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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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nedbrek - #35196

October 18th 2010

Rich, you are right that the Catholic and Protestant worldviews are irreconcilable.  However, rather than rely on our own sense of right and wrong (which is unreliable), consider instead internal consistency.

For example, look at the support for the Marian dogmas, or Purgatory.  Or a separate, celibate priesthood.  There are many others.

Gregory - #35199

October 18th 2010


Why call them ´worldviews´? They are branches of one religion: Christianity.

And I don´t think Rich wrote the word ´irreconcilable.´

Vladimir Solovyov is a celebrated ecumenical thinker worth considering. No doubt there are many others you could come up with too who accept ´one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church.´ Right nedbrek?



nedbrek - #35202

October 18th 2010

By worldview, I mean how one determines truth (literally “how one views the world”).

A true Catholic must believe whatever the Magisterium teaches.  A Protestant will judge everything through their interpretation of the Bible.  Unless the Magisterium adopts one of the Protestant interpretive motifs, there will always be conflict (even then, there would conflict among Protestants)...

The Church is “one” through our unity in Christ - until He returns, we suffer under sin.  I believe denominations are sort of like divorce in the OT (“because of the hardness of our hearts”, Mark 10:4).

Until then, every man must be free to follow his conscience (although he should be held responsible, and exhorted to develop his beliefs).

Let everyone strive for truth.  Truth is worth fighting for, so fight vigorously!  No need to “say peace, peace when there is no peace”.

Martin Rizley - #35203

October 18th 2010

With regard to your two propositions, I believe that, with regard to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, one must distinguish between His work of giving new revelation to the church and His work of enlightening the church to the meaning of revelation already given.  That latter work is His work of ‘illumination.“  After man fell into sin, God began to reveal to His people at various times and diverse way His plan of redemption.  This redemptive revelation was always given through instruments God had chosen—His holy apostles and prophets.  But this process of revealing His redemptive purpose and will step by step reached a climax in the ministry of Jesus and His apostles.  So the deposit of divine revelation that comes through their ministry is full and final, as the book of Hebrews affirms:  “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.”  With the coming of Christ, the flower of redemptive revelation stands in full blossom—all of its petals are now open to view.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35205

October 18th 2010

Our task after this final deposit of revelation has been given is not to add to it or to wait for supplemental additions, but to guard it, defend it, and transmit it faithfully without change from generation to generation, until Christ returns.  The Spirit’s work subsequent to the apostolic era is to grant to the church continuing ‘illumination’ to the meaning of that faith which was fully and finally delivered by the apostles and prophets of the first century; and since they themselves are no longer with us, the Scriptures which contain their teaching are the only vehicle through which that faith is communicated infallibly from generation to generation.  Regarding the authority of the church, I would only say that the church has no authority to teach or command, as binding on the conscience, anything beyond what is written in the pages of Scripture.  The London Confession of 1689 (which was not written by Americans, by the way!) puts it this way:  “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35206

October 18th 2010

unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.  Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word. . .”  Consequently, the Confession goes on to say, “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scirpture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.”

Rich - #35211

October 18th 2010


My point was not that they were irreconcilable; it was that there is no neutral referee between them. 

Every one of the Catholic positions you criticize is defensible, within Catholic assumptions.  So you’ve got no argument, other than to reject Catholic assumptions.  Which you have every right to do.  But there’s nothing objective about your choice of assumptions.  It’s a choice based on gut spiritual instinct.  You can defend that choice afterwards, on the grounds of its internal coherence.  That’s apologetics.

I’m not saying Martin’s position is wrong.  I’m saying he’s naive if he thinks that it can be objectively proved that his kind of inerrantism is the “true” Christianity and that other forms of Christianity are wrong ones.  It can’t be done.  There is no neutral basis for such judgments.  Not even the Bible, because how one reads the Bible depends on one’s prior commitments.  And Martin is as loaded with prior commitments as the Pope is.  The only difference is that the Pope is fully self-conscious of those prior commitments, whereas Martin imagines, in his delusion, that he is just interpreting “what the Bible says.”

Martin Rizley - #35212

October 18th 2010

Rich, You talk as if you were not on any ‘side’ in this controversy, but you clearly come down on the side of the Catholics and Orthodox in regarding the Church itself to have final authority in determining what Christians should believe.  Only, you are very vague about which Church you are talking about—is it the Catholic, the Orthodox, the Anglican, or Rich’s own view of what the ‘universal church’—not identified with any particular historical church—has always believed?  You complain about my circular thinking, but by circular, you simply mean that in arguing for the sole authority of Scripture, I appeal to the Scripture itself as my supreme authority in defending that position.  Well, is there anyone who doesn’t appeal to what they regard as the supreme authority in arguing for a particular view of supreme authority?  You have been trying to prove to me why I should rest in the supreme authority of the Church and not in Scripture alone, and you have argued for that position, not by appealing to Scripture, but to what the universal church has presumably taught for two millenia.  Is that not circular reasoning?

Martin Rizley - #35214

October 18th 2010

nedbrek is right in pointing to ‘internal consistency’ as a test for corroborating or confirming which view of supreme authority is right.  But NO supreme authority can be established as such by resting one’s case on a higher authority—such an a line of argument would be self-destructive!

nedbrek - #35217

October 18th 2010

Rich, do you believe there is such a thing as objective truth (statements which are always true)?

Rich - #35221

October 18th 2010


I don’t care whether you accept Scripture alone or not.  But you have several times tried to “prove” the Catholic position is wrong by quoting Scripture.  This is of course ludicrous, since Catholics have their own well-worked-out apologetic, and they obviously have ways of neutralizing your readings and they obviously have pet passages of their own.  They are not going to accept your proof-texts as proofs, nor you theirs. 

My point about Church authority is that without it you cannot excommunicate a heretic, because you cannot even determine what is and what is not heretical.  The Bible is not self-interpreting, otherwise, differences such as Arian, Nestorian, Calvinist, Arminian, etc. could never arise out of the same Bible.  And you cannot have a definition of orthodoxy without an agreement on a whole range of hermeneutical and theological questions.  So you need an internal procedure for developing and confirming doctrine.  That’s where Church authority comes in.  It doesn’t matter what Church—there has to be authority.  I have never endorsed the particular doctrines of the Roman Church; I have merely said that Rome is right about the need for Tradition as well as Scripture.

Rich - #35222

October 18th 2010


Of course.  Logical and mathematical truths.

nedbrek - #35224

October 18th 2010

Ok, so if I can show that (through their various dogmas and other teachings) the Magisterium asserts the equivalent of 1 == 2, then I can show that the Catholic worldview is wrong.

Martin Rizley - #35231

October 18th 2010

Rich.  You say, “They are not going to accept your proof-texts as proofs, nor you theirs.”  So?  Just because people do not accept something as proven, does not that mean it has not been proven.  Subjective acceptance of a particular viewpoint means only that someone has been ‘persuaded’ of that viewpoint—it says nothing about the strength or weakness of the evidence in its support.  To put it another way,  persuasion and proof are not the same thing.  I can prove to you that a biblical text is saying something based on its context, yet you still may not be persuaded because of factors within yourself that hinder you from seeing the strength of an argument.  The fact that a biased jury is not persuaded of O. J. Simpson’s guilt, because a clever lawyer plays the ‘race card’ and ignites feelings of prejudice that blind that jury to the evidence, doesn’t mean that O. J.‘s guilt has not been proven in an objective sense. 
You further say, “The Bible is not self-interpreting, otherwise, differences such as Arian, Nestorian, Calvinist, Arminian, etc. could never arise out of the same Bible.”  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #35233

October 18th 2010

Am I justified in saying that the sun is not shining, because there are blind people who cannot see it?  Or that a billboard not clearly written, because some are not able to read it, due to varying degrees of nearsightedness?  You say, how arrogant to think that you alone have 20-20 vision!  You are missing my point.  I am not saying that I see everything with 20-20 vision, or that my understanding of Scripture is always correct.  I am saying that it is illogical to conclude the Scriptures themselves are unclear, because of the mere fact that wildly different interpretations exist.  You are making the gratuitous assumption that if the Scriptures were clear in their teachings, everyone would already have an identical understanding of them.  That is to overlook the reality of human nature.  People are not a ‘blank slate.’  Various internal factors can ‘blur’ our understanding—sin, pride, prayerlessness, spiritual immaturity, early upbringing, the influence of false teachings that confuse the mind and instill prejudice,  ignorance, lack of study, and a host of other factors.  Diversity of interpretations do not disprove, therefore, the self-interpreting nature of Scripture and its essential clarity in most matters.

Martin Rizley - #35235

October 18th 2010

You have basically admitted that you do not believe there is such a thing as objective truth in the realm of religious belief; only in the area of logic and mathematics.  Since there are so many things about the Christian faith that go beyond what can be proven through empirical demonstration or a rationalistic philosophy (i. e., so-called ‘neutral’ logic),  you would have to conclude there is much about Christianity that cannot be regarded (on your premises) as objectively true.  If that’s how you feel, I don’t really see the point of continuing this discussion.  I believe in the existence of objective truth when it comes to matters of Christian faith and practice, but if you believe that objective truth is not even ‘out there,’ I don’t see how you can begin to argue for the truth of a different viewpoint than that which I am espousing, so I see no point in this discussion.  Do you see any point to it at all, given your belief in the complete subjectivity and relativism of religious ‘truth’?

Rich - #35237

October 18th 2010

Martin (35233):

1.  Catholics will believe they have proved something from Scripture even though Protestants cannot see it.  Protestants will believe they have proved something different from the same passage, even though Catholics cannot see it.  Each will use exactly the same arguments you have just now given to me, about the prejudices, sins, etc. which prevent the other side from recognizing the force of their cogent arguments.  How do you propose resolving this?

2.  Luther and Erasmus argued about free will.  I have read the entire exchange.  Both of them were educated in the rules of formal logic and reasoning to a level that you and I will never attain.  Both of them knew the Greek New Testament better than you or I do.  Each of them was sure that his argument was cogent and valid even though the other one did not recognize it.  And Luther, at least, employed your explanation of personal flaws in Erasmus which blinded him (Luther was quite given to ad hominem arguments, and was in fact quite a blustering bully).  Erasmus, of course, did not believe that he had committed any error in logic and therefore did not think that any sin of his was flawing his argument.  How do you resolve that one?


Rich - #35251

October 18th 2010


3.  Calvin and Arminius (or their proxies), Arius and the Nicene leaders, all were educated theologically on a level which you can never hope to match; yet they disagreed on how to interpret the Bible on major issues.  Each of the warring parties thought the other was so blinded by partisan theological passion as not to be able to see “reason” and therefore surrender to the brilliant argument of the other side.  How do you propose resolving these conflicts?  How would you be the “objective” judge of “what Scripture teaches” between two combatants who knew the languages, the philosophy and the theology far better than you?  And if you wouldn’t appoint yourself, who would you appoint?

Re your other post:  I gave logic and mathematics as examples.  They were not meant to be an exhaustive list.  Everything you have just said about my alleged relativism is sheer rubbish.  I never said that religious truth cannot be known, or that all truth could only be known by logic or mathematics.  I never said that there was no truth.  I said that your methods of Biblical exegesis are incapable of settling the dispute between Protestantism and Catholicism.  You cannot settle a major existential question with grammar or logic.

Martin Rizley - #35262

October 18th 2010

Rich,  I am very glad to know that you believe that religious truth can be known!  My ‘proposal’ to your dilemma is simply to affirm the truth of what Jesus said in the Upper Room discourse—namely,  that the Spirit of God truly is at work in the world, and He is the One—the only One—who can convince the world of the truth of the gospel.  Christ’s followers can only bear witness to the truth they see by the grace of God; the Spirit alone can convince others of that truth.    If someone tells me that Christ’s teaching on salvation is essentially unclear and that one could not possibly know what to believe about salvation simply by reading the Bible, I will have to insist that that is simply not true; and after demonstrating passages where the gospel of salvation is explained with clarity, I will have to wait upon the Spirit to convict that person of his error.  I am not the Holy Spirit; I cannot convict anyone.  I can only bear witness to what I see in the Scriptures and wait upon God to open the eyes of the blind.  All I can do is testify, just as the man born blind testified to the religious authorities of his day—“One thing I know, I was blind and now I see.”  (copied)

Martin Rizley - #35265

October 18th 2010

If a person does not ‘see’ what is so clearly taught in the Scriptures—namely, that the way of salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not through meritorious works or through an elaborate sacerdotal/sacramental system developed in the post-apostolic era by men who had lost hold of the gospel of Christ in the New Testament—then I can only pray for God to open that person’s eyes through the Holy Spirit.  The testimony of the Spirit, once given, cannot be doubted.  Faith, not perpetual skepticism, uncertainty and doubt, has the final word in the heart of every one who has been given taught of God in this matter.  So I will go on believing the truth that I have come to see by God‘s grace, and pray for God to teach others the same truth.  I will go on believing God’s promise that, through the Spirit, I can judge the truth or falsehood of various truth claims (1 John 2:24-27); while at the same time, I will refrain from acting as the final judge of men’s hearts, since God alone can see into the inner recesses of the human heart, and He alone is competent to be “the Judge of all the earth.”

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