Dr. Doug MacLachlan presented this paper at Central Seminary’s fall conference on Oct. 17, 2011. Read part 1. Part two begins with the second of three indispensible necessities for authentic fundamentalism.
2. Pursuing the radical center
It was G. K. Chesterton who suggested that the Christian life is like a narrow pathway with deep ditches on both sides. For much of its history, large segments of the body of Christ have too often found themselves off the “narrow pathway” (the radical center) and in one or the other of these ditches. It doesn’t matter which ditch we fall into. In both of them, believers become muddied and defiled. In this condition, the watching world is once again receiving a skewed view of Christ and His body. Far too large a percentage of the evangelical world has descended into the “left ditch.” And doubtless, far too much of the fundamentalist world has descended into the “right ditch.” This tragic descent into the ditches mandates a deep commitment to a strong pursuit of the “radical center,” if we are to recover historic, mainstream fundamentalism.
A word of caution is necessary here. In coming up out of these ditches, there is often a tendency to overreact and miss the radical center by passing right over it, and ending up in the opposite ditch. The Christian faith is replete with examples of this. When we “over-correct” we don’t correct. We simply create a whole new world of hypocrisies, because both the right and left ditches are full of hypocrisies. The only place to find authenticity (genuine Christianity) is in the radical center.
Incidentally, the radical center should not be thought of as a compromising posture that allows for one foot in the church and the other in the world, as though we were straddling the fence. Rather it is the narrow pathway defined by Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14. Pursuing the radical center means absolute love to the Triune Godhead, and absolute loyalty to absolute truth. This combination defines precisely what it means to pursue the radical center.
3. Recognizing the interdependence of the hard and soft virtues
Peter Kreeft has argued that our ancestors were better than we are at the hard virtues such as courage and chastity, holiness, righteousness, and justice. We, on the other hand, are better than they were at the soft virtues such as kindness and philanthropy, love, mercy, and grace. But you can no more specialize in virtue than in anatomical organs. The virtues are like organs in the body—interdependent—the one cannot survive without the other. In other words, the hard virtues are like bones in the body; the soft virtues are like tissues in the body. Bones without tissues are a skeleton. Tissues without bones are a jelly-fish. Neither can survive without the other, and apart from their union our full humanity is lost.
In the very same way, authentic Christianity cannot survive without both the hard and the soft virtues. They are absolutely interdependent. Too much of evangelicalism has opted for the soft virtues, exclusive of the hard. Too much of fundamentalism has opted for the hard virtues, exclusive of the soft. Neither of these movements will be capable of authentic Christianity or genuine ministry, until they are deeply committed to the union of both the hard and the soft virtues. The hard virtues strengthen the soft, and the soft virtues temper the hard. We cannot specialize in one or the other and hope to survive, because without both we inevitably forfeit our integrity, ministry, and authenticity.
And this, too, is a reality that has biblical justification. Paul’s final word to the “dysfunctional” body of believers at Corinth is: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with (in) love” (1 Cor. 16:13-14). This call to watch alertly, stand faithfully, and lead courageously (v. 13), is Paul’s mandate to embrace the “hard virtues.” But his warning to beware of the lessons we learn in warfare by loving visibly and tangibly in all that we do (v. 14), is his mandate to embrace the “soft virtues.” Corinth’s dysfunctional behavior and missional failure would continue unless both ends of this equation were to be honored.
For us at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, this is the critical balance that defines an authentic Fundamentalism. We remain deeply committed to historic, mainstream fundamentalism; a fundamentalism that is marked by a combination of grit, grace, and scholarship; a fundamentalism that is theologically sound, exegetically rich, dispositionally gracious, and intellectually astute. But we have no desire to join forces with either left-ditch evangelicalism or right-ditch fundamentalism.
As I close, I would like to make one final observation. It seems to me that on the one hand post-conservative and neo- or generic-evangelicals are bolting to the left. On the other hand, it appears that neo- or hyper-fundamentalists are bolting to the right. There is, however, a group on both sides of this divide that appear to be in pursuit of the radical center. Both groups represent minority movements in their respective theological settings. Confessional or conservative evangelicals aspire to distance themselves from the majority of the evangelical movement that is bolting left. And natal or historic, mainstream fundamentalists aspire to distance themselves from the majority of the fundamentalist movement that is bolting right. This looks very much to me as though both these groups are moving toward the radical center.
Kevin Bauder has made the point that,
Mainstream fundamentalists are coming to the conclusion that they must distance themselves from hyper-fundamentalists, and they are displaying a new openness to conversation and even some cooperation with conservative evangelicals. Younger fundamentalists in particular are sensitive to the inconsistency of limiting fellowship to their left but not to their right. (Four Views On The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, Andrew David Naselli, Collin Hansen, General Editors, Zondervan, 2011, p. 45)
He argues further that, “Many fundamentalists (and I am among them) are growing in their appreciation of the contribution that confessional evangelicals have made… . Yet differences remain between us, the largest of which is our assessment of indifferentism” (Ibid., p.103). Following J. Gresham Machen, Bauder defines “indifferentism” as the offense of those “who personally believed the fundamentals of the gospel but who extended Christian recognition to others who did not.” Though confessional evangelicals are “not indifferentists themselves,” they have exhibited a reluctance to “distance themselves from indifferentism or to warn against it publicly” (Ibid., p.102).
Nevertheless, though confessional evangelicals and historic, mainstream fundamentalists are not a perfect match, and though it is true that real and significant differences remain between them, it is fair to say that both of these groups seem equally committed to finding the radical center, and that both often have much more in common with one another than with those in their own movements who have jettisoned the radical center for one or the other of the ditches. In this regard, Bauder affirms what confessional evangelical, Mark Dever, recently said: “There is nothing wrong with our having fences. But let us keep our fences low and shake hands often.” I concur with Bauder’s response: “That remark nicely summarizes the sense of a growing number of fundamentalists” (Ibid., p. 103).
To begin with then, achieving an authentic fundamentalism will require a deep-seated commitment to the three indispensable necessities, which we have attempted to address in this essay:
- Expressing holiness and love simultaneously (1 Thess. 3:12-13). It mandates a combination of both critical thought and cruciform.
- Pursuing the radical center (Matt. 7:13-14). It mandates a combination of absolute love to the Triune God and absolute loyalty to absolute truth.
- Recognizing the interdependence of the hard and soft virtues (1 Cor. 16:13-14). It mandates an equal passion for and implementation of both sets of virtues.
These define for me the broad, general, and I believe biblical, principles which provide the parameters or boundaries within which we should do our work as we move forward toward an authentic fundamentalism.