The Corner

Religion

Billy Graham, Evangelical Preacher (but I Repeat Myself)

Former President George W. Bush signs a copy of his book “Decision Points” for Billy Graham at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, December 20, 2010. ((Chris Keane/Reuters))

Billy Graham preached the gospel. Add to that statement that he was an Evangelical preacher and you have a triple redundancy: “Preach,” “gospel,” and “evangelical” are standard English translations of words that in the Greek New Testament share the same stem, euaggel-. The man’s work (preaching), the material he worked with (the gospel), and his identity (Evangelical preacher) were integrated into a resounding whole, each part echoing the other: Euaggelos euaggelizemenos eueggelisen euaggelion, you might say. Something like that.

Preaching and teaching have been considered distinct offices since Saint Paul. The two activities overlap, but the essential definition of each is clear enough.

Graham was not a teacher, although the editors of Christianity Today, which he founded — it debuted in October 1956, eleven months after the first issue of National Review — have always favored a plain, crisp style not unlike that of the theologian or canon lawyer whose task is merely to impart information, not try to wow you with soaring rhetoric. The more apt comparison, come to think of it, would be to the New Testament itself: Talk about understatement. Reread sometime the gospel accounts of Christ’s passion and death.

Writing that appeared under Graham’s byline could hardly have been leaner or cleaner. In that respect, Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher, and Billy Graham, the great preacher, resembled each other. Of course each addressed a different kind of audience — academic and popular, respectively — but the difference between them runs deeper than that.

Thomas, nicknamed “the Angelic Doctor” for a reason, analyzed the mechanics, as it were, of the incorporeal, purely spiritual dimension of creation. What Graham did, speaking and writing for a generation skeptical of all that, was affirm the existence of the supernatural and convey the wonder that it evokes in those who are aware that they are touched by it. It gives people joy, and he gave them permission not to be ashamed of it. His little book about angels, for example, is a quiet, effective invitation to awe. The hymn “How Great Thou Art” (“O Lord, when I in awesome wonder . . .”) was introduced into the mainstream of American Christian culture through his early crusades.

“Preacher, not teacher” is another way of saying “communicator, not intellectual.” The swimming coach may not understand how the respiratory system works, but that doesn’t mean he should withhold from his athletes what he knows about breathing techniques. “I’ve discovered something in my ministry,” Graham’s friend Charles Templeton recalled him explaining in the course of an argument they had had about Darwin versus the Book of Genesis. “When I take the Bible literally,” Graham said,

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.

Fair enough. The body of Christ has many members, and Billy Graham remains a model for those whose function is to preach. He had faults, as we were reminded yesterday in this somewhat dyspeptic assessment of his life, but he never claimed to be a statesman or a moral leader. He was faithful to his calling and good at it. The Evangelical expression of Christianity would have been less without him, and it would be more now if it always lived up to the example of his clear-headedness and humility.

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