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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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Cal - #34072

October 9th 2010

I think it’s more important to designate us as Christians, not Evangelicals. Christianity is about the freedom the indwelling of God gives in the rebirth of our spirits. By nature, Christianity is “big tent” as we should discuss all things in love. Let the denominationalists have their titles and grasp the reigns of their movements. Christ came to give us Him, not any blocked, wooden theological blueprint. If they wish to act Pharisaical, gently rebuke them, but if they will not relent,  pray for them.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”- 2 Cor. 3:17

JWF - #34107

October 10th 2010

Dr. Falk, thank you for another fine blog entry.

I continue to find Albert Mohler an intriguing figure, and a man whose words are worth listening to. I took the time to read the Christianity Today

article cited above, which interestingly enough, follows on the heels of his blog entry about divorce, IMO a brilliant and incisive insight on the culture of modern evangelicals. In light of these two dissertations alone Dr. Mohler’s accomplishments and insights are truly admirable.

So why do I disagree with Dr. Mohler when I say believe that biological evolution is acceptable? I’m a Sunday School teacher in an independent Baptist church. My next prescribed lesson, intended for 3rd and 4th graders, covers Noah’s Flood. I’m supposed to be a fundamentalist, and I think i am. Why is it, then, that my conviction is that the earth is very ancient, while my very influential brother Dr. Mohler thinks such a belief borders on heresy? Our positions within the tent may continue to change, but it appears to me that it’s still a pretty big tent.

Chris Massey - #34113

October 10th 2010

Amen and Amen!
I do think fundamentalism’s days are numbered. Truth will eventually seep through the cracks, if not with this generation, with the next.

On the topic of unity within the tent, Steve Matheson posted an interesting take on it yesterday. I’m sure Biologos is aware of it. I love Biologos, but I also appreciate Matheson’s perspective. Subject of a future post, I hope?

Jon Garvey - #34115

October 10th 2010

The real danger, it seems to me, is not disagreement but polarisation.

On the one hand, the young people who, torn between fundamentalism and accepting science reject Christianity altogether. Millstones and necks come to mind: to these fundamentalism is a “skandalon”.

On the other, the elbowing of non YECs from the evangelical mainstream engenders their alliance with more liberal and modernist traditions, with the dilution of sound evangelical theology. That is actively encouraged by some at both extremes.

But we must always remember that fundamentalism itself is a new kid on the block of the evangelical community, barely a century old and very much a reaction to 19th century liberalism.

beaglelady - #34117

October 10th 2010

I believe that fundamentalism will probably always with us, because the human capacity for denial is boundless.

D - #34120

October 10th 2010

We, however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind to the present day.  Athanasius, Orations 11.105

For it cannot be remotely possible that the authority of the Scriptures should be fallacious at any point. FC, Vol. 20, Saint Augustine Letters, 147. Augustine to the noble lady Paulina, greeting, Chapter 14 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953), p. 181.

Augustine believed in a young earth, an historical Adam, that death (including physical death) was the result of the fall.  Even Aquinas believed God was the “author” of scripture.  Even Aquinas believed the literal sense of scripture was primary.  “...nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.”

Dan - #34121

October 10th 2010


Granted, all the main contributors to this site would disagree with those statements.  My question is this:  Given that the “accuracy of the scriptures to the merest stroke and tittle” has a long history in the greatest minds of the church, how is it continually claimed that those who hold to inerrancy and an historical Adam and fall are merely a recent reaction to 19th century liberalism?

Methinks some revisionism is happening in the TE/EC camp.

Darrel Falk - #34122

October 10th 2010


“Methinks some revisionism is happening in the TE/EC camp.”

For a scholarly response to Dan’s comments, please see the BioLogos article by Dr. Mark Noll formerly of Wheaton College, now at Notre Dame:  http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Noll_scholarly_essay.pdf  .

Also see George Marsden’s “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism,” available at Amazon.

Paul D. - #34127

October 10th 2010

I agree with Jon Garvey #34115. One real threat fundamentalism — not the “doctrines”, but its inquisitions with nuts like Albert Mohler at the forefront — poses is its complete lack of respect for broader Christianity. Mainstream Christians are happy to accept the fundamentalists into the fold, yet fundamentalists insist that you can’t even be a Christian unless you believe what they believe and reject what they reject. Their way of thinking *will* signal the end of evangelical Christianity in the United States as it continues to alienate good people and encourage anti-intellectualism.

Paul D. - #34128

October 10th 2010

@ D - #34120

Wasn’t it Augustine who famously admitted that a literal six-day creation made no sense and couldn’t have been true?

Argon - #34132

October 10th 2010

A: Yes, as a political movement disguised as a ‘spiritual’ one. Where have you been for the last few of decades?

Dan - #34148

October 10th 2010

Professor Falk.  #34122 Looks like Dr. Noll’s article does not deal with Augustine, but begins with Aquinas and does not really address the question I raised.  He makes a case for YEC being related to an attempt to empirically prove the truth of scripture, but that would not be the reason Augustine held to a scripture that was true both in the “prophetic” ideas presented and the historicity of the events that conveyed that prophetic meaning.

Paul #34128.  It seems to me that Augustine cautioned in the Literal Meaning of Genesis that the details of Genesis chapter 1are not easy to interpret, so the methods God used to bring about the universe are not easily tied to a particular scientific explanation.  What the author meant by “firmament” or “light” could have been figurative.  Fair enough.

Dan - #34149

October 10th 2010


But in City of God, he strenuously argued for the historicity of the remainder of Genesis from the fall of Adam onward.  Clearly, he felt the best understanding of Adam, the fall, the origin of death and suffering, were the most straightforward.  And he strongly stated that is just as wrong to assert the historicity of the events without seeing the prophetic sense as it is to assert a “spiritual” or prophetic meaning and deny the historicity of the events.

Which gets back to my point.  The accuracy of scripture in its historical details has been held by many great minds in the history of the church long before fundamentalism came to the fore.  Therefore it cannot be said that inerrancy or belief in the historicity of the Genesis account is somehow dependent on a fearful reaction to the modernist controversy.  Those beliefs predate that era by at least 1500 years.

Pete Enns - #34153

October 10th 2010


In another context I would probably address your assertion concerning the “great minds” of the past. Here, however, the more pertinent question that needs to be asked is how Augustine etc. would have handled the scientific data available to humanity for the last several hundred years re: geology, cosmology, and biology that was not available to them. Appealing to past figures in the church, regardless of how truly important they were, to answer questions they were not able to ask is not a convincing line of argument..

Pete Enns - #34155

October 10th 2010

I meant to add, re: Noll’s article, read between the lines. Noll is explaining, quite well I think, why the kinds of argument you offer her is offered in the first place.

Dan - #34164

October 10th 2010

I think it is somewhat presumptuous to make any firm assertion about how Augustine would have handled the scientific data, or the philosophical and theological assumptions used to interpret that data.  We do know how Augustine handled scripture. 

My point remains.  The idea that the scriptures are accurate regarding the stuff of history including the historicity of Adam have been around for many centuries in the understanding of the church and are not new developments.  The suggestion that those who hold those views today are merely reacting against liberalism with an equally modernist response is not at all a clear or necessary conclusion.

TE and EC advocates may disagree with such a view of the Biblical text, but I do not think it fair or accurate to suggest those views are a recent novelty, or to dismiss it as a product of unwitting capitulation to modernist ideas.

Jon Garvey - #34189

October 11th 2010

@Dan - #34164

Let me briefly clarify my own point, since it prompted your. The Fundamentals summarise much of what classic Evangelicalism taught from the Reformation on (and though the Reformers endorsed Augustine and Atahansius it’s hardly fair to call Patristic writers “Evangelicals”).

But (a) in addressing at length, say, evolution they necessarily went beyond what previous Evangelicals had addressed, and it is far from clear that, say, Calvin would have reached the same position. And (b) Fundamentalism as a current entity has taken on a century of other social, political and theological baggage which makes it a somewhat different beast from that set forth in The Fundamentals.

My distinction was between Fundamentalism and the whole of Evangelical Theology, rather than those doctrines encompassed by both.

Ryan G - #34203

October 11th 2010

I think it’s sad that one could hold to all of Calvin’s Five Points rigidly and still be looked at with suspicion by Evangelicals with an alternate interpretation of the first portions of Genesis. And, let’s face it, all interpretations have questions that can be asked of the text with non-straightforward answers.

Martin Rizley - #34256

October 11th 2010

Dr. Falk,  I think what TE’s sometimes fail to realize is that the issue of evolution is important to conservative evangelicals only because of how it impinges on another, more central,  issue, which is the issue of biblical authority.  Is the Bible what Jesus and the apostles believed it to be—the verbally inspired Word of God, inerrant in its teaching, perspicuous in meaning, and wholly sufficient for our faith and practice?  If it could be shown that belief in evolution is really compatible with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, then what people believe about evolution would be a non-issue for conservative evangelicals. Unfortunately, the Biologos Foundation is constantly making Dr. Mohler’s point for him, and that is, that one cannot believe in evolution and believe in an inerrant Bible at the same time.  Dr. Mohler is quite right in saying that the Biologos website is calling for nothing less than a radical revision of evangelical theology.  It is asking evangelicals to deny teachings that are crystal clear in the Bible—such as the historicity of Adam, the special creation of Eve from the substance of Adam (which has implications for the structuring of family and church life)  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #34257

October 11th 2010

the historic fall, the historical accuracy of the genealogies, the world-destroying nature of the flood, etc.—and to abandon such beliefs based on the alleged superior authority of modern historical science.  Moreover, the view of Scripture promoted by Biologos writers like Kenton Sparks—who believes that God never commanded the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites, and that the view of God‘s character promoted in the Old Testament is at times sinister and evil—is completely unacceptable to those who believe that Jesus’ view of Scripture was true.

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