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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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John VanZwieten - #34674

October 14th 2010


From Zoom Info:
Background for Walter ReMine
Employment History
University of Minnesota Hospitals
MSEE degree
BSEE Degree

And this is honestly where you expect to find the theory that overturns a century and half of biology?  Can you point to a flattering review by a scientist who is not creationist or IDist?  Otherwise—“pseudoscience.”

Martin Rizley - #34679

October 14th 2010

John,  Creationists and IDists are the ONLY scientists who do not embrace, as a matter of scientific principle, the exclusion of intelligent activity as a factor to be reckoned with in explaining the origin of living things.  So naturally, they are the only kind of scientists who would give a favorable review of a book that posits the direct creation of a host of original organisms “with no ancestors.”  ReMine, as a creationist, believes that there is considerable SCIENTIFIC support for the view that “numerous life forms were separately created, yet they did not remain entirely unchanged.  They varied and branched, like an evolutionary tree on a smaller scale.”  He holds that “considerable variation occurs within the originally created life forms,” but that the ‘trees’ in this creationist orchard “are separate and distinct.  There are no branches going from tree to tree.  Each tree is disconnected from others.”  How is any scientist other than a creationist or IDist even going to listen to what he has to say?  It violates the dogma of methodological naturalism, which no scientist in our state-funded schools may violate (as a general rule) without putting his professional career on the line.

Martin Rizley - #34682

October 15th 2010

I’ll respond to your questions tomorrow; got to go for now.

John VanZwieten - #34689

October 15th 2010


Right, so ReMine has a belief about what organisms God originally created and he martials scientific information in support of that belief along with his own theory about how God is sending us a specific message by creating things that way.  That’s pretty much pseudoscience in a nutshell—it’s sounds scientific enough to be convincing to someone with little training in science but who has a sympathetic belief structure, but has little to do with the actual enterprise of science.

Jon Garvey - #34693

October 15th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #34656

Matters of plausibility are, of course, subjective and therefore up to you. But I don’t see how ReMine’s views help a literalist understanding of Genesis at all - he’s an old earth progressive creationist, in essence, from his reviews. He therefore accepts the basic trustworthiness of the fossil record, presumably including the hominid sequence.

Evolution is not the primary problem in a literalist position on Adam, but an ancient earth, gradual change (even within classes or whatever his limit proposes), archaeology, anthropology, history, human genetics, geology, ancient literature, internal textual problems. To name but a few.

Evolutionary biology, astronomy, cosmology, plate tectonics, physics and chemistry only become big problems looking at the wider aspects of creation.

penman - #34694

October 15th 2010

Hi Martin,
No, the Reformers didn’t say the bible is obscure about everything except what we must believe to be saved.

What they said is that there’s a guarantee of clarity on matters of salvation, but no such guarantee for anything outside that sphere. So while there MAY be clarity on non-saving truths, there MUST be clarity on saving truth. Scripture will certainly be clear on what we need to know for salvation; there’s no certainty it will be that clear on other things, or indeed clear at all on some things. Why did Calvin write all those commentaries if he thought Scripture was clear about everything?

So you can’t just dogmatically assume that Genesis 1-3 CLEARLY teaches a non-EC view (whether YEC, OEC, or some other), unless you’re prepared to make it necessary for salvation.

And - Scripture itself testifies to the unclarity of some of its parts. Peter says of Paul’s letters “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet.3:16). Would you say something is clear to you if you find it hard to understand? The whole point of clarity on salvation is that even a child can understand it - “from childhood you have known the holy scriptures which make us wise for salvation” (2 Tim.3:15).

Jon Garvey - #34698

October 15th 2010

@penman - #34694

Penman, have you seen Melvyn Tinker’s book on Genesis? You may know he’s a leading figure in Dick Lucas’ Proclamation Trust, the organisation working to get sound Biblical preaching back into the churches (one of my former fellow-elders is on the board).

The book has a sympathetic forward by Jim Packer, who seems overall to view neo-Darwinism as an odd, but effective, hypothesis and seems himself to lean towards the TE position.

So if the Big Tent is indeed shrinking, it’s going to evict many of the teachers of my youth (John Stott, Derek Kidner, John Wenham, Jim Packer, Os Guinness), and my maturity (Proclamation Trust, N T Wright, John Walton) as well as past giants like Warfield and (given his denial of the literal truth of Gen 1.16) John Calvin himself.

You have to wonder if the company might not be better in the open air!

Martin Rizley - #34739

October 15th 2010

John,  What ReMine does is show how the whole concept of universal ‘common ancestry’ is based on a number of arguments that appear convincing at first, but involve logical ‘sleight of hand.’  He also shows that, for one who believes in God, such phenomena as ‘nested hierarchies’ have an explanation other than the purely materialistic one of unguided, random ‘descent plus modification’ that naturalism proposes.  If God exists and if He wishes to send a message to mankind, then it makes perfect sense that He would design the natural world as we find it, with patterns of similarities and differences that suggest at first a purely naturalistic development, but which on closer inspection, defy such an explanation.  That is ReMine’s thesis, and he gives gobs of information to support it.  The fact he is not a Phd. does not necessarily make him incapable of understanding and refuting evolution.  Many advances in science have been made, not so much by people with degrees, but by people with brilliant and creative minds who were able to ‘see’ things others failed to see.  His book essentially debunks the idea that ‘mega-evolution’ is an open and shut case.  There are is another, better explanation of ‘what we see.’

Martin Rizley - #34745

October 15th 2010

penman,  I actually agree with what you say about matters necessary for salvation having a guarantee of clarity that does not pertain to other doctrinal issues.  All other issues may have no such guarantee, with some interpretive issues being extremely hard to understand; for example, some prophetic issues may be incapable of understanding fully until after their fulfilment.  I want you to know, however, that I am not just “assuming” that Genesis 1-3 CLEARLY teaches a non-EC view.  I have come to that conclusion only after much detailed study of the text of Genesis 1-11 in its wider literary context over a prolonged period of time.  That study has led me to the firm conclusion, first of all, that the Bible does not allow us to see Adam as a symbolic,everyman figure, but as a real historical figure, with a real lineage, given dominion over all other creatures. (I know many EC’s would agree with that, but for some reason, the Biologos Foundation seems intent on saying ‘It doesn’t matter if sin entered the world through one man,’ thereby trivializing, in my opinion, the teaching of Paul in Romans 5.)

Martin Rizley - #34746

October 15th 2010

Second, I have come to the conclusion that the usual hermeneutical approach of EC’s to the text of Genesis 1-11 is to ‘run roughshod’ over the text; in their eagerness to say, “Let’s look at the big picture and not worry about the details,’ they end up abandoning the details and sound principles of exegesis—professing ignorance over such clear biblical teachings as the creation of Eve subsequent to Adam and from the substance of Adam—a point taken literally by the apostle Paul.  Moreover, the way in which EC’s declare certain details of the Genesis narrative to be ‘symbolic’ and other things ‘literal’ seems to me quite arbitrary and without any logic based in heremeutics and a grammatical-historical approach to the text; such an approach leads inevitably to a agnosticism about what the text is saying, an agnosticism that the apostles did not seem to share.    Anyway, my point is that I am not assuming a literal approach to Genesis 1-11; I have arrived it by sustained study of the text in its wider context.

Martin Rizley - #34747

October 15th 2010

Let me quickly add that I am by no means questioning the sincere Christian faith of those who hold the EC position.  Men like J. I. Packer are true giants in the faith; I have great respect for them and their zeal for Christ and the kingdom of God.  I simply disagree with their hermeneutical approach to the text of Genesis, when it leads them to adopt a heremeneutic that declares certain things to be symbolic—such as the creation of Adam’s inanimate body from dust, or the creation of Eve from Adam’s side—for no clear textual, exegetical reasons at all, but simply because it ‘strikes’ them as figurative.  I simply cannot follow them in this (to my mind) arbitrary approach to biblical interpretation.  None of the Protestant Reformers interpreted the text of Genesis this way.

penman - #34752

October 15th 2010

Hi Martin
We seem to have come a bit closer!

I agree on Adam’s historicity, although I see him as federal head, not genetic source, of humankind. The way I see things, there’s no NEED to question his reality in an EC framework.
I haven’t made my mind up whether Eve was literally created from Adam, but it carries no dogmatic weight. When Paul refers to it, he may just be referring to what the text says; he doesn’t comment on its inner meaning. Like I would refer, perfectly honestly, to “the Genesis account of God creating the world in six days”. Referencing the text still leaves open issues of interpretation.
I accept your view on the clarity of Gen.1-3. You aren’t asserting its clear teaching of a non-EC view as a matter of dogmatic certainty, on a par with scripture’s saving content, but that your studies have made it “clear to you” that it’s non-EC. That’s fine by me. I’ll have to say the opposite, of course!
And you agree that one’s salvation is not at stake in one’s view of origins.

A pretty impressive list of agreements.

Maybe I should add - I wouldn’t want anyone’s conscience within the church to be bound to an EC view. In that sphere, I’d want liberty of opinion. Problem is, YECs want to bind us!

penman - #34753

October 15th 2010

Jon Garvey - #34698

==Penman, have you seen Melvin Tinker’s book on Genesis? You may know he’s a leading figure in Dick Lucas’ Proclamation Trust, the organisation working to get sound Biblical preaching back into the churches==

No - but there it is on Amazon: “Reclaiming Genesis: The Theatre of God’s Glory - Or a Scientific Story?” Just published, I see. Another hole in my finances…

We need another B.B.Warfield. There was a mighty Reformed theologian who was perfectly open to Darwin AND articulated a very high doctrine of the inspiration & veracity of scripture. It’s weird how young earth brethren have latched onto the latter aspect of Warfield’s legacy so zealously, but reprobated the former aspect as the Utter Denial Of Scripture. Hmmm: tell it to Warfield…

Martin Rizley - #34757

October 15th 2010

Here’s a question that occurred to me regarding your theory of ‘fully human’ homo sapiens and ‘sub-human’ homo sapiens living in close contact with each other from the days of Adam onward.  Since God gave Adam ‘dominion’ over all the lower creatures, would that have included the homo sapiens who were living at the time that lacked human souls?  Could Adam have exercised that dominion by enslaving and subjugating these homo sapiens as ‘beasts of burden’?  We know that Abel even slayed animals lacking the image of God for purposes of worship—for he brought the firstlings of his flocks to the Lord.  Would it have been murder for him or any other ‘fully human’ person to slay a ‘sub-human’ homo sapien cousin?  Do you see the problems I have with this view, which seems to minimize to a vanishing point the infinite gap in dignity and worth between Adam and the ‘highest’ of the higher creatures over which he was given dominion?

John VanZwieten - #34759

October 15th 2010


Not only does ReMine not have a PhD., but as far as I can tell he doesn’t have any degree in biology or even a closely related field.  I’m sure he’s a great guy, smart and well-meaning and has done lots of investigating, but there is very little chance that he has really been exposed to the great breadth of information that supports common descent.

So he ends up giving information which he says supports his thesis, and pointing out some “holes” in evolutionary theories, but no doubt ignoring many lines of reasoning that support common descent.

Jon Garvey - #34762

October 15th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #34757

Unfallen Adam: one assumes that he would have exercised dominion, even over the beasts, in a Christlike way, having direct communion with him. Where would slavery have any part in that?

Fallen Adam and his progeny: slavery even of ones own kind became the norm in Sumerian civilisation, and human sacrifice was not far behind. None of that was based on Adam’s dominion, because he’d lost it and was grubbing out thorns and pricking his fingers instead.

On the more general point the gap between spiritual co-regent and animal is made pretty clear in Genesis itself (a) by his creation on the same day as the beasts, (b) by his being, like them, from dust. Blaise Pascal said some words on the importance of not mistaking man for a mere beast nor an angel, because he is both.

Adam, evicted from the garden to the land of Eden, was a deposed king. He was in no position to go round saying, “I used to be a friend of God, you know, and was in charge round here - you’d better watch how you speak to me .. or .. well you’d better watch out, that’s all.” He might have found he was enslaved himself by somebody bigger than him, like the guys Cain was afraid would kill him.

Martin Rizley - #34769

October 15th 2010

John,  When one puts a yoke on oxen or a pack on the back of donkeys and uses them as beasts of burden, one could say that is a form of slavery.  After all, the ‘beast’ has no say in the matter, and is remunerated, not monetarily, but simply by being provided with food, shelter, etc.  Certainly, a good animal owner treats his beasts with compassion, but they are his property, nevertheless.  They have no ‘freedom,’ but must do what their owner says.  There is no sin in this, since animals are not humans, and therefore, are not entitled to HUMAN rights.  Now, if ‘image-bearing’ man was given dominon over ALL the lower creatures, what sin would there have been in depriving sub-human homo sapiens of their liberty by ‘using’ them as a work force?  That was, in fact, the justification for African slavery; ‘civilized’ white men subjugated black Africans on the assumption that they lacked souls. No doubt, many slave owners treated their ‘property’ with compassion, but it was paternalism, nevertheless, rooted for some in the belief that a homo sapien, less evolved, could lack a human soul and the dignity that belongs to those who are fully human.

Martin Rizley - #34771

October 15th 2010

Rich, To answer just briefly the issues you raise.  The Baltimore Catechism certainly teaches that Christians need to the Roman Catholic church to shed light on the Bible, since it is God’s divinely authorized ‘guardian’ of sacred traditions which are the necessary ‘key’ to unlocking the meaning of otherwise obscure passages like Matthew 16:18.  Without the light that Rome sheds on those passages as the guardian of sacred tradition, those passages remain ‘veiled’ or ‘locked up’ in darkness and obscurity.  No Roman Catholic believes that the doctrine of the papacy is fully revealed in the New Testament, or that biblical passages which allegedly ‘support’ the papacy are clear in themselves, apart from extra-biblical revelation in the form of sacred tradition of which Rome alone is the guardian.  So Christians stand in need of the Roman church to teach it the true meaning of Scripture.  Regarding the necessity of submitting to the pope for salvation, one must distinguish between what Catholics regard as absolute necessity and normative necessity.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #34772

October 15th 2010

Obviously, Catholics make room for the salvation of those who never submit to the pope’s authority because they are are ‘invincibly ignorant’ of the true nature of the Roman Church as the only institution authorized by Christ to administer saving grace.  But if those who are in a position to ‘know better’ concerning the nature of the church reject the pope’s authority as the head of the church by refusing Roman Catholic baptism, they are in deep trouble, because the Roman church is the only true church.  Other so-called churches are ‘ecclesial communities’ where God’s grace may work invisibly among the ‘invincibly ignorant’ who would be Catholics, if they only knew better.  So all this makes submission to the pope’s authority normatively necessary for salvation, but not absolutely necessary in the case of the invincibly ignorant, who receive what is called the “baptism of desire.”  The psychological dilemma this creates for Catholics who contemplate leaving the Church is enormous, for in rejecting the pope’s authority, they fear they are cutting themselves off from Christ.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #34773

October 15th 2010

It is in light of this reality the Reformers said that everything necessary for salvation is clearly taught in the Bible ALONE—no extra-biblical traditions are needed, so no submission to any man who claims to be ‘head of the church’ is necessary.  Christ alone is head of the church, and he rules it through the written Word of God alone.  Luther did not say, “My conscience is captive” to the decrees of church councils or popes, but to the written Word of God; and he expected all Christians to keep their conscience free from any mandates that are not based on Scripture. 
I won’t bore you with the list of statements by popes who declared that submission to their authority was necessary for salvation; you can look it up for yourself on the internet.  It is beyond dispute, however, that when the pope excommunicated Luther, this was intended to terrify both him and all the German peasants who followed him, since it was a way of saying, “Outside of the Roman church, you are cut off from the means of grace and salvation.”

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