September 7, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, September 7, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’re going to look at a massive study looking at the fate of the Reformation in both Western Europe and the United States. We’re going to see the legacy of nominal Protestantism and cultural Christianity. We’re going to come to understand that a significant number of atheists in the United Kingdom don’t find atheism intellectually satisfying when it comes to explaining the existence of humans. And we’re going to hear the mayor of New York City tell us what he really believes, and it comes out as unvarnished socialism.
The fate of the Reformation in Western Europe, 500 years later
Is the Reformation over? Was the Reformation basically a mistake? Those are the questions raised in a pair of new studies undertaken simultaneously by the Pew Research Center in Western Europe and in the United States. The Guardian reporting on the study about Western Europe begins its news report with these words,
“Five centuries after the Reformation triggered a series of long and bloody religious wars across Europe, modern-day Protestants and Catholics believe they have more in common theologically than they do differences, and most would be willing to accept each other as neighbours and family members.”Show Full Transcript
The result from the Pew Research Center in its analysis was this,
“Theological differences that split western Christianity in the 1500s have diminished to a degree that might have shocked Christians in past.”
In its own report the Guardian, a secular rather liberal newspaper in London, points back to the 16th century and the beginnings of the Reformation, gives a basically factual account, and then jumps to 2017. Writing and I quote,
“In recent decades there has been a slow rapprochement between the Catholic and Protestant traditions, with greater cooperation and dialogue, encouraged by Pope Francis, although there are still pockets of sectarianism. Last year, leaders of the Catholic and main Protestant churches in Germany,” according to the Guardian, issued a joint text calling for a ‘healing of memories’ of past divisions.”
The result in terms of the numbers in from the survey of those in Western Europe came down to the fact that,
“58% of Protestants and 50% of Catholics in western Europe say the two traditions are religiously more similar than different. But 26% and 34% respectively say the differences outweigh the similarities.”
A similar result was found in the United States; although in the U.S. there is still a greater theological clarity about some of these issues. But theological clarity is actually quite rare on both sides of the Atlantic – that is perhaps the most profound insight from these two studies. The studies are timely. We are talking about October 31, 2017, as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation dated back to that date when Martin Luther famously nailed those 95 arguments, those 95 theses, to the door the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. An organization as expansive as the Pew Research Center would be expected to ask this kind of question 500 years after the Reformation, looking at current beliefs and asking whether or not the differences that became so apparent in the Reformation have continued to the present.
And this is where we simply have to point out that the study here really isn’t all that surprising, but we have to look far beyond the headlines. Looking at the actual data in terms of the study about Western Europe, we come to understand that there is an historic divide in Europe between northern Europe that tends be more Protestant and southern Europe that tends to be more Roman Catholic. And then you look to very birthplace of the Reformation there in Germany, and you come to understand that if you’re looking at the largest percentage of an individual affiliation. It would be Roman Catholic, Protestants of course would be second, but what’s lacking in that analysis is the understanding that the overwhelming worldview is more secular than anything else.
In terms of doctrinal teachings the Pew Research Center gets it exactly right when it points to justification by faith alone as the most important dividing principle between Protestants and Roman Catholics when it comes to the gospel. And after citing Luther, quite appropriately, the researchers went on to say,
“Today, however, Western European Catholic and Protestant laity are no longer starkly divided by this theological issue: More Catholics and Protestants say both faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven than say faith alone leads to salvation. And considerable shares,” says Pew, “do not take a clear position on this issue, perhaps reflecting a lack of familiarity with the theological intricacies.”
But some clarification of this information is really important. First of all we’ve got to look at the fact that on both sides of the Atlantic in Western Europe and in North America, specifically in the United States, the historic Protestant denominations have overwhelmingly adopted liberal theology, which is to say they are now no longer teaching what their historic confessions based on Scripture have both required and taught. The second great clarification has to do with the fact that the overwhelming worldview now shaping Europe is secular in its orientation. It’s not actually explicitly theological at all even though a majority of citizens in a nation, for example in Germany, continue to have some religious affiliation their churchgoing rates and their answers to questions about theological belief in general indicate that there is an overwhelming secular trend. So if you put those two things together we shouldn’t be surprised that a secularizing culture in which the churches have responded with theological liberalism has blurred the theological boundaries.
The legacy of nominal Protestantism and cultural Christianity
When looking at the United States in contrast with the pattern in Europe, it’s clear that the basic trajectory is very much the same. You have the pattern of increasing secularism and the effect of theological liberalism, but it’s also apparent that in the United States there is a delay in terms of the effect of both of these such that a far greater number of persons in the United States respond with more doctrinal and biblical answers in terms of these questions than you find in Western Europe. The headlines from Pew dealing with the study of Western Europe said that,
“Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded”
Their headline about the United States said that,
“U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later”
And at this point another clarification is necessary and that has to do with how Roman Catholics view these issues. And there the great divide is not just the Reformation but the Vatican Council of the 1960s known as Vatican II. In that historic counsel the Roman Catholic Church basically reversed its understanding of the relationship between Catholics and Protestants, shifting it from a matter of excommunication to a matter of separated brethren with the key issue being invincible ignorance. By any estimation Vatican II represented a significant liberalizing in terms of the Roman Catholic Church. Though it is of importance to note that the Roman Catholic Church in terms of its official doctrinal statements still continues to assert everything in the Council of Trent, the response to the Reformation known as the Catholic counterreformation in which all of the essential teachings of the Protestant churches were not only rejected but anathematized. That is to say, they said let him be anathema who holds to such doctrines. And so even as Vatican II changed the mood and the disposition of the relationship in terms of how Catholics see Protestants, it is clear that the theological divide still remains.
So how is that to explain what is mentioned in terms of this Guardian report where you have historic Protestant churches that are moving together in ecumenical statements with the Roman Catholic Church or some of the statements made by the current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, even about Martin Luther? Well that has to be put in the context of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church and the liberal Protestants now have far less about which to disagree. But that’s not because it’s all of a sudden been clarified that there was no essential dispute, it is because the modern Roman Catholic Church and many of the liberal historic Protestant churches have simply so liberalized their doctrine and so marginalized doctrine as a sideline that it is now no longer a major flashpoint of controversy and the division and that helps to explain why there’s now so little theological debate in Western Europe on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
In the United States the most crucial question that was asked has to do, once again, with justification by faith alone. The second and very important question has to do with Scripture alone. And of course Scripture alone was the formal principle of the Reformation and justification by faith alone was the material principle of the Reformation, the two go hand-in-hand with one another. In its summary of the results of the survey in the United States, Pew reports,
“nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation,” and then they put in parentheses, “(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.”
Now before we take that at face value, we need to recognize that in all likelihood many of the people who responded to this survey did not understand the distinction between those two positions. But there’s a huge story in that. It is a story of the theological disarmament of the American churches and the fact that so little doctrine and so little Bible is taught in many churches that many people being asked these questions simply do not have the equipment with which to respond. But we also see here the result of so much of the anemic nominal Protestantism that has shaped cultural Christianity in the United States it has been not only theologically anemic, it is now demonstrated as we know to be theologically deficient. The saddest commentary in the Pew summary comes at the very beginning where they write, and I quote,
“Five hundred years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that U.S. Protestants are not united about – and in some cases, are not even aware of – some of the controversies that were central to the historical schism between Protestantism and Catholicism.”
Looking at the data from Western Europe, we simply have to assert that being good neighbors hardly requires theological compromise. But what is evident is abundant theological compromise on both sides of the Atlantic. In Western Europe it is the legacy of secularism mixed with theological liberalism. In the United States it’s both of those realities plus the nominal Protestantism that has so affected that general strain of American religion that is rightly called cultural Christianity. Evangelical Christians have to recognize this isn’t just an assemblage of data coming from the Pew Center this is an affirmation of the theological crisis we now face. Without the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone, there is no gospel. And with these studies comes a very important warning, cultural Christianity soon turns into no Christianity at all.
A significant number of atheists in the United Kingdom don’t find atheism intellectually satisfying
Next we shift to London where Religion News Service tells us that Britons now reject creationism overwhelmingly, but and I quote,
“but some find evolutionary theory lacking, too”
Catherine Pepinster writes the article, and it tells us about a survey recently released which indicates that a majority of Britons now reject biblical creationism rather out of hand. Less than 10% of people in Great Britain,
“including those with religious beliefs, now accept the biblical account of Creation.
Again further evidence of the secularization and liberalization of the culture in Europe in this case specifically of the United Kingdom. But there is a really interesting twist in this tale. I read,
“Even so, 19 percent of religious people in Briton (and 29 percent in Canada) found it somewhat difficult, difficult or very difficult to accept evolutionary science.”
Now so often what we see in terms of the popular media is that there is supposedly a head-on collision between forces allied with creation and forces allied with evolution. But of course when you look at public opinion, the situation is always more complicated and often more muddled than that. One of the things you also have to recognize is that responses to this kind of survey not only reflect what people think, but what they think they are supposed to think. No doubt the majority of citizens in an increasingly and more aggressively secular Britain know that they’re not supposed to believe in the biblical doctrine of creation. And they say so, however as Religion News Service reports,
“significant numbers of British people without religious beliefs and even atheists do not find that evolution provides a satisfactory explanation for the development of human consciousness and the origins of what can be called spiritual aspects of human nature.”
Now as I say, that’s a fascinating twist in the tale. What does it tell us? It tells us that atheism is an intellectually unfulfilling worldview. It simply cannot answer some of the most important questions that human existence raises for any thoughtful or intellectually aware person. Evolution is simply unable to answer in a satisfying way how human consciousness developed, and I’m reading here from the report,
“the origins of what can be called spiritual aspects of human nature.”
And that’s because taken at face value the naturalistic worldview that undergirds evolution insists that there actually is no spiritual dimension and there is no authentic spiritual aspect of human nature. Instead, the naturalist worldview holds that there has to be simply a naturalist, a materialist explanation, for every aspect of humanity. So for example, Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, one of the four horsemen as it said of the new atheism, has argued that evidently religion must have served, belief in God must have served an evolutionary purpose, and he hypothesizes that in centuries and millennia past that evolutionary purpose must have been to give some answer for whether there is meaning in life and life after death so that persons would have adequate moral confidence to reproduce. Well there you have it. The meaning of human existence reduced to what we can only call a false consciousness amongst our ancestors that nonetheless gave insufficient motivation to reproduce, and thus here we are.
The researchers behind the study known as Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum indicated that the big surprise was the fact that such a significant percentage of atheists actually find evolution not spiritually satisfying. Directly reading from the report,
“1 in 5 U.K. atheists and more than 1 in 3 Canadian atheists were not satisfied with evolutionary theory. Specifically, they agreed that ‘evolutionary processes cannot explain the existence of human consciousness.’”
Well, of course, evolutionary science isn’t able to explain human consciousness, but that raises another question, why do these people think that they are atheists? Richard Dawkins once famously said that it took Darwin to allow one to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Well, what this points to is the fact that atheism so many years even after Darwin or for that matter Richard Dawkins turns out not to be very intellectually fulfilling. But then again, that’s a reality that Christians can explain and atheists simply can’t.
Mayor of New York City tells us what he really believes and it’s unvarnished socialism
Finally, every once in a while a politician tells us what he is really thinking, such was the case on September 4, the politician New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He was asked the question,
“In 2013, you ran on reducing income inequality. Where has it been hardest to make progress? Wages, housing, schools?”
Mayor De Blasio answered with these remarkable words,
“What’s been hardest is the way our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. I think there’s a socialistic impulse, which I hear every day, in every kind of community, that they would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights and wealth to the point that that’s the reality that calls the tune on a lot of development.”
No kidding, those very words representing exactly the form of socialism and central planning that was such a human failure in the 20th century. Those words were spoken by the current Mayor of New York City, explaining why he alone hasn’t been able to solve the problem of income inequality. Just give me more power, he says. Give me the power to decide where every building is, how high it will be, who can live in it and what the rent will be. Just put the power in my hands and all will be well. He did acknowledge the obstacle he faces is as he said hundreds of years of property rights. Indeed, Mr. Mayor, hundreds of years actually more than that. The big worldview lesson for us is the awareness that a major politician can now say these words out loud as Mayor De Blasio did just this week.