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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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Rich - #34999

October 16th 2010


It’s exegetically illegitimate to bring in material from books written centuries earlier or later, by authors with completely different intentions, to supplement the creation account of Genesis 1.

You essentially treat the whole Bible as a single book, and therefore have no compunction about quarrying anything from anywhere, whereas I treat the Bible as a library of ancient Israelite/Jewish religious literature, and would no more think of trying to patch up a flaw in my understanding of Genesis 1 by a Psalm than I would think of explaining a difficult passage in Shakespeare by attaching some ideas from an essay by Bertrand Russell. 

Genesis 1 is very carefully written.  If the author of Genesis 1 had wanted us to think of the earth as bringing forth the animals, he would have used the same Hebrew verb again.  I respect his choice of words.

By the way, I don’t rule out the possibility that the Psalmist meant the sun and moon’s praise *literally*.  I don’t assume that the Psalmist had a modern view of nature, and therefore I don’t assume (as you do) that the Psalmist regarded natural objects as inanimate.

Martin Rizley - #35019

October 17th 2010

God issued a divine fiat that effected something—“Let the earth bring forth. . .”  Are you suggesting that the earth did not bring forth anything?  True, the text goes on to say, “God made. . .”  but that creative act is preceded by a divine fiat concerning the earth, not God Himself.  By contrast, when Gdo prepares to make man, He does not say, “Let the earth. . .” but rather,  “Let Us. . .”    I see significance in this difference of wording; you, apparently, see no significant difference.  Am I right?

Gregory - #35020

October 17th 2010

Rich wrote: “if you are going to keep saying “*exclusively* through His inspired, infallible Word,” will you please stop using the word “Christian” & substitute “Protestant”?”

Request seconded.

An interesting view is put forth by S. Fuller in his 2010 book “Science”, where he discusses what he calls Protscience.

“We are all scientists now” similar with Protestants, “We are all priests* now”.

In short, Fuller suggests the Internet is ‘secularizing’ science, just as the printing press secularized religion. It allows people to ‘interpret’ science as they wish, resulting in ‘cults’ or ‘sects,’ e.g. YECs.

I’m not sure yet what I think @ Fuller’s argument, in part because, well, we’re having this conversation on a ‘Blog’, a word that didn’t exist until recently. & I haven’t yet finished his book.

But the request that Protestants stop speaking for all Christians is valid. Giving up scientific/religious authority for the individualistic merits of sola Scriptura/Internet is dangerous.

Thus, I wonder why BioLogos doesn’t speak more firmly contra sola scriptura to help educate YEC-Evangelists of ‘real’ science’s value in cooperation with Scripture, Tradition & Ecclesia?

*1 Peter 2:9

Rich - #35021

October 17th 2010

Martin (35019):

I’m not contesting the difference between the two commands (Let the earth bring forth ... Let us make man ...).  I’m pointing out the difference between command and fulfillment, in particular in the case of the earth. 

The text does not say that the earth brought forth anything.  The fulfillment does not correspond exactly to the command.  I am saying that one should contemplate various possible reasons for that before drawing any major conclusions about what that passage means.  You treat the meaning as obvious, but it isn’t.  Indeed, there is much else in Genesis that is not obvious, but is treated as obvious by Protestant interpreters.  That is why I chose to become a religion scholar rather than a theologian, so that I could deal with the complexity of the text as intended by its original writers, not as it has been understood by theologians, who quite often have read it carelessly because they have read it programmatically.  But it is hard to discuss such details in a forum like this.  They are more suited to lengthy commentaries.  I recommend that you have a look at some medieval Jewish ones.

Jon Garvey - #35040

October 17th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #34968

” Woudn’t you agree?”

Frankly, no. In ch 1, the general creation account, man’s unique function is represented by the “Let us make man in our own image” formula.

In ch2 the focus is entirely anthropocentric, and so only man’s creation is described in detail, the combination of clay and breath probably representing his earthly and divine origin (and paralleled, by the way, in ANE creation stories by “clay and god’s blood”).
That point being accepted by both interpretations, they are both in line with orthodox doctrine: to insist that “unique” and “more unique” are serious matter for disagreement, still less the eviction of one understanding from the “big tent” of evangelicalism, is rather rabbinic.

Interestingly, it is a very US issue. My Baptist pastor, happening to do an overview on Genesis today, did a straw poll on views on the creation account. Being a newcomer I was interested to hear whether I was a heretic or not. No more than 1 or 2 YEC literalists, 10% maybe of “day age” creationist, nearly all the rest non-literalists. 2 don’t knows. Laughingly, he then asked for all those who were afraid to show their hands! All living, learning together in good harmony. It’s not hard.

Martin Rizley - #35086

October 17th 2010

Gregory, Let me ask you, do you believe there is such a thing as ‘pure’ and ‘aberrant’ forms of Christianity?  In my opinion, the principle of ‘sola Scriptura’ is essential to pure Christianity, that is why I refer to it simply as a “Christian“ principle.  When it is denied that the true apostolic teaching has been passed on to the church with infallible and binding authority SOLELY through the Scriptures, aberrant doctrines inevitably arise in the Church—that’s why I regard this principle as foundational to the preservation of the true, apostolic faith.  I am not that saying all who are sincerely trusting in Christ alone for salvation recognize this principle, necessarily; believers can embrace serious error due to the influence of false teaching, uprbringing, etc.  But departure from foundational principles always leads to the adoption of an aberrant form of Christianity.  That’s why, when it comes to the principle of “Sola Scriptura,” I do not distinguish AT THAT POINT between Protestantism and Christianity; for foundational principles are never ’secondary’ issues; they are essential in defining the character of the true, apostolic Christianity.

Rich - #35091

October 17th 2010


You can’t be serious in your reply to Gregory.

Sola Scriptura was never a foundational doctrine of Christianity as such.  It is taught neither in the Creeds nor in any of the declarations of the early Church councils. 

Check out the “I believes” in the Creeds.  You won’t find “I believe in the Bible” among them.  Did the early Church not understand what was essential to “pure Christianity” as well as you do?

The early church functioned just fine for several generations without a “New Testament”, for at least two generations without any Gospels, and without even a fully canonized set of Jewish Scriptures until after the Council of Jamnia.  Also, for at least the first century of Christianity, some books (Didache, Hermas, etc.) had de facto revealed status among many Christians, but were later rejected from the canon, while others that made it into the canon were contested (e.g., Revelation).  Even today non-Protestant denominations have larger canons.  The idea that “pure Christianity” is built exclusively on the Protestant canon of the Bible cannot withstand historical examination, and is pure apologetics.

Martin Rizley - #35112

October 17th 2010

Rich,  The arguments you present are really not valid arguments against the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura,” for the following reason:  when the Reformers said that the Scripture alone should be the standard of Christian belief and practice, what they meant was that “apostolic teaching” should be the standard of Christian belief and practice, and in the post-apostolic era, the only reliable source for determining the content of apostolic teaching consists of those documents which come to us from apostolic era, written by the apostles themselves, or by their close associates.  As long as the apostles were alive, the New Testament writings were still being written, and carefully preserved, so the church did not have a completed New Testament canon, nor was their an urgent need for such a written canon as long as the apostles were alive.  But once the apostles died, and corrupt teachings threatened the church’s purity, without living apostles, it became apparent that an authoritative rule or standard was needed to guard the church against heretical aberrations and/or accretions to their doctrine—(continued)

Martin Rizley - #35114

October 17th 2010

hence, the need for a New Testament canon became painfully clear (the word canon means rule or standard).  The early church fathers may not have spoken of the doctrine of “sola sciptura” per se, but they did insist that the true church was apostolic in its foundation, meaning that it was built on the apostles’ teaching.  They also recognized that the apostles’ teaching was faithfully and infallbily contained in the inspired writings of the apostles and their associates; these writings represented the ’gold standard’ of what the church should believe and practice.  By the time of the Reformation, the ugly fruits of not sticking to that ‘gold standard’ became apparent, as the Reformer labored to divest the church of more than a millenium of unbibilical accretions to the Christian faith.  So I believe that to say “Scripture alone” is the church’s authority is really to affirm that “apostolic teaching alone” is the church’s authority.  What source other than the Scriptures give us a pure, untainted stream of apostolic teaching from which we may drink?

Rich - #35159

October 18th 2010


If the early Fathers had meant “Scripture alone” they would have said so.

They did speak of apostolic teaching, but they did not simply equate apostolic teaching with the written scripture.  Yes, all written scripture reflected apostolic teaching, but it does not logically follow that the converse is true—that all apostolic teaching is recorded in scripture.  There is no reason that apostolic teaching cannot be passed down orally and in the traditions of the church.

Your stance shows a surprising lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to directly animate the Church, without going through the intermediary of the Bible.  As if Jesus, when alive, restricted his teaching *only* to what could be found in the Law and Prophets!  And if Jesus felt empowered to teach more than what the Scriptures of his day taught, why couldn’t the Holy Spirit (which last I checked was also God) be empowered to teach more than what the New Testament teaches?  Not *against* what it teaches, but more than?  Your continual attempt to “freeze” the activity of the Holy Spirit, to deny it the capacity to teach anything new after the New Testament canon is fixed, produces bookish religion rather than living religion.

Martin Rizley - #35171

October 18th 2010

Rich,  Let me ask you, since the earliest Christians did not speak of the Trinity, does that mean they did not hold to a Trinitarian view of God, as the Jehovah‘s Witnesses allege?  Such a conclusion would ignore the fact that theological terminology has come into existence through an historical process in which the church, reflecting on the content of apostolic teaching, has gradually formulated language to express that teaching in theological terms.  The fact that the New Testament never mentions the Trinity nor speaks of God as “one God in three Persons’ does not mean that the faith of the early Christians was not, in substance, Trinitarian.  The elements of the Trinitarian belief are found in the New Testament, even if the theological terminology to express that truth was developed later.  The question that must always be asked about theological terminology is whether it expresses what the apostles taught in substance, not whether the apostles themselves used that terminology.  So the fact that the church fathers never spoke of the doctrine of “sola Scriptura” proves nothing.  The pertinent questions are these:  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35172

October 18th 2010

1)  Did the fathers teach that the church of Christ is apostolic in the sense of being built on the teaching of the apostles?
2)  Did they recognize the danger of heresies entering the church, and was concern over that danger one reason for drawing up a list of authorized books believed to be of apostolic origin—the New Testament canon?
3)  Since the word ‘canon’ means rule or standard, did they expect the New Testament writings to function practically in the church as a rule or standard by which to judge the validity of various teachings and practices?
I believe that the answer to all three questions is yes, and that means that, in substance, the early church did recognize that the Scriptures alone to be THE rule or standard for distinguishing truth from error.  Now, I admit that the early church fathers were inconsistent in their beliefs and practices, and they sometimes made statements suggesting that whatever happens to be the universal confession or practice of the church is, ON THAT BASIS, of canonical authority for all Christians (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35173

October 18th 2010

But you cannot have two supreme ’measures’ or ’rules’ of faith and practice—in the end, either the church represents its own standard for determining what to believe and practice—it is a law to itself—, or the church is subject to a standard OTHER THAN ITSELF for determining what to believe and practice—namely, the ’law of the Lord,’ which consists of those inspired writings that were recognized by the church as possessing inherent authority, but which were never invested with authority by the church.  Since the church conferred no authority on those inspired writings, but is rather bound to submit to their inherent authority, the Scriptures stand over the church and judge its beliefs and practices, just as they did in Jesus’ day for God‘s Old Covenant people (see Mark 7:1-13, where Jesus condemned the Jewish leaders for nullifying the Word of God—God’s written command—by their teaching of human traditions that lacked biblical authority.)
  Certainly the Spirit has an ongoing ministry in the Church, but that is not one of ‘adding’ to the foundation of apostolic truth by giving new and previously unknown doctrinal revelations.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35174

October 18th 2010

The faith was ‘once for all delivered to the saints’ in the first century through the ministry of Jesus and the apostles (Jude 3); therefore,  it is not still being delivered.  The Spirit’s ministry now, in this post-apostolic era, is to illuminate every successive generation of Christians to grasp with increasing depth of understanding the truth that has been given ’once for all’ to the church (now contained in the completed canon of Scripture), and to see the application and relevance of that truth to contemporary issues that confront the modern world.

Rich - #35179

October 18th 2010


A canon can be a test in a narrowing sense (all outside of this canon is false), or it can be a test in a broadening sense (nothing can be against this canon, but anything new that is not against it might well be of the Spirit, so let’s keep an open mind).  You want the canon to be a test in the former sense, which is typical of the inward-lookingness of most forms of conservative Protestantism.  I think the canon was meant to be a test only in the latter sense, which is the attitude you find in Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Some people prefer to live in safe, tightly-regulated societies, where everything that is not compulsory is illegal—societies like Communist China under Mao, or North Korea today.  Others prefer to live in societies that are more open to risk and adventure, where anything not defined as illegal is presumed legal.  I’m in the latter group, not only in politics but in religion.  I like the possible avenues of the Spirit to be kept wide open, except in the very few places where they must be closed.  You prefer all the entrances locked and barred, with only one main gate operating, and that controlled by conservative pastors with their courses in Calvinist Biblical exegesis.  No thanks.

Martin Rizley - #35180

October 18th 2010

Rich,  Do you believe that the canon of Scripture has been closed?  Or should we be ‘open’ to the Spirit of God inspiring new books to be added to the canon of the New Testament?  If not, why not?  If the faith is still in the process of being delivered to the church, who knows what new doctrinal revelations might be given to the church in the future, if we are only “open” to receive them?  Maybe God has hidden some golden plates somewhere, just waiting to be discovered and translated by a ‘latter day’ prophet who is equipped with the special spectacles needed to read them?  Perhaps these plates will reveal to us previously unknown commandments and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ to His church, by no measn ‘contrary’ to what we find in the New Testament, but simply supplemental to it?  You see, Rich, unless the canon of the New Testament is regarded as complete and therefore invested with the ‘narrowing’ function that you do not want it to have, then we can never say that the faith has been ‘once for all delivered,’ and that is to contradict the testimony of Jude the apostle.

Martin Rizley - #35185

October 18th 2010

One further observation.  You write, “Some people prefer. . .”  “Others prefer. . .” “I’m in the latter group. . .”  I just want to remind that truth is not a matter of personal preferences.  To say, “You believe this because that’s what you prefer; I believe something else because that’s what I prefer. . ” is no argument in defense of truth.  On the contrary, it amounts to a virtual admission that one does not believe in the existence of truth, or that one regards truth as relative and ‘tailor-made’ to one’s personal preferences.

Rich - #35186

October 18th 2010


Your question is irrelevant.  Whether the canon of Scripture is regarded as wide open, or tightly and permanently closed, it is still possible that the Holy Spirit might reveal new truths which are not contained in Scripture (though not against Scripture).

I’m sure the Jews of Jesus’s time felt that Torah faith had been “once for all delivered” on Mt. Sinai, but I don’t hear you complaining that Jesus corrected and extended that faith in various ways.  How do you know God doesn’t have similar surprises in store for the Church?  And don’t tell me, because such-and-such a verse of the Bible says X—that’s just arguing in a circle.  Precisely if there are surprises awaiting us, such-and-such verses of the New Testament may take on relative unimportance, as the dietary law (central to orthodox Judaism) was pushed out of the way by Jesus.

In any case, I wasn’t arguing for anything as radical as a new revelation or new Biblical books.  I was simply defending the traditional view (held by all Christians before the Reformation) that Scripture is not the only vehicle of the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit confers a degree of authority on the Church.  (continued)

Gregory - #35189

October 18th 2010

´I was simply defending the traditional view (held by all Christians before the Reformation) that Scripture is not the only vehicle of the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit confers a degree of authority on the Church.´ - Rich

Indeed, this is the case even for most post-Reformation Christians.

I guess I just don´t see how BioLogos can ´convert´ American evangelical Christians [like Martin] from YECism or help them to improve their scientific literacy unless it can deal more directly with scripture-centrism than it has yet done. This is probably because to BioLogos´ targetted audience, i.e. evangelical Christians, the notion of ´sola Scriptura´ is so strongly held that to argue against it would seem like saying ´We´re not evangelicals anymore.´

And thus, the thread´s title.

Martin, would you accept these specific claims:
1. Scripture is *not* the only vehicle of the Holy Spirit
and that,
2. The Holy Spirit confers a degree of authority on the Church?

Rich - #35190

October 18th 2010

Martin (continued):

I find it astounding that you seem to believe that there is some “objective” way of proving that Protestantism is a “truer” form of Christianity than Catholicism.  You seem incapable of grasping the circular reasoning involved in any such proof.  Protestantism can only “prove” it is the “right” form of Christianity if its central doctrine of sola scriptura is first accepted—which Catholics don’t.  And Catholics can only “prove” their side is right if the authority of the Church over Scriptural interpretation is granted—which Protestants don’t.  There is no Archimedean point from which the two traditions can be assessed “objectively”.  One simply has to rely on one’s inner religious sense.

I believe that one’s inner religious sense can legitimately direct one to Protestantism or Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and I have no problem with any of those choices.  What I do have a problem with is fundamentalist inerrantism, which to me always feels cold, cerebral, bookish, doctrinaire, quarrelsome, and self-righteous.  The Spirit within me tells me to stay far away from people and churches which exhibit such modern-day Pharisaism.

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