Heresy is running rampant in America. At least that’s what the headline on a recent article at The Federalist said.
The article, “Survey Finds Most American Christians Are Actually Heretics,” written by a young man named G. Shane Morris, states that a recent survey of 3,000 people found that “although Americans still overwhelmingly identify as “Christian,” startling percentages of the nation embrace ancient errors condemned by all major Christian traditions.” That isn’t good, I thought. Morris had piqued my interest.
Some of the findings of the survey that Morris highlights are a bit surprising. For instance, while 69% of the survey respondents say they believe in the Trinity, only 61% agree that Jesus is both human and divine. But more than 52% of those surveyed also think that Jesus is “the first and greatest being created by God.” Morris correctly points out that this would be Arianism, and this would indeed be heresy. Hopefully any Catholics who were called by the survey people were in the 48% that did not agree with this statement.
But about one-third of the way through the article Morris says that fully “Two-thirds [of the respondents] . . . insisted that most people are good by nature, which directly contradicts scripture . . .” This statement caught me off guard because Catholic Teaching says that people are good by nature. What’s going on here, I wondered. A quick check of Morris’s byline info cleared up the confusion.
Morris is “assistant editor at BreakPoint, a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.” So he is an Evangelical Protestant and the article takes a Protestant point of view. And while he does not state that this contradiction of scripture is heresy* that is the implication.
Someone reading this ‘contradiction of scripture’ statement might mistakenly assume that Morris’ interpretation is correct. They might also assume that this is one of the “ancient errors” all major Christian traditions condemn. But the idea that ‘man is inherently bad’ is a wholly Protestant teaching that is in opposition to Catholic Teaching.
A Valid Message
The article went on to chide American Christians, especially Evangelicals, for their ignorance regarding the Bible and Christian beliefs. Morris, in fact, seemed rather embarrassed by the lack of knowledge his fellow Evangelicals exhibited in regard to “basic theological knowledge.”
And Morris’ concluding message was valid for Protestants and Catholics alike:
“Why does it matter that we’ve become a nation of doctrinal dunces? What harm is there in flunking Christianity 101? Well, for Christians, the answer is obvious. If we really believe what we profess—that the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the single most important fact of history and eternity—then we’d better improve our grade. Knowing who the God we claim to worship is can no longer be a third priority if we want the world to take us seriously as his followers.”
Other Survey Findings
Intrigued by some of the survey findings that Morris mentioned, I was curious about the rest of the results. It is rather obvious that the survey, conducted by LifeWay Research, has a Protestant tilt, but the findings are still interesting.
The irony in the survey is striking. The findings seem to indicate that more Protestants are closer to believing Catholic doctrine than they might care to admit. The ‘man’s nature is good’ question is an indicator that Protestants don’t all agree with Martin Luther’s teaching on the nature of man. Another is that more than half (52%) of those surveyed agree “By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven”.” This, too, is contrary to Reformed Theology which says a person cannot earn graces. But it is right in line with Catholic Teaching. So perhaps a key to evangelizing to some Protestants is to show them that they may really be Catholic in their thinking.
Luther on Human Nature
The bad nature vs. good nature belief also got me thinking. How can Protestants preach sola scriptura and then disregard that the Bible says right from the get go: “God said, “Let us make mankind in our image and likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, over all the wild animals and every creature that crawls on earth.” (Gen, 1:26)
God, who is all good, would not create a race of beings in His own image and likeness that can be inherently bad. This would be a contradiction. If we were created in God’s image and likeness it stands to reason that we are inherently good. And why would God give an inherently bad mankind dominion over the earth and all its creatures?
Luther’s response to this is that mankind originally was good, at first. But due to sin, the fall of Adam and Eve, mankind’s nature transformed and mankind became inherently bad. So our God-given nature, according to Reformed Theology is transformable, even though God’s nature is not and even though we were made in His image and likeness.
St. Thomas Aquinas On Human Nature
Luther’s teaching on this is curious considering what St. Thomas Aquinas says about human nature in the Summa Theologiæ. The good of human nature, he says, is threefold: 1) the principles that constitute nature and the properties that flow from them, such as the soul, 2) the inclination to virtue, and 3) the sense of God’s justice, which was conferred on the whole of human nature in the person of the first man.
“Accordingly, the first-mentioned good of nature is neither destroyed nor diminished by sin. The third good of nature was entirely destroyed through the sin of our first parent. But the second good of nature, viz. the natural inclination to virtue, is diminished by sin. Because human acts produce an inclination to like acts, as stated above (I-II:50:1). Now from the very fact that a thing becomes inclined to one of two contraries, its inclination to the other contrary must needs be diminished. Wherefore as sin is opposed to virtue, from the very fact that a man sins, there results a diminution of that good of nature, which is the inclination to virtue.”
So our sense of God’s justice was destroyed by Original Sin, but our souls cannot be destroyed or diminished, and our sense of virtue and inclination toward virtue is only diminished by sin.
Luther Was Not Logical- Heresy
Consider too, that God sent His Son to die a humiliating and agonizing death to save us from the fires of hell. But according to Luther even Jesus’ death did not re-transform us and make us good again. According to Reformed Theology when we accept Jesus as our savior our badness only gets ‘covered up.’ We’re still inherently bad . . . but we get to go to heaven anyway. This is neither logical nor rationale nor reasonable, but this is what Martin Luther decided.
Logic and reason, which seems to always be in short supply in the world anyway, was not a major consideration for Luther in setting forth the tenets of his new theology. As Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas wrote recently at Catholic World Report:
“At no stage were his concepts clearly crystallized, and it would seem that O’Hare’s** observations are well-founded: “Ever vacillating, ambiguous, contradictory, he was utterly incapable of formulating a clear, well-defined, unhesitating system of belief to replace that of the old divinely established Church.” From previous discussion of Luther’s personality and psychological state, these inconsistencies should not be surprising for he was a man struggling between revolting against authority and setting himself up as an authority. . .”
Who Ya Gonna Believe?
This last bit of information about Luther is something that always struck me as curious. In rebelling against the authority of the Pope and the Magisterium, Luther set himself up as the ‘new’ authority. Luther was essentially saying ‘all the great theologians in the past 1,500 years before me have it wrong, but I have figured it all out. The church does not need a Pope, listen to me instead.’ In effect he set himself up as the pope of the Lutherans.
Then others jumped on the band wagon — Henry VIII became King and pope of the Church of England, John Wesley, Charles Wesley and George Whitefield became the Magisterium of the Methodist Church, John Knox became the pope of the Presbyterian Church, Joseph Smith became the pope of the Mormons, Charles Taze Russell and “Judge” Joseph R. Rutherford became the first and second popes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Ellen G. White became the pope of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And every one of these individuals were now saying – the Catholics are wrong, but ‘the other Protestants are all wrong, too, and I am right.
The Church of Me
Thanks to the giant fracture the Reformation caused, it was kind of inevitable that we would get to where we are today: “Nearly 23% of all U.S. adults now say they are religiously unaffiliated, up from about 16% in 2007” according to Pew. People today are becoming “spiritual but not religious,” largely thanks to the Reformation and the sense of individualism that it sparked.
Today we all are free to interpret the Bible as we see fit. And this shows in many ways, such as in the high percentages of Christians that have no problem with same sex marriage or abortion. And according to the LifeWay survey, 59% of those surveyed either strongly agree or agree somewhat that worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. This finding provides a lot of insight into why church attendance on Sundays has been in decline.
No one really needs organized religion if Luther and the other Reformation theologians are correct. We can all say “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” read the Bible on our own, and go to the ‘church of me,’ even though most of the ‘churches of me’ are jumbles of illogical, irrational, and often contradictory beliefs.
Catholicism, Logic, and Reason
As Karl Keating wrote very recently at Catholic Answers:
“It is no accident that a straight line can be drawn from Protestantism through the Enlightenment to today’s secularism. (The ancestor of secular humanism isn’t a vague paganism; it’s Puritanism.) By its inner nature, Protestantism is unstable. It was and is a hodgepodge. Much in it is true, but that truth preexisted in Catholicism. To that truth were superadded partial truths and even untruths, and that made the construct unstable.”
Many Protestants who are now Catholics cite the logic and reason that is fundamental to Catholic Doctrine as the reason for their converting to Catholicism. The more they studied Reformed Theology in comparison to Orthodox Catholic Theology, the more contradictions and holes they found in the teachings of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox. So it’s really not all that surprising that so many Protestants actually have beliefs that are in line with Catholic Doctrine.
The bottom line here is be discerning when reading articles about what Christians believe at a non-Catholic website. One never knows what kind of confusion such articles may cause. And keep in mind the survey findings about the nature of man and earning graces when evangelizing to Protestants. Logic and reason are strong arguments for Catholicism but seemingly insignificant details can also sometime trigger conversion.
* The Bible verses Morris references are “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” (Rom 3:23), and “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9).
** Patrick O’Hare, The Facts about Luther (New York: Frederick Pustet, 1916), 141.a