Has Fundamentalism Become Secularized? Part 3

Theological Disconnect

See Part 1 and Part 2.

by Mark Farnham

In the first part of this essay, I stated that fundamental Christianity has been affected by secularization in three primary ways: faith has become more privatized, beliefs have become mixed and matched and less systematic, and pragmatism has become the guiding influence in philosophy of ministry. I dealt with privatization in Part 2. The decline of systematization in farnham_exposiu.gifbeliefs will be examined in greater detail in this essay.

Secularization’s second impact on Fundamentalism is the abandonment of theological systems for a “mix and match” set of beliefs. Rather than adhering to a unified traditional and historical theology in which the component parts form a web of belief, fundamentalists now seem to be more consumerist in their belief systems. There are two reasons for this shift. First is the loss of theological thinking among the person in the pew, which in turn is a direct result of the lack of theological acumen in the pulpit. Second is the disillusionment with institutions (churches, colleges and universities, fellowships and associations, political entities). Scandals of immorality, ethical violations, perceived departure from orthodoxy, and other causes have fostered distrust of the ability of institutions to provide a complete worldview and unified theology. Disillusionment is evidenced in the declining commitment to denominational affiliations for churches and ministries that meet the needs of a believer and his family.

During my years as a pastor, I saw young couples from a variety of evangelical backgrounds (Southern Baptist, Grace Brethren, Presbyterian, and others) attend and join our church. Even though there were churches in our area of those affiliations, these families were more concerned about finding a church with sound, expository preaching, genuine fellowship, and a biblical philosophy of ministry. That this kind of crossover happens in Evangelicalism is news to no one. But I have observed more and more of this taking place in Fundamentalism also. Families who have been steeped in Fundamentalism move to a different state and end up in an evangelical or Presbyterian church. This shift has occurred with more than a few friends and acquaintances. When I talk to them on the phone after the move and ask where they are going to church, they reluctantly admit that they are not in a fundamental Baptist church.

This is nowhere more true than among young fundamentalists preparing for ministry. In conversing and corresponding with them, I have noticed fewer college and seminary students who buy “the whole package” of traditional Fundamentalism (Arminian leanings, classic dispensationalism, revivalist music and preaching, stringent separation). Instead, many are retaining aspects of Fundamentalism while also embracing ideas and commitments from other evangelical groups. Many are being attracted to Calvinism, Reformed theology, John Piper, Southern Baptists, Sovereign Grace, and others.

As a Ph.D. student at a Reformed seminary (Westminster, Philadelphia), I regularly see college students from fundamental (and mostly Baptist) colleges visiting Westminster to check out the seminary. Some recognize me as a professor at a fundamental, dispensational, Baptist seminary; and their reaction is often twofold: first, embarrassment for being “caught” visiting the Reformed seminary, as if they were caught in a bar or a liquor store; second, surprise that I would be there. After all, they ask, isn’t the seminary where I teach anti-Calvinist? The question I have for them, however, is, “Why do you want to go from a fundamental Baptist college to a Reformed seminary?”

Sometimes they make this change for good reasons—a hunger for serious theology and biblical philosophy of ministry (which they think is lacking in fundamental seminaries). But sometimes they make this change for bad reasons—academic respect, the thrill of something new, the desire to escape their fundamentalist past (or to tick off their parents), or the desire to escape personal holiness issues (scotch and cigars are not an issue for the Presbyterians I know). Some tell me they are turned off by the fragmentation of fundamentalist theology, weak preaching, and the extremes of legalism. And yet what they find when they come to this Reformed seminary is an equally fundamentalist stance, just in Reformed garb. They find the same criticisms of Evangelicalism (many Reformed believers don’t consider themselves to be New Evangelicals, whom they see as sell-outs). They find Reformed believers fighting quite militantly over issues of Bibliology, Ecclesiology, and other core doctrines; and realize that at its heart a certain kind of Fundamentalism is correct. The issues they struggle with are all the extremes and oddities of late 20th century Fundamentalism—and rightly so most of the time.

The Upside and Downside of Consumerism

How is this shift related to secularization? “Secularization” in this essay refers to how the forces of modernization have changed Fundamentalism. Because Americans are consumers in every other area, we should not be surprised that the practice of our faith has been affected. Just as brand loyalty is a dinosaur from a previous age, so commitment to an entire unified system of belief and practice seems to be fading. Fundamentalists are picking and choosing their beliefs and practices as suits them.

This trend is both promising and troubling. It is promising because Christians are not checking their brains at the door and blindly subscribing to everything their pastor, tradition, or fellowship says and does. For too long in some quarters, it was assumed that every application of biblical principles that was made from the pulpit was as authoritative as the words of Scripture themselves. The concepts of individual soul liberty and Christian liberty were almost forgotten. This is not a good thing. A balance needs to be struck between the authority of the church and the principles of liberty (both of which are biblical). As the founder of the church where I worship used to say concerning his pastoral authority, “My authority stops at your front door!” That is, he recognized that he did not possess the authority to dictate the application of the biblical principles in the homes of his church members.

What is troubling, however, is that Christians do not see the interconnectedness that should exist between their theological beliefs. Fundamentalists pride themselves on historically being the one group that has never doubted or denied the truth of the Scriptures and have claimed to follow the Bible as the rule for all of their beliefs and practices. The evidence, however, seems to point to a disconnect between Scripture and theology. By picking and choosing their beliefs like toppings at a salad bar, they are working themselves into an ill-fitting suit of beliefs (a mixed metaphor, I know) that is indefensible apologetically. Without the ability to make clear connections between Scripture and theology, fundamentalists have no alternative to a mix-and-match theology.

Evidence of Theological Disconnect

What is the evidence of a disconnect between Scripture and theology? First, in many circles of Fundamentalism, the lack of clear expository preaching has left the person in the pew unable to critically examine whether what is stated in the pulpit (or on the website) is biblical. Expository preaching, by its very nature, helps listeners move from the text to theology. A good expositor demonstrates a clear connection between the text and his interpretations and applications. The listener learns to judge every statement by the text in front of him. When expository preaching is absent or weak, the listener cannot see how the sermon comes from the text and is forced to “just trust” that the preacher is right. Rather than being noble Bereans, who have the ability to search the Scriptures and to confirm the “biblicity” of the sermon or lesson, believers must suspend their obedience to “prove all things” and blindly accept the word of the preacher. There have been far too many breaches of trust by now for thinking people (especially those in the younger generation) to continue to offer slavish devotion to those who purport to be speaking for God but cannot or will not provide biblical proof. Many today (rightly) demand to see the connection between the sermon and the text. Sadly, there is more commitment to this principle among many conservative evangelicals today than among fundamentalists who claim to be more biblical.

The second piece of evidence of a disconnect is the lack of Christ-centeredness in much of Fundamentalism. A friend who teaches at a fundamental Christian college recently commented on the deplorable preaching in the college chapel, primarily by visiting pastors. Most of the sermons, he said, were nothing but messages of moralism that could be preached from the Koran or the Book of Mormon. The focus was on changed behavior, but no mention was made of Christ as the One who enables us to change anything in our lives. Strong exhortations to obey the imperatives of Scripture (be pure, witness, serve God, sacrifice) were disconnected from the work of Christ who makes obedience possible. Having lost our theological skills as a movement, we have inadvertently become the most prodigious purveyors of a civil religion. But as Sinclair Ferguson recently noted, the imperatives of Scripture are possible only because of the indicatives of Scripture; and without an emphasis on the purpose of the Father, the purchase of the Son, and the ministry of the Spirit, the proclamation of the commands of Scripture become merely “a whip or a rod to beat our people’s backs.” A greater emphasis on Christ’s person and work is greatly needed if we are to be truly Christian.

A third piece of evidence is the recent Young Fundamentalist Survey (PDF file). In 1993, James Davison Hunter’s study of evangelical colleges and seminaries (Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation) opened the eyes of evangelicals to the theological drift within educational institutions. The future looked bleak as Hunter discovered sagging commitment to key doctrines including inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, and the reality of eternal hell. Although the Young Fundamentalist Survey did not discover theological rot to the same degree as Hunter’s study, it did reveal a more diverse landscape of beliefs than many had anticipated. Among the most significant surprises (to some) is the diversity of belief about Calvinism within fundamental circles. No longer are Calvinists in the vast minority; they are emerging as a significant percentage of those who call themselves fundamentalists. As the younger generation comes to conviction about its beliefs, it is not accepting the entire package of any one stripe of Christianity. The same discussion of the resurgence of Calvinism that is taking place among evangelicals will of necessity have to take place among fundamentalists.

An Introduction to Pragmatism

Secularization, then, has changed Fundamentalism in that faith has been privatized, and beliefs are less systematized. This leads us to the third and final effect of secularization upon Fundamentalism—pragmatism. As American society began to change with technological advances, evangelicals and fundamentalists caught on and were some of the most innovative people around through the first half of the 20th century. They used radio and mass-market appeals through crusades, published eye-catching literature, and made worship more accessible through pietistic and revivalist music. Evangelicals and fundamentalists saw their numbers swell through the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. As success came to their once- disenfranchised group, however, fundamentalists were swept up into the methods of growth and seemed to lose interest in the theological underpinnings that anchored their growth in orthodoxy. The excitement of opportunity and growth led some to minimize theology in the life of the believer and thorough preparation in the training of new pastors and missionaries. For some, theology became thought of as a stagnant body of knowledge that had to be and could be learned in a couple of years (a necessary evil). Once a student passed his exams in college, he could move on to what really counted—the work of the ministry. His theology became a thing of his past.

In reality, however, theology is a verb. The skill to think theologically (theologize) is necessary because theology is always done in a context—the present—with a look toward the future. It speaks to new developments in society, answers new attacks by heretics, and keeps its eyes on the parousia. J.I. Packer is correct when he says theology must maintain constant dialogue with the culture, with a view to fulfilling Paul’s agenda to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, ESV):

Christian theology is not just for in-house consumption; it must ever be used to persuade the world. But for this aspect of our theological task, we need to be clear on our own faith, and with that on two things more. We must know the ideas that are being spread and institutionalized around us today at all levels, from highest culture to lowest pop … we must present the gospel, not as a way back to yesterday, but as a way that points forward from today’s world, the world of postmodernism, postfoundationalism, post-Christianity, and potent paganism, to a richer and more rational future for all who turn to Christ (J.I. Packer, “Maintaining Evangelical Theology,” in Evangelical Futures, ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Downers Grove: IVP, 2000).

Without a solid grounding in theology and an ability to handle the Scriptures exegetically, a believer usually resorts to pragmatism—what works. This will be the subject of the fourth part of this essay—the palsy of pragmatism that has struck Fundamentalism. Pragmatism may be the deadliest enemy to the life and health of faithful adherence to the Scriptures. Like a parasite that has finally succeeded in bringing down its host, pragmatism is killing Fundamentalism as a whole, leaving little of “the kind of Fundamentalism worth saving.” In the next installment of this essay, we will examine the damage caused by a commitment to “what works.”

farnham.jpgMark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two teen daughters and a 10-year-old son. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) right out of seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an M.Div. from Calvary and a Th.M. in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics.
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