“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
‘This past not only informs our self-understanding in the present but also carries narrative momentum that creates expectations of future continuity.”
James C. Miller
The reason to continue to be preoccupied with the past is that it hovers over the present and constantly giving birth to the present. This means that if one gets their past wrong, or if one has a wrong understanding of history, or if one misinterprets what has occurred one will perpetuate the error so that the error twists one’s own self-identity in the present and will create a future that is based on a lie thus ensuring the twisting of both future self-identities and collective identities. An accurate and proper history is that important. If I can control individuals or peoples understanding of their past I can control their present and their trajectory into the present.
As such, a proper understanding of whatever history we take up is important. This is even more true of what is called Historical Theology. Historical theology is that theology which asks: how has the church in the past interpreted the Bible? How has the church formulated and expressed its theology? The answers to these questions have monumental implications for if the Church has been wrong in the past the odds are overwhelming that it will be wrong in the present and will continue on the trajectory of error into the future.
This provides the context of why it is so important to critique the errors of Billy Graham now that he has passed. This essay will not labor to argue that Billy Graham did not articulate some very orthodox truths at certain times. There are countless videos, interviews, and articles where one can read or listen to orthodox statements by Rev. Billy Graham. Ironink tips its cap to Graham for those countless times when he was orthodox in speech and writing.
However, it is those times when Rev. Graham was not so orthodox that troubles me. In the old James Kennedy “Evangelism Explosion” program one was taught that the proper response to someone who was offering up a works performance answer to the query as to why God should let them into His heaven our response should reference omelets and rotten eggs. One was taught to gently challenge the listener who was pinning his hopes on heaven on the basis of the good eggs (works) in his life with the reality that his omelet also had some rotten eggs in it as well. Then one was taught to ask if they would accept a prepared omelet made with five good eggs and one stinky rotten egg. Obviously, the answer one is hoping for is “no.” From there one was taught to press on their listener the necessity of trusting in Christ alone and not their performance to have a certain foundation and hope for heaven.
In the same way, Rev. Billy Graham’s life and ministry had many many fine and wholesome eggs in it. However, Rev. Billy Graham’s own words also demonstrate there were many filthy eggs in his life and ministry as well. Unless we identify those rotten eggs the danger is to continue to repeat the lousy methodology and message that those sulfur smelling eggs represent. If all we do with the history of Billy Graham’s work and message is look at the teeming denizens of people shoehorned into his venues as combined with the countless numbers of people who “went forward” or the millions of dollars spent in his organization we will walk away repeating the very practices that Graham repeated as inheriting them from those who went before him (Finney, Sunday, Rodeheaver, Moody, etc.). It is these practices that were packaged, marketed, and decentralized so as to now represent many modern local churches in the West today. The local Church as it gathers for worship every week, notable exceptions notwithstanding, has become an up-to-date version both in its theology and in its worship what a week-long Billy Graham Crusade was for an urban setting. Unless this theology and worship are challenged, as it comes to us in its historical sitz-em-Leben garb the Church will continue to suffer the insufferable malaise that this theology can only produce.
Rev. Graham started off well enough. His parents were reputed to be Calvinists and he was educated by what then would have been considered “Fundamentalist” schools. In 1939 Graham was ordained by the Southern Baptists. Not long after graduating from Wheaton Graham Pastored and then worked with the “Youth For Christ” organization and then it the sawdust trail as a Tent Revival minister. Graham was aided along the way by, of all people, William Randolph Hearst, who legend has it sent a missive out to his reporters to “Puff Graham,” in their articles. Truly, God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.
In 1948, at the tender age of 30, Rev. Graham said that ‘the three greatest menaces faced by orthodox Christianity are Communism, Roman Catholicism, and Muhammadism.’ This would have been a pretty standard position for a young conservative Protestant in 1948. Also, there can be little doubt that at this age Graham’s message included the foundational ideas of Christianity that included man’s sin, man’s fall, and man’s restoration by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though Graham always gave an Arminian flavor to these ideas the ideas remain present in his preaching as any cursory examination of his sermons reveals.
So, we have four points that we credit Rev. Graham with.
1.) His opposition to Communism
An opposition that is necessary to Christianity since it is perhaps the best heretical and anti-Christ imitation of Christianity. Graham said as much in a 1954 interview Graham stating, “Either communism must die, or Christianity must die because it is actually a battle between Christ and anti-Christ.”
2.) His opposition to Roman Catholicism
An opposition that is required since Roman Catholicism anathematized biblical Christianity at the Council of Trent and has never repudiated that anathematization.
3.) His opposition to Islam
An opposition that someone conversant with Church history would realize is necessary since Islam has always seen Christianity as a weed that must be pulled up by its roots.
4.) His preaching of Christ crucified.
The Christian message has always placed Christ at the center and in reading Graham’s sermons there is no doubt that Graham attempted to do this in his own Arminian Baptist way.
We might say this is the positive take away from Graham. These are matters we can agree with him on and salute him for articulating during his career. However, having said that we must see that Graham spoke as a trumpet giving an uncertain call. What Graham gave with his right hand he often took away with his left hand. So, at best what we end up having is a man who leaves the thoughtful Christian scratching their head in bewilderment.
That there was confusion in Graham is seen as early as 1957 when he offered,
“The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy but love.”
This is the kind of false dichotomy which we will see more than once in Graham quotes. First, Christian discipleship has several badges, one of which is orthodoxy,
“Now I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and obstacles that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Turn away from them.” (Romans 16:17)
A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition reject… (Titus 3:10)
Second, there is also the fact that love apart from orthodoxy is undeterminable and unknowable. How can one know what love is or looks like apart from God’s Word (orthodoxy)?
King: Does God love Satan?
Graham: … he must love him, but the end of Satan is hell. Hell was created for the devil and his angels, or his demons, not for men.
God loves Satan? Someone better tell God,
“You are not a God who delights in wickedness; . . . You hate all evildoers.” “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked.”
“He who sits in the heavens laughs. The Lord holds them in derision.”
Psalm 5:4–5, Psalm 11:5, Psalm 2:4
And if God did not create hell for men, how is it that men end up in hell?
But beyond what looks to be a studied confusion on the subject of love Graham would end up contradicting his early quote about the menaces to Christianity.
On communism, Graham seemingly had concluded that Communism was far less a problem when he visited the USSR in 1982. During that visit, Graham responded to a question from a reporter on religious persecution in the USSR by saying, “I have not personally seen persecution.” Graham sought to walk that comment back later but the comment was taken so seriously that even in light of Graham’s attempts to walk the comment back Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, referring to Graham, in his reception comments upon being awarded the 1983 Templeton Award,
“It is with profound regret that I must note here something which I cannot pass over in silence. My predecessor in receipt of this prize last year – in the very months that the award was made – lent public support to communist lies by his deplorable statement that he had not noticed the persecution of religion in the U.S.S.R. Before the multitude of those who have perished and who are oppressed today, may God be his judge.”
Apparently, Solzhenitsyn was not satisfied with Graham’s attempts to walk back his comments. One is left asking who should be given the benefit of the doubt, Graham or Solzhenitsyn.
On the menace of Roman Catholicism, it is clear that Graham’s ecumenicalism eventually did not see Rome as a menace.
That Rev. Graham had warmed towards Roman Catholicism is seen in a McCall’s magazine interview from 1978,
“I found that my beliefs are essentially the same as those of orthodox Catholics we only differ on some matters of later church tradition. I find that my beliefs are essentially the same as those of orthodox Roman Catholics.”
This is beyond confusion. Confusion is something like this,
“I fully adhere to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith for myself and my ministry, but as an American, I respect other paths to God.”
Parade Magazine Interview
One might as well say,
I fully adhere to the fundamental tenets of Christian Marriage for myself and my ministry, but as an American, I respect other venues that married men choose for satisfying their sexual needs.
We might be able to overlook Graham’s false dichotomies and oxymorons but the quote where Graham says that “I found that my beliefs are essentially the same as those of orthodox Catholics,” is deeply troubling because if he really believed that then Graham’s earlier preaching of the Cross is emptied because Rome does not believe that the Christ alone by His work on the cross saves.
Dr. Gordon Clark caught Graham in an emptying of the sufficiency of the Cross upon attending one of Grahams Crusades. Clark wrote in his book “Predestination,”
“Toward the end of the service (there in Indianapolis), Billy Graham asked people to come forward and a crowd came. With them, before him, evangelist Graham addressed the large audience still in their seats and delivered a five or ten-minute diatribe against Presbyterianism. “Don’t pray for these people who have come forward,” he said. ‘You may have prayed for them before, and that is good. You can pray for them later on, and that will be good too. But right now prayer is useless, for not even God can help them. They must accept Christ of their own free will, all by themselves, and God has no power over the will of man.”
If Graham really believed that God has no power over the will of man than it is not God through His provision of Christ and Christ’s Cross work that saves but man saves himself as he engages the power of his will to activate a merely tendered salvation. Maybe Graham really was a Brother with Rome?
1989: Graham spoke about a meeting with Pope John Paul II-“There was a pause in the conversation; suddenly the Pope’s arm shot out and he grabbed the lapels of my coat, he pulled me forward within inches of his own face. He fixed his eyes on me and said, ‘Listen, Graham, we are brothers‘” (6/8/89 Today).
Graham said that that was a great happening in his life.
That Graham became squishy on the centrality of the Cross and the importance of a unique and known Jesus was articulated in an interview with at least twice. Once with McCall’s magazine,
“I used to believe that pagans in far-off countries were lost–were going to hell–if they did not have the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that. I believe that there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God–through nature, for instance–and plenty of other opportunities, therefore, of saying ‘yes’ to God”
(“I Cant’ Play God Any More,” McCall’s, Jan. 1978)
And again in an interview with Robert Schuller, Graham speaks:
“I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ…. He’s [God] calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”
Schuller: “What, what I hear you saying that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?”
Graham: “Yes, it is, because I believe that. I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived..”
Schuller: “I’m so thrilled to hear you say this. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.”
Graham: “There is. There is”
(“Graham Believes Men Can Be Saved Apart from Name of Christ,” Christian News, Oct. 20, 1997, p. 15).
Now, what Graham is advocating here is called “soft inclusivism.” There are those who would say that Graham is not denying Christ or the Cross but merely believed people can be saved by Christ and the Cross without being explicitly knowing Christ and the Cross. However, should one really believe this one wonders how it is the urgency of Missions or preaching could be maintained? If soft exclusivism is true why would St. Paul, as inspired by God say,
14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 and how shall they preach, except they be sent?
Well, returning to Graham’s three menaces, we still have Islam to consider. In 1948 Graham listed it as a menace but later in life comments by Graham suggest that Billy also became weak on this menace as seen in a David Frost interview,
“I think Islam is misunderstood, too, because Muhammad had a great respect for Jesus, and he called Jesus the greatest of the prophets except for himself. And I think that we’re closer to Islam than we really think we are.”
Closer to Islam than we really think we are? Muhammad had a great respect for Jesus? No one who refuses to embrace Jesus as the Christ has a great respect for Jesus. This is just claptrap that helps nobody.
So, Graham at worst reversed himself on the menaces he cited when he was 30. At best Graham muddied the waters. Graham also either reversed himself or muddied the waters on the uniqueness of and necessity for the finished work of Jesus Christ. This kind of doubletalk is a positive impediment to the cause of Jesus Christ. Yes, Graham said many many good things regarding Christianity. Alas, Graham also said many many other things that contradicted directly the good things he had to say regarding Christianity.
Now comes the answer to the objection that says, “Well, so many people got saved under Graham’s ministry so I should keep my mouth shut.” Allow me to say that I believe that many people were genuinely converted to Christ via Billy Graham’s ministry. What does that prove? It does not that Billy Graham understanding of Christianity was Christian but rather that God can use crooked sticks to draw straight lines.
Remember, all because Balaam’s Donkey properly warned Balaam that doesn’t mean we conclude that Balaam’s donkey was a Christian. Praise God for the message that converts even when it falls from the lips from someone who sends a double message.
Secondly, on this score of we should be uncritical of Billy Graham because so many people were saved under his ministry we should respectfully inquire about the effect of the Billy Graham crusades.
Billy Graham’s ministry began just after WW II’s end. Let’s concede just for a moment that scads and scads of people were saved via that ministry. Now let’s take a step back and look at the culture. What kind of impact did those scads and scads of people being saved have? During the years of BG’s ministry,
1.) Birth control was made legal (Griswold vs. Connecticut)
2.) Abortion was made legal (Roe vs. Wade)
3.) Sodomy was made legal (Lawerence vs. Texas)
4.) Criminal Rights were expanded (Miranda vs. Arizona)
5.) Obscenity laws were rolled back (Miller vs. California)
6.) Freedom of Association laws were negated (Brown vs. Board of Education)
7.) No fault divorce was implemented
I could go on but one sees the point I’m sure. All those scads and scads of Billy Graham converts didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the sanctification of our social order.
Maybe someone would argue that all those converts may have not made a dent in the decline of the broader culture but they certainly made an impact locally. Really? What counties? What states? What cities had their social order impacted for Christ by the transformation of Billy Graham converts?
A cynic could easily conclude that all the money spent on those crusades was more about profit for individuals than it was about the Kingdom of God being advanced.
And just so people understand this isn’t personal I’d say much the same about Wesley, Finney, Rodeheaver, Moody, Sunday, etc. Revivalism has been a scourge and if there is any lesson to be learned from it, it is that people enjoy being conned more than people have an interest in Christ.
Many more quotes could be adduced. I have just offered a Whitman’s sampler of suspicious Graham quotes that testify that Graham’s ministry was at the very least a mixed bag. My contention is that as long as Graham’s ministry and methodology are unquestionably praised then we are just going to continue to repeat his egregious errors and the Church will continue in the malaise in which it has been now for decades. Our narrative momentum needs desperately to be changed.
May the Lord Christ give us the wisdom to repent of our own sins and errors and to love His Church enough to want to defend her even against her putative friends.