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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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penman - #34404

October 12th 2010

Martin Rizley - #34374, #34380

Hi Martin
Alas, too many points to answer them all!

No, I don’t think that anyone who questions the scientific consensus is a YEC. I was an OEC - an Old Earth Creationist - before becoming an EC, an Evolutionary Creationist. So I know what it’s like to question the consensus without being a YEC.

Yes, science is fallible - or scientists are. But so are theologians & exegetes. Theology is as fallible as science, because bible interpreters are as fallible as nature-interpreters. That’s why I recommended Keith Matheson’s essay. Here’s a link

Martin asks: “Are you saying that, as Christians, we must simply “accept” in an uncritical manner the interpretation of the scientific data by the mainstream scientific community and find a way to ‘fit in’ our interpretation of the Bible around the ‘sacrosanct’ interpretations of that community wihout EVER questioning it…?”

No. But if there is more than one option for biblical interpretation, & one fits with what seems to me the overwhelming evidence from the natural world, that’s the one I go with. Otherwise I could be a biblical flat-earth geocentrist.

Martin Rizley - #34416

October 12th 2010

John,  You ask, “Is there any amount of scientific evidence for polygenetic origin that could change your mind?”  I would like to respond first by asking you a question: “Is there any amount of biblical evidence that could convince you that the Bible intends to teach that all human beings are descended physically from Adam and Eve; and if you were convinced that was the Bible’s teaching, would it make any difference in what you believe?”  I guess I feel about the biblical evidence the way you feel about the scientific evidence for evolution and a polygenetic origin of mankind—you probably feel that the evidence is so overwhelming as to be practically unfalisfiable.  That is, you see it as highly unlikely that any future discovery, at this point,  could overturn the mountain of data establishing the ‘fact’ of evolution.  For you, that is an established ‘truth.’  Well, that’s just how I feel about the biblical evidence supporting the descent of all human beings from Adam and Eve..  At this point, the evidence supporting that view seems so overwhelming as to be practically unfalsifiable; and since the Bible is my supreme authority, I believe it over man’s fallible interpretations of data from the natural world.

John VanZwieten - #34417

October 12th 2010


But what if there is a plausible scenario which allows “all human beings to be descended from Adam and Eve” and for polygenism as described by science—wouldn’t that be the best choice? 

Jon Garvey presents just such a possible scenario in the recent post about Adam and Eve.

Genesis itself presents evidence of polygenism—indirectly in the case of Cain’s wife, directly in the case of the “son’s of God” mating with the “daughters of men.”

Martin Rizley - #34435

October 12th 2010

John,  I don’t know how John Garvey would interpret the phrase “of one blood” In Acts 17:26—“He made of one blood every nation of mankind to dwell on the earth” (some early manuscripts say simply, “He made of one. . .”)  It would seem that Paul’s reference is to one common progenitor or ancestor of the human race.  This would have been a slap in the face to the pride of the Athenians, for they regarded themselves as a distinct race from the rest of mankind, sprung up from their own earth and unrelated by blood to the oher nations of mankind.  In response, Paul tells them, “No, you share common ancestry with all the nations of mankind, for you are all descended from the same progenitor—Adam through Noah and Noah’s sons from whom the whole earth became repopulated after the flood.  To be sure, much genetic diversification has taken place since that time through various mechanisms (including perhaps supernatural divine intervention); but the fact is that all human beings—despite superficial outward differences in skin color, facial features, hair structure, etc., are essentially one family.  That seems to be the clear teaching of the Bible.  At least, I don’t know what else the term ‘of one blood’ could mean.

John VanZwieten - #34438

October 12th 2010


Jon referenced this simulation study of Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) done at MIT:

Surprisingly, the study concludes that the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today lived between 2,000 and 5,000 years ago.  We are indeed one family. 

“Progenitorship” does not require “only one original couple.”  The same study concluded that going back to some point between 5000 and 10000 years ago, we would all have the same set of ancestors—meaning that anyone living then who had even one descendant alive today would be a progenitor of everyone alive today.

Martin Rizley - #34451

October 13th 2010

The study you cite is certainly interesting, but there still appear to be insurmountable problems if one takes the position that Adam and Eve were not the first human couple from whom all human beings are descended.  For even if God brought the first man into existence through an evolutionary process, you still have the problem of Eve’s origin.  As Martyn Lloyd Jones pointed out, “If you prefer to believe that man’s body developed through a humanoid process, and that God then took of these humanoid persons. . .and did something to him and turned him into a man, you are still left with the question of how to explain Eve, for the Bible is very particular as to origin of Eve.  All who accept in any form the theory of evolution in the development of man completely fail to account for the being, origin, and existence of Eve.”  Moreover, Adam named his wife Eve, the Bible says, because she would become the mother of all living (Genesis 4:20). 
Not the mother of some living, but of all living—including the female who became the wife of Cain(continued)

Martin Rizley - #34453

October 13th 2010

Then, too, Jesus in Matthew 19:4-5 clearly accepts the historicity of the biblical narrative concerning the creation of man as “male and female” and the divine institution of marriage at that time, at a definite moment in history, in connection with the creation of the first man and woman.  All this is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the view that mankind gradually evolved from a group of soul-less hominids who were already ‘male and female’ before they evolved into homo sapiens.

John VanZwieten - #34460

October 13th 2010


There’s nothing to prevent God from miraculously creating both Adam and Eve.  Surely you aren’t saying that Eve must be the mother of all any and all “unsouled hominids” who might have been contemporaneous and who could have provided mates for Cain, Seth, etc.  If each soul is immediately created by God, He could choose to only create them for A&E’s descendants, who would within some few millenia intermarry with all the hominids on earth, if the MIT study is correct.

Jon Garvey - #34471

October 13th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #34453

Martin, I’ve great respect both for your commitment to Scripture and your knowledge thereof. But sometimes I think you strain at gnats and swallow camels.

For example, “of one blood” in Acts, apart from being a textual variant from “of one”, is used by Paul as a counter to the Athenians polygenism to justify their different gods. Granted he was alluding to Genesis (but whether Adam or Noah is not stated), but his point would stand whether the nations descended from one man, one spiritual progenitor, or even one nation. “Blood” is a small (optional) word on which to stick on a single original Homo sapiens couple.

On the other hand, if one takes Genesis 2 literally it clearly says that Adam was from Eastern Iraq and that he practised agriculture, metallurgy being practised by his close descendants. The genealogies, taken literally, place him plumb in the late Chalcolithic, which fits the picture.

Archaeology in Iraq, however, shows a continuous gradation from palaeolithic (some say the Aurignacian culture began here), through mesolithic and a prolonged neolithic and chalcolithic before the bronze age sites. On some sites one can see parts of the cultural transition in successive strata.

Ryan G - #34472

October 13th 2010

I don’t fear having to twist Biblical interpretation around new scientific evidence, largely because I don’t believe there’s a lot of science being taught in the early portions of Genesis. There certainly is a lot of teaching and explanation, and it is correctly fundamental teaching: One God is responsible for the creation we see; Man is the pinnacle of this creation and has a unique role in it; Man was created to relate to God; Sin entered the world, following the acquisition of the “knowledge of good & evil”, through an act of disobedience; Death entered the world through that act (spiritual death at a minimum); the complementary relations of men & women are taught (regardless of whether the account is literal or figurative). The real question to ask of the text is “what is the author trying to teach?” -a blow by blow scientific methodology, or a framework that makes sense of the world and its relation to its creator?
If one’s interpretation makes possible questions like Did Adam have a bellybutton? Did he have a scar after the creation of Eve? Where is Eden now? Was malaria created? - that makes nonsense of the text and points to a clearly flawed interpretation. It is, in fact, treating the text with callous disrespect.

Ryan G - #34473

October 13th 2010

What I do wonder is what is going to happen to the scores of young Christians being taught that their faith depends on this wooden literal rendering. The YEC’s must, if they have any understanding of the scientific method, be teaching that science is eventually going to come around to their view. Scientists would be too ego driven to ignore the chance to reveal earth shattering new understandings of natural history, regardless of their religious beliefs. The assertion that the vast majority of scientists are systematically suppressing the truth because of their atheistic bent is the worst delusion being propagated.

What is going to happen if science continues to make nonsense of the YEC claims? This is not a teaching without severe consequences, and that scares me. Please think about that.

penman - #34475

October 13th 2010

Hi Martin
Was Eve the biological mother of all living, Gen.3:20? That’s one possible view. But there are others.

Consider the statement’s location. If it’s biological, why doesn’t it come in Genesis 2, with Eve’s creation & the marriage-union? Why delay it till the Fall & the promise of the Woman’s Saviour-Seed? The statement’s location points to Eve as mother of all living in a spiritual sense. She’s the mother of the Seed, the Bringer of Life. Spiritually & Christologically, Eve is the mother of who have life through the Saviour.

Eve appears in this spiritual sense in v.15, the enmity between Serpent & Woman. The Woman here isn’t Eve the individual, but Eve representing the future body of the spiritually alive. The enmity is between Satan & the Church.

Also in v.15, the Woman’s Seed has a corporate as well as Messianic sense. It contrasts the Seed of the Serpent & of the Woman. This has always been understood as the enmity between the unregenerate & regenerate. So the Woman’s Seed here is spiritual. If Eve is the biological mother of all, she’s as much the mother of the unregenerate as the regenerate. But she’s said to be mother of the regenerate;  the unregenerate have the Serpent (Satan) as their parent.

nedbrek - #34481

October 13th 2010

Ryan G (34473) “Scientists would be too ego driven to ignore the chance to reveal earth shattering new understandings of natural history, regardless of their religious beliefs. The assertion that the vast majority of scientists are systematically suppressing the truth because of their atheistic bent is the worst delusion being propagated.”

I think there are some false assumptions behind your statement:
1) Tabula rasa
2) Total freedom of the human will

Unbelievers are not a blank slate, totally neutral in their reasoning.  The Bible is clear that man’s natural state is rebellion against God (the mind is the seat of this rebellion).  Also, the unsaved are enslaved to sin, not free.

Given these facts, to accept God requires total surrender, which is never in line with puffing up oneself.

For the Christians in science, there is tremendous pressure to go with the flow.  Also, if they have never had a faithful presentation of YEC, it is unlikely to have any attraction at all.

I do not believe any scientists actively know the truth and are suppressing it.  Their minds are bent against ever even admitting the possibility internally.

Ryan G - #34485

October 13th 2010

We’re talking at cross purposes here. I don’t mean that a scientist will stare at particle collision data and exclaim that there is a God. I’m talking about the total YEC explanatory framework - global flood filling in the creation gaps, etc. This explanatory framework, of necessity, posits many unusual entirely natural phenomena that require no acknowledgement of a creator God. There is no belief driven pressure to deny these findings. There is massive personal gain to be derived from publicizing unassailable evidence for unusual findings.

If these scientists came across hard evidence of the earth coming into being much later than thought, humans riding brontosauri bareback, etc. they would publish that. It doesn’t require any religious interpretation.

Otherwise, you seem to be suggesting that scientists have incredibly developed subconscious processing that allows them to subvert highly technical data, without their knowledge, to prevent them from coming to conclusions that would make them uncomfortable? This is, frankly, delusional.

Martin Rizley - #34487

October 13th 2010

John Garvey,  Your assertion that Adam’s lifestyle places him in the “late Calcolithic,” high above the cultural remains of earlier civilizations, rests on various assumptions your are making about the archaeological digs in Iraq.  You are assuming (based on a host of other assumptions you are making)  that those digs have unearthed the remains of human culture’s ‘original development,’ rather than its ‘re-development’ after the devastating catastrophe of the world-destroying Flood.  If those cultural artifacts unearthed in Iraq date from AFTER the Flood, however, then none of them have any bearing whatsoever on Adam, nor do they reveal anything about the level of cultural development that existed in his day.  If the Flood destroyed the “world that then was,” as the Bible says, along with the cultural artifacts of that pre-diluvial world,  then it stands to reason that, as mankind was recovering from that catastrophe, culture would undergo a “re-development,” with people using simple stone tools at first, then graduating to more advanced technology with the passage of time.  So the ‘order of cultural artifacts” in the Iraqi digs you mention do not tell us anything, necessarily, about life in Adam’s day.

Martin Rizley - #34491

October 13th 2010

Ryan G,  Dont’ you think it’s a bit extreme to say that interpreting the early chapters of Genesis is to treat the text with ‘callous disrespect’?  If that were so, then vast majority of interpreters of Genesis, from the church fathers to the present day, have been treating the text with ‘callous disrespect.’  In fact, I know of no interpreter of Genesis prior to the rise of Darwinism who believed Adam and Eve were anything other than a literal human couple, the first human beings God created.  From them, all those made in the image of God have been born.  It is only in modern times (correct me if I’m wrong), that anyone has interpreted Adam and Eve to be a symbolic reference to an early tribe or group of people.  You express concern about what is going to happen to the scores of young Christians being taught that their faith depends on a ‘wooden literal rendering’ of Genesis?  But that is an oversimplification of what I am saying.  What I am saying primarily concerns on how we view the Scripture itself—its authority, clarity, and sufficiency for faith and life—and only secondarily, how we interpret the book of Genesis.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #34493

October 13th 2010

What I am saying young people must be taught is this:  First, that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and for that reason, that His teaching is wholly true and without error, backed up to the hilt by the authority of God the Father, who sent Him into this world.  Because of Jesus’ authority, we must have the same view of the Bible that He had, if we would call ourselves His disciples.  If, therefore, Jesus taught that the Old Testament is wholly inspired and true in its teaching and essentially clear and straightforward in meaning, then that is what we must believe about the Old Testament, as well.  Being the very Word of God, we must accord to the Scriptures implicit trust and believe them to be superior in their authority to any other ‘authoritative’ source of knowledge that we encounter.  Acceptance of these principles will necessarily affect the way we view science and the whole scientific endeavor to ‘reconstruct’ earth’s history based on methodological naturalism (which does not allow for divine intervention as an explanation for anything in the natural world).  We will not be able to credit science, which is fallible, with the same authority with which we credit the Scriptures, which are infallible.  (cont.)

Martin Rizley - #34494

October 13th 2010

This is the right attitude to have, says Lloyd-Jones, because “Modern science itself teaches us that we are not anti-scientific and we are not obscurantist if we do not accept statements as absolute truth and fact simply because they are made by certain prominent and great scientists.  We know that great scientists have made dogmatic statements in the past, which by now have proved to be wrong. . .”  For that reason, he says, our exposition of the Scripture must be based on the text of Scirpture itself, rather than on the pronouncements of science, which are fallible, changeable, and constantly shifting.  “Because the Spirit has borne witness within us to the truth of the Scripture, we believe that whatever is aserted in the Scripture about creation, about the whole cosmos, is true because God said it, and though Scripture may appear to conflict with certain discoveries of science at the present time, we exhort people to be patient, assuring them that ultimately the scientists will discover that they have been in error at some point or other, and will eventually come to see that the statements of Scripture are true.  Thus we base our position upon Scripture alone and this has always been the Protestant view of Scripture.”

John VanZwieten - #34500

October 13th 2010

Is Lloyd-Jones still patiently waiting for scientists to discover that the sun really does orbit the earth?  No, of course not.  So somehow Protestantism, along with Catholocism, was able to find another way to respect both scripture and science.  First it tried out some “concordism”, then defaulted back to “phenomonological” interpretation. 

To stop looking as stupid as the modern day geocentrists, Protestantism must (as Catholocism has) come to terms with the fact that the evidence for an old earth and common ancestry of living things is snowballing rather than retreating. 

Within the tent of Evangelicalism, some might take the concordist route, some a more “phenomonological interpretation” route, and some an ANE literary route.  But if the movement stakes its existence on the science-denial route, the tent will ultimately fall in on itself.

Jon Garvey - #34501

October 13th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #34487

Now that’s an odd conclusion, Martin, because Genesis teaches that Noah was planting vines in the first generation after the flood. His grandson Nimrod was a king of several cities known and fully excavated from the archeological record (and of bronze age date from their artifacts).

And yet you’re saying that, between Noah and Nimrod (one generation), in the very heartland of the Flood territory, his three sons completely forgot their cultural heritage, learned to knap stone tools in the Aurignacian fashion, which they traded with similar cultures found as far away as Palestine, painstakingly learned how to domesticate wild cerials again (did they lose all the grain they carried on the ark?). And they had enough children not mentioned in the Bible to create neolithic sites with 1000 years of occupational debris, and developed several distinct styles of pottery.

I won’t mention the radiocarbon dating evidence since that maybe was altered in the flood (though since these are, in your view, post flood deposits they should give a reasonable result), and I’m not sure how you explain that these 1st generation post-flood remains are not on flood deposits.

Otherwise it seems very plausible.

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