Billy Graham and Charles Templeton: The Sad Tale of Two Evangelists

As many of you know, the late Billy Graham and the late Charles Templeton were evangelists who rose to fame in the 40s. Early in their careers they were friends – close friends. Many have said Templeton was the one that everyone thought was going to overturn the world with the Gospel. However, Templeton ended up leaving the Christian faith, eventually becoming an atheist.  In 1982, though still an atheist, he said of Billy Graham, “There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust” (Anecdotal Memoir). Templeton died in 2001 at the age of 86, shortly after he wrote what I consider to be one of the most heart-breaking books ever published: Farewell to God.


Billy Graham and Charles Templeton In Dialogue

Here is an excerpt from that book, about a pivotal conversation he had with Billy Graham as he was leaving the faith. The context is his desire to go to Princeton to study the Christian faith more critically. He wanted Graham to come with him. Please keep in mind, this is his account of the conversation:

“All our differences came to a head in a discussion which, better than anything I know, explains Billy Graham and his phenomenal success as an evangelist.

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[?]’

[Tweet “I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. “]

‘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.’”

(Farewell to God, 7-8)

For me, this represents one of the saddest encounters two people have ever had. It recounts a decisive breach in the friendship between two men as one left Christ, never to come back, and the other went on to, in my opinion, change the world.

Belief and Understanding Are Not Contrasting Qualities

As I said, I don’t know if Graham’s words are the words he actually said, but I have no reason to doubt that they are. You see, there does come a time in our life when we “decide” to believe. It is not as if our intellect is no longer in the game, it is simply that there is a sufficient amount of evidence to make a commitment. Graham had enough. He is right, there is no way faith can wait until every stone is overturned. None of us will ever get to a place where our intellect has no objections whatsoever. This is the modernistic ideal of indubitability, which is impossible in any area of life. At some point in our journey, we decide that God is real, the Bible is trustworthy, and Christ is who he said he was.

[Tweet “There does come a time in our life when we “decide” to believe.”]

Templeton, as his own story makes plain (p. 3), never truly reached a point where he was intellectually convicted of the truthfulness of Christianity (what the reformers called assensus). Assensus represents the conviction we have in our minds. Assent of the mind is vital to our faith. Graham, according to this testimony, had enough assensus to make a decision. He was not going to be an eternal “tire-kicker” with regard to Christianity. Sure, he could have waited, like Templeton, until every possible objection to the faith was answered, but this would amount to a failure of modernistic irrationality. We can never have all our questions answered. At some point there must be a sufficiency in probability.

[Tweet “Fides quaenes intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.””]

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.

May God give us all the ability to be like Billy Graham and make a decision to trust God and the Bible. May he help us to believe what we believe with an invincible innocence. Though doubts may still exist, they do not mean that our faith is not real.

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