The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Billy Graham, Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy, and Ecumenism, Old and New

Last week it was announced that Billy Graham, undoubtedly the most well-known evangelist of our time, had passed away at ninety-nine years of age. He had been out of the public spotlight for quite some time, having turned the leadership of his Evangelistic Association over to his son Franklin years ago. In my youth, however, he was still growing strong and two or three times a year, his crusades would be broadcast over television. When, twenty-seven years ago, I first put my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, I actually began watching them. The old Billy Graham “team” was still around at that time, with Cliff Barrows leading the service, George Beverley Shea singing one or another of his repertoire of gospel songs, and Billy Graham, of course, preaching a simple gospel message, and inviting people forward to receive Christ, always with Charlotte Elliot’s “Just as I Am” playing. This was the early nineties, following the decade that had seen the televangelist scandals over moral failures, misuse of donations, and dubious and excessive fundraising appeals, but Billy Graham was above all of that and his semi-annual broadcasts only ever contained a short, responsible, appeal for funds. They were about spreading the Gospel, not making money.

I have been reflecting much over the last couple of months on evangelicalism and orthodoxy. The two are not the same thing, although contemporary evangelicals often confuse them. There is much overlap between the two, but there are also very important differences. By orthodoxy, I mean small-o orthodoxy rather than the churches of the East which call themselves by the name Orthodoxy. Small-o orthodoxy, in short, is the term for the truths clearly propounded in the Holy Scriptures, as summarized in the Creeds of the early, undivided, Church. The term “evangelical” has had several meanings over the centuries. When, following the mid-fifteenth century invention of the printing press, Christian humanists such as Thomas More and Erasmus had renewed scholarly study of the Holy Scriptures and Patristic writings after the example of the similar ad fontes approach to the Graeco-Roman classics of the Renaissance humanists, this led to the rediscovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith and in the sixteenth century, the term evangelical, from the Greek word for Gospel, came into use, applied first to Martin Luther and the Lutherans, later to the Reformed followers of Zwingli and Calvin, who embraced the Pauline doctrine. In other words it became a synonym for Protestant and continues to be used as such in continental Europe. In the English-speaking world, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it developed the narrower meaning of those within Protestantism who followed the Wesleys and Whitefield in emphasizing the importance of a personal faith experience.

Today, the term evangelical, while still retaining these earlier associations, has undergone a further evolution in meaning and no figure was more representative of the “new evangelicalism” than the late Billy Graham. He was something of an historical bridge. On the one hand he was the last of the old itinerant revivalists – men like Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, “Gipsy” Smith, Billy Sunday, Bob Jones Sr., and Mordecai Ham – who would go from town to town, city to city, holding meetings in tents and fields, tabernacles and arenas, warning people of the judgement to come and pleading with them to turn to Christ while there is still time. On the other he was the first of the “new evangelicals” as Harold John Ockenga had dubbed them – a new breed that sought to distance itself from the combative fundamentalism of the older revivalists and to rewrap its message in a more polished and positive packaging. The National Association of Evangelicals, the journal Christianity Today, (1) and the Fuller Theological Seminary became the flagship institutions of the new evangelicalism and Billy Graham, involved to some degree or another in the establishment of each of these, was universally regarded as the movement’s chief spokesman. What is meant by evangelicalism today is what was called new or neo evangelicalism in the 1950s.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the “new” evangelicalism and the older, fundamentalist, variety was that the former was willing to participate in contemporary ecumenism, the latter was not. The nature of this difference is consistently distorted by evangelical historians but the truth of it can be seen in the event that signified their parting of ways – the 1957 Billy Graham Madison Square Garden Crusade.

This was the longest single campaign of Billy Graham’s career. He held meetings for four months straight in the huge Manhattan arena – not the one that presently bears the name but its predecessor. Prior to this campaign Billy Graham had come under fundamentalist criticism – most notably from the Rev. Carl McIntire in his Christian Beacon newspaper – for having accepted invitations from ministerial councils that included liberals. Until this campaign, Graham did not articulate a policy regarding this. This time, however, having turned down previous invitations from conservative groups, he had accepted one from the very liberal Protestant Council, upon whose full cooperation he insisted as a condition of his coming. In response to this many who had supported his earlier ministry and defended him from McIntire’s previous criticisms withdrew their support, including the Bob Joneses (2), evangelistic newspaper Sword of the Lord and its editor John R. Rice (3), and Jack Wyrtzen of Word of Life ministries. (4)

At this point the BGEA finally articulated a policy – one that was dubbed “cooperative evangelism.” (5) The policy was built upon the idea that as long as he was preaching the Biblical Gospel it should not matter who invited him to preach it. As the evangelist himself put it “I would like to make myself clear. I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody to preach the Gospel of Christ if there are no strings attached to my message. I am sponsored by civic clubs, universities, ministerial associations, and councils of churches all over the world. I intend to continue.” This idea, in itself, is quite sound and reasonable, and has clear Scriptural precedent in the ministry of St. Paul. The fundamentalists took the position that it was not a matter of speaking to whoever is willing to listen to you but that the kind of cooperation the BGEA was insisting upon from the ministerial councils was that of co-workers in the Gospel. To include liberal clergymen in this violates the clear teachings of Scriptures they argued, and they too were right. Note that in this context “liberal” does not refer to support for progressive politics – although the clergymen in question were usually liberal in that sense of the word too – but to disbelief in the authority of the Bible and anything in it that conflicts with modern rationalist presuppositions, especially supernatural miracles such as the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ Himself warned against such false teachers, as did St. Paul, both in the Acts of the Apostles and several of his epistles, and so did Sts. Jude, John and Peter, and the instructions as to how to deal with them are quite clear.

In other words, in the divergence of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, both sides started with a basic concept that was in itself reasonable, defensible, and Scriptural. Each side, however, then proceeded to take that concept an indefensible and absurd extreme. Fundamentalism became narrower, more divisive and schismatic – as the evangelicals predicted it would, whereas evangelicalism became more compromising and wishy-washy – as the fundamentalists had, indeed, foreseen.

Both sides would have benefited greatly from a better knowledge and understanding of the first five centuries of Christian history – the era of the first “ecumenism.” Ecumenical is a Latinization of the Greek word meaning “the entire inhabited earth” by which the great councils of the early Church were designated. These were the councils in which representatives of the entire Church convened to define the doctrines of Scriptural orthodoxy and to condemn heresies. The first and second of these, the First Councils of Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD), were called, primarily in response to the heresy of Arius of Alexandria, produced the most important and most widely used of the Christian Creeds.

The “ecumenism” of the early centuries was similar to the ecumenism that began in the early twentieth century in the sense that it had the unity of the Christian faith and Church as its goal. In another sense it was completely different because the Fathers of these early councils did not believe that this unity should or could be attained through sacrificing truth and attempting to find a lowest common denominator of belief – the approach of the contemporary ecumenical movement. They defined orthodoxy and condemned heresy. Those who taught heresy contrary to Apostolic orthodoxy were defrocked, excommunicated, and anathematized.

From the Novatian and Donatist controversies, fundamentalism could have learned that the answer to impurity in the Christian Church is not to withdraw and found your own, supposedly, “pure” sect – this is, in fact, the heresy of sectarianism and schimaticism. From the Patristic era as a whole, on the other hand, from St. Irenaeus and Tertullian’s treatises against the Gnostics and Marcionites, from the stands of St. Athanasius of Alexandria against Arius, of St. Basil the Great and the St. Gregories of Cappadocia for the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, including the Personhood and full deity of the Holy Spirit, and of St. Cyril of Alexandria against Nestorius, evangelicalism could have learned that however worthwhile the goal of healing schism, and fostering larger Christian unity that transcends denominational labels may be, it must never be at the expense of the Apostolic doctrine of Christ. Anyone who is at all familiar with the writings of these and the other Church Fathers ought to know that they would have been as vehement as the fundamentalists, if not more so, in their condemnation of liberal or modernist theologians, who deny Christ’s virgin birth and resurrection. (6)

What the Christian faith and Church needs, is the ecumenical orthodoxy of the first five centuries, not the unorthodox ecumenism of today.

(1) In my country, Canada, the equivalent of the National Association of Evangelicals is the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and on an international scale it is the World Evangelical Alliance. The EFC’s journal Faith Today could be considered a Canadian version of Christianity Today.
(2) Before taking a degree in anthropology at Wheaton College Billy Graham studied for the ministry at Florida Bible Institute. His first semester, however, had been at Bob Jones College, when it was located in Cleveland, Tennessee. When the Joneses relocated to Greenville, South Carolina and expanded their school into a university, they awarded an honorary degree to Billy Graham.
(3) Rice’s newspaper, of whose board Graham had been a member, had heavily promoted Graham’s ministry up until this point. Two year’s previously he had gone to Glasgow, Scotland to appear with Billy Graham in a campaign there and he had defended the BGEA when he had earlier been suspected of ecumenical tendencies.
(4) Before founding the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Graham began his evangelistic career working for Youth for Christ. Wyrtzen had been an important influence in the founding of YFC.
(5) Robert O. Ferm’s short book by this title, published by Zondervan shortly after the Madison Square Garden Crusade, articulated and defended the BGEA’s policy. A response from the fundamentalist side, written by Gary G. Cohen and entitled Biblical Separatism Defended was published by Presbyterian & Reformed Ltd. in 1966.
(6) This conclusion cannot be escaped by the deceptive argument that fundamentalism is literalist in its interpretation of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers were not. Traditional theologians, beginning with the Church Fathers, diverge from fundamentalist literalism, not by denying the truth of the literal interpretation of things like the virgin birth and resurrection, the way liberals do, but by insisting that the correct interpretation of the Scriptures is not limited to the literal, that there are other layers of meaning on top of the literal. Among those with whom the Fathers contended were Jews and Ebionites who maintained that Isaiah 7:14 does not predict a virgin birth but only that a young woman will conceive. Their arguments were identical to those later advanced by liberals, such as those who translated the RSV and NRSV. Similarly, the answers of Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, are identical to those of twentieth-century fundamentalists.

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