Surveying Presbyterian Beliefs

"Theological Reflection" and Reformed Theology

Recently the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the results of a Presbyterian Panel survey entitled “Theological Reflection.” It describes the views of members and ministers in three areas: Interreligious issues, understanding and affirmation of the Presbyterian theological tradition, and certain matters related to vocation and worship. In this article we focus on the second set of issues, the theological concepts and themes. For those who care about the tradition of Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity, there is some good news in these data, along with evidence of considerable misinformation and confusion.

Some of the confusion in the responses is grounded in the survey itself. Someone answering the survey might be perplexed how to assess some options alongside others. For example, in a list of spiritual resources Christians might use in decision making, “Jesus Christ’s life, teaching, or example” and “God’s will” are listed as though they were somehow independent of Scripture, prayer, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The report does not clarify how its authors imagine Christians might learn, apart from Scripture, what Jesus did and taught. In fact, we have no information about Jesus’s life, teaching, or example independent of Scripture. To be sure, many books attempting to reconstruct Jesus’s life on the assumption that the biblical narratives are unreliable have appeared since 1836. The weakness of these reconstructions is that they cannot explain why we should care what Jesus did and taught. Why not some other Hellenistic, middle-eastern teacher? For that matter, why not nearly any other person who has ever lived? And even with such limitations, these reconstructions depend on evidence only available in Christian Scripture. But Scripture identifies Jesus as God living a human life, a good reason for thinking his life and teaching can guide us.

Moreover, is not discerning God’s will the entire point of consulting a “spiritual resource” in decision making? What sense does it make, then, to treat God’s will as itself a “spiritual resource”? The survey’s implied reasoning here is circular. To learn God’s will, I consult God’s will? This is like a dog chasing its tail: It may be better than boredom, but it does not lead anywhere.

In reality, we have direct access neither to God’s will nor to the life and teaching of Jesus. Thesecome to us through prayerful reading of Scripture under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, or we know nothing about them at all. It is a category mistake that can only confuse to include “God’s will” and “Jesus Christ’s life, teaching, or example” as options within a list of other spiritual resources a Christian could actually consult.

Turning to what we learn of the theologies of Presbyterians, we find the survey asked about how members and ministers see salvation in Christ. Respondents were asked first whether they agree that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord.” 74% of members and 73% of ministers agreed that this statement is true. They were then asked which of four statements reflected their view: 1. “God chooses who is to be saved through Jesus Christ,” 2. “People choose Jesus Christ as their Savior,” 3. “God saves everyone,” and 4. “Salvation is an outdated concept.”

Not many (6%) said they believe salvation is outdated. Fewer than 30% said they were universalists by agreeing that “God saves everyone.” Nearly half (46%) of members but only 15% of ministers chose the historically Arminian position (most closely associated in America with John Wesley and the Methodist movement) that “People choose…” On the other hand, half of ministers but only 20% of members chose the orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed view that “God chooses…”

(Respondents could select only one option, so the results could be hiding small groups who hold a combination of these views. For example, some may be familiar with the idea of dual causation as that term is used in theology. Such people would realize that an act of God, such as election, does not mean a corresponding human act is not freely chosen. But this is rarified theological air that seems unlikely to be breathed by many respondents in a polling sample.)

It is good news that only 6% reject salvation as an outdated concept. This percentage is but a little higher than the sampling error of the study. That there are some who affirm it should come as no surprise. In the most hopeful cases, the word “salvation” may have associations with a legalistic or revivalist upbringing, and perhaps a few now reject the word for that reason. Possibly some of these would accept a similar (though narrower) concept such as “justification.” As to those few intentionally rejecting salvation itself as meaningless today, we can only remind ourselves that the church on earth is a mixed body. As the Second Helvetic Confession puts it, “not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church.”[1] Jesus asks us not to try to sort this out, but rather to let the wheat grow together with the tares until the time of the harvest (Matt. 13:30).

Second, it is a relief that only 28% of members and 29% of ministers say they are universalists. I, for one, am glad to learn those percentages are no higher than they are. What is more, it is possible for those of us who are not universalists to see it sympathetically as a pious error rather than as a pernicious one. As John H. Leith used to say, every Christian should want to be a universalist; there is something wrong if we want to send people to hell. Furthermore, we must admit that universalism is not devoid of biblical warrant. For example, the Apostle says, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). We who reject universalism must show why the word “all” means one thing in the first half of that sentence and something else in the second half. Such showing has been done, of course, and many of us find it persuasive in the context of the whole biblical witness. But it does seem to me that we can exercise a judgment of charity toward a minority view on this point.

The most interesting insights in these survey results are in the other two categories, and their interaction with theological ideas explored further on in the survey. Again, few ministers, but a large plurality of members, affirm the historically Arminian view that people choose Jesus Christ as savior for themselves. On the other hand, only a fifth of members, but half of ministers, affirm the Presbyterian view that God chooses who is to be saved through Christ.

For the positions “God chooses…” and “People choose…” to be meaningfully different, we must assume the question intends to get at responsibility for our faith in Christ. “God chooses…” must mean God is ultimately responsible for our salvation in Christ, while “People choose…” must mean people are ultimately responsible. This is because even the most committed Arminians believe in the prevenience of grace, a kind of “election-lite” that agrees God is at work in people’s lives preparing them to choose faith in Christ.(To a Presbyterian and Reformed mind, this looks like a concept that has not been thought through to the end.) So for our survey question to be meaningful we must understand it to distinguish those who believe God’s choice causes our salvation by grace through faith from those who believe human choice causes it.

To the degree people who seriously intend to be Christian in the Presbyterian and Reformed way believe they are responsible for their redemption by choosing Christ, the church and its representatives have been ineffective in communicating the gospel to them. This is a position our Lord himself rejects, saying to his first disciples, the seed of the church, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16). And yet these data seem to show that degree is significant.

No doubt some of that plurality of Presbyterians who believe they choose Christ have come by it honestly, in that they have been taught by ministers who believed the same, whether in the PC(USA) or during a formative period in another church and tradition. Even within the PC(USA) at the time of the study, it is likely that many Arminian members have Arminian pastors. Likewise, it is likely that many members who are orthodox Presbyterians on this point would find their pastors among the one-half of ministers who are similarly orthodox.

However, the data do not line up as neatly as that across the board. Nearly half of members accept the Arminian view, according to the study, while only 15% of ministers do. The conclusion seems unavoidable that some ministers have a remedial task before them. It seems that some ministers who understand the gospel in the Presbyterian way have not been communicating it effectively or persuasively. This need not be a condemnation or even a criticism of those ministers. (For anything I know, I may be among them myself.) And we also must acknowledge that few ministers are their congregation’s only source of theological reflection and teaching. However, these study results do give us who preach and teach motivation to assess the quality and persuasiveness of the teaching we offer.

Signs of theological confusion and misinformation appear even more clearly in the data when we see how these affirmations interact with responses to questions about certain “Presbyterian principles.”

Though only half of ministers and a fifth of members affirm the doctrine of election, fully 95% of ministers and 82% of members go on to say the concept of grace is important or very important to them. Just as surprisingly, 85% of ministers and 72% of members say the same of the sovereignty of God. Since grace and divine sovereignty are inextricably bound together with the issues of election and human freedom, one cannot avoid the question whether some within these large majorities understand the meaning of God’s grace and sovereignty. These principles should correspond for Presbyterians to an affirmation of the doctrine of election (“God chooses…”) and a rejection of Arminianism (“People choose…”). Clearly, many Presbyterians do not yet see this connection.

For clarity, we might look to Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who was among the most able theologians in Christian history and an important influence on the Presbyterian tradition. Taking his cue from Paul (Rom. 15:11), Augustine speaks repeatedly of “the election of grace,” by which he means election has its source in God’s sovereign grace. Augustine insisted that election and God’s sovereignty and grace go together. For example, in the “Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints,” Augustine writes, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, predestinating us to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but He chose and predestinated us that we might be so. … Moreover, He did this according to the good pleasure of His will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God’s will towards himself.”[2]

The Presbyterian Book of Confessions makes clear the connection between grace, sovereignty, and election as well. For example, the Scots Confession teaches, “Our faith and its assurance do not proceed from flesh and blood, that is to say, from natural powers within us, but are the inspiration of the Holy Ghost…. As we willingly disclaim any honor and glory for our own creation and redemption, so do we willingly also for our regeneration and sanctification … he who has begun the work in us alone continues us in it, to the praise and glory of his undeserved grace.” Similarly, Question 13 of the Larger Catechism makes the connection, saying, “God, by an eternal and immutable decree, out of his mere love, for the praise of his glorious grace,… hath chosen some men to eternal life, and the means thereof….”[3]

Most religious and spiritual traditions focus on the human spiritual seeker’s quest for a transcendent reality. For example, a new Buddhist takes refuge in the three jewels and begins to follow the eight-fold path. There is no question of a calling from outside time and space. Moreover, enlightenment is an achievement, the fulfillment of an arduous process, not a gift. Karma means everyone receives with exquisite precision the results he or she causes; it offers no grace. In a religious tradition that focuses in this way on the human quest for the transcendent, it only makes sense to speak of human choosing as the point of entry.

The Christian gospel is not such a tradition. The gospel shows us that in truth God is the seeker. God comes looking for us while we are still lost, indeed, when we are “yet unborn” (Ps. 139:16). Jesus’s mission, he says, is “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The gospel means salvation is a gift, not an achievement or even, in the most important sense, our choice.

Those who say they choose Christ for themselves might fairly reply that you cannot begin the life of a Christian without being aware of it. There is always a moment of decision. This is obviously true. On the other hand, when a new Christian makes a profession of faith, God is not surprised. God is not waiting in keen anticipation to discover what this new believer will unexpectedly decide. He or she was one of God’s own before the beginning of the universe. The commitment of faith is an acceptance of the electing God’s choice, not a believer’s independent initiative.

The Theological Reflection survey gave respondents a chance to write in “Presbyterian Principles” important to them that were not included in the survey. Several wrote that one or another wording of the idea that the church is “always being reformed” was important. As I have shown before in this journal and elsewhere, the historical meaning of this principle is not what is so often suggested: an ecclesiastical Trotskyism (“the revolution never ends”) that idealizes change in the church’s theology and practice.[4] Rather, it means the faith and faithfulness of the church of Jesus Christ is always at risk because of our weakness, requiring constant vigilance to maintain. Left to ourselves we will let the gospel and the insights of the Reformation slip away. Idolatry comes naturally to us as human beings, so renewal in the gospel is a constant need. This survey makes it clear that while there are many faithful in the church, the PC(USA) remains an ecclesia reformanda, a church needing to be reformed.


[1] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions, 5.139.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, “Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints,” in P. Schaff, ed. Saint Augustin’s Anti-Pelagian Writings. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 5 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1905).

[3] Book of Confessions, 3.12; 7.123.

[4] Michael D. Bush, “Is the Reformation Ever Finished?” in Theology Matters, v. 22, no. 1, Spring 2016, 11 ff. See also “Calvin and the Reformanda Sayings,” in Calvinus Sacrarum Literarum Interpres: Papers of the International Congress on Calvin Research, Herman J. Selderhuis, ed. Göttingen: Vandehoeck & Ruprecht, 2008, 286 ff.


The Rev. Michael D. Bush, Ph.D. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is currently the interim pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Athens, Alabama, and Vice President of the Board of Theology Matters.

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Michael D. Bush
The Late Rev. Michael D. Bush, Ph.D. (Princeton Theological Seminary), was the previous Vice President of the Board of Theology Matters.

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