In the 1940s, two fiery Evangelical pastors were poised to turn the world upside down with their preaching of the Gospel: Billy Graham, and his close friend Charles Templeton. Graham would go on to become a household name, America’s favorite preacher (and famously, the pastor to multiple US presidents), while Templeton would die a broken man, and an atheist. C. Michael Patton, over at Pen and Parchment, quotes from Templeton’s sad autobiography, Farewell to God, describing one of the pivotal conversations between the two friends:
In the course of our conversation I said, ‘But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.’
‘I don’t accept that’ Billy said. ‘And there are reputable scholars who don’t.’
‘Who are these scholars?’ I said. ‘Men in conservative Christian colleges[?]‘
‘Most of them, yes,’ he said. ‘But that is not the point. I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘The Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. Wiser men than you or I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of the theological dispute, so I’ve decided once for all to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s word.’
‘But Billy,’ I protested, ‘You cannot do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.’”
‘I don’t know about anybody else,’ he said, ‘but I’ve decided that that’s the path for me.’”
There is a time when we, like Billy Graham, must stop the type of questioning that comes prior to faith, and make a decision. This does not mean we stop using our minds, as Templeton unfortunately assumed. In Christianity, we call this fides quaenes intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” We believe in order to understand. We have faith and seek understanding.
I wonder what might have happened had Billy Graham had said, “That’s a good point. There are many evangelical scholars and theologians who would agree with you. I believe it was a literal seven days but that’s a legitimate discussion we can have as Christians.’ It was Augustine who stated (paraphrase) that we should never create barriers for people to believe in the face of legitimate science. Think of those who might have kept people away from faith because they insisted that the sun had to revolve around the earth because the Bible said so. We need to be very careful of setting up false barriers to faith where there may be legitimate science that indicates otherwise. God created the world. How He did it should not be the deal breaker for people to come to faith. Obviously, Billy Graham was a powerful witness for Jesus but that kind of fundamental literalism has kept many people from pursuing the real Christ.
Of course, we can’t say for sure — Templeton had many issues with the faith, and it’s not very fair to Billy Graham to second-guess his Christian witness decades after the fact. But what we can say is that Templeton’s story is hardly unique in this regard. Many ex-Christians leave the faith at least in part because they were told that they had to reject views like Young Earth Creationism in order to be truly Christian, or at to be a “conservative” Christian. Another commenter alluded to other casualties of this approach:
I also find it sad that the example given in their discussion was six-day creation and some less-than-nuanced notion of “literalism.” I fear that remnants of 20th century fundamentalism’s lack of acknowledgment of the incarnational nature of Scripture has caused many seekers to stumble over some of Christianity’s claims, especially in these secondary areas like the specifics of Creation. Another example would be Ehrman’s dismissal of divine inspiration or at least true Pauline authorship of some NT letters partially based on the authors’ use of secretaries/scribes.
Long before the scientific breakthroughs of heliocentrism and evolution began jeopardizing Christians’ faith in Genesis, there were brilliant Church Fathers like St. Augustine. Augustine, back in 415 A.D., wrote a book called The Literal Meaning of Genesis. In it, he explains that Genesis 1 is open to multiple interpretations. So, for example, when we hear God say, “Let there be light,” He could be referring to physical light, the spiritual light of Christ, the light of intellect (since he was creating minds and souls in His creatures), and so on. In fact, John 1 (which is intentionally written as a parallel and fulfillment of Genesis 1) compares the light to the salvation offered by Jesus Christ (John 1:4-5).
Augustine acknowledges that “light” could be more than one of these things, but he emphasizes that it’s important that Christians don’t pretend that their own interpretation is the only acceptable interpretation of Scripture. Doing this, he says, would pointlessly drive non-Christians away by making the Bible (rather than simply the speaker) look stupid:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”
This is solid advice, written centuries before it was needed. Centuries ago, Christians claimed that passages like Genesis 32:31 required you to believe that the sun orbited the earth. They were wrong, and embarrassingly so. In their pride, they believed their own reading was the only correct one, and made Scripture look foolish as a result. The same thing is happening today. When I declared myself not a Young Earth Creationist, a reader responded:
Pretty good attempt to cover your unbelief with fig leaves.
So you accept science as true and the Word of God as a lie. Good one.
But my whole point was that she was misreading the word of God, that the Bible doesn’t require her doctrines (doctrines which the Church has never declared as true). She’d simply lost the distinction between “my reading of the Bible” and “what God says,” so that to say she was wrong was to say that God was wrong. That’s a dangerous place to be, spiritually. And every time, it disgraces God. Why? Because it lowers Him and His word to our level – that our mistakes and failings become His mistakes and failings. As Augustine well understood, we need to approach Scripture with humility, and not just assume that having read the Bible, we’re experts in every field we approach.