I mean no disrespect to Rev. Billy Graham, who passed away at the age of 99 last week. But as people are piling on tributes from every corner of the world, I would like to shed light on one of the “hinge moments” of 20th century American Christianity.
Something happened early on in Graham’s life that proved to be a crossroads of enormous import. It’s a well-known story in Graham circles; I especially recommend Alan Bean’s version, which juxtaposes the lives and careers of two preachers, Billy Graham and Chuck Templeton. Billy and Chuck were friends and colleagues; they both had bright preaching futures in front of them, having already experienced great post-war revival success in Europe. Chuck, however, having little formal education, decided to enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary to beef up his bonafides. He invited Billy to come with him, but Graham declined.
In the summer of 1949, after Chuck’s first year of seminary, the two friends caught up with each other at a summer retreat center. Billy himself was beginning to struggle with the reliability of the Bible. Critical scholarship was beginning to poke holes in the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy; it was becoming clear that the Bible had not been dictated word for word by God.
Chuck eagerly embraced the new scholarship on the Bible, and challenged Billy to let go of his old-fashioned Biblical literalism. Billy clung to his trust in the Bible, but inwardly he was shaken.
As the legend goes, Billy went off into the forest one night with his Bible. When he came across a tree stump, he set the Bible down on it, and began to pray:
“O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”
Then, falling to his knees, Graham prayed:
“Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”
Graham immediately felt peace flood his soul, and as the story goes, he never looked back. He picked up the Bible and got back on the revival path. He never entertained a doubt about Scripture’s veracity again.
What makes the story so gut-wrenching is that Chuck Templeton, after graduating from Princeton, eventually left the church and became an atheist. Thus, to Graham’s fans, the story is a morality play, a scene which illustrates what happens to the person who rejects the inerrancy of the Bible.
Billy Graham framed the issue of Scriptural authority in stark black-and-white terms — either the Bible is completely inerrant, given directly by God, and therefore reliable, or else it is full of errors, mistakes, and human invention, and therefore completely unreliable. Either the Bible is God’s Word, or it’s not. Either you can trust it all, or you can’t trust any of it. Faced with such a choice, Graham chose the Bible.
For sixty-nine years, we have been burdened with Graham’s decision. The evangelical church ever since has chosen to embrace Graham’s fundamentalist, inerrantist view. As a result, a good portion of American evangelicals still reject evolution, believe homosexuality is a choice, believe everybody who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as Savior is going to hell, and don’t allow women to hold leadership positions in the church.
All because a young preacher, confused by the contradictions of the Bible, thought he had to choose between science and religion, between reason and faith, between scholarship and obedience.
But he didn’t have to make such a choice! I wish I could have been there at that tree stump with the young Billy Graham. I would have shaken him and said, “This is a false dilemma! You are not called to have faith in a book, only in God! To the extent that this book called the Bible is helpful in pointing you to God, then use it. But men wrote this book, and you have to expect that they made mistakes, because that's what men do. Your job is to read it carefully, to parse the meanings, to discern the truth which runs through its lines. But nobody says that you have to believe that everything in it is literally true!”
I would open his Bible on the tree stump and force him to read again the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11 and I’d ask him, “You don’t think this really happened, do you?” I’d read him the story of Elisha the prophet sending two bears to maul a bunch of kids because they’d made fun of his bald head. I’d read him the accounts of God telling the Israelites to slaughter and destroy entire villages, leaving no man, woman, or child alive. I’d ask, “How is this God’s word? How will you contort your words to make these passages seem inspired by God?”
I understand why Graham felt threatened that night. It’s a fearful thing to confront a Bible which demands thought and wrestling with contradictions. I know that he thought he was doing the right thing.
But don’t you wonder how history might have unfolded differently if the message that Graham had preached had been more open to science, to reason, to diversity, to ambiguity? I like to think that American Christianity would have a different tone, a more loving timbre, a bent toward justice, and a more open attitude toward the Bible.