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Are We Facing the Demise of Big Tent Evangelicalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Martin Rizley - #34617

October 14th 2010

Well, I certainly agree with you that no one wants to embrace “far-fetched” answers that are “dishonestly doctored” to bring about a harmony between science and the Scripture.  That is precisely why I find it impossible to accept the answers you have proposed to harmonize Scripture with science.  As far as I can tell, you believe in the historicity of Adam and his federal headship, but you do not believe that he was anywhere close to being the first human being made in the image of God.  You do not believe that Eve was made from the substance of his body, which is not only taught in Genesis 2, but insisted on quite strongly by Paul in the New Testament, who bases his teaching about distinct roles for men and women on that fact.  You believe that A and E were simply one among many human couples living in the late chalcolithic whose kids intermarried with the neighbors’ kids down the street.  Adam and Eve were not the physical progenitors of the whole human race.  And you adopt this interpretation to harmonize science and scripture.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #34620

October 14th 2010

Now, I fear I must bring the very same criticism to this interpretation of the biblical data that you bring against creationists for their interpretation of the scientific data—it seems to me ‘dishonestly doctored’ to bring about an artificial harmony between science and Scripture.  It is an interpretation that will not stand up to close scrutiny—for it flatly contradicts the biblical teaching, which clearly presents Adam and Eve as the first creatures made in the image of God, and the woman as specially created by God as a “helpmeet” for the man, in order to remove his loneliness.  Why would Adam have been lonely, if he had lots of neighbors?  It is a strained and far-fetched interpretation, and that is why I must reject it.  Do I have all the answers to the scientific questions you raise?  No, but I feel sure (even if you do not) that those answers are forthcoming, since God’s Word cannot lie, and will surely be show to be right in what it says, once all the facts are known.  Here is where ‘principles’ must guide us in the absence of ‘answers’—in this case, the principle of acknowledging the Bible’s infallibility, clarity, and sufficiency in contrast to the fallibility of modern historical science.

Jon Garvey - #34622

October 14th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #34617

1 - In my proposal, Adam IS indeed the first man created in the image of God, unless you define that image in physical terms rather than spiritual and functional. Though I have heard it argued that God is physically humanoid, that would seem absurd on any normal Scriptural grounds.

2 - I have no great problem with Eve being physically (and miraculously) derived from Adam, but given the symbolism that has been interpreted from her being created from his rib, in particular, down the ages, and given the interweaving of metaphor in the form of the story, again widely acknowledged in the Church’s history, I see no need to insist on it. It is, however, important that her spiritual and functional “image” was derived from Adam.


Jon Garvey - #34625

October 14th 2010

Incidentally, the same would apply to Adam himself - just as Jesus was born miraculously, presumably with a male genotype, God *could* have created him from literal clay, bearing a Homo sapiens genetic makeup. But the key theological points being his earthliness and heavenliness in combination, I see no reason why ultimate origin, rather than immediate constituents, are intended. Job ( in ch 10) speaks of God “returning him to dust again”, and nobody doubts that he was born in the usual way.

3 - Adam and Eve were indeed the progenitors of the whole human race in terms of image and function, which is the emphasis of Scripture throughout. I’m not aware of any passage that is incompatible with that understanding. Adam would have been lonely for the same reason - he was a sinless spiritual being, alone in the isolation of the garden, alone in having access to eternal life, and as companionless as either of us would be living in a colony of Australapithecines.(...)

Jon Garvey - #34627

October 14th 2010

I make no apology for bringing observation of the physical world to bear on my interpretation, because that is how I also know the resurrection to be a unique miracle, Elisha’s floating axe to be special, God’s feeding of the ravens to be speaking about, but beyond, the merely natural world, the Pharisees’ enmity to be psychologically explicable *rather* than miraculous ... indeed the only way the Bible can be understood at all is by its interaction with the daily world around us. It is because it matches normal reality at so many points that we can know it isn’t simply fantasy from beginning to end.

The Bible’s infallibility should not be held at the expense of its use of metaphor, or 1 Sam 15.10 would have to mean that God changes his mind, but that Samuel lied about this in v29.

Its clarity has to be tempered with the cautions of verses like 2 Peter 3.16.

Its sufficiency has to be understood in terms of verses like 2 Tim 3.16-17 rather than absolutely, for it does not presume to teach higher mathematics, Serbo-Croat or geology.

With those provisos I acknowledge them all, whilst freely confessing that my interpretation of difficult matters is no less fallible than anyone else with the Holy Spirit.

Martin Rizley - #34633

October 14th 2010

Jon,  Since I am trying to understand clearly your position, could you please answer, for the sake of clarification, two questions.  First, what do you mean when you say that “Adam and Eve were indeed the progenitors of the whole human race in terms of image and function”?  Are you saying that, at the time of Adam’s creation by God, you believe that there were existing at that time groups of hominids that did not yet possess the image of God; and that it was only in connection with Adam’s creation and subsequent fall, that they were not only endowed with human souls, but simultaneously “immersed” in the spiritual consequences of Adam’s sin through the inheritance of guilt, sin, and alienation from God—since Adam acted as their representative?  Is that what you are saying?  Second, how would you distingish your views from those of B. B. Warfield?  He held to the view that God used evolution as a ‘limited means’ of creation; at the same time, however, he strongly affirmed the historicity of Adam and Eve, the historical fall, the representative headship of Adam, and was a strong defender of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Martin Rizley - #34635

October 14th 2010

penman,  One has to understand the Reformers statements regarding biblical perspicuity in light of the historical conflict with Roman Catholicism.  The Catholic church taught then, and still does, that the Bible can only be rightly understood through the guidance of an authorized interpreter that speaks with infallible authority.  As the Baltimore Catechism puts it, “We can know the true meaning [of the doctrines contained in the Bible] from the Catholic Church which has been authorized by Jesus Christ to explain His doctrines, and which is preserved from error in its teachings by the special assistance of the Holy Ghost.”  It was in response to this position, which declared the Bible to be an essentially obscure book without the supplementary, authoritative guidance of an authorized interpreter—the Roman see—that the Reformers insisted on the essential clarity and self-interpreting nature of the Scriptures.  We do not need an authorized interpreter to give us the ‘true meaning’ of Scripture by bringing in extra-biblical traditions that are essential to its true understanding (continued).

Martin Rizley - #34636

October 14th 2010

On the contrary, Scripture interprets Scripture.  That is to say, all the ‘materials’ needed for arriving at a true understanding of Scripture are found within Scripture itself.  No outside, extra-biblical traditions or ‘esoteric’ knowledge must be brought in as the ‘interpretive key’ to arrive at a right understanding of the text.  Rather, through careful comparison of Scripture with Scripture, looking at the immediate and wider biblical context, the true meaning of Scripture will ‘emerge’ as the Holy Spirit gives understanding.  They were quick to add, however, that not everything in Scripture is equally plain.  As G. I. Williamson puts it, “To say that God has spoken clearly is not the same as to say that there is nothing ‘deep’ and ‘profound’ in Scripture.  Peter reminds us that there are some things in Scripture hard to be understood.”  It is not the Scriptures themselves but SOME THINGS in Scripture which are difficult to understand.”  So the Reformers were not saying that ONLY those things relating to salvation are clear and everything else is obscure.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #34637

October 14th 2010

They were saying, in response to the Roman Catholic position, that the Scriptures are generally clear and perspicuous in their meaning, but not everything in them is equally clear.  However, those things necessary to be known for salvation are ESPECIALLY clear.  The Reformers would have absolutely repudiated the idea, however, that the Scripture is lacking something that is necessary for its proper interpretation.  They would have rejected the idea that we need either Roman Catholic traditions or some esoteric set of divinely revealed ‘truths,’ external to the Bible, and accessible only to a privileged few, in order to rightly interpret the Bible.  That seems to me to be the Biologos position.  One gets the feeling that this website is saying that the church cannot rightly interpret the Bible until it accepts ‘by faith’ the dogmatic declarations of God’s authorized magisterium—in this case, the scientific community—which alone can provide us with the necessary “key” for interpreting the Scriptures righly.  But as Williamson asks, “If God has not spoken clearly, how can we be sure that others understand what we cannot?”

penman - #34638

October 14th 2010

Martin Rizley #34635-6

Hi Martin,
I have some awareness of the context our Protestant forefathers were operating in (the conflict with Rome) - actually, I teach church history at university level, & I’ve even (heaven help us) written a book on the Reformation.

However, I think your interpretation of what the Reformers meant by clarity is belied by the confessions of faith they gave us. The Westminster Confession says:

“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

There it is - “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation.”

Perspicuity lies there. It does not follow that we’ll find scripture equally clear, or even clear at all, on (e.g.) the more recondite aspects of eschatology (endings). Or protology (beginnings). But then, neither is necessary for salvation.

Jon Garvey - #34640

October 14th 2010

Martin Rizley - #34636

An example of how Calvin related Scripture to natural revelation:

“Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by
conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great
distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies
the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without
instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to
understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the
sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is
not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some
frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.
For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it
cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.
... Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us
from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but
because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of
the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending
to this grosser method of instruction.”

Jon Garvey - #34641

October 14th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #34633

This link explains in >1250 words!

Summarising the suggestion, Adam exists among genetic H sapiens who lack what Scripture seems to imply constitutes God’s image. He is accounted head of the race, intended to confer that image on them. Sinning, he confers instead the broken image/sin-nature/shame.

This occurs by inheritance, as in traditional and NT interpretations, only as it were by increase *within” the species rather than increase *of” the species. This would (surprisingly) affect the whole near east within a few generations, Eurasia in a few hundred years, and the whole “hominid” population before the coming of the Lord (when salvation becomes a matter for all mankind). So, certainly the race becomes “ensouled” as well as “enslaved” through Adam’s fall.

I’ve not read Warfield on evolution and he may well have had a different view in the present state of knowledge (perhaps he’d be YEC, perhaps CE) - but I’ll see if I can access some material.

Martin Rizley - #34642

October 14th 2010

penman,  Do you believe the Reformers regarded the Scriptures to be generally obscure in their meaning, except for those matters relating to salvation?  Doesn’t the expression, “so clearly propounded,” mean “made so ESPECIALLY clear”?  As I say, I think the conflict with Rome must be kept in mind when interpreting these words.  Rome said that there were some matters necessary for salvation, such as recognition of papal authority and submission to that authority, which had to be accepted by faith in the church’s teaching authority, since the Bible itself was ‘unclear’ on this matter.  Not so, said the Reformers.  Every matter necessary for salvation, without exception, is set forth with SPECIAL clarity in the Bible, so even the ‘unlearned’ can see and understand what they must believe to be saved.  The Westminster Confession is not denying the general clarity of Scripture so much as affirming the SPECIAL clarity of those matters relating to salvation.  It is not saying that the Bible is a generally obscure book or that the ONLY matters “unlearned” people can see for themselves in the Bible are matters relating to salvation.

Martin Rizley - #34643

October 14th 2010

Thanks for your response.  I’ll check out your article and mull over what you have to say!

Jon Garvey - #34646

October 14th 2010

Martin Rizley - #34643

I found a summary of Warfield’s views, unfortunately on a Presbyterian website bewailing his respect for Darwin and his near-apostasy on the matter. They’d have preferred he curse him, perhaps? But it’s always dangerous for mundane theologians to criticise great ones.

I can’t disagree with much of his thinking - I suspect a little of the Enlightenment false dualism between “nature” and “providence” that still clouds issues today, but that maybe his summariser. Interesting that he’s happy to interpret Adam’s dust as miilions of years of evolution, but baulks at taking his rib as anything other than literal. I doubt he developed any serious theory on how Adam related to any other hominids around, but there was no need since the whole theory of evolution was at that stage still somewhat provisional.

I suspect he’d have found little in the last century’s progress that would have made him retreat from his overall position, though he’d clearly have had no time for the New Atheists. Maybe if people of his kind were handling the debate they’d never have gained a foothold anyway.

Martin Rizley - #34656

October 14th 2010

Jon, I read your paper and must admit that it is an ingenious effort to reconcile modern historical science with a biblical theology that affirms the historicity of Adam and the fall, the transmission of Adam’s sin to his posterity, etc.  It is a valiant effort to uphold the Christian faith on the assumption that Darwin’s theory is irrefutably true—and that is just the problem I have with it, for I do not regard Darwin’s theory as true, but as an erroneous inference from the observable, empirical data.  Water ReMine’s ‘message theory’ (set forth in his book The Biotic Message) accounts for what we actually SEE in biology just as well, or better, than evolutionary theory.  Because I do not believe that Adam was related biologically to any other creature, I believe that there was an INFINITE gap, not a slight grade, of difference between him and the highest of the creatures over which he was given dominion.  Consequently, there could have been no ‘fraternizing’ 7000 years between humans that bore God’s image and those that did not, as you describe—with humans engaging in business and social transactions with their soul-less cousins, trading knives with them, possibly attending their burial ceremonies.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #34661

October 14th 2010

That strikes me as a rather fantastic scenario, like a scene out of Planet of the Apes!  I personally have no doubt in my own mind that any creature that talks,  makes sophisticated tools, observes burial ceremonies, creates works of art, and engages in religious ceremonies is 100% human, a son or daughter of Adam fully capable of and in need of salvation.  It seems to me quite outlandish to suggest that such beings are anything less than fully human.  If that means that the dating of the rock strata by modern scientific methods is all wrong for reasons that we may not understand at the present time, then quite frankly, I find that more believable than the alternative scenario you propose.

John VanZwieten - #34665

October 14th 2010


Well, at least you are now to the point of embracing pseudo-science for the sake of pseudo-science, rather than embracing pseudo-science for the sake of your interpretation of scripture.


Martin Rizley - #34667

October 14th 2010

Have you read ReMine’s book?  You really should before you label it ‘psuedo-science.’

Rich - #34670

October 14th 2010


Your comments on Catholicism are unsubstantiated.

First, the passage from the Baltimore catechism, as quoted, does not say or imply that the Bible is “an essentially obscure book without the supplementary, authoritative guidance of an authorized interpreter.”  How on earth you would get that out of the words I can’t imagine.  The passage merely gives the Church interpretive authority over the meaning of Scripture.  This authority is absolutely necessary to prevent every crank from founding a new sect on the basis of, say, his pet reading of the book of Revelation, or his private reasonings about divine predestination and foreknowledge.  Calvin and Luther supported this general principle; they never meant by “sola Scriptura” that interpretive authority had moved from the Church to the individual.  They were as harsh on idiosyncratic readings of Scripture as Rome was.

Second, I would like to you point me to official Catholic statements that say that “recognition of papal authority and submission to that authority” is *necessary for salvation*.  Last I heard, the doctrines necessary for salvation are found in the Creeds, and I’m unaware of references to the Pope in the Creeds.

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