Fulgentius was on my mind after reading an article in Christianity Today this week which showed that Arianism lives today – and I don’t mean in the extremes of liberal theology or among well-known cults. No – Arianism lives today among evangelical Christians. Apparently 31% of Evangelicals either think the Father is more divine than Jesus or aren’t sure, and 27% either think that Jesus is the first creature created by God or aren’t sure. That suggests that over a quarter of American evangelicals are Arians, not believing in the true deity of Jesus.
And it’s not only Arianism. More than half of evangelicals (51%) believe that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being, with another 7% who aren’t sure. That means that only 42% of evangelicals actually believe in the personhood of the third person of the Trinity – which really means that less than half of evangelicals actually believe in the Trinity!
When it comes to salvation, 68% believe that ‘a person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.’ But that’s Semi-Pelagianism, which, once again, is a formal heresy. (Ironically, evangelicals are even more likely to strongly agree to this heretical statement than those they often like to accuse of Semi-Pelagianism.)
Now those three questions highlighted by Christianity Today are only a few of the many issues covered by the survey. (You can see the whole thing, as well as highlights at www.thestateoftheology.com). Yet even these three survey findings are reason for pause. The deity of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation by God’s grace are surely of the essence of evangelical theology, and yet significant numbers of evangelicals reject those basic doctrines of the Christian faith. In two of those cases, it’s the majority who reject those basic doctrines. How have we got to this state? And what is to be done about it?
Now, to be honest, I’m not all that shocked. I used to teach at a Pentecostal seminary, and every year I would annoy some of my students simply by pointing out that the Holy Spirit was a person, not a power. How dare I suggest that the Holy Spirit was not like electricity! Every time I preach or teach on the ascension, there are people who are shocked to hear that Jesus is still truly human. When people ask questions and I try to explain a bit more there are generally a few who are surprised that He was around before the Incarnation. I think I’ve written before about how I often encounter Pentecostals who have never even heard of the resurrection of the dead (they can generally tell you an awful lot about the rapture though instead!). I even had a well-respected Pentecostal pastor recently suggest to me that Grace could be considered a fourth person in the Godhead – after all ‘we all know Trinity isn’t a biblical word!’ And, of course, I’ve heard Semi-Pelagianism espoused by Pentecostals and evangelicals without distinction.
We recently baptised a couple who had converted to Christianity from another religion. They’ve got saved. They already trust in Jesus and His sacrifice and have publicly professed their faith in the Triune God and been baptised in the Triune name. Yet, each week, I go and sit with them and teach them the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. We don’t have a terribly exciting meeting. There is no great emotional experience. I simply sit and teach them about things like the Trinity, sin, the Incarnation, Christ’s atoning work, God’s grace in salvation, the baptism and gifts of the Spirit, the sacraments, the church and the resurrection of the dead. And when we’ve got through those fundamental doctrines, we’ll look at the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. I try to teach, we look at the Scriptures, and they ask questions. That’s it. And at the end, I’m not expecting people to give a highly nuanced theological oration on the Trinity, but I am confident that they understand that the Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the Trinity, and not merely a force.
This is the work of catechesis. It’s not the stuff of all the leadership seminars or church growth manuals. It tends not to involve a lot of great emotional experiences (although you never know, there may be one or two along the way) and it isn’t something that draws large crowds (if anything, it probably works better with just a few people, that way they have plenty of opportunity to ask questions, and I can be sure they understand). But it has a lasting, long-term impact. So that’s why I sit around in families’ living rooms drinking tea and teaching about the Trinity. That’s why I talk to students about the Incarnation over coffee. That’s why I make the children sing their catechism in church some Sundays (and why I ask them the questions from the songs we’ve sung in church when I see them in their homes when I visit). That’s why I’m really happy when the teenagers start asking questions about the two natures of Christ or the relationship between the Son and the Father in the middle of a Bible Study. Because these are all opportunities for a bit of catechesis: teaching the faith.
And teaching the faith is necessary. It’s not just so that people can give ‘sound’ answers on a survey. No. It’s because ‘faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God’ (Rom. 10:17). It’s because eternal life is to know the Father and the Son (John 17:3), and to know the Triune God involves growing in our knowledge of who He is and what He has done. It’s because God sanctifies us by the truth of His Word (John 17:17). It’s so that we’ll be ready to give an answer ‘to everyone who asks [us] a reason for the hope that is in [us]’ (1 Pet. 3:15). It’s so that we persevere in the faith (2 John 9; cf. 2 Pet. 2:21). It’s so that we don’t lose sight of the ultimate importance of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, above all else (1 Cor. 15:3-4). And it’s because the Scriptures repeatedly instruct us to teach the faith (e.g. Deut. 6:6-7; Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 6:4; 1 Tim 4:6,11,13,16; 1 Tim. 6:2-4; 2 Tim. 2:2,24-25; Titus 2:1,3,7-8,15).
I suspect that the scary prevalence of major heresies among evangelicals, as revealed in the survey, has a lot to do with our widespread abandonment of catechesis. We live in a culture that values both speed and productivity. Therefore, rather than taking the time to slowly but surely teach people the faith, we want to go straight from seeing them get saved and baptised to teaching them ways to serve. Now, service is good. I’ve got nothing against it at all. But service flows from faith. Yes, we can serve from the moment we’re saved – I’m not saying we have to hold people back – but what I am saying is that we’ll see more fruitful and joyful service the more people are well-grounded in the faith. (In fact, I suspect it’s our rush to fit people into service opportunities that’s led to such a high prevalence of semi-pelagianism. When we place so much more importance on what we do than on what we believe, is it any wonder that people end up subtly imbibing the message that first you have to do something for God, ‘and then God responds with grace’?)
Fulgentius eventually returned from exile. The Arian King of Carthage had died and the orthodox bishops were allowed to come back to their churches. But Arianism had taken hold and didn’t disappear with the death of the king. So what did Fulgentius spend his remaining years doing? Preaching and teaching to win back the people of Ruspe to the true faith and firmly ground them in it. Evangelism and catechesis. When Fulgentius discovered that so many of his people were heretics, he didn’t throw up his hands in despair; he taught the true faith. And that’s how Arianism was defeated. Through evangelism and catechesis. And those same tools are at our disposition today.