A Response to
American Protestants Either Don’t Believe or Don’t Understand the Beliefs That Guided the Reformation
|Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877|
My friend and sparring partner, Ryan Walters, who blogs at Mississippi Conservative Daily republished a Blog by Chris Queen that originally appeared on The Resurgent website under the title that appears in bold type above. Mr. Queen and Ryan are responding to Christianity Today's reporting the finding of two Pew studies.
In an article, 500 Years After Reformation, Many Protestants Closer to Catholics than Martin Luther,
Christianity Today reported:
Today, half of American Protestants say that both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven (52%); the same number believe that in addition to the Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings and traditions, according to two studies released today by the Pew Research Center.
According to Mr. Queen :
As we draw near to the 500th anniversary of the dawn of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517 – a new Pew Research survey shows that American Protestants are either moving away from or misunderstanding some of the basic beliefs that guided the Reformation.Mr. Queen continues:
To break the results down a little further, only 46% of American Protestants believe that only faith in Jesus is required for salvation (sola fide), while 52% believe that it takes a combination of faith and works to get into heaven. Similarly, 46% believe that the Bible provides all instruction and wisdom for Christians (sola scriptura), while 52% again think that a combination of Biblical study, church teaching, and religious traditions is essential for spiritual guidance.
Tying both beliefs together, 30% of American protestants believe in both sola scriptura and sola fide, while 35% ascribe to one doctrine but not the other, and 36% hold to neither concept.Mr. Queen diagnoses the problem:
What’s behind the shift in these beliefs? I lay the blame at the feet of a combination of factors: spiritual laziness, general human nature, and (I suspect) a lack of understanding of how to explain the answer to some of the questions.
Two millennia after Jesus walked the earth, even some of the most ardent Christian believers have a hard time reconciling the whole idea of not having to work for salvation. God’s grace is such an earth-shattering concept that people still struggle with it. Add to that a modern culture that emphasizes universalism, and it’s easy to see how people can think that being “good” actually plays a role in salvation.
When it comes to the confusion over sola scriptura, I can’t help but wonder if many of the participants in the survey believe that church preaching and teaching enhances – but takes a back seat to – scriptural understanding but didn’t know how to explain their answer. That’s the only way I can wrap my head around the idea that half of American Protestants can put man’s teaching and tradition on the same level as the inspired Word of God.Mr. Queen's solution is:
Either way, there’s a lot of work to be done – and I’m talking about spiritual disciple, not legalism. When we live in a world full of nominal Christians who attend church about once a month (if at all) and spend virtually no time studying and learning God’s Word, we’re bound to see survey results like this one.
American Christians need to get back to digging in to God’s Word, spending time with Him in prayer, and finding community in a local Bible-believing church. Martin Luther didn’t devote his life to exposing the problems of and reforming the 16th century church for us to equate works with grace or elevate teaching and tradition to equality with scripture. Imagine the changes we could see in our communities if more believers would get serious about spiritual discipline again!
I think that the exchanges Ryan and I had about this article might be of interest to some regarding the way Mr. Queen and Ryan interpret the Pew findings:
Articles like this one make the wrong assumption that the faith of the Reformers was something like the faith of the average American Baptist. Let me explain.
(1) Many Baptists believe that once you have walked the aisle, raised a hand, signed a card, you have made a “decision for Christ.” You are saved, and since it is “once saved always saved,” you are saved forever no matter what you do or don’t do the rest of your life.Mississippi Conservative Daily
(2) Many Baptists believe that since they have their own Bible and the Holy Spirit living within them, they are perfectly qualified to interpret the Bible deciding a least, “what the text means to me” regardless of what any minister, church, doctrinal statement, or tradition may say.
(3) Let me add a third, though it is not addressed in the article. Many Baptists have a very low view of the institutional church. They don’t need the church to be saved or preserved in the faith. While it might not be optimal, you can be saved without the church. You don’t really need ministers or others to watch over you and provide direction and correction. You don’t need sacraments, and you could live without preaching. To pull a phrase from an old Bill Cosby routine, “It’s me and you, Lord.”
All of this would be unrecognizable as the Christian faith to the Reformers – to mention a few of the greatest of these, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Bucer, Bullinger, et. al.
The Reformers all believed that salvation is by faith alone but that a faith which professes Christ but results in no change of life, no good works, is not a living but dead faith. Faith is more than a “decision.” It involves knowledge, belief, and commitment. A person whose life is no different from those who make no profession of faith in Christ is not a “carnal” Christian but no Christian at all. As Luther and others put it, we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.
The Reformers all believed that the Bible was the ultimate authority for matters of faith and life. When Luther was pushed to the wall at Worms, he had to say that the Bible ruled over the church not that the church stood above the Bible. But all the Reformers had a strong belief in the Christian tradition and read the church fathers extensively and respectfully. They accepted the “catholic” (universal) creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian definition, Athanasian). Moreover, they wrote confessions of faith which expressed what they believed to be the Christian faith and expected Christians to believe. They did believe that those called to be teachers in the church had the authority to interpret and preach the Bible and to tell you what you must believe to be saved. You can easily check this out – look up Augsburg Confession, Luther’s catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Westminster Confession and its Catechisms.
The Reformers all believed in the church and its necessity for salvation. They all believed that, while not every church member was a Christian, every Christian was a church member and lived under the nurturing teaching, oversight, and discipline of the church. They all believed that, while sacraments of themselves cannot save, they are means of grace and necessary for salvation. They all believed the the primary way God’s saving Word got into a life and produced faith was by preaching.
The author of this article is no doubt sincere but he knows very little about the Reformation – and neither do most Americans including those referenced in the survey.
Interesting that you say this: “Many Baptists believe that since they have their own Bible and the Holy Spirit living within them, they are perfectly qualified to interpret the Bible deciding a least, ‘what the text means to me’ regardless of what any minister, church, doctrinal statement, or tradition may say.”The Curmudgeon
Because I believe this: Psalm 118:8-9 – “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”
And what did Jesus say about man-made traditions?
Your understanding of Ps. 118:8,9, when applied to the understanding of the Scriptures comes down to, “Trust your own understanding.” The text calls on us to trust in the Lord when when we are in trouble, and not to rely on undependable man. The text does have anything to do with how we understand the Scriptures.Mississippi Conservative Daily
But then there is this:
1 Thessalonians 5:12,13 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.
Hebrews 13:7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the [a]result of their conduct, imitate their faith.
Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
And you are correct that Jesus denounced the traditions of the Jews. Why? Because they undermined the truth of the Word of God. The word “tradition” means a teaching and/or practice passed down from one generation to another. Traditions are bad when they add to, subtract from, or change the teaching of God’s Word. There is good tradition:
1 Corinthians 11:2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
Nah I think I can understand plain text. And I think I am fully capable with the help of the Holy Spirit of making my own decisions with regard to the Scriptures. You have one interpretation. And there are literally dozens of others. It’s why I don’t belong to any denomination and NEVER will. It’s an argument without end and turns more people off than brings them into the church.The Curmudgeon
And it makes you your own authority, contrary to the teaching of the Bible, and that is a very dangerous position to be in. It’s typical American, radically independent, rejecting of Bible established authority, “I am my own Pope,” ultimately “I am my own God because God is who I say he is,” Christianity.
But remember where this started out. The author of the article was explaining why he thought Protestant Christians had abandoned Reformation truth. I agree that American Protestants have abandoned the Reformation, but not for the reasons he gave. It is more along the lines of what you describe as your faith, which the Reformers would reject just about completely. The Reformers had no thought of creating an anti-institutional, anti-authority, anti-clerical Christianity. They were reformers, not radicals. Most were conservatives. They opposed those who held your position (anabaptists) as strongly as they did the Roman Catholics. The saw the dangers on the right – Roman Catholicism – and the dangers on the left – anabaptism. They saw themselves as reforming the church by going back and reading the Scriptures in the original languages and also studying the church fathers, who were the teachers closest to the time of the Apostles. They did not say, “Let’s reinvent Christianity and make every man an authority unto himself” but, "Let’s re-form the church according the the form of worship, doctrine, government, and life that we find the Scriptures, especially the Apostolic writers who were authorized by Christ himself to record his life and to establish his teaching."