When Great Minds & Stubborn Hearts Collide: on Al Mohler & Karl Giberson

Ah, this is a tough one to write. As some on the blogo-rounds have been quick to jump on the coat tails of, Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Karl Giberson, the Vice-President of the BioLogos Foundation, have been in a bit of a tizzy for the past couple of months. Mohler is a very conservative Evangelical whom Time proclaimed as the most influential Evangelical intellectual in America of couple of years ago. Giberson is also a Baptist, but has devoted much of his time, writings, and energies to showing how Darwinian Evolution is not inherently antithetical to a Christian worldview. Mohler, as can be expected, disagrees. This little debate has reached a climax in the past couple of days. For a full account of what’s been written in this exchange, I have a full timeline at the bottom of this post.

Hopefully in the next few days I can actually lend some (hopefully) helpful thoughts on the actual argument taking place, but today I just wanted to step back and lament a little.

All of the men involved in this exchange have great minds; they care about the truth, and they wish to be as faithful to Christ and the Bible as possible. They each may disagree with that sentiment concerning the other, but I believe the full breadth of each of their works show this to be the case. And yet, this discussion has so quickly lost all substance, I wonder if anything good can come out of it anymore. Both men have shown me what I’ve known but had forgotten: belief and faith are anything but objective matters. There is not a single thing that any of us believes that is the result of pure objective analysis of the facts, no matter how reasoned it “feels”. Each of these men have exhibited this in various ways.

My opinions on this topic are not hidden, but yet again, I can’t seem to find a home with either side of this particular conversation. Giberson’s final lash out came after Mohler refused to respond to BioLogos’ carefully worded and humble request for clarity on three particular questions. Now, this frustration is understandable, but which of his three questions did Giberson choose to make the lightning-rod topic he wanted to thrust into the most public of spheres for all the secular world to watch? Darwin’s opinion on evolution before boarding the SS Beagle. This, of all his points, is the most inconsequential to the substance of the discussion, but it’s a point Mohler criticized from Giberson’s own book, Saving Darwin. It appears that Giberson is speaking almost exclusively out of hurt and personal offense at having been countered by Mohler on this point at a National Conference, not out of a desire for real growth in this dicussion.

Mohler, for his part, did not respond to the original, calmly-written, request by Giberson and only now wants to claim the conversational high ground of “maturity” here, now that Giberson has spoken a bit “over-the-top-ly”. Further, the thing that really broke my heart was the calcification of opinion that Mohler clearly exhibited. He was the first to be somewhat dramatic when equating a strongly Baptist thinker such as Giberson with the only vaguely Christian “anti-inerrantists” of the ’70s. Also, what really broke my heart here was that Mohler claims to have read several of the books I thought would surely change any conservative Evangelical’s mind on this topic. I have often thought that if given the right articulation, reasoning, humility, and affirmation of historical Orthodoxy, even the Al Mohlers of the world could be shown to at least see these positions as valid enough to worship beside.

I was wrong, I guess. This is frustrating because I have so often given Evangelical leaders the benefit of the doubt, knowing that the vast majority of exposure they have had to these ideas have been from those that most of Church history would not recognize as being faithful adherents to the Faith-handed-down. I have understood that there are very real elements that believe themselves Orthodox but are not; and the conservatives and fundamentalists of the world have been absolutely essential in guarding our faith from their influences. But was I naive to think that when the time came to nuance our thoughts on some things (like “inerrancy”), these same people that have cared for the truth for so long would humble themselves beneath the providential workings of God in this ever-changing world? I think I was.

I’m starting to see that the line between conviction and stubbornness is far blurrier than I had originally hoped it was. And that one thing I had hoped would be its remedy–a great and clear-thinking mind–of which I saw a severe lack in Evangelicalism, now that it seems our intellectual ranks have grown, has shown itself to change little in the atmosphere of discourse among Christians.

O God, make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us.

[thanks to J. R. Daniel Kirk for bringing all this to my attention]

Timeline of events:

  • June 17: Al Mohler gives a talk at the Ligonier Ministries National Conference (video, transcript) in which he defends Young-Earth Creationism and criticizes both BioLogos and Giberson’s book Saving Darwin.
  • July 6: Giberson writes a humble, eloquent, full, and nuanced response and critique of Mohler’s presentation, asking him three broad questions to inspire his thought and clarify his words (Peter Enns also renders a comprehensive and stinging response).
  • July 6-August 21: no response from Mohler.
  • August 21: Giberson offers an obviously frustrated response to Mohler’s silence, particularly on one claim of Mohler’s lecture: that Darwin went on his fateful expedition looking for evidence for evolution, rather than simply “discovering” it.
  • August 25: Mohler responds in kind, attempting to portray himself as the calm and mature “grown-up” in this situation, conceding the historical note concerning Darwin, but admonishing Giberson’s tone, prophesying/wishing failure in his book’s aim (to convince Evangelicals of the validity of evolution), and criticizing his choice of writing venue (The Huffington Post: “a secular website, well known for its more liberal leanings,” as Mohler reminds us).
  • August 25: Justin Taylor, Evangelical blogger extraordinaire, blogged about this thereby setting off the blogosphere wildfire, concluding this entire discussion so far with this pronouncement: “[BioLogos] may be doing some helpful things here and there, but some of their main themes seem to be an insisting on theistic evolution, casting doubts on Adam and Eve’s historicity, and the undermining of inerrancy.  I don’t mind saying that I hope they fail in each of these endeavors.”

0 thoughts on “When Great Minds & Stubborn Hearts Collide: on Al Mohler & Karl Giberson

  1. “I’m starting to see that the line between conviction and stubbornness is far blurrier than I had originally hoped it was. And that one thing I had hoped would be its remedy–a great and clear-thinking mind–of which I saw a severe lack in Evangelicalism, now that it seems our intellectual ranks have grown, has shown itself to change little in the atmosphere of discourse among Christians.”

    Well said. It is indeed a frustrating state of affairs. Sigh…………………..

  2. Even if Mohler could be convinced otherwise (and I think he could — he’s a smart guy), he simply has too much to lose in terms of credibility and influence among conservative evangelicals by revising his opinion at this stage in his career. It’s not uncommon for people to “retrench” or “calcify” because they have something to protect. Part of me suspects that the more moderate, thoughtful Al Mohler from the pre-conservative resurgence days exists deep underneath the surface somewhere. But he’s a master rhetorician — he knows how to galvanize his constituency by sticking close to conservative talking points, both politically and theologically speaking. Rarely does he stray from them, and I don’t expect him to do so in this ongoing debate on a now very public stage.

  3. @albert-
    wow. before i read your post, i was worried you were Albert Mohler. i think you might be right. that’s got to be a terrifying place to be when you have so much influence you feel the weight of never being able to change your mind. where’s the influential theologian that will allow themselves to be swayed on something? when did that stop being a virtue and start being a weakness? i don’t know. but thanks for the comment nevertheless.

    @whit-
    i love you. thanks. those two sentences took about ten minutes of crafting and re-crafting and even after i published it i worried if the grammar was too complicated to be clear. thank you.

  4. I think we are seeing a breaking up of the neo-evangelical coalition. If theistic evolution is as dangerous as Mohler and MacArthur have suggested it is, then it’s hard to see how they can continue in cooperation with old-earth or evolutionary creationists. The whole point of evangelicalism was not that these things were not important, but that we could agree to disagree. At this point, it seems to me that Mohler and other SBCers are positioning us outside of the big tent*. E.g. some state conventions have been ejecting congregations with female pastors etc…
    *I would say that a similar thing has occurred in parts of the reformed camp vis a vis Bruce Waltke.

    Best,

    David

Leave a Reply