Are Protestants Closer to Catholics than Martin Luther? A Response to the Recent Pew Study (Part 1)

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

September 6, 2017

Mark Twain once quipped, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Ah statistics.  They can be very helpful. Or very misleading.  And much of it depends on how the questions are asked.

Last week it was announced that a new Pew foundation study demonstrated that modern Protestants are a lot less like Martin Luther and a lot more like Roman Catholics than people might think.

When it comes to the two main issues of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone) apparently Protestants aren’t so Protestant after all.  The study conclusions state:

For example, nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide). But about half (52%) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic belief.

U.S. Protestants also are split on another issue that played a key role in the Reformation: 46% say the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians – a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura. Meanwhile, 52% say Christians should look both to the Bible and to the church’s official teachings and tradition for guidance, the position held by the Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation and today.

When these two questions are combined, the survey shows that just three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura.

These stats, if true, would certainly be stunning.  Indeed, even depressing.  And given the low-level of theological knowledge among most self-identified evangelicals, we might easily believe these stats are right on the mark.

But, I think there are reasons to doubt them.  And those reasons are centered upon the very definition of sola scriptura and sola fide in the questions asked.

In this post, we will deal with sola scriptura.  In the following post, we will address sola fide.

As for sola scriptura, the Pew study allows the reader to choose between two options:

1.  Bible provides all religious guidance Christians need (sola scriptura).

2. In addition to Bible, Christians need guidance from Church teachings, traditions.

The problem, of course, is that option number 1 is not the Reformed view of sola scriptura!  Indeed, the second view is much closer.  The Reformers never argued Scripture was the only authority (that is a modern misunderstanding). Instead, they argued the Bible was the highest and only infallible authority.

Thus, the Reformers were quick to acknowledge the importance of the church’s teachings, the teachings of the Fathers, and particularly the creeds that came from the Church councils (e.g., Nicea and Chalcedon).  These all bore authority–just not infallible authority.  Only God’s word is infallible.

Simply put, most evangelicals should have picked #2 (given just these two choices).

To highlight the problem, here’s the way the question should have been asked:

1. Bible is the highest and only infallible authority.  The teachings of the church and ecumenical councils are important and bear real authority. But they are not infallible.  Their teachings must always submit to Scripture.

2. Bible is not the highest authority.  The pope and church tradition have an equal authority to the Bible.  And the pope and church tradition are infallible and cannot err.  Moreover, the Church determines what writings count as the Bible in the first place.  The Bible’s authority is dependent on the Church’s.

If the questions had been asked in this manner–a manner that accurately reflects the historical positions of each group–then I am convinced the survey would have led to a wildly different result.

Few evangelicals would be comfortable with the idea of an infallible church. Many more would be comfortable with an infallible Bible.

I will address sola fide in part two.


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