Pew’s Reformation Research, and what the church can learn from it


Five centuries after Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses — the start of the Protestant Reformation by traditional reckoning — majorities of U.S. Protestants reportedly reject the Reformation doctrines of sola fide (the belief that justifying righteousness comes by faith alone) and sola scriptura (the belief that Scripture is the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice).

This is what a recent Pew Research Center study has found. Pew also reported that theological differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics appear to be narrowing in other ways. What do these results say about theological commitments of contemporary Protestants? Here are a few possibilities, followed by a couple of suggestions:

1.) Agreement Exists. It is correct that Roman Catholics and Protestants have more in common than with other religious traditions. This is certainly true of core tenets such as the Bible, the Trinity, atoning death of Christ, and operation of the Holy Spirit. In a secular world that looks askance at these commitments, agreement between Catholics and Protestants is noteworthy. Even Eastern Orthodox Christianity – which may appear more Roman Catholic on account of its textured liturgy – stands further apart from Catholics and Protestants on basic elements of salvation.

2.) We Need More Catechesis in the Church. The Pew study also tells a story of theological illiteracy in much of modern Protestantism. Here are a couple of conclusions from the study:

Fewer than half (46%) of U.S. Protestants agree with the Reformation that faith alone is needed to “get into heaven.” More than half (52%) espouse the historically Catholic doctrine that “good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven.”

Among U.S. Catholics, 81 percent say “good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven.” Only 17 percent of Catholics say salvation comes by faith alone.

Contrary to the thinking of many Protestants, Reformation statements such as the Westminster Confession of Faith emphasize sola fide (faith alone) as a core commitment: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification” (11.2a). However, that is not all the Confession says about faith, which leads to our third observation.

3). The Pew Study Is Less Than Precise and Potentially Misleading. With regard to salvation, the language of the study says, “Faith in God alone is needed to get into heaven (sola fide).” A better way to say it would have been, “Faith alone (sola fide) in Christ’s finished work is needed to get into heaven.” Furthermore, surely there is a sense in which works of love are also part of getting into heaven, not as the ground or fundamental reason of one’s acceptance, but as the attendant fruit of faith. Here is how the other half of the Westminster Confession puts it: “Yet [faith] is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (11.2b). We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.

Another place of ambiguity in Pew’s survey concerns Scripture. The survey asks whether the “Bible provides all religious guidance Christians need (sola scriptura).” Here is how participants responded:

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

So how would you have answered the above question? Do you believe the Bible alone provides all the religious guidance you’ll need for Christian life? Before answering, consider the importance of church teaching and preaching. Remember how God has used other books in your life — maybe the writing of Luther, Calvin, or Bunyan — to guide your faith. These were, to be sure, based on the Bible, but when you think about it, it’s not the Bible alone that God uses to provide religious guidance. That is what we call nuda-scriptura — a bald form of authority. Sola scriptura, on the other hand, asserts that the Bible is the supreme source of authority, the infallible rule that stands above and properly governs every form of Christian tradition.

It seems to me there are a couple of implications that follow from the Pew Study. I’ll offer them in the form of suggestions:

1.) We Need Theology. Even if we recognize some of Pew study’s results as owing to the framing of its questions, a deeper issue is also at play: biblical and theological illiteracy in the contemporary church.

Why has this become such a pandemic problem? Some point to the prevalence of “moralistic therapeutic deism,” an idea popularized by sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). Thus, Christianity is about being a good person (moralism), feeling good (therapeutic), and a distant deity who is generally undemanding (a form of deism). Others point to ubiquity of consumer Christianity that feeds on entertainment services instead of theological substance. Whatever the cause, we must recognize the impossibility of passing on a full-bodied faith to future generations when that faith is watered-down, pragmatic, and theologically lite.

2.) We Need Thoughtful Questions. We should be careful about the questions we ask, because they inevitably shape the answers that follow. This is true not only for preachers and teachers who lead congregations; it also applies to Moms and Dads engaging children in conversation at the breakfast table. Good questions spark curiosity, engender thought, and orient attention toward the One who is the ultimate answer.

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