EDITOR’S NOTE: Jesus & Dawkins welcomes guest posts. Today’s entry comes from Aaron Griffith. Aaron is a doctoral student studying American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. He is also a new father and loves sharks.
American evangelical Christians don’t have saints, but if they did, chief among them would be Billy Graham—followed closely by C.S. Lewis and this guy. In fact, historian George Marsden has written that a good definition of an evangelical is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” Graham has all four of the quintessential evangelical credentials, according to David Bebbington‘s classic “evangelical quadrilateral”:
- He was a conversionist, calling for individuals the world over to make decisions for Christ.
- He was crucentrist in these calls for conversion, focusing his message on Christ’s death as atonement for the sin of humanity.
- He was an activist, calling for Christians to live out their faith.
- And he was a Biblicist.
This last point seems the most clear-cut. Evangelicals love their Bibles, believing scripture to be the prime source of authority for their faith. And Billy Graham was no exception, skillfully and frequently using the phrase “The Bible says…” to lend credence to his crusade sermons.
However, what is interesting about Graham are the terms he used to talk about scripture, and how some of his views about scripture changed over time. In a new book about Graham, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, historian Grant Wacker shows that the famed evangelist was careful to avoid the word inerrancy, calling it “too brittle.” Though his early preaching in the 1940s and 50s emphasized a high degree of biblical literalism, he soon moved away from this position.
In 1964, BBC journalist David Frost asked him whether he was a biblical literalist. His answer—“I don’t think anyone is really a literalist”—was telling, but even more so was his later claim in the same interview that the Bible was not a science book, but “a book of redemption”:
Oh, I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things that they weren’t meant to say, and I think we have made a mistake by thinking that the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe He created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or this being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man [emphasis added].
Wacker notes that Graham would carry this perspective throughout the rest of his career. He reiterated this approach in 1999: “We must read the Bible, not primarily as historians seeking information, but as men and women seeking God.” In doing so, he largely settled on words like infallible to describe scripture. He thought Christians should focus on the Good Book’s story of God’s love for humanity, not its scientific accuracy. Or as Wacker puts it, “Graham nowhere claimed that the Bible answered questions of history and science, but it did answer everything that truly counted” (pp. 38-40).
As you might expect, these kinds of statements made many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals hopping mad. But Graham was clearly no liberal—indeed, most of his critics assailed him for not being liberal enough! He simply believed that the Christian faith, mediated through the Bible, was about communicating God’s love to a fallen world filled with broken people. He knew why millions of Americans flocked to his crusades and tuned in to his programs. They weren’t there because they were worried about the real age of the earth, whether the serpent really talked, or whether the sun really stood still for Joshua. They were there because of their broken marriages, Cold War fears, social insecurities, rebellious kids, and financial problems—justified or not, these were the daily struggles of modern middle America.
Though Graham no longer preaches, he still has an instructive message for evangelicals: evangelicalism flourishes when these Christians focus on how their gospel redeems a broken world—and not on how the world threatens to break their gospel. Graham knew that evangelical Christianity suffers when it hides its gospel underneath distracting bushels, like jot-and-tittle fracases about the age of the earth or the size of Noah’s flood. The point from Graham’s perspective was not so much that one side in these debates is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that this is the wrong kind of stuff to worry about in a world desperate for divine solace and support.