Earl Ferguson has defined a sermon as “the length and shadow of a man.” Joseph Sittler, in a similar vein, tells us “Preaching is not merely something a preacher does, it is the function of his whole existence.” If this is generally true, it is specifically true of Billy Graham. Graham and his preaching are intrinsically united; one cannot think of one without the other.
No person in the history of Christianity has preached to more people than evangelist Billy Graham. Beginning with the Los Angeles Crusade of 1949 to the million assembled Koreans in 1973, Graham will always stand as the epitome of the mass evangelist. Few people –at least in the Western world through the medium of television –have not heard Billy Graham. For thirty years he has been one of the ten most admired men in the world, and has become a byword in many homes.
In the setting of an evangelistic ministry unparalleled in the history of the Church, a very significant issue arises: what does Graham preach and how does he use the Bible in the setting of twentieth-century crusade evangelism? To that important query we move.
The Use of the Bible in the Preaching of Billy Graham
It may well be true that the vital issue of the hour is not the nature of the Bible so much as the hermeneutical problem; that is, how is the Bible understood after it is addressed? The state of flux in the study of hermeneutics and the widely divergent views of the contemporary moment make this issue of central importance.
What are the interpretive principles that Billy Graham uses in his preaching of the Bible and how is this reflected in his actual evangelistic ministry? Moreover, is this the way for the evangelistic preacher to go today?
There are several principles of interpretation that Billy Graham employs. Much of his preaching centers around the interpretive hermeneutical principle called “literal interpretation.” Also found in Billy Graham’s preaching are allegorical interpretation, traditional interpretation, pietistic interpretation, typological interpretation, symbolic interpretation, and some use of biblical criticism and the new hermeneutic. We will approach each one of these principles in that given order.
Graham’s heavy use of interpretation of Scripture from a literal perspective can be explored in three areas, namely, texts on salvation; secondly, doctrinal issues; and finally texts that relate to moral and ethical concepts.
Graham’s use of the Bible in his preaching of salvation rests upon the premise that Scripture has a plain straightforward message to declare and can be understood in that basic hermeneutical context. Therefore, the evangelist can approach these major sotereological themes in a straightforward, literal manner.
For example, in the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade, he talked about Daniel being cast in the den of lions. There was absolutely no possibility this event did not happen literally as an actual historical event. In the same manner, he also constantly presents Adam and Eve as real persons and the fall of humanity as quite literal.
In many sermons the evangelist deals with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He forthrightly declares the historical bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; and, moreover, as absolutely essential for salvation. He has stated, “You cannot be saved without believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” For Graham the crux of Christianity is in the resurrection of Jesus and that is to be understood in a very literal, historical sense. He would utterly reject the Bultmannian phrase “Jesus is raised in the kerygma.”
In doctrinal issues the methodology of literal interpretation is heavily relied upon by Graham. In his emphasis upon the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, he tells us, “The Second Coming is literal, the dead in Christ shall rise with glorified bodies, and that could happen today.” He further goes on to say, “Of this one thing I am certain as I read the Word of God: that Jesus Christ is planning to come back, that God has set a date at which his Son is to come and set up a worldwide reign.”
Graham believes the Bible is a book of “accurate, unerring prophecy.” That certainly relates to the final judgment. The judgment, in Graham’s understanding, is real and literal. He presents a literal judgment day at which one must give an account of his or her life. To be saved is to escape that final, literal judgment.
The same is true concerning Graham’s view of heaven. Graham stated, “When a Christian dies he goes straight into the presence of Christ. He goes to heaven to spend eternity with God.”
It is somewhat interesting to see Graham’s literal interpretation of Scripture when he preaches on the doctrine of heaven, especially in something of a contrast to his concept of hell. He takes a far more philosophical approach here. He would not want to grant that the fire of hell is literal. Rather, hell is essentially separation from God.
At the same time, he believes in a literal Satan, demons, and angels. Satan is real and alive and active on this earth. He notes, “The Book of Revelation tells us that Satan is the great deceiver and his main business in this age is to deceive the nations of the world.” He believes in a literal fall of Lucifer. This is what accounts for Satan’s personhood.
On moral and ethical issues Graham also takes a quite literal approach. He tells us that “The Bible has the answer to every moral situation known to man … In it, you will find the answer to the multitude of problems you face today.” For example, Graham takes the commandment to love one’s neighbor quite literally. He certainly was a forerunner in the civil rights movement. Early in his crusade career he refused to go anyplace where the services were not integrated. By 1959 Martin Luther King, Jr., was appearing publicly on the platform with Graham. He opposed the apart-heid policy of South Africa long before it was in vogue to do so.
It must be granted that from the beginning there has been a strong note of nationalism in Graham’s sermons. Again, this emerges out of his literal interpretation of Scripture. As far back as 1947 he said, “If our country continues to decline at its present rate, America as we know it today cannot possibly reach 1975.” Quite obviously, that prophecy was not literally fulfilled, but it is important to see his interpretation of the ethics of the Bible which precipitated such statements.
One of his favorite passages that he relates to the American scene is 2 Chronicles 7:14. He believes that if this verse were literally acted on in America, God would bring forth a great revival. He often compares the plight of Sodom and Gomorrah to the future of America. During the Los Angeles Crusade in 1949 he went so far as to preach that God caused Vesuvius to erupt and destroy Pompeii, and then related it to modern-day America.
Another moral and ethical issue which is often paramount in Graham’s preaching, especially recently, is the home. He stated in “Revival In Our Times” that “God meant for women to be at home and to rear the children rather than to be running all over the country.” He has modified these views somewhat through the years.
It is quite interesting to see that although Graham has very strong conservative views on the home and family, he has demonstrated a very forgiving and loving spirit on the issue of divorce. In his “My Answer” column, he wrote, “If God has forgiven your sins, why should you continue to refuse to forgive yourself? You are not glorifying God as you should unless you take forgiveness and the freedom He secured for us.”
The obvious conclusion is that Graham believes in literal moral absolutes. He stated that, “according to the Bible morals are not relative, they are absolute.” At the same time, however, he does realize that some issues are not quite as inflexible. He knows there are Christians who in some contexts would drink alcoholic beverages while in other cultural settings this would be considered a sin. He is not a narrow dogmatist.
There is often some difficulty in determining whether Graham is using an allegorical hermeneutic or whether he is simply being pietistic in his approach to the Bible. For example, when dealing with the young man with the scales on his eyes, Graham states this typifies our spiritual eyes prior to the time that they are opened by God (“Calling Youth to Christ”). When dealing with the troubled seas which our Lord was able to still by His mere word, he stated that life is like the troubled sea and Christ is fully able to calm it. Graham probably accepts the historicity of these passages, but it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether he is bringing a pure allegorical interpretation to these passages or whether he is just making pietistic points.
In a 1956 sermon titled “The Rivers of Damascus,” he recounts the story of Naaman the leper. He tells us that the rivers of Damascus are meant to represent other ways to God which people have constantly sought in their false religions. But they are simply not able to find healing therein. There is only one Jordan, one gospel, one way, and one Savior. He climaxes his point by saying, “There’s only one specific curative, and that is the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.” This quite clearly is an allegorical interpretation. Yet such an approach has been rather traditional for evangelists.
Graham stresses that the Bible alone is the only source of truth and authority in the Christian experience. It is therefore somewhat surprising to discover his reliance on traditional interpretation from time to time. He seems to use this hermeneutical principle primarily when dealing with the major themes of the church. For example, in his sermon “Christianity Versus a Bloodless Relgion,” he tells us that “every great denomination believes what I am saying. Every church has historically accepted this as a clear teaching of Scripture.”
This kind of reference to general acceptance by the church as evidence of the truth is found in themes like the Second Coming of Christ. He states in one of his sermons that “the leaders of the church in every major denomination in America believes it and accepts it … The return of Christ is written into the creeds of every major denomination.” Moreover, he cites men like John Knox, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, D. L. Moody, etc. At times Graham relies quite heavily on the traditions of the church to fortify his biblical interpretation.
Mention has already been made of Graham’s pietistic interpretation of Scripture. It is found throughout the entirety of his preaching. It is quite accurate to say that Graham is in the mainstream of traditional pietism.
He tells us, in a sermon entitled “The Christ-Centered Home,” that “Christ’s presence at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee has forever been a benediction to every marriage that has sanctified the home as a God-honored institution.” Graham’s strong pietistic emphasis on the personal experience of Jesus Christ is right at the heart of his evangelical appeal. The gospel message can, in Graham’s own words, “be used by the Holy Spirit to penetrate the most difficult heart.”
From time to time, Graham uses typology in his interpretation of Scripture. For example, when preaching on the blood, he tells us, “The blood of the lamb over the door post on the night of the Pass-over was a type of the blood of the lamb of God … All through the Old Testament God taught His people by type, by symbol, by illustation, that their only approach to Him was by the shed blood.” He states further, “All the types, all the offerings of the Old Testament were fulfilled by Christ on the cross.”
This basic approach also leads Graham to see Christ as the center in the interpretation of all Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New. He ties both testaments together as one book in a manner quite similar to reformed theology.
Graham also interprets many passages symbolically in his biblical preaching. As has already been mentioned, the use of the word “fire” in the New Testament to describe hell may be quite symbolic in Graham’s thinking. He tells us, “If there is no fire in hell then God is using symbolic language to indicate something far worse.” He tells us that hell is essentially the second death. The use of the term “fire” could be described as a burning thirst for God. He stated, “Even in this life, men live in a literal hell when they fail to satisfy their thirst for God.” He concludes by stating, “Whether there is really literal fire in hell or not, all these are descriptions of God’s hatred for sin and they portray a viable truth.”
It must be granted that while Graham uses typological and symbolic methodologies in his biblical interpretation, it evolves primarily in the context of devotional and pietistic applications of the truths that he would see as quite literal and historic. This is interesting and important to note lest one think he has a very muddled, contradictory hermeneutical approach.
Graham has spoken from time to time on aspects of biblical criticism, and he usually approaches it positively. Graham believes that a critical study of the Bible has, in his words, “clarified the meaning of many passages, and has made it possible for us to understand far more clearly the messages God would give to us.”
At the same time, there are some critical methodologies with radical rationalistic presuppositions that he quite forthrightly rejects. He is sensitized to the fact that it is basically the presuppositions that are often at fault, not the method per se.
Graham is negative towards the “new hermeneutic,” essentially because of its attack on the person of Jesus Christ and His deity. He stated, “The supernatural has been eliminated from our faith. These naturalistic philosophers refer to the miracles of the Bible as ‘miraculous magic’ and ‘impressive absurdities.’ They are trying to undermine the very foundations of Christianity. The Virgin Birth is denied; the bodily resurrection is proclaimed a myth; they say Christ was a good man, but that he was not God. These are the Saducees who deny the essential doctrines of Christianity.”
At the same time, Graham is quite warm to an existential approach to the Bible. This is no doubt due to his emphasis and insistence on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Although Graham firmly accepts the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, he will state “God still comes experientially to live in us and with us. Jesus Christ not only lives in the flesh, He can live in you. You can be the abode of God. I offer you a risen Christ who lives today in the heart of men who put their faith and trust in Him. I have not the shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ lives in my heart today.”
Of course, this is not the existentialism as defined by Bultmann and his radical followers. This is an existentialism which is dependent on the historicity of the accounts, not an existentialism divorced from history. It seems quite evident that Graham uses his existential approach to precipitate a sense of personal crisis and lay the claims of the gospel upon those who hear him.
It is evident that Graham’s approach to the Bible emerges out of his deep conviction that the Scriptures are “God-breathed” literature. Foundational to his entire approach is his statement, “Somewhat as God breathed life into man and made him a living soul, so also He breathed life and wisdom into the written word of God … I believe that the Bible is the word of God. By that I mean the full verbal inspiration of the Scripture. God has spoken verbally, and this spoken word has survived every scratch of human pen.”
It is a truism that Graham preaches with power. He is convinced that it is because of his approach to the Bible, his use of the word of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit. He preaches the Gospel in all of its simplicity, its literal meaning, with the pietistic and personal existential note that appeals to people of all cultures. He is as effective in the bush of Africa as he is in sophisticated Sweden or in great cities in America. Perhaps he is correct; it is his approach to the word of God that has given him power in his preaching. We may do well to emulate him.

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