The names of Karl Barth and of Billy Graham ought not, perhaps, to be mentioned in the same sentence, unless one is prepared to stay for the afternoon.
Their gifts and callings are diverse—the one a skilled theologian, the other a skilled evangelist. Their influence is equally dissimilar, that of the one mainly academic, and of the other mainly popular. Barth is today doubtless at the very apex of his career, while Graham’s star very probably is still rising.
Nonetheless, both names are indelibly inscribed upon the role of distinguished Christian leaders in the twentieth century. In some respects, moreover, their ministries reflect superficial points of contact. Barth has had an impact upon theological thought throughout much of the Western world through the translation of his writings; Graham has had an evangelistic access to the Orient as well as to the Continent through the translation of his preaching. Even to contrast their ministries in terms of the technical versus the simple is to exaggerate their basic differences. Barth’s influence has extended beyond the classroom to the pew, and Graham’s call to decision among university students has been as effective as among the less sophisticated. Barth has delivered a series of Gifford Lectures; Graham has fulfilled a week’s preaching mission at Cambridge. And what theologian today does not covet a broad ministry to the market place? Is not the New Testament ideal (we do not imply the flawlessness of Barth’s theology nor of Graham’s evangelism) the theologian-evangelist, whom the apostle Paul supremely exemplifies?
However varied their talents and influences, both Barth and Graham have come to symbolize a religious springtime after the long, cold winter of Liberalism. They stand as giants of our generation protesting against the liberal reduction of the Bible to the category of sacred literature generally. The Hebrew-Christian Scriptures differ uniquely from all other religious writings in their witness to special revelation; they cannot, therefore, be classified under general divine revelation. In stressing this fact, the “theology of the Word of God” and the evangelism of “the Bible says” are in formal agreement, and share in the rebellion against the classic liberal distrust of the special revelation claim that is everywhere implicit in the Bible.
Yet whoever sees no essential difference between the views of the Bible represented by Barth and the theology of crisis, on the one hand, and by Graham and the theology of the evangelicals, on the other, stands in need of theological lenses.
The difference is understated when the one position is lampooned as returning to the “precritical” and “prescientific” view which disregards “the new knowledge of the Bible.” To explain the difference by saying that the evangelical view waves aside those indubitable gains which objective scientific criticism can bring is an oversimplification. There will be convenient occasions to speak of such gains without concealing the sad predicament of twentieth-century biblical scholarship.
Mr. Graham has not, indeed, centered his preaching, nor his writing, in the perspectives of modern higher criticism. Wisely enough, he has left the discussion of critical problems to those whose lives have been dedicated to criticism. And, be it plainly admitted, the critics today face herculean problems, which call for more than expert skill. They bear the burdensome task of letting their profession down easily from a growing series of discredited verdicts—among them the impossibility of Mosaic writings, the nonhistoricity of the Hittites, the priority of the prophets over the Law, the non-supernatural Jesus, the Greek rather than Hebrew background of the New Testament, the second-century dating of John’s Gospel, and so forth. They now find scholarship as imposing as that of Dr. William F. Albright in support of the thesis that the composition of no New Testament book need be dated later than A.D. 80, that is, after the lifetime of contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth. The reconciliation of competitive critical theories is no easy task, and it is no wonder a mere evangelist would prefer to bequeath its exacting requirements to the specialists. For what so often has been proclaimed, with evangelistic fervor, as an assured result of critical science, has turned out all too often to be a transient dogma of a biased critic.
The Church may rejoice that an emphasis on the New Testament evangel is finding its way once again into pulpits from which it was long absent. In this proclamation of the evangel there is often a considerable similarity between those who hold the high view of the Bible and those who shy away from it. Whoever preaches the Gospel must lean heavily on the warnings of Jesus about sin and its connection with the wrath of God and the judgment to come, no less than upon His assurances of the gracious forgiveness and the welcome awaiting sinners who come to the Father “in Christ’s name.” The omission of either of these elements is destructive of the Gospel. But the Gospel is far more definite than this; the simplest New Testament statement of it includes the substitutionary death of Christ for sinners and His bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-4). It is at this point of the sharper definition of the Gospel that the difference between evangelical and sub-evangelical preaching comes more clearly into view.
The danger in a pragmatic age is that the success of evangelism may institute an era of respect for evangelism in which the evangel itself is foggy and mist-thin. Much of this resurgent emphasis today is hesitantly biblical in mood. It is especially uncomfortable in the presence of the well-worn Graham formula: “The Bible says.” In fact, in some places, the twentieth-century phenomenon of an evangelist without an evangel has appeared in the aftermath of a Graham campaign.
A half-hearted confidence in the reliability and authority of Scripture faces the opportunities of evangelism with self-defeating uncertainties. Shall the evangelist preach the wrath of God? The apostles did. The propitiatory atonement? The apostles did. The final doom of the wicked? The apostles did. The formula “the Bible says” covers all the articles of faith. If we are to hear only what a given evangelist or theologian tolerates, however impassioned his intonation of whatever Scripture escapes his censorship, the fact that the Bible appropriates certain of his theses is no more significant than its repudiation of certain others. The public exhortation on Sunday to heed what “the Bible says” in a given passage does not mean much in the mouth of a professor who on Wednesday is confiding to divinity students that they had best disregard what it says in the next verse. The same verdict holds for the evangelist who strikes one note in the invitation and another in the ministerial meeting.
This leads us on to an important difference between the modern “theology of the Word of God” and the evangelism of the Bible. The Graham article in this issue employs the phrase “biblical authority.” It does not rush to draw a line between what God says and what the Bible says. It does not locate what God says in the misty flats above the Bible, above its written propositions and words. It picks up, with life-and-death urgency, the confident identification of special divine revelation with a specific message, and in this characteristic it stands in the company of prophets and apostles and of the Lord Jesus. The hearers of the Sermon on the Mount were reminded that they would be judged by specific principles and words: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man…” (Matt. 7: 24). It is in the course of precisely this identification that lightning strikes from heaven in Graham meetings.
Doubtless some will think that Mr. Graham sketches the picture in too broad strokes. Others will rally to his side, proclaiming the high view of the Bible to be not alone a key factor in evangelism but a watershed of theological conviction. However his readers may divide, nobody has a profounder right than Mr. Graham to a hearing on the subject of the authority of the Bible in evangelistic preaching. He has earned that right theoretically, by his devout study of the Word, and pragmatically, by his passionate proclamation of it to an age of theological unbelief, in which he has unsheathed the Book once again as a two-edged sword. His ministry supplies the theological enterprise with a graphic reminder that the mysteries of higher criticism are unnecessary for grasping the essence of the biblical message—as devout Christians in apostolic and in Reformation times did—and also that the simple believer often stands closer to the heart of the Gospel than the sophisticated critic. This is not because Christianity is against scholarship, but because scholarship often places itself in needless opposition to Christianity. Those who have invested much of a lifetime propounding now-discredited theories supply eloquent witness that the essence of the Gospel did not first become available through some new and modern gnosis, but can be confidently located in what was plainly accessible to the earliest century of faith.
By a true intuition, shaped by confidence in the plenary inspiration of the Bible, the evangelical movement and Mr. Graham cling fast to the Gospel, and to what most of the new theology still misses, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth is the high point of special divine revelation, and that the Christian revelation disallows the relegation of Scripture to a twilight zone in which its authoritative note disappears.
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