A new article from Christianity Today hit my news feed last week, and it blew me away. The title was: “Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals”. The article is based on a recent survey which found (among other disasters) that 73% of American Evangelicals believe Jesus is a created being.
Yes, a full three quarters of all American Evangelicals believe the ancient heresy of Arianism. If you are unfamiliar with Arianism, it would be well worth the time to pause here for a brief internet search. It is a big topic, and I won’t cover much of it here, but in short it is a Christological heresy that was defeated in the 4th century at the Council of Nicaea. Seventeen centuries later the average American Evangelical has still not received the memo.
I’m not trying to be sarcastic. They truly have not received the memo. I was Evangelical for 19 years and can attest that while it may have been taught from time-to-time, there was never an emphasis on Christ’s uncreated nature, much less any serious discussion over its importance. We were far too busy with sermons on tithing and how to gain and maintain financial abundance. (I remember sitting through an 8-week church sermon series in which the pastor did not once, except in closing prayers, mention the name Jesus. I spent the 9th week finding a new church.)
Could it be that many, even if they got the memo, simply didn’t care about the memo? I mean, what does it matter what a collection of bishops decided about Christian doctrine centuries ago at this or that council? As the article points out, Evangelicalism has a single authority for deciding between what is truth and what is heretical: the Bible. And not just the Bible, but the literal interpretation of the Bible.
On this point, most American Evangelicals agree—74%, according to the survey.
For me, this is where the article unwittingly exposes the entire problem. Three quarters of American Evangelicals believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, yet the same amount also hold a major heretical view of Christ.
The author chides American adults at large for a sharp increase in the rejection of the divine authorship of the Bible, currently 53%, up from 41% when the survey began in 2014.
Quoting from the research: “This view [rejection] makes it easy for individuals to accept biblical teaching that they resonate with while simultaneously rejecting any biblical teaching that is out of step with their own personal views or broader cultural values.”
But this isn’t the case with American Evangelicals. Again, three quarters of them believe in both the divine authorship and literal interpretation of the Bible. So, this does not appear to be an issue of “picking an choosing” their pet doctrines, but rather a total lack of understanding of historic Christian orthodoxy.
It’s a perfect example of what happens when you teach millions of people to go-it-alone and trust their own understanding of Scripture. The interpretive method of the average American Evangelical is essentially sola scriptura, that is, a view that Scripture alone is authoritative for Christian faith and practice. Let me attempt to prove this interpretive method faulty with four examples:
1.) Try to decide, using only a literal interpretation of the Bible with no help from any traditional dogma, the meaning of the following verses from Mark 22-24: “He took bread… and gave to them, and said, ‘Take; this is My body.’ And he took a cup… and said to them, ‘This is my blood…”
Again, using only a literal interpretation of the Bible, what is Christ saying about the Eucharistic elements (communion)? Are the elements literally His body and blood? Seldom do two Evangelicals agree, but this is a matter that was settled in the Church from the very beginning. Several hundred more scriptures could be put to the same test, but this one should suffice.
2.) How did the Apostles decide what aspects of the Mosaic Law to hold the gentile Christians to when the controversy of circumcision arose? Did they consult the Bible? Ultimately the Apostles themselves—the very authors of the New Testament—did not rest on their individual private opinions but instead called a council to resolve the issue (Acts chapter 15).
3.) Take the issue of the Arian heresy. How did the Church decide which side was right in the 4th century when Arius (a priest in Alexandria) began teaching that Christ was a created being? Did they consult the Bible? They did. But the trouble was both sides of the debate had their proof text verses from the Bible to prove their side of the argument. How was the controversy settled? Same way the Apostles settled the circumcision issue—a Church Council (the first of the great Ecumenical Councils, this one held at Nicaea).
4.) What does the New Testament say is the method of establishing faith and practice? “All Scripture,” states the Apostle Paul, “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16). However, one will note that earlier in the same work he called the Church “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Scripture is not a stand-alone work. It is a work of the Church, and in and through the Church it is both supported and rightly understood.
All this the American Evangelical church is lacking.
There is no reliance on the Church for support and understanding of Scripture because there is no foundational, unified Church. There are several thousand independent splinter groups, but no Church. Much less is there a trust and understanding of the Church historic with her great councils and saints. The average Evangelical is cut-adrift from the historic Church and made to discover all the ancient heresies anew, Arianism not the least of which, and decide for themselves which way is up. No individual believer should be taxed with this. At what point is the individual free to simply trust the faith?
Getting back to the question, “What’s the big deal?” I will offer another short list. The big deal concerning the nature of Christ is at least 3-fold. And, again, forgive me for the extreme nutshell version in which I am dealing with these large themes. It is my hope that if the reader is unfamiliar with them this will help inspire a longer study.
The big deal is this:
1.) If Christ is not fully God, then His sacrifice cannot save. As the Church Fathers argued at the Council of Nicaea, both the humanity and the divinity of Christ were necessary. Only one who was fully human and fully God could atone for human sin, since only that which was assumed by God could be healed by God (St. Gregory of Nazianzus). This is how we know that Jesus Christ was truly God who became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). If Christ is a mere created being then He is not truly God and cannot save.
2.) If Christ is a God but also a creation of God then the Christian believer is involved in polytheism, or at a minimum something like old Gnostic demiurge paganism. Interestingly, the article notes that 90% of American Evangelicals believe that God exists in three Persons (i.e., the Trinity), but this simply doesn’t fit with a belief that Christ was created. It is sheer confusion.
3.) Lastly, if Christ is not the eternal, begotten, not made, Son of God, then God the Father was not always Father. This does not make sense if one believes that God is eternal. This would constitute a major change in God’s identity and would demonstrate that God is not eternal, or that He is in some way eternally evolving, which is a logical absurdity.