One Very Misleading Article About Six “Heretics” Who Should Be Banned From Evangelicalism If Evangelicals Were Consistent

On April 16, 2014, Tylor Standley posted an article on his blog, entitled, “6 People Who Should Be Banned From Evangelicalism (Or, A Lesson in Consistency).”  On May 7, the article was re-posted on Andy Gill’s blog with one change and one addition.  The change was that the word “People” was replaced with the word “Heretics” in quotation marks.   The addition was that the article was now headed up with a picture of Rob Bell.  The thrust of the article, of course, was that if evangelicals found it necessary to “excommunicate” Rob Bell, then they should also, for the sake of consistency, ban a number of other “heretics,” starting with the six people mentioned in the article: C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, William Barclay, John Stott, and Billy Graham.

I first became aware of the article early last week.  It has been “liked” and shared thousands of times, and has been reposted on other blog sites several times as well.  Unfortunately, many of those who have liked and shared it should have known better, for it is, in a number of ways, a very misleading article.  I will start off by showing how the article misleads in what it says about these six “heretics,” and then I will go on to make some other critiques about the article in general.  I encourage you to read Standley’s article before you read this critique.

1.  C. S. Lewis.  Standley starts off by saying,

Perhaps the most celebrated Christian writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis is respected by most Christians, no matter what theological corner they occupy. And that’s what confuses me. Lewis was no evangelical by the standards of modern evangelical spokespersons.

Right away, Standley makes a huge mistake with regard to those whom he refers to as the “modern evangelical spokespersons.”  Standley’s confusion comes because he misunderstands these evangelical leaders.  Standley recognizes that Lewis is respected by most Christians, “no matter what theological corner they occupy.”  But, then, for some reason, he can’t seem to understand why those who occupy the evangelical corner still respect Lewis.  There are many evangelicals who recognize that, strictly, Lewis probably does not qualify as an evangelical, but nevertheless have great respect for him.

As far as Lewis’s inclusivism is concerned, I believe that it is problematic, and that for that reason, Lewis should probably not be considered strictly as an evangelical.

When it comes to Lewis’s statements about penal substitutionary atonement, things are a bit more complicated; and not only Standley’s, but also Gregory Boyd’s statements are problematic.  First, Standley incorrectly says that the Christus Victor view of the atonement “holds that the cross is not an image of God’s wrath against us, diverted to his son, but it was the defeat of evil through an act of selfless love.”  This is incorrect because there are many evangelicals who hold to both the Christus Victor view as well as penal substitutionary atonement.  In fact, I am one of them.  The second problem here is that Gregory Boyd, in the video to which Standley refers, actually misrepresents the “deeper magic” mentioned in that first volume of the Narnia chronicles.  Here is the exact statement from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as to why Aslan died:

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

Actually, Lewis combines here three different views of the atonement.  There is the ransom view, and in the form which a number of church fathers held, that the ransom was paid to the devil.  There is the Christus Victor view, with the devil being defeated by the death of the innocent victim.  But, then, there is also the substitutionary view: an innocent victim takes the place of and dies the death of the one who actually committed the treachery.  Indeed, it is the innocent one dying and bearing the penalty of the guilty one who should have died which constitutes the “deeper magic” which brings about the victory.

Now, it is true, that in other of Lewis’s writings, particularly in Mere Christianity, Lewis seems to reject the penal substitutionary view.  But, actually, I believe it is more correct to say that he hems and haws on it.  I believe, in the end, that what Lewis seems to have rejected was one particular form or expression of the penal atonement theory that he regarded to have been formulated too crassly.  So, based on what Lewis says about this deeper magic, and borrowing a page from the inclusivist playbook—that a person could be a Christian and not really know it—I would be prepared to argue that Lewis did believe in penal substitutionary atonement; he just didn’t know it!

2.  Martin Luther.  This is perhaps the most egregious of the mistakes that Standley makes in his article.  He says,

To the dismay of every evangelical Calvinist . . . I fear I must be the bearer of bad news that Martin Luther apparently didn’t believe the Bible is fully inspired, true, or trustworthy.

As proof of his assertion, the author refers to Luther talking about “inaccuracies in the books of Chronicles,” and then quotes him as saying,

When one often reads that great numbers of people were slain—for example, eighty thousand—I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed.

Here, however, is the full quotation from Luther’s Table Talk:

When one often reads [in the Bible] that great numbers of people were slain—for example, eighty thousand—I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed.  What is meant is the whole people.  Whoever strikes the king strikes everything he possesses.  So if the king of France should be defeated with ten thousand of his men, it is said that eighty thousand were defeated because he has that many in his power, etc.  Otherwise, I can’t reconcile the numbers.

This fuller quotation shows us several things.  First, Luther was not talking about “inaccuracies” in Chronicles.  Rather, he was talking about large numbers of slain reported in several places in the Bible as a whole.  Second, he by no means regards these large numbers as “inaccuracies.”  Rather, the entire statement is for the purpose of showing that the numbers are not inaccuracies, but manners of expression on the part of the authors.  His whole purpose is to “reconcile the numbers.” So, I am very happy to be the bearer of the good news that Martin Luther apparently did believe that the Bible is fully inspired, true, and trustworthy.

Now, again, with Martin Luther things are more complicated than this.  But that is just the point: one can’t prove things one way or the other with sound bites taken out of context.  In this respect, the article is not simply misleading; it is just wrong.

3.  St. Augustine.  Standley evidently thinks that evangelicals would declare Augustine a heretic because he didn’t read the creation story in Genesis 1-2 literally.  Augustine did not believe that we are given a literal seven-day account of creation in those chapters.  He regarded the seven days to be a logical literary device to present the idea of creation to human minds.  However, what Standley does not tell his readers is that Augustine thought creation was actually instantaneous. God created the universe in a single instant.  Furthermore, he also believed in a very young earth.  I imagine there would be even a number of fundamentalists who might be willing to trade a literal seven-day account for an admission of instantaneousness and young earth.  As far as evangelicals are concerned, there are, indeed a large number who don’t necessarily take Genesis 1-2 literally.  Indeed, I am one of them.  And when Standley says that “Few are the pulpits that [Augustine] would be allowed to fill among conservative churches in our day,” this is just false.

4.  William Barclay.  Standley says that he finds “it odd, however, that Rob Bell would be utterly rejected for holding essentially the same belief as this celebrated theologian.”  What Standley fails to understand, however, is that Barclay’s universalism really isn’t the problem among evangelicals.  Barclay had suspect views on a number of issues: the deity of Christ, the actuality of the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ, the supernaturalness of the miracle accounts in the gospels, etc.  At some points, Barclay’s views appear to be unorthodox.  With regard to Christ’s deity, Barclay seems not to have regarded Christ as fully God, and also seems to have taken an adoptionist position.  With regard to the miracle accounts, one example would be the feeding of the five thousand.  In his Matthew commentary, Barclay lays out three options for understanding the account.  One of those options is the naturalistic explanation in which Jesus merely shamed and motivated the crowd to share their food; there was no actual multiplication of food.  He says,

If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ. It was the miracle of the birth of love in grudging hearts. It was the miracle of changed men and women with something of Christ in them to banish their selfishness.

Then, after laying out these three options he says, “It does not matter how we understand this miracle.”  But this way of understanding things certainly does not seem to correspond to the gospel writers’ understanding of the account.  Barclay has similar qualms about the turning of the water into wine, the stories of the raising of the dead (including the raising of Lazarus), Jesus walking on the water, the exorcisms, etc.  Over and over again, Barclay shows little interest in whether something miraculous actually occurred.  He only cares about some kind of existential, often allegorical application of the so-called miracle account for the life of the “believer” today.  This is very, very far from the understanding of the gospel authors.  And it is, correspondingly, very far from an evangelical understanding of the gospel records.

5.  John Stott.  Standley says that Stott “rejected the view that Hell is eternal conscious torment of the wicked,” and then quotes Stott as saying,

I believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.

Standley is correct, to a point.  However, again, the situation is more complicated than presented.  Stott certainly did not like the idea of conscious eternal torment in hell.  But, in fact, he did not absolutely reject it.  Here is another quotation from Stott, as well as a fuller citation of the passage of which Standley gave only one sentence.  I have highlighted some parts I wish to particularly call your attention to.

But will the final destiny of the impenitent be eternal conscious torment, “for ever and ever”, or will it be a total annihilation of their being? The former has to be described as traditional orthodoxy, for most of the church fathers, the medieval theologians and the Reformers held it. And probably most Evangelical leaders hold it today. Do I hold it, however?  Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? And in order to answer this question, we need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture. . . .

I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the world-wide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to suppress, and I am grateful to you for challenging me to declare my present mind. I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.

Frankly, as a conservative evangelical, while I do not come close to the same conclusions as Stott did, I find, however, that the sentiments Stott expresses in these two paragraphs to be eminently evangelical.  Indeed, in what Stott says here, I find the very essence of what it means to be an evangelical: submission to the authority of Jesus Christ and submission to the authority of his word.  And it is precisely this attitude of submission to the authority of the word which evangelicals find lacking in figures like the previously discussed figure, William Barclay, and in the writings of Rob Bell.

6.  Billy Graham.   Of the six examples provided by Standley, this, in my opinion, is the only one that has any real validity.  A few months ago on this blog I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article, entitled, “The Problem with Billy Graham,” in which I suggested, satirically, that the problem with Graham was that he preached this “barbarous, odious, and dangerous teaching of penal substitutionary atonement.”  Of course, I ended up actually glorying in Graham’s faithfulness in preaching this doctrine.  However, had I actually intended to write an article about a real problem with Billy Graham, there were several areas which I could have hit on, areas in which Graham has, in fact, been justifiably criticized by evangelicals over the years.  One of those areas is the unfortunate tendency to occasionally say things that go against the grain of the message that he has preached so faithfully and so strongly for so many years.  Additionally, these utterances seem to come out in front of particular audiences, and they come out in interviews—not in books and sermons, i.e., actual proclamations.

With respect to this particular statement, I would make two observations.  First, note that whatever Graham says, he nevertheless starts off by articulating that he is referring to “everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not.”  In other words, the qualification is still that the person must love Christ, must know Christ.  That, in itself, is an evangelical conviction.  The problem is that Graham goes on to say that, somehow, it is possible for someone to love Christ or know Christ, unconsciously.  I, myself, find this to be a logical impossibility.  I don’t believe it is possible to love or know someone without actually knowing them.  In essence, this actually turns into “salvation by equivalency.”  Second, note the huge problem in determining what constitutes equivalency.  Knowing that one needs something and then turning to the only light one has is just too amorphous and vague to be of any real use.  And it hardly  serves as an equivalent to loving or knowing Christ.  This was not, by any means, one of Graham’s most lucid moments.  So I concede that Standley has a bit of a point with Graham.  However, it is important to note that evangelicals have, in fact, by and large, tended to overlook these statements because they do, indeed, go against the grain of Graham’s entire preaching and writing career.

Now, I go on to make criticisms with regard to the article as a whole.

First, Standley’s article was really an apologetic for Rob Bell, and, in particular, Bell’s supposed universalism.  And as an apologetic, it does not make its case.  Of the six individuals the author uses to attempt to make his case, the only one who was a universalist, William Barclay, was not an evangelical.

Second, Standley’s article actually serves to demonstrate the opposite of what it presupposes to be the case.  This comes out right away as Standley begins his discussion of C. S. Lewis.  I quote that here again:

Perhaps the most celebrated Christian writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis is respected by most Christians, no matter what theological corner they occupy. And that’s what confuses me. Lewis was no evangelical by the standards of modern evangelical spokespersons.

As I pointed out earlier, Standley’s confusion is the result of a bad presupposition.  Evangelicals, at least the ones whom I think the article is targeting, recognize that Lewis should probably not be regarded as an evangelical by traditional evangelical standards, and yet recognize that there is much of great value in Lewis’s writings.  They do not consider him a heretic; and they have not written him off.  In other words, Standley is wrong about the mindset of evangelicals.  They are not heresy head-hunters, they are not “self-appointed gate-keepers,” and they don’t have that attitude.  Rather, they are pastors, theologians, and denominational leaders who have been given the God-appointed responsibility to guard the flock of God.  And, for the most part, they do a pretty good job in making distinctions between figures like C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, Augustine, John Stott, and Billy Graham on the hand, versus someone like Rob Bell on the other.

Third, it is unfortunate that Standley confuses things by his use of the word “heretic.”  For an evangelical to say that someone should not really be reckoned as an evangelical is not the same as calling that person a heretic.  That can, indeed, be the case, but it is by no means a necessity.  Of course, defining “evangelical” is notoriously difficult.  There is no single evangelical denomination or statement of faith.  And there are certainly what can be referred to as “fuzzy boundaries.”  Above, when I was discussing John Stott, I suggested that one good defining criterion is the attitude of submission to the authority of Christ and to the authority of God’s word.  This criterion would rule out those who approach the Bible with a very cavalier attitude, who deny the Bible’s authority, either explicitly, or implicitly by way of very fanciful, contortionist exegesis of the biblical text, who treat the biblical texts as if it was a hermeneutical playground, and who then attempt to dismiss traditional orthodox teaching by way of their very unlikely interpretive conclusions.  Those who do this are not necessarily heretical, but they are not evangelical.

Fourth, it is also unfortunate that sometimes Standley changes targets in his article.  He starts off by focusing on evangelicals, but along the way, he narrows his target, referring to “every evangelical Calvinist,” and the “core of reformed theology.”  However, the problem here is that, again, with respect to Rob Bell, though there was an outcry from the Calvinist and Reformed community when Love Wins came out, there was also a good deal of criticism from the Arminian community as well.  Even those who might refer to themselves as “moderate evangelicals,” as Standley does, noted serious problems with the book.  Indeed, many in Bell’s own Mars Hill congregation left because they had problems with Bell’s views (evidently the people who left were neither flaming fundamentalists nor strong Calvinists).  I might also call attention to the fact that there is a great deal of diversity in the evangelical community.  There are evangelical Baptists, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Evangelical Free, Anglicans, Christian Reformed, etc., etc., etc.  Within the evangelical community there are what might be considered polar opposites: Calvinists and Arminians, Dispensationalists and Amillennials, cessationists and non-cessationists.  Evangelicals make serious attempts to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral.  And a cavalier attitude to Scripture is not peripheral.  I am a Reformed Baptist, a Calvinist, a covenant theologian, and a cessationist.  Yet, I would have no trouble worshiping alongside and fellowshipping with a Wesleyan Arminian who is Dispensational and speaks in tongues.   I would, however,  have a significant problem worshiping alongside and fellowshipping with a person of whatever label whose attitude was not one of submission to the authority of Christ and the authority of Scripture.

Fifth, the sound-bite character of Standley’s post is not very helpful; rather, it is misleading.  I demonstrated this above with regard to the quotation from Martin Luther.  This also applies to the link that the author provides to “a list of universalistic quotes from our early church fathers.”  Several of these figures would be quite surprised to see themselves enlisted in support of universalism.

Sixth, and finally, despite the “universalism” which stands behind the author’s article, I would argue that universalism is not really the issue.  I myself believe that, at least in theory, one could be a “hopeful” universalist and an evangelical.  I believe that one could even build an exegetical case of sorts for a hopeful universalism.  And if Standley wishes, I would be more than happy to pass these arguments along.  However, I also believe it is impossible to demonstrate exegetically that universalism is actually a teaching of Scripture, and that one can actually make the case that the belief that “God will redeem all people to himself” is supported from taking “the Bible literally.”  One could try to do so, but it would only be a sound bite argument, one that fails to take into account the entire context of the prooftexted verse or verses.

I freely admit that sometimes Christians can be way too trigger-happy.  They can be slow to listen well, but quick to speak and quick to become angry.  In this quickness they can fail to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral.  They can too easily take for granted that their articulations of reality are identical to those of the Scriptures.  They can be too easily critical toward the other, and not sufficiently self-critical. If these were Standley’s criticisms, there would be no argument from me.

I do believe, however, that the author does not sufficiently distinguish between the fundamentalist world and the evangelical world.  I believe he has caricatured the evangelical response in these matters.  And when he refers to those who have been “tossed out of the evangelical community for their slightly-divergent-yet-still-completely-orthodox-beliefs,” apparently in defense of positions like those of Rob Bell, then in light of the criticism that has come Bell’s way from both numerous and diverse sectors of the evangelical world, I have to say that I am not convinced that the author has paid sufficient attention to what actually distinguishes “slightly divergent” from unorthodox.

The responsibility to distinguish between truth and error, between true and false teachers, between the true gospel and false gospels, between faithful doctrine and subversive doctrine, between true shepherds and savage wolves, is one that is emphasized in almost every strand of the New Testament.  It is emphasized in Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, in the apostles’ teaching in the book of Acts, in Paul’s epistles, in Hebrews, in Peter, in John’s epistles, in Jude, and in Revelation.  To be sure, Christians need to be on their guard against being over-zealous in carrying out this responsibility.  But it does need to be done, and the author of the article, to his credit, acknowledges this.  However, I don’t think the way the author frames the discussion in this article serves to advance the dialogue on how this can be done, or to give any credible guidelines as to how we can tell what is “slightly divergent” versus what is unorthodox.  That dialogue will not be advanced by sound bites, prooftexts, and misrepresentations.  More serious, better researched, and more credible discussions are necessary.

Jerry Shepherd
May 19, 2014