Are We Facing the Demise of Big Tent Evangelicalism?

Darrel Falk
on October 09, 2010

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 Scot 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.


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Darrel Falk
About the Author

Darrel Falk

Darrel Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology and speaks frequently on the relationship between science and faith at universities and seminaries. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of BioLogos. Under his leadership, the BioLogos website and daily blog grew to thousands of readers and hundreds of authors, the Biology by the Sea workshop trained Christian biology teachers, and private workshops in New York were a forum for conversation and worship with top evangelical leaders. As president, he brought BioLogos into conversation with Southern Baptist leaders and with Reasons to Believe, and today he continues to be a key member of those dialogues. Falk received his B.Sc. (with Honors) from Simon Fraser University, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Alberta. He did postdoctoral work at The University of British Columbia and the University of California, Irvine before accepting a faculty position at Syracuse University in New York. Darrel’s early research focused on Drosophila molecular and developmental genetics with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. In 1988 he transitioned into Christian higher education in the biology department at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where he is now Emeritus Professor of Biology. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Genetics Society of America, and the American Scientific Affiliation.