Essay / On This Day

The Trinitarian Theology of Billy Graham

Today (November 7) is the birthday of Billy Graham, born in 1918. When you look back over the turbulent twentieth century, the ministry of Billy Graham stands out as remarkably steady and consistent. Compared to the fates of other prominent evangelists who stood in the spotlight through these long and perplexing decades, it’s tempting to call Billy Graham’s performance perfect, except that he constantly confesses, rightly, that it hasn’t been perfect.

Which is perfect.

The wider world has found it convenient to point to Graham as a kind of thumbnail sketch of the essence of evangelicalism. Back in 1976, historian Martin Marty quipped, “To those wholly unfamiliar with the American lay of the land it often suffices to provide a first clue: the Evangelicals are people who find evangelist Billy Graham or his viewpoints acceptable. The Fundamentalists would agree with most of his doctrine but separate from him on most other grounds.” (from A Nation of Behavers, 1976, p. 83). (If anybody knows where this “Graham test” actually originated, please let me know.) While that’s not exactly right, it’s close enough, and for my entire life, whenever I’ve seen Billy Graham waving a Bible and sticking to the gospel, I’ve never flinched at being put under that banner.

There is one other way that Billy Graham is exemplary, and it is not often pointed out. In my book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, I argue that the best representatives of evangelicalism are the people who have a profound trinitarian theology working in the backs of their minds, even when they are not specifically talking about it. “Billy Graham,” I say there by way of example, “has been an active evangelist who was too busy doing his life’s work to stop and explain, at a theoretical level, how everything he did in his evangelism and discipleship presupposed the Trinity.” But he could have stopped and done so at any time:

He did, in fact, have more to say about the Trinity than most people would expect, and following the lead of what he said on the subject, it is easy enough to connect the dots in his practice. The trinitarian presupposition is there to be seen, just below the surface. Graham is a perfect example of an evangelical who is focused so much on being trinitarian in practice that he somewhat under-explains the theological presuppositions of what he is doing.

In commemoration of his birthday, I’d like to make good on that promise by quoting a few of Billy Graham’s best explicit statements on the doctrine of the Trinity. Remember that the most important thing is that the Trinity has always been rumbling around in the background of his entire ministry, in all the evangelism, crusades, and follow-up; in all the spirituality and advice and worship. But now and then he has made it plain.

1953’s Peace with God was Graham’s first book, and according to his autobiography it was “genuine unghosted Billy Graham (though he had considerable input and advice from Ruth). The book sold 125,000 copies in 3 months; by 1965, it had sold 1.25 million copies. Graham’s tone of voice in Peace with God is consistently dramatic. His first mention of the Trinity is a dramatic gesture at the situation we find ourselves in:

At this moment in history, two mighty trinities stand face to face: the Trinity of God (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) and the false trinity that Satan would have us worship in its place. The trinity of evil (the Devil, anti-Christ, and false prophet) is described in the Book of Revelation (16:13). (Peace with God, p. 61)

A bit later, Graham explains what he means by the “Trinity of God:”

The Bible teaches that God is actually three Persons. This is a mystery that we will never be able to understand. The Bible does not teach that there are three Gods –but that there is one God. This one God, however, is expressed in three Persons. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.

The Second Person of this Trinity is God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He is co-equal with God the Father. He was not a Son of God but the Son of God. He is the Eternal Son of God –the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God manifested in the flesh, the living Savior. (p. 89)

What is immediately evident about the trinitarian theology of Billy Graham is that it is gospel-centered. His evangelical instinct never lets him stray far from the main thing that trinitarianism is all about. This same instinct preemptively keeps him lapsing into one of the problems that have bedeviled the history of the doctrine of the Trinity: the temptation to use it as an excuse to get interested in all kinds of other speculations, analogies, and eccentricities.

Another doctrinal topic that often leads Christian speakers into unfruitful byways is angelology. But Billy Graham’s gospel instinct kept him on track all through his 1975’s book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, unpromising thought the cold-war title may be. Graham uses the discussion of angels as an excuse to show how the fatherhood of God is not a general statement about creatures. Contrary to popular belief, God’s fatherhood is a way the Bible talks about a relationship brought about by redemption. Watch how he develops this thought in a trinitarian way:

God is not called “Father” by the holy angels because, not having sinned, they need not be redeemed… ((and of course demons don’t)) Yet even holy angels who might like to call God “Father” could do so only in the looser sense of that word. As creator, God is the father of all created beings; since angels are created beings, they might think of Him this way. But the term is normally reserved in Scripture for lost men who have been redeemed. So in a real sense, even ordinary men cannot call God “Father” except as their creator God –until they are born again.” (p. 37)

Graham also avoids the pitfall of playing Father and Son off against each other, instead describing the Father and the Son in their coordinated work for our salvation: “God the Father sent Jesus the Son to die; Jesus performed His unique ministry as His part of God’s saving process.” And this leads him seamlessly to an account of the third person:

Likewise, the Holy Spirit has a role, one different from the Son’s. Sent by the Father and the Son, He not only guides and directs believers, but also performs a work of grace in their hearts, conforming them to the image of God to make them holy like Christ. (pp. 39-40)

There is an interesting trend in evangelical trinitarianism through the ages, in which explicit reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity arises when the person of the Holy Spirit comes to the fore. Somehow the Spirit’s arrival in a theological conversation makes a clearer account of the Trinity inevitable, and not just by bringing the person-count up to 3. Whatever the reason, the same trend can be seen in Billy Graham’s publications, because it is in his 1978 book The Holy Spirit that he reaches a new level of explicitness in his trinitarianism. “Thus,” he says, “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit were together creating the world. To understand and accept these facts is of the greatest importance to every Christian, both theologically and practically.” (p. 20) And this is the first time that Billy Graham dealt with the topic of the Trinity as a major chapter heading in one of his books. As a result, he backs up and introduces the topic more generally:

When I first began to study the Bible years ago, the doctrine of the Trinity was one of the most complex problems I had to encounter. I have never fully resolved it, for it contains an aspect of mystery. Though I do not totally understand it to this day, I accept it as a revelation of God.

The Bible teaches us that the Holy Spirit is a living being. He is one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. To explain and illustrate the Trinity is one of the most difficult assignments to a Christian. Dr. David McKenna once told me that he was asked by his small son, Doug, ‘Is God the Father God?’ He answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘Is Jesus Christ God?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is the Holy Spirit God?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then how can Jesus be His own Father?’ David thought quickly. They were sitting in their old 1958 Chevrolet at the time. ‘Listen, son,’ he replied, ‘under the hood is one battery. Yet I can use it to turn on the lights, blow the horn, and start the car.’ He said, ‘How this happens is a mystery –but it happens!’

Note carefully that what Graham (after McKenna) offers here is not an analogy for how the three are one, but an analogy for how something can be true even if it is not understood. As an illustration, for a child, of that fact, the illustration works fairly well (though, come to think of it, it’s not very hard to comprehend how one battery powers those three applications). As an analogy for the three-person character of the one God, it would be just bad.

Most of what Graham has to say about the Trinity in this chapter is a recounting of the Biblical evidence for it. “The Bible does teach us the reality of the Trinity,” he says, “both in the Old and New Testaments.” But he does not force the Old Testament to declare it on its own; instead he admits that “God unfolds His revelation of Himself in the Bible progressively,” and waits for the New Testament for the revelation itself. He points to the coming of the Son and the Spirit, and then to texts like Matthew 28 and 2 Corinthians 13:14. He is content with “indications” and hints from the Old Testament.

After that most important task, he turns to the question of how the three can be one:

The chief problem connected with the doctrine of the Trinity concerns Christianity’s claim to be also monotheistic. It rejects polytheism, the belief in more than one God. The answer is that trinitarianism preserves the unity of the Godhead, and at the same time it acknowledges that there are three persons in that Godhead which is still of one essence. God is one, but that oneness is not simple –it is complex.

In the next few pages, Graham deals with the ancient errors of modalism and subordinationism. He has a light touch and is sketching only the big picture, but he handles it well. Then he concludes the discussion with this observation:

We have seen that the Holy Spirit is a person, and is God, and is a member of the Trinity. Anyone who fails to recognize this is robbed of his joy and power. Of course a defective view of any member of the Trinity will bring about this result because God is all important. But this is especially true for the Holy Spirit, for although the Father is the source of all blessing, and the Son is the channel of all blessing, it is through the Holy Spirit at work in us that all truth becomes living and operative in our lives. (23)

Finally, Graham takes the opportunity to clarify the distinction between the Son and the Spirit in Christian experience. “By the Spirit God lives in the Church,” he says. And then Billy Graham corrects a popular misunderstanding: When we say “Jesus lives in our hearts,” we should not oversimplify this in a way that bypasses the Holy Spirit. We should think first of the Holy Spirit as the one who makes divine indwelling a reality:

One point about the relation of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ needs clarification. The Scriptures speak of ‘Christ in you,’ and some Christians do not fully understand what this means. As the God-man, Jesus is in a glorified body. And wherever Jesus is, His body must be also. In that sense, in His work as the second person of the Trinity, Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

For example, consider Romans 8:10 (KJV), which says, ‘If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin.’ Or consider Galatians 2:20, ‘Christ lives in me.’ It is clear in these verses that if the Spirit is in us, then Christ is in us. Christ dwells in our hearts by faith. But the Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who actually dwells in us, having been sent by the Son who has gone away but who will come again in person when we shall literally see Him. (36)

It is no surprise that the outstanding features of the trinitarian theology of Billy Graham are that it is biblical, it is simple, and it is gospel-centered. Without being reductionist, Billy Graham knows how to keep the main thing the main thing, and that keeps his kind of trinitarianism on the right track. It’s also what makes him the perfect representative of an approach to trinitarianism that is the special genius of the evangelical movement.

(Though this is not an excerpt from my book, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, it’s a good example of the kind of thing you’ll find there. The book has sections on the trinitarian theology of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Nicky Cruz, Susannah Wesley, and more. I actually wrote this Billy Graham section for Deep Things, but had to cut it from the final draft because of space limitations.

The point is that there is so much golden evangelical trinitarianism out there that it couldn’t possibly fit into one volume.)

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