Sat, 7 Jul 2001

Poll shows Protestant collapse

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion correspondent

-- A new survey of what Americans believe, points to "an absolute collapse of mainline Protestantism in this country," Paul Hinlicky, a leading Lutheran theologian, told United Press International Thursday.

The poll provides evidence of a "very considerable diversity within the Christian community regarding core beliefs," according to the Barna Research Group of Ventura, Ca. But what alarms Hinlicky is the "erosion of the church's foundations this study seems to expose."

For example, a mere 21 percent of America's Lutherans, 20 percent of the Episcopalians, 18 percent of Methodists, and 22 percent of Presbyterians affirm the basic Protestant tenet that by good works man does not earn his way to heaven.

Yet the doctrine that man is justified before God alone by grace through faith in Christ's saving work (and that good works are simply the fruits of faith) is the very foundation of the 16th century Reformation. It is a theological principle the Vatican, too, has accepted in its 1999 accord with the Lutheran World Federation.

But the Barna poll discloses that only 9 percent of the Catholics in the United States agree with this theological concept that Martin Luther had culled from chapter 3 of the apostle Paul's epistle to the Romans.

"If this figure holds up it signals a complete breakdown of catechetical practice," said Hinlicky who teaches religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

His colleague Gerald McDermott, an Episcopalian, agreed: "This happened because in the last 30 years American pastors have lost their nerve to preach a theology that goes against the grain of American narcissism. What we are witnessing now is what (evangelicalism's premier thinker) Francis Shaeffer predicted over 20 years ago -- that the American church of the future would be dedicated solely to peace and affluence."

Of course this applies chiefly to the historic denominations rather than the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal/Foursquare and non- denominational groups, more than 60 percent of whose members remain committed to the justification by faith formula.

Hinlicky and McDermott found another result of the Barna survey depressing. Only 33 percent of the American Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, and 28 percent of the Episcopalians agreed with the statement that Christ was without sin.

To McDermott, these numbers indicate an "epochal change in popular theology." He added, "This would suggest a loss of faith in the Divinity of Christ." If this result is accurate, a large segment of the U.S. population was reverting to Deism, a belief system prevalent in 18th century England and shared by leading American thinkers of that period.

"Christ would then be no more than the Dalai Lama, an admirable kind of a guy."

Deism saw God as one who wound up the clock of the universe and then allowed it to run. Some, but by no means all, Deists were convinced that God does intervene in history. "Benjamin Franklin was certain that God did this so that we could beat the British," McDermott said.

"What has brought us to this point is zero theology since the 1960s," Hinlicky explained. Again, this does not apply to the majority of the faithful in the Baptist denominations, the non-denominational, the Assemblies of God, and the Pentecostal/Foursquare churches, of whom 55, 63, 70 and 73 percent believe that Christ is sinless.

As for the mainline denominations, McDermott held the cowardice of pastors responsible for the tectonic changes in their congregants' faith: "They are afraid to preach and teach anything that challenges what people already think. The result is a belief in a meek, mild- mannered God who does not want to judge us. That's Deism."

"They have given up talking about divorce, abortion and homosexuality," McDermott thundered. "They are even retreating from the Trinity. On Trinity Sunday I was in an Episcopal church, where the rector averred that this was only something for pastors to think about. Ordinary people did not have to bother with it."

While most of the sample American queried by Barna still affirmed God as the all-powerful Creator, a mere 17 percent of the Catholics, 18 percent Methodists, 20 percent Episcopalians, 21 percent Lutherans, and 22 percent of the Presbyterians told Barna that they thought Satan was real.

Hinlicky, the Lutheran theologian, considered this a particularly baffling result. "It tells us that even the Lutherans are utterly out of step with Luther, to whom the Devil was very much a reality."

Both Hinlicky and McDermott showed themselves intrigued by the fact that the Mormons, whose church's theology differs from that of orthodox Christianity, aligned themselves with evangelicals and Pentecostals on most issues, especially Christ's sinless being (70 percent).

On the other hand, only 15 percent of the Mormons insisted that man was not saved by good work; justification by grace through faith is not a doctrine of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Summing up his views on Barna's findings on the beliefs of mainline Protestants and Catholics, McDermott said, "This underscores how America has become a mission field."

-- Copyright 2001 by United Press International    

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