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Are We Facing the Demise of Big Tent Evangelicalism?

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October 9, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity
Are We Facing the Demise of Big Tent Evangelicalism?

Today's entry was written by Darrel Falk. You can read more about what we believe here.

The most recent issue of Christianity Today contains a well-written cover story on Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler is sometimes touted as the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement." One good thing about Mohler is that he writes and speaks in a fashion that is crystal clear. In replying to Rachel Held Evans’s “When Atheists and Baptists Agree” article in the Washington Post, Mohler states:

[Held Evans] is frustrated that atheists and Baptists (to use her terminology) agree that evolution and Christianity are incompatible. She may be frustrated, but on this score the atheists and the biblical Christians are both correct, and both understand what is at stake.

Even more explicitly Mohler has written “The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures.” So at least we know where Mohler stands—to be an evangelical Christian—to be a biblical Christian— one must reject evolution.

As Scott McKnight writes in a Jesus Creed blog entitled "Shifting Evangelicalism" there was a day when Mohler’s views would have been considered on the fundamentalistic fringes of evangelicalism. No longer. Fundamentalism, as McKnight sees it, is being thrust into the limelight as mainstream evangelicalism, and those who used to be included under the Big Tent are being pushed to the periphery:

But fundamentalism isn’t the whole of evangelicalism nor is it the heart of evangelicalism. But it is the desire of folks like Mohler to bend evangelicalism toward its fundamentalist history…. What we also are witnessing is the end of generous evangelicalism, what I often call Big Tent Evangelicalism that has been noted by a coalition of gospel-oriented people.

Responding to the Christianity Today article, Daniel Kirk summarizes why we non-fundamentalists must not allow ourselves to be excluded from the Big Tent by Mohler et al:

To be an evangelical is to be committed to the notion that the message of Jesus is good news about a God who desires all of humanity, each group within humanity, and every individual to be in relationship with God as the God of all


To be an evangelical is to be committed to scripture as the word of God, a word that always has the power to prophetically confront and challenge what we take for granted–both within the church and as people in diverse cultures.

To be an evangelical is to be committed to telling the gospel story such that it will sound as good news in the ears of those who hear it, even as it summons us to repentance and faith.

McKnight speaks for all of us, I think, when he concludes his outstanding blog with these words:

Today’s scene is not what it was. It’s a new era. When Al Mohler is on the cover of CT, when he represents the shrewd and powerful takeover of a former liberal-to-moderate seminary, when he has publicly claimed any form of evolution is inconsistent with the gospel, and when he is seen as the voice of American evangelicalism, a new world stands before the American evangelical. It’s actually an old world.

The question is who will speak for the Big Tent coalition? Count me in.

We in the BioLogos community urge the Church not to surrender the evangelicalism tent to American fundamentalism. There is far too much at stake.

Dr. Mohler, we are told, has a massive library with over 40,000 catalogued volumes in the basement of his presidential residence. He has whole rooms designated to particular topics: "Church History"; "Biblical Studies"; "Worldview and Culture," for example. I wonder though if he has a biology room. Does he have a room for geological studies? What about nuclear physics and astronomy? Perhaps fundamentalism can live in a world where these rooms are either empty or filled with books grounded in the science of the 18th century. Thankfully, however, evangelicalism also includes a non-fundamentalist contingent. It also is deeply embedded in the view that the Bible is the Word of God. For this contingent, the science rooms are not empty. Science is the investigation of God’s creation and with this contingent the biology, physics, geology,and astronomy rooms are filled with books that enrich our understanding of God and draw us into deep and awe-inspired worship.

An evangelicalism based exclusively in fundamentalist views may exist in some people’s minds, but not God’s. Thankfully, as Christian young people sit through their astronomy and geology courses many will pay little attention to a voice telling them things like “an old age theory of the earth comes with theological and exegetical complications that I believe are in the end insurmountable.” Many will view this as ivory tower. They will think that this is going off to a corner of the universe and closing your eyes, your ears, and even your mind. And when that same voice calls out from a different room in the ivory tower—“the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” –they will know there are other voices within the same tent, and hearing those words, instead of Mohler’s, they will come to realize that they need not set aside the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mohler’s call for exclusivity will not be heard much longer. Those of us who think so differently are alongside of him within the tent and we don’t think God will allow us to be pushed aside. We are followers of Jesus too. We, like him, love Scripture and believe it to be the Word of God. We also love theology, and be assured, our theology is not bankrupt.

We’ll exist within the tent together for awhile. Eventually, I think even the fundamentalists will come to see that they need to allow science books in their library and fundamentalism will undergo its own evolution. Until then we can all be patient with one another. Personally, I have much to learn from my fundamentalist sojourners—they know many things about serving Christ that I have yet to learn. Let’s gather in close within the tent. Isaiah, after all, put it this way: “…over all the glory will be a canopy. It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.” (Isaiah 4:5,6). I want to experience that, and I want to experience it together.

The Psalmist (85:6-11) puts it into a beautiful poem. Crowd in even tighter and listen to these words; they speak to us all:

Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.

Darrel Falk is former president of BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialog. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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Martin Rizley - #35436

October 20th 2010

According to Al Mohler, “The Roman Catholic Church still affirms that Adam was an historical figure who is indeed the genetic and physical father of all humanity. . .[that] stands as the official teaching of the Catholic Church.”  Can you deny what Mohler is saying to be true? Clearly, Pope Pius XII did not believe that Roman Catholics are free to believe anything scientifically about the origin of the human race.  He wrote concerning polygenism, “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35438

October 20th 2010

From the perpective of many scientists today, those opinions are completely unscientific and show ‘that Pope Pius XII was as “intellectually shackled” by his religious beliefs as any fundamentalist.  The basic question I have for you is this—are you willing to give to historical science absolute authority to revise any doctrines of the faith that may appear to conflict with what ‘science seems to be saying’ at any one moment in history?  Should the church take the position—whatever scientists say now or in the future about what took place in the past obviously ‘trumps’ the teachings of the church?  So if science says there could not have been a first man, well, then that obviously means we can no longer believe in a first man?  Is that really your position, Gregory?

Gregory - #35444

October 20th 2010

Martin, Flooding the screen with words doesn’t win arguments. I’m tiring of your lengthy sermons too.

“Scripture interprets Scripture” makes as much sense as “One Hand Clapping”.

Did you at least look up what ‘epistemic fallacy’ meant?

Wrt ‘polygenetic origin,’ I’m not so sure how many at BioLogos accept this. I asked Dennis Venema this & even he wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘Yes’ to this label. So, I’m not sure what you’re basing your assertions on.

From my reading on this topic (yes, Martin, even though I’m not a natural-physical scientist, I *do* pick up science texts & read science journals from time to time; science isn’t ‘from the devil’ in my view, as it appears to be in yours), more natural scientists accept a monogenism right now than polygenism. But I haven’t seen survey numbers, have you?

Mohler is wrong; he misinterprets too. But you seem to prefer his side of the ‘tent,’ don’t you?

No, I don’t think natural science is *absolute.* This b&w word is unnecessary.

To deny descent from one biological ‘first couple’ is *not* to deny a spiritual ‘first couple’ or a ‘real, historical A&E.’


Rich - #35456

October 20th 2010

Martin, you wrote:

“You seem to be ignoring the fact that many conservative evangelical churches have confessional standards, subordinate to Scripture, that they expect their leaders to abide by, so it’s not as if people can teach anything they please in evangelical churches, with no accountability to anyone.”

No, I’m not ignoring that fact; it’s at the very heart of the point I’m trying to make.  Why do you think that so many churches put so much emphasis on The Westminster Confession or The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, etc.?  Why go to all the trouble of drawing up these lists of doctrines?  Is it necessary to believe every word in such documents in order to be saved?  If not, then why are Christians denied various privileges (e.g., teaching jobs in a seminary or college; in other cases, perhaps positions teaching Sunday School or in Youth Ministry) for not subscribing to them?  Why “bind the conscience” of believers beyond the acceptance of some very simple formulation such as the Apostle’s Creed?  The answer:  Because churches think correct doctrine is important.  So they *enforce* it.  Yet you’re saying they *shouldn’t* enforce, while in the same breath pointing me to evidence that they *do*.

Martin Rizley - #35483

October 20th 2010

Gregory,  You write, “Scripture interprets Scripture” makes as much sense as “One Hand Clapping.”  Not when the doctrine is properly understood, for this principle does not leave out the role of the Holy Spirit in giving understanding.  It simply says that the Spirit gives understanding to the church regarding the meaning of the Scriptures as the church carefully studies the Scriptures by comparing one text with another.  This was the approach to biblical interpretation that Paul encouraged in Berea:  “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).  They allowed a careful examination of the Scriptures, not blind prejudice, to determine whether or not the doctrine that Paul brought to them was true. 
You also write regarding Mohler’s assessment of the official teaching of the Catholic church, “Mohler is wrong; he misinterprets too.”  That is far too simplistic a dismissal of Mohler’s claim.  Do you regard Mohler completely wrong in what he says, or partly wrong? (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35484

October 20th 2010

Is he wrong in saying that the RCC officially affirms that Adam was an historical figure?  Is he wrong in saying the RCC officially affirms tha Adam was the genetic and physical father of all humanity?  Well, that was certainly Pope Pius XII position in ‘Human Generis;’ and the Church officially has officially taught since the Council of Trent that original sin is transmitted from Adam to all mankind “by propagation, not by imitation.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind.”  That certainly seems to imply monogenism, so how is Mohler wrong?  The point is that Rome requires the faithful to believe certain things about the historical past and does not give to science unlimited authority to ‘re-write’ the doctrines of the faith.  With that, I agree!  Does that mean I believe science is of the devil, as you allege?  No; but I do believe that in our modern world, which tends to credit science with infallible authority, (cont.)

Martin Rizley - #35486

October 20th 2010

the devil has indeed dressed up certain lies in ‘scientific garb’ to make them appear more believable.  For example, some years ago when I was living in Spain, I saw a poster for a public lecture on evolution with this title—“Man—The King of the Apes.”  Now, that is a patent lie, no matter what your view on evolution.  Man is not the most highly evolved of the apes (which is what that poster implied).  There is an absolute ontological distinction separating man from the apes and from all other animals, since he alone is made in God’s image.  That is why human origins can never be properly taught from a purely secular, scientific viewpoint without reference to God, any more than sex education can be properly taught to young people in the public schools without reference to God and morality. To think that either sex or human origins can be rightly understood through secular science while ignoring God’s special revelation in Scripture is a triumph of demonic delusion in modern society.  I’m sorry you dislike the length of my responses.  The issues you raise are varied and can hardly been answered through tiny ’sound bites.’  So if my responses frustrate, perhaps it is best to suspend the discussion.

Martin Rizley - #35487

October 20th 2010

Rich, You write, “Your idea of present-day Catholicism, by the way, is filled with stereotypes, etc.” Can you back up your charge with specifics?  I have not at all mis-represented the official teaching of the Catholic Church on justification.  That has not changed officially since the Council of Trent.  Catholicism officially denies the teaching that Christians are definitively and irreversibly justified by faith alone in Christ the moment they trust in Him for salvation.  They deny that justification is a purely forensic act by which the personal righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers, through faith in Christ alone,as the sole ground of their “right standing” with God.  I have not misrepresented the Catholic teaching. Incidentally, my knowledge of Catholic beliefs is not based simply on books, but through much personal interaction and countless hours of dialogue with Roman Catholics during eight years that I lived in Spain.  I know quite a lot about present-day Catholicism, and the diversities that exist within the church; but if Rome’s official teaching on justification has changed from Trent, I would love to know about it!

Rich - #35497

October 20th 2010


You attitude toward, and knowledge of, Catholicism, was a parenthetical point.  I would rather focus on the main points of our previous discussion.  That said, I grant you that Catholics and Protestants still disagree on many things, including aspects of justification.  But the fundamental skeleton of Christian teaching—as given in the Apostles’ Creed—is held by Catholics and the vast majority of Protestants.  But re justification, see the joint declaration of Catholics and Lutherans on justification at:


The whole section is worth reading, but note in particular paragraph 25, which starts and ends with:

“We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ…. whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.”

If you read the whole document carefully, I think you will find that both in contents and spirit there are important differences from the statements of Trent, and, while there is not identity, there is significant convergence.

Rich - #35500

October 20th 2010


In the last sentence, I meant “identity” and “significant convergence” to refer to the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics, not to Trent.

Gregory - #35511

October 20th 2010


Thanks for continuing your patient approach. You do not sling words & I sense more calm in your voice than with some of the so-called ‘new atheists’ who have recently come to BioLogos for arguments’ sake.

Can I confirm, did you read the link I posted in #35444 on why Scripture doesn’t interpret Scripture or not? Some pretty good points made by the missionary there, imo. What about yours?

You write: “the church carefully studies the Scriptures by comparing one text with another.”

Yes, we are then agreed. This *not* what that so-called ‘doctrine’ of agentless interpretation means. Sometimes I think you try to play the fool on purpose (and Martin, please look up ‘Ivan the Fool’ in the Russian Orthodox tradition; a ‘fool’ is not always derogative).

“human origins can never be properly taught from a purely secular, scientific viewpoint without reference to God, any more than sex education can be properly taught to young people in the public schools without reference to God and morality.” - M.R.

‘Secular’ & ‘scientific’ are not synonyms. Otherwise, if you said *shouldn’t* instead of *can never* we’d agree.

I’ll rest on A&E for now. Other threads have addressed it & you don’t quit.

Martin Rizley - #35514

October 20th 2010

Gregory and Rich,
I will read the links you both have posted; but we’ll have to continue our dialogue at another time or on another thread, for pressing business is calling me today and through the end of the week that prevents me from continuing the discussion for now.  It has been a very thought-provoking dialogue.  “Ciao” for now!

Rich - #35525

October 20th 2010


Don’t spend time on the Catholic justification doctrine on my account.  It was a side-remark.  I’m more interested in knowing how on earth you can justify, say, not hiring a professor who won’t subscribe to the Westminster Confession, or a pastor who won’t subscribe to the Chicago statement on inerrancy, if that professor or pastor gives Scriptural arguments for his or her dissent, but you don’t happen to agree with the arguments.  Who decides whose arguments are right?  At some point, you can’t make a practical decision without *some* doctrine of Church authority.  Wiggle as you will, say all you want (and I agree) that the main teachings of Chrsitianity aren’t that tricky, nonetheless, some aspects of Christian theology *are* tricky, and some passages of the Bible *are* hard, and some Churches *do* have a party line about some aspects of theology and some verses in the Bible.  That “party line” is upheld by what I’m calling “Church authority.”  The Catholics are up front in saying that such authority is required.  The Protestants insist on paper that only the Bible, not the Church, has any theological authority; but deny that in practice.  I’d like a *theoretical* (not an apologetic) reply to this argument.

Martin Rizley - #35540

October 20th 2010

Rich,  One quick response to what you are saying, and then I must go!  I never denied there was such a thing as “church authority.”  The doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” answers the question, “Who has authority to oblige obedience or compel belief as a direct command or revelation of God?  The Protestant Reformers said, “God alone has that authority through the Scriptures, which every Christian has the right to examine for himself.”  Luther refused to recant his teachings, he said, because those teachings were based on the Scriptures, which alone have authority to bind the human conscience.  ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he said; that is, it is NOT captive to decrees of church councils or popes, which in and of themselves possess no authority to bind the conscience of anyone.  Legitimate church authority operates under, that is, in subjection, to the supreme authority of Scripture and seeks to implement and enforce the teachings of Scripture.  Thus, when denominations of Christians who are agreed on the basic teachings of Scripture establish seminaries and Bible colleges (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35541

October 20th 2010

they have a right to require that all who teach in those institutions uphold certain doctrinal standards.  There is no compulsion in this, for those who teach at those institutions sign a statement freely without coercion, confessing their sincere agreement with the doctrinal standards of the institution.  If, later, they have a change of conviction, and no longer believe the standards they formerly agreed with reflect the Bible’s teaching with accuracy,  they are just as free to step down from their teaching post as they were to assume it in the first place.  That is not compelling the conscience of anyone; it only requiring them to fulfill the promise they made when they joined the faculty of the institution.  The difference is that Catholics accord sacred tradition (such things as papal authority, auricular confession, prayer to Mary etc.), an authority alongside of and equal to Scripture, so that Scripture and tradition are two equally authoritative fountains of divine revelation which come together to form one stream—a unified ‘body’ of revealed truths that are to be definitively interpreted by the magisteria of the Church.  That is a very different view of church authority and tradition than Protestants have.

Martin Rizley - #35560

October 20th 2010

Rich, One further thought relating to your statement earlier, “If you justify Luther’s breakaways, you justify all subsequent breakaways.”  That does not follow at all.  I would rather put it this way, “If Luther’s breakaway was justified, then there might be other breakaways that are justified.”  I agree with that statement.  In other words, in my opinion, not all organizational divisions that occur in the visible church are necessarily a bad thing.  When someone initiates a breakaway, the question is, what is the spirit, motive, and reason for this being done.  In Luther’s case, he was actually excommunicated by the Pope for refusing to recant his writings and submit to the papal authority.  Luther could not do that, because he believed that authority was illegitimate, insofar as it was calling for him to deny the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ.  He could not do that in good conscience, nor could he peacefully leave that body to go on preaching the gospel in a different organization.  In that day, the only way ‘out’ of the Roman church was by excommunication and possible execution by the state for heresy, since the pope claimed absolute authority over the whole church.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35562

October 20th 2010

In our own day, churches might split for various reasons, not all of them bad.  For one thing, a group within an existing church may come to feel that it cannot in good conscience continue to support the doctrine and practice of that church in secondary matters not essential to salvation; they feel that for the work of the kingdom, they need to leave amicably and start another church, without in any way implying that the church they are leaving is a ‘false church.’  For example, a group of people in a Baptist church who become Presbyterian may feel they must separate in order to practice infant baptism and to support missionary work along Presbyterian lines.  They do not deny that the Baptist church is preaching the true gospel of salvation; they simply separate for practical reasons.  We see separation for practical reasons in the New Testament, when Paul split from Barnabus over the issue of Mark, without either calling the other a ‘heretic.’  Other splits occur over the issue of the gospel itself—how people are saved.  In that case, it may be necessary for a group who believes the biblical gospel to reproach apostasy in the group they are leaving.  Not all church splits are alike.

Rich - #35606

October 21st 2010


I agree with most of what you say.

Yet the fact remains that, in those denominations or institutions that insist on certain doctrines which *they* believe come from Scripture alone, the final *practical* authority on doctrine (not the theoretical authority, which of course remains Scripture, but the practical authority) is “the way we read Scripture *here*”.  That is, “If you want to teach *here*, you will accept the interpretation of Scripture insisted upon by the fallible human beings who are in charge *here*.”  That is the practical equivalent of the “teaching magisterium” the Roman Church talks about.  All Churches known to me have something equivalent (even if in some small Baptist-like denominations the compulsory interpretations are few).  If they did not, they could not maintain their doctrine or style of worship or discipline.

I’m non knocking Protestant churches for having doctrinal bottom lines.  But that means that on certain points of Scriptural interpretation, they are not open to negotiation.  *In that respect*, they are not different from Rome.  In contents, often yes; but not in their insistence that certain readings of Scripture are mandatory, and certain others ruled out of court.

Gregory - #35615

October 21st 2010

I just now learned that one of the most beautiful and provocative Russian Orthodox Priests that I met died. Such a sadness! A beautiful man, so amazingly humble and thoughtful and delicate and pure and troubled by the state of our world. And so young! So many ideas and so much hope for humankind! A great loss…

This is the second tragic loss for Russian religious philosophy and humanism in the past two months.

I was honoured to be invited, with him, for (western) Christmas to the home of a dear friend, aged 90, who also recently died, and his family, a couple of years ago.

Can a comfortable western ‘cleric’ begin to understand the hardship of ‘oppression’ from the ranks of a politically dominated church that thrives in Spirit with the revitalization of its people?

He wore such tenderness and compassion on his lips and face. We walked and talked together along the Fontanka and his words were like daggers from heaven. This cannot be described in words and the loss will be felt around the whole country of believers.

A story for BioLogos because…

John Nielsen - #36597

October 26th 2010

Back to the original article and it’s focus.  Al Mohler and others are speaking for evangelical or fundamentalist orthodoxy and assoicating that with young earth creationism (per article in Christianity Today).  I find it interesting that the CT article emphasizes Mohler is highly influenced by Calvinistic theology.  Historically Princeton Seminary the citadel of this theology during the period of Warfield and Hodges, was at the least very open to an old earth view if not pushing this as the correct Biblical view.  They also laid the foundation for the fundamentalist movement.  Those who coined the phrase fundamentalist and claimed this ground as their own were not necessarily allied with proponents of young earth science .  Modern foundamentalism is a different cat.  What it is and who speaks for it is an open question.  We do need to know the history however.

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