Now, About Those Differences, Part Two


Outside the Boundary

A few months ago I wrote an essay entitled “Let’s Get Clear on This.” That essay argued the following: (1) conservative evangelicals are not neo-evangelicals; (2) conservative evangelicals are making a substantial contribution to the defense and exposition of the Christian faith; (3) substantial differences continue to distinguish conservative evangelicals from fundamentalists; but (4) fundamentalists must not treat conservative evangelicals as enemies or even opponents. These points are, I think, as clear in reality as they were presented to be in the essay.

What “Let’s Get Clear on This” did not do was to explore the differences between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Such an exploration would have been beside the point in that essay. Nevertheless, those differences remain important. What I have proposed to do is to examine the ways in which fundamentalism differs from conservative evangelicalism.

Partly, this is an empirical evaluation based upon an examination of the two movements as they actually exist at this point in time. But only partly. In my examination of the differences, I am deliberately opting for an a priori definition that excludes some self-identified fundamentalists.

My reason for this decision is simple: words refer to ideas, and ideas are anterior to things. This discussion will recognize as fundamentalists only those who approximate the idea of fundamentalism. Of course, none of us perfectly implements the idea. Whenever ideas are incarnated in human institutions, movements, and persons, they display the effects of human finiteness and fallenness. No ideal fundamentalist (or conservative, or Baptist, or even Christian, for that matter) has ever existed, and none ever will. We judge ourselves by the idea. In the present discussion, I shall consider only those versions of fundamentalism that are closer to the idea.

My concern in this essay is how the idea of fundamentalism addresses the problem of differences between Christians. In order to establish the context for that discussion, however, I must also explain how fundamentalists view differences with non-Christians, and why it is that fundamentalists refuse to recognize certain self-identified Christians as Christians at all.

At the heart of fundamentalism is the notion that the gospel functions as the boundary between Christianity and non-Christianity. Those who profess the true gospel ought to be recognized as Christians unless their lives contradict their profession. Those who deny the gospel must be treated as non-Christians, whatever they may claim to be.

According to 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel revolves around the historical events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, both attested by proper evidence (the burial and the witnesses), and both explained in their true significance (Christ’s death was “for our sins,” and His resurrection made Him the “firstfruits of them that sleep”). The choice of 1 Corinthians 15 as a defining passage is not arbitrary. It is the one passage in the New Testament that clearly aims to articulate a definition of the gospel.

To state that the gospel simply is Jesus’ death and resurrection, however, is too facile. Jesus’ death for our sins and His resurrection as our firstfruits entail a long list of assumptions and corollaries, involving the nature and consequences of human sinfulness, the qualifications of Christ to be our sin-bearer, the nature of the work that He did to remove our guilt, and the application of that work to the individual soul. These assumptions and corollaries comprise what we call essential or fundamental doctrines. To deny any of these fundamentals is (at least implicitly) to deny the gospel itself.

In addition to its cognitive dimensions, the gospel also carries conative and affective implications. Not all of the fundamentals are doctrinal. For the present discussion, however, it is sufficient to note that a denial of a fundamental doctrine entails a denial of the gospel itself. Though other denials are possible, everyone who denies a fundamental doctrine denies the gospel.

Those who deny the gospel cannot be recognized as Christians. Naturally this is true of a Muslim, a Hindu, or an out-and-out infidel. But it is also true of those who name the name of Christ and claim to be Christians while denying fundamental doctrines.

Through the years, any number of theological systems have denied the gospel while claiming to be Christian. They have gone by names like Gnosticism, Arianism, Socinianism, Mormonism, Modernism, and Romanism. No person can simultaneously profess allegiance to one of these systems and to the gospel. Therefore, no person who professes to believe these systems can rightly be recognized as a Christian.

The gospel functions as the boundary of Christianity. Those who are outside the boundary (those who deny the gospel) must be treated as non-Christians. This treatment must not change when these persons claim to be Christians, or even when they perceive themselves as Christians. No form of Christian commonality or fellowship should ever be extended to such individuals.

Of course, some Christians (those who are inside the circle) see things differently. While they themselves profess the gospel, they do not believe that the gospel (or, more specifically, the fundamentals of the gospel) ought to become an inflexible boundary that determines Christian fellowship. In other words, even though these people affirm the gospel, they are willing to extend Christian fellowship and recognition to people who deny it.

This is the position that J. Gresham Machen labeled “Indifferentism” (a discussion of Machen’s categories awaits a future essay). It is also the philosophy that became the heart and mainspring of the New Evangelicalism. The Indifferentist philosophy explicitly contradicts the idea of fundamentalism, and fundamentalists have rejected it with near unanimity.

Fundamentalism insists that the gospel is the boundary of Christian fellowship. Those who reject doctrines that are fundamental to the gospel have placed themselves outside the circle of Christian recognition. Conservative evangelicals would in principle agree with this point.

What about differences within the circle, however? What about differences over doctrines and practices that do not directly affect the gospel? Do those differences still affect Christian fellowship? These are questions for the next essay.

O Fair Is Our Lord’s Own City
Donough O’Daly, the Great (c. 1175-1244)
Tr. Coslett W. C. Quinn

O fair is our Lord’s own city,
With clearest light abloom,
And full of joy and music,
Where woe can never come.

No guilt or condemnation
Its citizens may know,
None weary is, none anxious,
No head by grief bent low.

The holy gracious Spirit,
Shines there with brightest beams,
And sheds God’s royal bounty
In shining showers and streams.

The saints and martyrs countless,
Who in this world found woe,
Find there a peace and pleasure
The world cannot bestow.

From earth our faces turning
Towards the King of grace;
In prayer let us beseech him
To bring us to that place.

This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Todd Wood's picture

"Through the years, any number of theological systems have denied the gospel while claiming to be Christian. They have gone by names like Gnosticism, Arianism, Socinianism, Mormonism, Modernism, and Romanism. No person can simultaneously profess allegiance to one of these systems and to the gospel. Therefore, no person who professes to believe these systems can rightly be recognized as a Christian."

There are two professing evangelical Christians . . . Todd Wood and Cal Fullerton. Cal promotes that Mormons and Evangelicals are one ( according to his view of John 17) in his evangelicals and mormons for Jesus website. Todd does not. And obviously this strains the relationship between Todd and Cal. How can Todd minister alongside with Cal? He can't.

And now what about my relationship with those who don't agree with Cal but are indifferent to his public position? It definitely is a point of conversation with me and them, too.

thinking of heart issues,

Aaron Blumer's picture


Great example, Todd. This stuff is not just abstract reflection!

I'll throw in another, more hypothetical one. Suppose some churches in a town want to get together and provide a food bank for folks in need. To some of the churches involved, giving out food "in the name of Jesus" is spreading the gospel. To others, it's compassion, an expression of care they hope leads to opportunities to share the gospel. So what is the second group to do when the first group says things like "Isn't it great that we're working together to spread the gospel?" Or, worse, if they bill the event as "bringing the gospel to the needy."
True, it's more likely that the first group is going to say things like "Isn't it great that we work together to show the love of Christ." But I wonder how long these groups can really do this sort of thing together before the participation of each denies the belief of the other regarding the gospel.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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