Thoughts on Billy Graham
This week I got sent a link to the Billy Graham article that’s got everyone up in arms by a church member who keeps up with “Christian news.” Knowing this person, she is wondering what I think about the whole deal. Well, I’ll tell her exactly what I said over at “Provocatin’ Panties.” (runs and hides before Timmy hurts him) Yes, I know it’s old news by now, but in a Deaf church “old news” has a way of becoming The Big Story until someone (usually the pastor) speaks on the issue and it dies.
To begin, I’m among the throng of those scratching their heads, saying “Huh?” Is Graham really denying biblical inerrancy? Is he embracing universalism? What in tarnation is going on?
My first reaction was simply, “He’s getting old and he’s less interested in fighting the good fight.”
My second reaction was, “They should have kept Joel Osteen a little futher away.”
My third reaction is the one I should have had first, to stop and pray for the man.
Too many of us in recent days have had the reaction of attack. Few have given well-nuanced reactions about this interview; I am blessed to have read several of them including a couple by my SBTS brethren. I don’t claim to have the ability of nuance, so I’ll try to take a couple of points and just simply react.
He is an evangelist still unequivocally committed to the Gospel, but increasingly thinks God’s ways and means are veiled from human eyes and wrapped in mystery. “There are many things that I don’t understand,” he says. He does not believe that Christians need to take every verse of the Bible literally; “sincere Christians,” he says, “can disagree about the details of Scripture and theology—absolutely.”
Okay. Nothing worth getting riled up about here, because it is true. Now, before anyone starts accusing me of not believing in inerrancy or whatever, let me ask you if the all of the prophetic parts of Daniel and Revelation are literal or not, or if they require us to think in a nuanced way. And before we start talking about heretics like Marcus Borg, stop and think for a minute. Only the silliest of you would say that I’m not a Christian (or even a “sincere Christian”) because I don’t agree with limited atonement. I disagree with many of my peers on Scripture and theology on this issue; yet I’m not branded a heretic (except in jest, of course). Hopefully you catch my drift.
Graham spends hours now with his Bible, at once savoring and reconsidering old stories and old lessons. While he believes Scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins straightforwardly reporting on events in the ancient Middle East. “I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord,” Graham says. “This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.” He has, then, moved from seeing every word of Scripture as literally accurate to believing that parts of the Bible are figurative—a journey that began in 1949, when a friend challenged his belief in inerrancy during a conference in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains. Troubled, Graham wandered into the woods one night, put his Bible on a stump and said, “Lord, I don’t understand all that is in this book, I can’t explain it all, but I accept it by faith as your divine word.”
Now we can begin the head-scratching. On the surface, I think the interviewer has grossly misrepresented Graham on this point. The story referenced here is usually told in Graham biographies to show how Graham rejected the idea that the Bible is not inerrant.
As far as his “jot and tittle” remark, I am scratching my head on that one. It makes no sense, given his history. I’d really like to know the context of that remark and what Graham said prior to and after this remark. It is, indeed, troubling; however I would rather wait and hope Graham clarifies his remark.
But I do understand that some parts of the Bible can be read figuratively, given the examples the article uses. It never ceases to boggle me when people insist the days of Creation were six 24-hour days when we didn’t get a sun until the fourth day. It’s completely up in the air how long the first three days were! Was it a 1000 year day? A 1-hour day? We don’t know. It’s a matter of interpretation. Oh dear, break out the straightjacket, Stephen’s lost it! But anyone with a bit of common sense and a bit of study can get a good sense of what is literal and what is figurative. It’s my personal opinion that the Bible rarely deals in figuratives unless prophecy is involved; then we tend to have a lot of figurative language to describe what will literally happen. Of course, we do have the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, non-prophetic books all.
Three rules of interpreting prophecy and figurative language that I was taught in college and still use when reading prophecy: 1) Could this literally be that way? 2) Could the writer be trying to describe what he is literally seeing/hearing/etc.? 3) Could the writer simply be trying to make a point?
Asked about his son’s use of the phrase “evil and wicked” in reference to Islam, Graham says: “I would not say Islam is wicked and evil … I have a lot of friends who are Islamic. There are many wonderful people among them. I have a great love for them. I have spoken at Islamic meetings, in Nigeria and in different parts of the world.” The father’s view, then, is different from the son’s. “I’m sure there are many things that he and I are not in total agreement about,” Graham says. “I’m an old man, he’s a young man in the prime of life.” Anne Graham Lotz, after expressing her deep respect for her brother’s life and work, said: “When Daddy was my brother’s age, he was saying some pretty strong things, too, so you have to remember that experience and the living of a life can soften your perspective.”
This part of the article is what made me think his age is affecting him. I don’t think he really wants to open this can of worms; perhaps he does not see any inroads for the Gospel by engaging in debate over Islam. He stated before this quote that all he wanted to do was discuss the Gospel. And in his ministry, that has primarily consisted of telling people that Jesus saves, not that their religion is false. Yes, I know that debate itself can be an inroad, but for an old man, Graham may just want a little peace and quiet.
When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: “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.” Such an ecumenical spirit may upset some Christian hard-liners, but in Graham’s view, only God knows who is going to be saved: “As an evangelist for more than six decades, Mr. Graham has faithfully proclaimed the Bible’s Gospel message that Jesus is the only way to Heaven,” says Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross. “However, salvation is the work of Almighty God, and only he knows what is in each human heart.”
This is the biggest head-scratcher of all of them. But Graham is exactly right–who gets into heaven is a decision only the Lord will make. I really do wish he’d clarify this comment by reiterating his belief that Jesus is the only way to Heaven. I do think he is right to say that God loves all of us regardless of what “label” we have. If He didn’t, He would not have sent Jesus as the ultimate expression of His love. But we know that God’s love does not act in a saving manner to everyone. Graham does not here say that it does act in such a way, he simply says it is none of his business. It is God’s business alone. And that’s true–only God gets to decide who is saved. All we can do is preach the Gospel and let the Lord do His work. Again, I would like to know the context of this quote before passing judgment on Graham as a universalist.
If he had his life to live over again, Graham says he would spend more time immersed in Scripture and theology. He never went to seminary, and his lack of a graduate education is something that still gives him a twinge. “The greatest regret that I have is that I didn’t study more and read more,” he says. “I regret it, because now I feel at times I am empty of what I would like to have been. I have friends that have memorized great portions of the Bible. They can quote [so much], and that would mean a lot to me now.”
This is the best quote in the entire article. All of us can give a hearty “amen.”
Well, I hope said church member is now satisfied. I’m going to bed.