’ America. Nonetheless, the peasants still had access to things like church artwork, and miracle plays, and simple homilies (usually much briefer than a modern Protestant sermon, to be sure) conveying very basic doctrine and morals.

The artwork in church windows often portrayed a heavenly, supernatural Jesus, clearly a divine being. Sometimes Jesus/the Logos was pictured as creating the world. So I don’t think even the peasants would confuse Jesus with a normal created being. And they certainly wouldn’t have believed that all religions get one to God, since they would have been exposed to only one religion, and would have been mostly ignorant of the doctrines of others (a peasant in Northern Germany wouldn’t be talking to many Muslims or Hindus), except such outbreaks as the Cathar heresy, which they would have been taught was wicked and needed to be stamped out. So much for the religious pluralism mentioned in the above news report regarding modern evangelical beliefs. And given the Medieval system of penance, no peasant would have believed that “human beings are basically good.” They would have been as firm about sinfulness and as afraid of Hell as any good Calvinist from Geneva would be later on.

So albeit in a crude and less literate way, the medieval peasant would have had some sense of basic Christian orthodoxy. And their sense, while not polished by education, and no doubt mixed in with a number of popular superstitions about the magic power of relics, etc., would be roughly in line with centuries of Church tradition, while the modern beliefs reports above are not.

In any case, when we talk about divergences from traditional doctrine in modern evangelical churches, we are talking about divergences in a literate society, where Bibles and denominational confession documents are easily available to everyone in the church. What excuse can a modern evangelical have for believing the three typical errors given in the report? Certainly not the excuse of being an illiterate peasant. Either the evangelicals described are willfully departing from tradition to believe what they want to believe, or the authorities in their denomination are doing a poor job at basic Christian education. Probably both causes are involved.

I confess to being a Randal Rauser fan in part because of his clarity. He has a 5 point series about what “mere Christianity” may be here. What is Mere Christianity? Part 1: Dale Tuggy - Randal Rauser It is hard to nail down sometimes, but at least he analyzes his survey of 5 theologians’ answers pretty well.