Republished from Voice, Jan/Feb 2020.
John Fea noted two decades ago that “the term fundamentalism has become the most elusive term on the American religious scene.”1 Today a fundamentalist is often viewed as anyone who holds to a strict religious system.2 The task I have been given here is to note the attempted “hijacking” of the designation “fundamentalist.” While I can, in the main, appreciate the faithful heritage of historic fundamentalism, at the same time I also reject the extremism that can often be found in too much of what I term Movement Fundamentalism. It is easy for me to note the faults within fundamentalism, but at the same time it is hard to take issue with all fundamentalists; many of whom are faithful, sincere, sacrificial and dependable saints.
Over the years I have used a taxonomy to explain to insiders as well as outsiders the nature of contemporary fundamentalism in order to demonstrate the fractured nature of what fundamentalism had become over time. The basis for this present article is my original work which was entitled, “Three Lines in the Sand”3 which enumerated three varieties within contemporary fundamentalism.
Type A Fundamentalists (as I understand them) believe that the evangelical world is essentially made of two groups — “fundamentalists” and “new evangelicals.”4 Very few leaders in this group engage the greater Christian world through writing. Most of them have a variety of evangelical commentaries but they also make it clear to anyone who asks that they do not endorse everything that is written in these volumes. The Type A Fundamentalists teach a high view of biblical authority, which has led many of their theological offspring to search the Scripture and to come to different conclusions than they have taught, leading many to leave the Type A camp to become Type B and Type C Fundamentalists.
Type B Fundamentalists are men (like the writer) who grew up in the separatist ranks of fundamentalism but have discovered they actually have more in common with militant evangelicalism than with many within Type A Fundamentalism. Militancy to the Type B Fundamentalist is akin to what I like to call “George Washington militancy.” George Washington was a fighter, but he was equally a gentleman. Type B Fundamentalists are almost to the man painfully aware of the rude image many of their Type A mentors demonstrated throughout years of leadership. To this group, loyalty to Christ may or may not mean loyalty to the movement called “Fundamentalism” (or any of the variety of sub-movements that are viewed as being fundamental). This type of Fundamentalism developed in the 1990’s.
Type C Fundamentalists are conservative evangelicals who would never use the term fundamentalist (in no small part because of a variety of hyper-fundamentalist views) and yet by their practice of militancy toward liberals (and others) are in fact historically fundamentalist.5
The History of Fundamentalism
Historically, the movement of Fundamentalism traces its roots back to the Fundamentalist/ Modernist Controversy. The writer would suggest that fundamentalism grew out of the Bible Conference era and developed in conjunction with the Bible Institute Movement. Some of the early names associated with fundamentalism were Moody, Scofield, Torrey, Shields, Billy Sunday, W. B. Riley, Machen, Gaebelein, and Bob Jones Sr. Many of these men were noted in the prophecy and Bible conferences of the day (Niagara and Winona Lake to name two). Some of the early fundamentalist institutions were Moody (1886), Gordon (1889), Practical (1900), Northwestern (1902), Brookes (1909), BIOLA (1908), Northern Baptist Seminary (1913), Philadelphia School of the Bible (1916), and Bob Jones College (1927).6 Historically, a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is militant for the gospel, committed to orthodoxy and who is willing to stand for the faith against those who would distort the faith. Those who do this act like a “fundamentalist” (even if they don’t like the name).
Thus, fundamentalists were conservative leaders (in various denominations) who in the words of Curtis Lee Laws (editor of The Watchman Examiner), did “battle royal” for the “fundamentals.” The fights were not over the kind of issues that carved up fundamentalism over the last many decades (i.e., women wearing slacks, drums in church, Bible versions, etc.). The fights in the first version of fundamentalism were over issues such as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the virgin birth, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Typically, after losing their denominations, conservatives left their groups to form new associations and/or fellowships who then planted new churches, institutions, colleges and mission agencies for the sake of a pure gospel. Frankly we at IFCA (humanly speaking) owe our existence to this “exodus” movement.7
Let’s consider five fights within the fundamentalist world and see how they contribute to our thinking today, both within and outside of fundamentalist circles.
Theological Liberalism—The carnage of World War I blew the mask off the fairy-tale view of the divine spark in man. If anything, the global tragedy of war and famine made biblical fundamentalism more popular within the Church. In some respects, the attempt of theological liberalism to become a replacement for fundamentalism was most obvious. Consider the shockingly transparent words of well-known liberal Kirsopp Lake from 1925,
It is a mistake, often made by educated persons who happen to have little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that Fundamentalism is a new and strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind: it is the… survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians… The Fundamentalist may be wrong: I think that he is. But it is we who have departed from tradition, not he, and I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a Fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the “corpus theologicum” of the Church is on the Fundamentalist side.8
New-evangelicalism showed up about halfway through the twentieth century, developing within it a variety of repercussions. First, new evangelicalism was a repudiation of militancy and separation replaced by a strategy of infiltration and cooperation.9 The eventual result of this was a movement that became captured by a secular culture.10 Second, new evangelicalism attempted to meet liberalism on equal footing by winning the theological battles by way of academic respect and accomplishment. This too failed as liberal academia refused to give new evangelical scholars any standing in their world without first seeking increasing levels of theological compromise. Third, new evangelicalism had a major spokesman in Billy Graham and his ecumenical evangelism. This form of evangelism sought unity over truth and brought mass confusion to the Church. Fourth, the movement’s flag ship school, Fuller Seminary, sought to develop conservative scholarship, but continued down a disastrous path that continues in its compromise to this day. Fifth, the publication of the movement, “Christianity Today” sought to engage the Church and the culture through Christian journalism. New evangelicalism was as much a mood as it was a movement11 which failed in large part because they forgot that Christians are to be separate from the world system before a holy God! One cannot maintain biblical holiness and be popular in the eyes of the world. The Apostle John says it well, “stop loving the world” (1 Jn 2:15).
Type A Fundamentalism—The author’s favorite description of a Type A Fundamentalist is a “fundamentalist who is angry most of the time!” We in the IFCA (along with our friends in the GARBC) are often noted by Type A Fundamentalist as compromisers. IFCA International in addition to remaining true to the “fundamentals” is also strong on a dispensational understanding of Scripture. IFCA men would not agree with many contrary theological doctrines within the Christian world, but unlike Type A Fundamentalists, many of us would take one more step when we lovingly yet decisively take up issues with our Reformed Evangelical brothers who fly the flags of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox, ignoring the dear Anabaptist men who they locked up in jails, drowned in rivers and burned at stakes. Biblical fundamentalism is marked by strong stands that are not afraid to speak truth and Christ-like confrontation. Most in the IFCA International have not forgotten about militancy, we are just a bit more discerning on when and on what and with whom and how we are militant.
KJV-Only Fundamentalism as a movement is relatively new.12 Early fundamentalists would have had the exact same view of the KJV that the KJV translators did. The KJV position is not just bad theology (and it’s really bad), it’s heresy. To say that the KJV is the only inspired Bible for the English language adds or takes away from the original manuscripts. To be fair, there are some in the KJV camp who are merely KJV preferred, believing that the KJV is the best translation because of a supposed superiority of the text-type behind the AV. The view that the KJV is the only accurate translation demands a second “inspiration” of the English text. Adding to the confusion of the position is the reality of the variants between the different additions of the KJV. It is of interest that often times KJV-Only fundamentalists are characterized by the next category as well, namely “Issue-Driven Fundamentalism.” Many KJV-Only believers add a variety of other extra fundamentals to the list of fundamentals. In the words of Kevin Bauder, “if everything is a fundamental, nothing is.”
Issue-Driven Fundamentalism—This version of a hijacked fundamentalism is seen when a ministry leader demands that all must agree with him on fundamentals as well as non-fundamentals of the faith.13 There are those that would suggest a true fundamentalist must be a Calvinist. Then there are others that believe that a true fundamentalist could never be a Calvinist. Some would say that a fundamentalist must approach church music a certain way, or that a true fundamentalist must make sure that the women in his church never attend church in anything other than a dress. Theologically, an issues-driven fundamentalist might believe that a true fundamentalist must believe in a pre-tribulation rapture or must be a Baptist and could never be a Presbyterian. Lester Roloff used to preach that a fundamentalist didn’t eat ham. The central characteristic of this bunch is that they are a slave to “group think” while at the same time claim to not be “denominational.”
Mark 9 records an occasion when John told Jesus the disciples had driven off other ministers doing ministry because they weren’t “one of us.” Jesus response is instructive. He notes, “… whoever is not against us is for us.” Fundamentalism has been most “off track” when Christian leaders have been guilty of chewing on other godly men in a bizarre form of ecclesiastical cannibalism in the name of separation. The warning I would give to the healthy descendants of the fundamentalist movement would be let’s make sure we have clarity on the doctrine of unity as much as the doctrine of separation. This is not a call to ecumenism, however if all you know is separation, you’ll end up in the corner of one state with about 3 churches in your “global fellowship.” The issue here is not that a historically fundamentalist group like the IFCA should not view key doctrines such as dispensationalism as an important “in-house” belief. The challenge is that we must never forget that there are dear godly brothers who don’t share our view of dispensationalism, but who are trying to be just as faithful to God’s Word as we are. They are not the enemy. Satan is.
Straight ahead! Philippians 3:12-14
1 John Fea, “Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward A Historical Definition,” Trinity Journal 15 (Fall 1994), p. 181. Also see George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
2 To note the wider use of the term fundamentalist, see Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
3 “Three Lines in the Sand” (https://sharperiron.org/article/three-lines-sand-part-1).
4 This is an example of a “fallacy of the excluded middle.” It is possible to be an evangelical who doesn’t see himself to be fully at home in either group.
5 John MacArthur and Mark Dever are examples of Type C Fundamentalism. The writer contends that many SBC conservatives are historic fundamentalists without the name. Type A’s will say the SBC men cannot be viewed as fundamentalist in any way because of the cooperative program and the presence of liberals in the SBC. The SBC (especially seminaries) have aggressively removed liberals from their schools and just because there have been liberals here and this does not mean that SBC conservatives actively fellowship with them. The sin-a-qua non is militancy not separation per se. The Type As have demanded that militancy must always take place as a form of separation. That is often the only move, but it is not always the only move. Too quick of a separation in some contexts would be abandonment, not contention for the faith.
6 Rolland McCune, “The Self-Identity of Fundamentalism,” DBSJ 1.1 (Spring 1996), 17-18.
7 The same is true for several other separatist groups such as the GARBC, FBFI, BBF, ACCC, OPC, to name just a few.
8 See The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925), 61-66.
9 George Marsden rightly notes that not all early new evangelicals repudiated all “separatism.” See Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism, 7. Also see Rolland McCune Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism (Greenville: Ambassador Publications, 2004).
10 See David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
11 Note former IFCA leader Ernest Pickering and his work on New Evangelicalism, The Tragedy of Compromise (Greenville: Bob Jones Press, 1994).
12 See Jeffrey Straub, “Fundamentalism and the King James Version: How a Venerable English Translation became a Litmus Test for Orthodoxy” DBSJ 16 (2011): 41-46.
13 See Rolland McCune, “Doctrinal Non-Issues in Historic Fundamentalism” DBSJ 1 (Fall 1996): 171-185.
Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as lead pastor of Southeast Valley Bible Church in Gilbert, AZ. He also serves as Western Regional Coordinator for the Institute of Biblical Leadership. Joel has taught adjunct and in a variety of leadership conferences and seminars both nationally and internationally. He has studied at International Baptist College and Seminary (Chandler, AZ); Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA); Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies; Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary (Allen Park, MI), and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN).