Pew Study Says Many Protestants Are Closer to Catholic Beliefs than Martin Luther

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In 1517, Martin Luther staked his soul on two revolutionary ideas: sola fide, that justification is dependent on faith alone; and sola scriptura, that Scripture is the only ultimate authority for Christian belief and practice and does not need oversight from church leaders or tradition to be read and understood.

The 95 theses Luther nailed to the door at Wittenberg served as the catalyst for one of the world’s largest religious splits, as thousands broke off from the Roman Catholic Church. His legacy, 500 years later, is 560 million Protestants across the globe, making up more than a third of the world’s Christians.

But many of them don’t actually agree with him.

Today, half of American Protestants say that both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven (52%); the same number believe that in addition to the Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings and traditions, according to two studies released today by the Pew Research Center.

The numbers don’t change in Western Europe. In Luther’s home country of Germany, 61 percent of Protestants believe good deeds are needed for salvation. In John Calvin’s Switzerland, 57 percent agree, as do 47 percent in Abraham Kuyper’s Holland.

“In fact, in every country [in Western Europe] except Norway (where 51% of Protestants say salvation comes through faith alone), belief in sola fide is a minority view even among Protestants,” Pew reported. (For this study, Pew defined sola fide as “faith in God alone is needed to get into heaven,” and defined sola scriptura as the “Bible provides all religious guidance Christians need.”)

About half of Catholics and Protestants in Europe now say that the two religions are “more similar than they are different,” while only about a quarter say they’re “more different than they are similar.”

In America, where many followers of the Reformation fled to escape Catholic persecution, more than half of Protestants now say that Catholicism is more like Protestantism than the two are different (57%).

However, most Americans know the two aren’t exactly the same. When asked to define Protestantism in their own words, a plurality of adults said “not Catholic” (32%) or generally Christian (12%).

Though American Protestants were largely able to pinpoint Martin Luther as the inspiration (71%) and the movement’s label as the Reformation (70%), just 3 in 10 said they believed in both sola fide and sola scriptura (by Pew’s definitions).

If Luther has an heir, it appears to be the white evangelical.