Pew: Reformation theology waning among Protestants

EDITOR'S NOTE: This year, Baptist Press is publishing a series of stories leading up to the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Oct. 31, 1517.

Paragraphs 19-22 were added Sept. 7 at 1:30 p.m.

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Five hundred years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, a majority of U.S. Protestants reportedly reject the Reformation doctrines of sola fide (the belief men and women are saved by faith alone) and sola scriptura (the belief Scripture is the only infallible guide for faith and practice).

Image: iStock/license purchase required.
That's the finding of the Pew Research Center, which also found a majority of western European Protestants reject sola fide and that theological differences between Protestants and Catholics seem to be narrowing in many cases.

"The result of the survey ... in America and Europe is not particularly surprising," said Paige Patterson, a participant during the 1990s in a five-year theological dialogue between eight Southern Baptist leaders and eight representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Although such surveys have little relevance on the vitality of faith and are often skewed in various ways, there is a sense in which both groups surveyed are correct. Certainly, Catholicism and Protestantism are more alike than any other expressions of religion in the world in their confidence that the Bible is in some sense the Word of God, that Jesus of Nazareth is the center of the Christian faith, in their confidence in the doctrine of the Trinity ... and in their general concept of sin defined as rebellion against God," Patterson told Baptist Press in written comments.

"On the other hand, the survey also demonstrates the extent of biblical illiteracy," said Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Regarding salvation, two separate Pew surveys conducted in the U.S. and Europe and released Aug. 31 found:

-- Less than half (46%) of U.S. Protestants hold the Reformation doctrine that faith alone is needed to attain salvation. More than half (52%) espouse the historically Catholic doctrine that good deeds and faith are required to get into heaven.

-- A full 81 percent of U.S. Catholics say good deeds and faith are required to get into heaven. Just 17 percent of Catholics say salvation comes by faith alone.

-- In Europe, 29 percent of Protestants and 26 percent of Catholics espouse belief in salvation by faith alone.

Contrary to the majority of Protestants in the U.S. and Europe, the Augsburg Confession of Faith -- a classic 1530 Lutheran confession of faith -- stated, "Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith."

In contrast, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that while "no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification," humans can "merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for ... the attainment of eternal life."

Concerning the authority of Scripture, Pew found:

-- Just 46 percent of U.S. Protestants believe the Bible provides all religious guidance Christians need. More than half (52%) say believers need guidance from church teachings and traditions as well.

-- Three-quarters (75%) of U.S. Catholics say Christians need guidance from church traditions and teachings in addition to the Bible. Just 21 percent of Catholics say the Bible provides all needed religious guidance.

Protestants traditionally have believed, as stated in the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture."

In contrast, the Catholic Church holds according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."

Only 30 percent of U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura, according to Pew.

In the western European survey, most Catholics and most Protestants in every nation said they believe the two Christian groups are more theologically similar than different.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., another participant in Southern Baptists' 1990s dialog with Catholic bishops, said the lack of "theological clarity" on "both sides of the Atlantic ... is perhaps the most profound insight from these two studies."

Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted Sept. 7 in his podcast The Briefing that "some clarification" of the Pew data "is really important."

"In western Europe and in North America, specifically in the United States, the historic Protestant denominations have overwhelmingly adopted liberal theology, which is to say they are now no longer teaching what their historic confessions based on Scripture have both required and taught. The second great clarification has to do with the fact that the overwhelming worldview now shaping Europe is secular in its orientation," Mohler said.

"We shouldn't be surprised that a secularizing culture in which the churches have responded with theological liberalism has blurred the theological boundaries," Mohler said.

Patterson said "the poll is a source of challenge to Baptists to be sure that we prepare our people adequately in the doctrinal commitments that we have."

The European surveys were conducted via telephone April 11-Aug. 2, with 24,599 respondents from 15 countries. The U.S. survey of 5,198 panelists was conducted online May 30-Aug. 9.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP).
Download Story