What heretical teachings do evangelicals in America believe today?
That is a hard question to even ask, since evangelicals are supposed to hold to the Bible as the Christian’s highest authority. LifeWay Research and Ligonier Ministries did a survey in 2014 about what Americans believe about Theology, and recently released an update.
The most surprising thing about the survey is that many evangelicals in America don’t hold to orthodox beliefs! In fact, it seems that many believe in heretical doctrines without even realizing it! Let’s look at a few of them.
According to the survey, 84% of American evangelicals agree with the statement “People have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative.” This is also known as the heretical view called Pelagianism, named after the 5th century teacher. He basically argued that people’s natures are basically good and that they have the ability to seek God apart from divine intervention on some level. However, Scripture clearly teaches that man is born sinful by nature and cannot seek after God:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11).
This seems to line up perfectly with our culture’s ideology of “you can do anything you set your mind to” and “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” But the heresy of Pelagianism was condemned by the church at several councils including the Councils of Carthage in 412, 416 and 418 and the Council of Orange in 529.
The Holy Spirit as a Force:
According to the survey, 56% of American evangelicals agreed that “The Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being.” There is obviously a lot of confusion among many Christians about the Holy Spirit, but to say that the Spirit is not a person is to deny the orthodox teaching of the Trinity (see the Athanasian Creed here).
In 381, the Creed of the Council of Constantinople says this about the Holy Spirit: “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.”
In other words, the Holy Spirit is also the Lord, and is unified with the Father and Son. He also deserves worship and glory like the Father and the Son as an equal member of the Trinity. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is referred to as God. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter claims that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit and that he did not “lie to men but to God” (Acts 5:4). The Spirit’s divinity is also demonstrated in trinitarian passages such as Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus commands his disciples to baptize “in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is also portrayed as a person in the New Testament. In the upper room discourse, Jesus uses masculine pronouns to refer to the Spirit as a “he” instead of an “it” (John 14:26). Paul prays that the Corinthians would enjoy the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). It wouldn’t make sense for Paul to command us to have fellowship with a force! Scripture also says that the Spirit can speak (Heb. 3:7-11), can be quenched (1 Thess. 5:19) and can be grieved (Eph. 4:30).
According to the survey, 71% of the evangelicals polled agree that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” When I first read this, I figured people were simply confusing this with the Incarnation, but the phrase specifically says that Jesus was the first creation. This means that those who agree with this statement think that Jesus was created before the universe.
This teaching has disastrous consequences. If Jesus came into being at some point in the finite past, then Jesus could not be fully God. Part of what it means to be God is to be eternal, without beginning and without end. According to Scripture, Jesus is eternal and has always existed (John 1:1-3; 8:58; 17:5). The orthodox teaching is that Jesus has always been God the Son, but that he added humanity to his divinity in the Incarnation.
Arius of Alexandria (256-336 AD) taught that God the Father was too pure to appear on the sinful earth, so instead God created Jesus out of nothing. Then God the Father adopted Jesus as His Son and sent him to the earth. The Council of Nicea condemned this teaching as heretical and produced this statement in the Nicene Creed in 325 AD:
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.”
The Council of Nicea affirmed that Jesus was begotten in the sense that he was born on earth to the virgin Mary, but was not made in the sense that He always existed as God the Son.
How can we make sure that we don’t believe heretical doctrines? Here are a few suggestions:
- Do a topical study on each member of the Trinity in the Bible, since many heresies come from a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.
- Go through a systematic theology book, such as this one.
- Study church history, specifically the creeds and councils of the church.
- Study specific heresies that were taught throughout church history (here’s a good place to start).
At my church, we have a class called Institute that is led by our pastor. We meet once a month on Saturday mornings to walk through Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. During the class we discuss doctrine and wrestle with theological questions. This helps us better understand orthodox Christian teaching and equips us so that we can clearly articulate it to others.
American churches can have a class like this or other opportunities to help believers deepen their understanding of key doctrinal issues. And hopefully as a result, less and less American evangelicals will believe in heretical doctrines and more and more will hold to orthodox ones.