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

The Reformers argued the Bible was the highest and only infallible authority.

“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.”

 

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.

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