Last week I wrote about some interesting findings from the State of Theology research produced by Ligonier and LifeWay. Today I want to take another look at that survey, with a specific eye towards the three members of the Trinity. For an introduction and information about this research, be sure to see last Thursday’s article and check out https://thestateoftheology.com/.
One of the distinct doctrines of the Christian faith is that of the Trinity. The idea that one God exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—cannot be found elsewhere. (For a defense of the Trinity, see our previous post “Is the Trinity Biblical?”) But just what do Americans believe about the Trinity in general and about each of its members specifically?
Fifty-six percent of respondents strongly agreed with the statement “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Another fourteen percent somewhat agreed, while twelve percent were unsure. This leaves a combined total of 18 percent who either somewhat or strongly disagreed.
To me, this is encouraging. It seems that seventy percent of those surveyed believe not only that there is one true God, but also that He exists in Trinitarian form.
Beyond this statement on the Trinity, the research includes statements on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and it is to those we will now turn.
God the Father
1. God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake.
Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement, and only twenty percent disagreed (leaving eleven percent unsure). God is holy, just, loving, gracious, merciful, and also perfect. He never has and never will do anything wrong. His plans are perfect and cannot be thwarted, and over two-thirds of those surveyed agree with this.
2. God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Sixty-five percent of respondents agreed with this statement, with twenty-three percent in disagreement and twelve percent unsure. Contrary to what some believe, the God of Christianity is not the same god of all other religions. John 14:6 is clear that Jesus (the Christ) is the way, the truth, and the life and that He is the only way to the Father. Therefore, Christianity is the only religion that worships the one true Trinitarian God.
God the Son
1. Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.
Over half (fifty-seven percent) of those surveyed agreed with this statement. Twenty-eight disagreed, while fifteen percent were unsure. The Bible strongly disagrees with this statement, for Jesus is God, and God was not created. John 1:1 teaches us that in the beginning, Jesus (the Word) simply was. He was not created, He simply existed. Jesus, just like God and the Holy Spirit, is an eternal being.
Yes, He had a beginning and an end here on earth, but He existed prior to His birth and still exists today, after His death, resurrection, and ascension.
2. Jesus Christ is the only person who never sinned.
Fifty-seven percent agreed with this statement, but twenty-nine percent disagreed (leaving fourteen percent unsure). I would be very curious to know why those who disagreed did so. Is it because they believe Jesus sinned or because they believe there have been others besides Jesus who lived a sinless life?
Either way, the statement itself is true for at least two simple reasons. First, while Jesus was capable of committing sin, He did not (Hebrews 4:15). Second, every other human being has sinned (Romans 3:23).
God the Spirit
1. The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents agreed with this statement, while twenty-five percent disagreed and sixteen percent were unsure (a fairly large group in the unsure category). Often, when speaking of the members of the Trinity, people will refer to God and Jesus as “He” or “Him,” but to the Spirit as “it.” This is incorrect. The Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is a personal being.
2. The Holy Spirit can tell me to do something which is forbidden in the Bible.
Sixty-one percent of those surveyed disagreed with this statement (forty-eight percent of those being strong disagreements). Nineteen percent agreed with it, meaning that twenty percent were unsure. This, along with the statement prior to it (The Holy Spirit gives a spiritual new birth or new life before a person has faith in Jesus Christ), received the highest number of “unsure” responses. This reveals what many may have already believed to be true, that people are confused about the Holy Spirit.
While the Holy Spirit indeed resides in believers and guides them along the way, He cannot and would not direct someone to do something contrary to the Word of God. There are many reasons for this, but I will give two. First, as we have discussed, the Holy Spirit is God, and God is perfect. A perfect God would not command His people to do something He had previously forbidden in Scripture. Second, the Holy Spirit is the divine author of Scripture, the one who inspired the human authors to write as they did. A sinful and finite human might forbid something now and then command it later, but the perfect Holy Spirit would not.
If this small sampling serves as a good representation of Americans as a whole, we see that a good percentage of Americans believe in one true Trinitarian God, but are a bit confused about the persons and roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I will conclude by offering two suggestions for a way forward.
The proper understanding of the Trinity (along with every other doctrinal position) begins in the church, and more specifically in the pulpit. Our pastors and churches must be proclaiming the truth about who God is.
Many who responded to these questions may be unchurched, or at least have not been to church in a long time and may or may not be believers (please understand that I am not equating being a Christian with church attendance). This is where it becomes our job to reach the lost with the gospel. While it may not be a popular approach, there is nothing wrong (and many things right) with including deep doctrinal truths about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit in your every day evangelistic conversations.
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7 thoughts on “What Do Americans Believe About the Trinity?”
The lack of theological understanding in the church is unfortunately, not surprising. We’ve been so focused on making converts that we’ve forgotten the Great Commission: to make disciples. We are to be students of Christ, learning about who He is and what He teaches. Theology is the foundation of faith. Without it we’re a lot more likely to fall.
This is a really interesting and insightful post. Enjoyed seeing the survey responses with your responses. The questions about God being perfect and the Spirit influencing things against scripture brought a question of my own to mind. In instances where God seems to be orchestrating things, such as in Exodus when it says “God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart,” would you simply say “it was all part of God’s perfect plan,” or is there more to say about that? Thanks.
I definitely think that things like that were part of God’s plan. If you go way back, it was God’s plan for the Israelites to wind up in Egypt under Pharaoh in the first place. Sadly it took Joseph being sold into slavery and being accused of rape for that to happen. But, in God’s providence, it eventually led to Joseph rising up Egyptian ranks and being able to save his people through a famine. Fast-forward to the Exodus, and God’s plan was not for Pharaoh to simply let the Israelites go, but for his heart to be hardened so that God could provide a miraculous escape through the Red Sea, an event that we still reflect on today.
I found this post interesting but I am not surprised at the numbers of those who disagreed, I would say the average church going person in a mainstream church in the U.K, does not have a clue on most matters if theology … I did a survey amongst the congregation in my own church a few months back and found that out of 60 persons only 1 had read any book of the bible in its entirety. One lady did actually phrase it this way ‘I like church but haven’t a clue what any of it means” since that lady is now a little way past 80 years, it may be a little difficult to start at the very beginning now….
This study is indeed sad and a real challenge to pastors.
Great post! I got down the bottom here where you say that you are a “pastoral research assistant for three pastors.” Help me understand what that means and how would a pastor be his own pastor research assistant.”
Thanks and keep spreading the gospel.
I do contract labor through a research company that serves high-profile pastors.