Ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a majority of U.S. Protestants, 52 percent, believe that both good deeds and faith are necessary for salvation, a new Pew Research Center poll reports. Meanwhile, 52 percent of the U.S. Protestants polled hold that Christians need the guidance of church teaching and tradition in conjunction with the Bible.
The new data is surprising because these positions are traditionally associated with the Catholic faith. Protestant reformers taught that salvation was attained through faith alone (sola fide) and that Scripture alone has the authority to govern Christian faith and practice (sola scriptura).
Today, according to the Pew poll, only 30 percent of U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. Another 35 percent believe in either “faith alone” or “scripture alone” but not the other. The remaining 36 percent believe in neither. By comparison, of the U.S. Catholics surveyed, 81 percent believe that both good deeds and faith are necessary for salvation, while 75 percent believe Christians need the Bible and tradition.
What were once church-dividing teachings no longer define the majority of American Protestant belief.
The new findings stress that what were once church-dividing teachings no longer define the majority of American Protestant belief. White evangelicals are more likely to hold fast to both sola scriptura and sola fide (44 percent) compared to their white mainline Protestant (20 percent) and black Protestant counterparts (19 percent). Yet the data show that American Christians, in general, are more likely to agree than disagree on these basic Christian beliefs.
The Pew Research Center also released a similar survey of European Christians. Among its primary findings is that Catholics and Protestants see each other as more similar than different today. Though the research affirms the often-discussed low levels of religious observance common to both Catholic and Protestant Europeans, it also outlines the overwhelming willingness to accept the Christians of different denominations into their families. In Germany, where Luther lived and worked, 98 percent of Protestants and 97 percent of Catholics expressed that they were willing to accept members of the other denomination into their families.
Catholics and Protestants see each other as more similar than different today.
The American poll was conducted between May 30–Aug 9, 2017, with 2,623 participants. The European poll was conducted between April and August of 2017 with 24,599 participants across 15 Western European countries.
The history of this debate stretches back to Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses—grievances against the Catholic Church—to the doors of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, marking the traditional beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Chief among his complaints was an opposition to the Catholic practice of selling indulgences to guarantee the salvation of souls in Purgatory. Luther, and other Protestant thinkers after him, stressed that works (like almsgiving or penance) do not guarantee salvation but only faith in Christ’s sacrifice. Similarly, they taught that the Bible, not traditions handed on over time, is the only source of religious guidance for Christians. In response, the Catholic Church affirmed that faith without good works cannot guarantee salvation and that both Scripture and tradition are authoritative for Christians.
In 1999, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation released the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In the document, both communities outline the contemporary understandings of salvation through grace. In the declaration, Lutheran churches and the Catholic Church jointly state, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” In 2006, the World Methodist Council unanimously voted to adopt the declaration. More recently, the World Council of Reformed Churches (representing Presbyterian, Congregational, Reformed, United, Uniting and Waldensian communities) officially endorsed the declaration; the Anglican Communion is expected to follow suit later this year.
The Pew report comes as both Lutherans and Catholics are marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this fall. Last year Pope Francis visited Sweden to help open the year commemorating the anniversary.
Those committed to achieving Christian unity often worry that high-level gestures and declarations may not be reflected in the lives of ordinary churchgoers. The new research suggests that unity of belief exists at the ground level, too.