Billy Graham and theological humility, will the next generation follow in his footsteps?
Every three years, young evangelists from around the world gather in Portland Oregon to attend a conference put on by the Next Generation Alliance, an organization dedicated to mentoring the next generation of global gospel preachers. While I’m looking forward to the Innovative Evangelism Conference next week, I think a serious reflection on the man that most of us attending the conference draw the bulk of our inspiration from—Billy Graham—is in order.
The typical Billy Graham narrative goes something like this. Billy started his ministry as a self-assured fundamentalist. In the early days of his ministry, preaching the gospel went hand in hand with defeating communism. Eventually Graham’s championing of the Vietnam War and his close association with Richard Nixon caught up with him and he got burned, resulting in a crisis of faith that produced a much gentler and wiser Billy Graham.
As familiar as this story is, I think it’s a mistake to reduce Graham’s metamorphosis to pre-Nixon and post-Nixon—as if the only thing Graham learned in his older age was that it’s a mistake to politicize the gospel. Such an oversimplification of Graham’s life and ministry overlooks a key aspect of Billy Graham’s legacy that’s become somewhat of an elephant in the room. Whether we like it or not, Billy Graham’s life and ministry represents a middle ground between fundamentalism and theological liberalism.
Take for example two issues that have become litmus tests for orthodoxy among Biblical fundamentalists—evolution and the fate of the unevangelized on judgment day. On the subject of evolution, Billy Graham has consistently maintained throughout his ministry that Christianity and evolution are compatible. While it may be fashionable for evangelical leaders today to speak of intelligent design over and against young earth creationism, Billy Graham goes even further by insisting that the Bible is not a science book, and shouldn’t be read as such. On this matter Graham is further to the left than the average evangelical, although his Biblical hermeneutic on the rest of the Scriptures remain a far cry from theological liberalism (For example: Graham may see the seven days of Genesis as figurative, but he maintains that Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale).
The same can be said for Billy Graham’s agnostic position on the fate of the unevangelized on judgment day. When asked by Newsweek if he felt that heaven would be open to people of other faiths besides Christianity, Billy Graham responded, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
At first glance it may seem like the older Billy Graham has single-handedly undermined his entire life’s ministry as an evangelist. Some have even attributed his comments—and other comments like these—to senility. Still others have written him off as a heretic. Again, the reality is more complex. Billy Graham has never wavered in his belief that Christ’s death and resurrection is the only means by which a person can be saved, and neither does he apologize for his commitment to preach the gospel for the conversion of sinners to Christ. What the older Billy Graham has learned, however, is that a person can be resolute in their commitment to the gospel and be theologically humble at the same time.
Ironically, it’s Billy’s example of theological humility that may free the next generation to ask some hard questions about the classic evangelical gospel that he popularized. For example, does the classic evangelical gospel, complete with an altar call and the standard sinner’s prayer, take seriously enough the teachings of Jesus against accumulating wealth and earthly possessions? To what extent should non-violence and identification with the poor be proclaimed as part of the gospel of the Kingdom? Has the sinner’s prayer been overemphasized at the expense of baptism as the initiation into the Body of Christ?
These are difficult questions with no easy answers, which is why the next generation of evangelists could use a dose of Billy Graham’s theological humility. Billy Graham has served his generation faithfully, but even Billy knows that he doesn’t have a corner on truth—and neither will the next generation that follows in his footsteps. Billy Graham has led the way, but now it’s up to us, the next generation, to carry the mantle and hear what the Spirit is saying to our world today. I think Billy would agree.