In July, the CT editors wrapped up several years of study and reflection on how this magazine could best handle doctrinal issues for our readers' edification. (The project was made possible by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.)

A few weeks later, on August 1, Baker Book House published Evangelicalism: The Next Generation, an important study of the theological beliefs of evangelical college students. The authors of that book, Calvin College professors James Penning and Corwin Smidt, followed up a 1982 study by sociologist James Davison Hunter. Hunter's study, published in 1987 as Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, was pessimistic, suggesting that the theological foundations of evangelicalism's future leaders were eroding.

Fourteen years after Hunter's study, Penning and Smidt followed up with their own. Counterintuitively, they found good news: In the intervening years, the theological beliefs of evangelical college students had not eroded as Hunter predicted they would. Indeed, on some measures (such as the existence of the devil or the origin of human beings) they were marginally more traditional. Penning and Smidt's summary of their research is available on the website of our sister magazine Books & Culture (

The Penning and Smidt study parallels our own research among CT readers. As we surveyed the beliefs and values of readers over 40 with those under 40, we found that in many measures, our younger readers were measurably more traditional.

For example, in the CT study, younger readers were anywhere from three to nine percentage points more traditional than the over-40s on these items:

  • Adam and Eve were actual, historical people.

  • Those who have never heard of Jesus in this life are lost, just as are those who heard the gospel but refused to believe.

  • Those who have not believed on Jesus in this life will be eternally lost, suffering endless punishment for their sins.

  • Homosexual acts are always sinful.

  • Abortion is the taking of a human life and counts as murder.

  • Only men should be ordained as ministers.

Our study also showed that overall our readers are committed to fundamental gospel truths. For example, 100 percent affirmed the bodily resurrection of Jesus and his full human and divine natures. A solid 97 percent affirmed that Jesus is the only way of salvation and that those God saves he "justifies by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone." The same percentage affirmed that God will bodily raise believers at Jesus' second coming.

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On the one hand, it should surprise no one that CT readers believe key gospel truths strongly. On the other, some in our movement have been lamenting for the past two decades that evangelicalism's theological foundations were eroding, and a few have complained that this magazine was evidence of that decline. These few years of editorial research and reflection have convinced us that our readers have not lost their commitment to key biblical truths.

CT's interaction with our readers on doctrinal matters also included two focus groups. All focus group participants were enthusiastic about CT's publishing articles with a strong doctrinal component.

But there were differences between age groups: Younger readers have a higher tolerance for (even have a taste for) doctrinal controversy. They want to know who the players are in the debates, and they want to be told about all sides of a discussion (though they would like us to render a judgment when we are done presenting the options). Older readers prefer to keep the tensions and options in the background and have us simply teach the truth. After conducting survey research, conversing with theological advisers, and experimenting with different forms of doctrinally oriented articles, several points seem important to us:

  1. The narrative nature of doctrine is important—not only for interesting and holding readers, but also because the Christian faith is itself rooted in God's saving activity in human history and therefore narrative in essence. Those important narrative elements include:

    • The historical background of doctrinal discussion, including the alternative history: What would have happened had the church acted differently?

    • The history of any current debate about the doctrine (including insights into the key debaters).

    • The author's personal interaction with a particular doctrine (this is the testimony or witness that is a fundamental evangelical theme).

    • Any current news or trend that makes a classic doctrine of particular interest.

  2. Christianity Today's original mandate required it to be a unitive force for North American evangelical Protestants. This casts us in the role both of forum and arbitrator. Sometimes it is important to be a forum—as in the case of last year's exchanges between Chris Hall and John Sanders on the nature of divine foreknowledge. Sanders's views had so often been misrepresented that it was important that he be able to state his case. On other occasions, however, we feel called to make straightforward doctrinal judgments. Some people at the edges of evangelicalism are asking the movement to be less strict in its commitment to Trinitarianism. I do not see us budging on a core issue like that.

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  1. It is important for Christianity Today to remember all of evangelicalism's theological traditions. We hear often that in the pages of Christianity Today Reformed thinkers have an edge. There are understandable historical reasons for this state of affairs, but this movement would not be what it is without key insights from Wesleyan, Holiness, Pietist, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Restorationist, Anabaptist, and Quaker streams. CT can be a place where scholars from all these streams should exercise solid thought leadership.

  2. Evangelical theology tends to be boundary oriented and polemical. CT's own advisers differ on the wisdom of a boundary-oriented approach, though they usually resist the temptation to be polemical. CT editors believe that we cannot abandon theological themes that help us understand and maintain our evangelical identity.

    However, when boundary maintenance takes a polemical tone, it poses an ethical problem for our reporting. Some evangelical leaders like to frame their debates in terms of "who's in, who's out." For us to simply describe the partisans' claims and counterclaims does not necessarily help readers understand how crucial the debate is to evangelical identity. When we report such exclusionary polemics, we need to take extra care to give readers enough information to decide whether an issue truly rises to such boundary-claim levels.

  3. Our survey research indicates evangelicals tolerate a broad range of theological views within the evangelical movement, even while we remain committed to core biblical truths. Increased tolerance for fellow believers does not inevitably doom a movement to wishy-washy theology. Breadth of acceptance can be actively promoted while undergirding commitments to central doctrines.

  4. While specific doctrinal differences have often divided Protestant from Catholic and evangelical from evangelical, modes of thought and worldviews may be as important for this magazine to highlight as specifically doctrinal issues. For example, conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics enjoy a natural affinity because of their shared supernaturalist worldview and their commitments to extrinsic sources of authority. This is remarkable given their very different conclusions. But we can exploit this and other epistemological commonalities for our readers' benefit and for the health of North American evangelicalism.

In our next issue: "The Battle for the TNIV," the man who transformed Bible translation, and why VeggieTales are good for you.

Related Elsewhere

Evangelism: The Next Generation and Evangelism: The Coming Generation are available at

Penning and Smidt's summary of their research is available on the website of our sister magazine Books and Culture.

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