So what of the future for fundamentalism? Is there hope?
Having defined fundamentalism and having set it in the context of the evangelical right, I will devote the rest of this presentation to discussing where fundamentalism is going and what its future may be. We are less than a decade into the new millennium. It’s impossible to predict where we will be at the end of the century, but I am not too optimistic. A few months back I said some disparaging remarks about the current state of fundamentalism on a semi-private listserve I moderate. Word of what I said got out to a well-respected pastor in our circles and he contacted me to encourage me to be careful about dissing fundamentalism. He felt that I might hurt myself and ultimately Central Seminary. My response? I am a historian. We look at the past to understand the present. We look at the present to suggest what the future might be. Arnold Toynbee said once that “the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” I think we need to be honest with our past, realistic about our present and reflective about our future. Only then can we hope to remain faithful to God. I did not create the state that fundamentalism is in, but I think that glossing over our problems will help no one. Young men will continue to leave and the old men will continue to sit smug in self-denial. A real future demands serious reflection.
So what about historic fundamentalism in the 21st century? Do we have a future? Last May, my son graduated from Central with his M.Div. He is currently enrolled in our ThM program. When he finishes, he will go out into the Lord’s work. I wonder where he will land? What movement will he identify with in the next decade, or 30 years? Will he follow my path and remain within this movement called fundamentalism? Will there even be a fundamentalism as we know it? Some of these questions, I cannot answer. But the one I raised in my subtitle—Does Fundamentalism Have a Future?—I do wish to try to answer.
Ultimately, only the Lord knows the real answer. While God knows the future (contra open theism) I certainly do not. But let me suggest a possible answer. The simple answer is yes. Fundamentalism has a future because, at its core, it is rooted in biblical truth. This is not to say it is without need of correction. But the essential ideas are biblical. Curtis Lee Laws did not invent it in 1920. Nor did the Stewart brothers in 1909. Nor is separatism a novel idea. The Donatists advocated it at the time of Augustine and Baptists were birthed in English separatism in the early 17th century. Baptists are by orientation separatists.
Before we answer the question in detail, let me offer a response to one non-answer for this question. Some suggest that it doesn’t really matter if fundamentalism has a future. Whether or not fundamentalism survives really doesn’t matter. Men suggest that they will simply go their own direction and do their own thing. Fundamentalism is a movement and they do not want to be a part of any movement. So it can prosper or fail and they simply don’t care. Ultimately this is where every local church pastor must stand. Whether a movement survives or collapses, we all stand before God and must give an account for our stewardship. If we believe in certain biblical principles, those ideas, by whatever name, should endure.
So though each one of us may end up there at some point, we still need to ask, “Does fundamentalism have a future today?” If it does, and if that future is to be bright, there are at least four things we must do—we must work toward greater interdependence, we must improve our preaching, we must be more be more biblical in our separation and we must demonstrate a greater spirit of true humility.
1. Great interdependence
We pride ourselves as being independents. Most of us are not connected to any major group. We stand on our own feet! I think this attitude identifies one of our core weaknesses—over independency. We think we don’t need anyone but God. “One man and God make a majority” we are told. Well, this may be true in the lion’s den or in the valley facing a Philistine, but quite often Israel found strength in unity. There were 12 tribes, not one—and 12 apostles. Paul had a whole company of associates and though he sometimes was lonely, it wasn’t because he wished to be alone. He worked with others throughout his ministry. And so should we.
In our fear of the slippery slope into liberalism, we have too often worked in isolation from others—pastors and churches. We are not very good at working together, making common cause for the work of Christ. As Americans, we have a “Yes We Can,” “Can Do” attitude. I don’t need you. Our church is large enough to do this on our own!
This is an absurd attitude. This independence may be a strength but I think it is also often a glaring weakness. Unless you are a Landmarker, you are a part of the Body of Christ! We are in union with other believers through Spirit baptism. We are a family. It’s odd that we seldom act like one. We need one another and we ought to work in partnership with like-minded believers. This is the Lord’s work, not our own. It’s His mission and His vineyard. The “I don’t need you” attitude is ineffectual at best and unbiblical at worst. It is also one reason why Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition attract such large crowds. There is a sense of a greater mission that we seem to be unable to project. Often our “big” conferences are little more than meetings of self-promotion.
Our associations can be too narrow. If we only work with people exactly like us, how many of us are there really? What are the central issues and what are the peripheral issues? Is immersion a central or peripheral issue? In terms of church life and associations we would say yes, central. In terms of fundamentalist identity, we would say no—it’s peripheral. Fundamentalism has historically been transdenominational.
Even in doctrine we Baptists can be excessively narrow. Usually, one may hold to no more of Calvinism than the group’s leader or he is dubbed a hyper-Calvinist. A three-pointer will not work with a four or five-pointer because anyone who holds more points than he does is a heretic. Calvinism is a very divisive issue in ecclesiastical life. Jacob Arminius broke from the Dutch Calvinists, John Wesley broke from George Whitefield and the Particular and General Baptists fell out over it in England. It is likely too much to hope that things will change in fundamentalism. However, in fundamentalism’s early history, not even five-point Calvinism was out of line. C. H. Spurgeon was an unapologetic Calvinist as was T. T. Shields. Fundamentalism had numerous Presbyterians in its early days who affirmed the Westminster Confession. The GARBC has been strongly Calvinistic with a number of prominent five-pointers over the years. Fundamentalism has had a robust history of diversity here, rejecting both hyper-Calvinism and hyper Arminianism.
It is here we ought to consider R. Albert Mohler’s concept of theological triage.1 We might have minor disputes concerning which doctrines fit into which categories but the concept is very helpful as are his three broad categories. Level one doctrines are central to the Christian faith—the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Substitutionary Atonement. Level two doctrines are things like denominational boundaries—baptism and church polity. Level three issues are minor doctrines over which we might agree and still be in close fellowship. At Central Seminary, we have several of these doctrines—not the least is our view of sanctification. Some men lean more toward a Keswisk view and others a Reformed view. We charitably disagree with one another. I am unapologetic about my premillenialism. But it is simply not as important as the impeccability of Christ. To deny one is to miss eternity. To deny the other is simply to be mistaken. Clearly Mohler has the right idea.
Some doctrines matter in certain contexts. I will not likely plant a church with my Free Presbyterian friend Mike Barrett. He was a professor at BJU in the 70s. I took him for more classes than any other professor and he was an excellent teacher. We renewed our acquaintance at various Bible faculty summits in recent years. We have some pretty significant theological differences—church polity among them. But we have some pretty close theological convictions also. Our view of church polity may keep us from “church” fellowship, but it need not hinder Christian fellowship.
And, by the way, when fundamentalists disagree on second and third tier issues, we need to do so charitably. If you disagree with me on the deity of Christ, then you are a heretic. But you are not a heretic if you don’t immerse. You are mistaken, but you are not a heretic. I am happy to say that we have at Central an environment for the students where they get to hear each of us make our case from the text and then decide which of us, if any, are right! Not about the core truths of the Gospel, mind you. There is unanimity there, and not even about second tier issues—we are all Baptists, but on some of these third tier issues, there are some interesting discussions in the breakroom!
If fundamentalism will have a future, we must renew our sense of identity. I am not suggesting that we try to reinvigorate a dead or dying movement, but I think the idea of biblical fundamentalism will not go away. Many today use the term Biblicism to mark a position that is somewhere in between Calvinism and Arminianism. However, in its classic sense, Biblicism simply means that a person seeks to be biblical in his orientation. Because fundamentalism is biblical, I don’t see how it will go away. It is a true Biblicism.
2. Better hermeneutics and preaching
It is odd that a movement that focuses on the Word of God should struggle with its interpretation and presentation of that Word. Unfortunately, however, this is the case in many parts of fundamentalism. Hermeneutics is the science of understanding the Bible in its context. The adage “a text without a context is a pretext” is too often evident among us. How many times have we heard messages that interpreted the text in ways that would have made the biblical authors fail to identify their own text?
Allegorical interpretation was popular among the ancient biblical commentators. Origen, the great 4th century father of Alexandria, said that the text held four levels of meaning. There was the obvious literal—grammatical meaning. But then there was an allegorical, a moral and an anagogical meaning.2 This made understanding the Scripture something that only someone with an insider’s knowledge could do. In the same way, when our church members hear us mishandle the text and leave a sermon thinking, “Wow, I would never have understood this passage if I hadn’t heard that sermon,” we do them a great injustice. Our preaching needs to be biblical yet simple—simple so that we lead them through a passage unfolding the obvious meaning that is available to all who are willing to study.
Once our hermeneutics improves, our preaching will follow. Today fundamentalism is known for preaching marked as shallow and unbiblical. Students attend Bible colleges across our movement and hear men preach from the platform who are loyal friends of their institutions but who are careless in their handling of the Scripture. Volume, passion, exhortation or humor are substituted for content. Anecdotes take the place of exegesis. This is improving, slowly, but improving nonetheless. Thanks to meetings like The Mid-America Conference on Preaching and the emphasis of some of the schools, expository preaching is on the rise. But still, at national meetings of fundamentalists, the preaching is often weak. This is another big draw for meetings like Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition. Whatever one thinks of a particular speaker, nearly all can be expected to address the audience from the Scripture.
The final step in the process is application. Many us us start our sermon preparation with the idea, “What do I want my church to do?” Should we not start by asking, “What does this text say about God?” Once we understand that, then we ask, “How should this truth be communicated?” Only after we decide these two questions can we ask the third: “What should people do?” We simply must demand better preaching shaped by better hermeneutics and ending in better application. It simply does not help the next generation when they attend our churches and our schools only to be assaulted by unbiblical preaching.
1 R. Albert Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” published online at http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2004-05-20. Accessed 29 April 2009.
2 There are numerous good books on interpretation, many of which discuss its history. See William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (rev. ed. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2004). This text has an anti-dispensational tone so it has its limitations. But many of its chapters are excellent.