Reflections upon Hearing the Announcement

In The Nick of TimeWord arrived earlier this week that Pillsbury Baptist Bible College will cease operations in December. This announcement was not entirely unexpected. Nearly two years ago, announcements were made nationwide that if the situation did not improve, Pillsbury would be in jeopardy. Those of us in Minnesota have been watching the slow strangulation of our college ever since.

Pillsbury nearly closed in the mid-1990s when it experienced multiple turnovers of administration and a purge of the faculty. This was not the first controversial period in the history of the college, but it was the one that did the most enduring damage. At that time, the decision was made to try to keep the doors open, and Dr. Bob Crane finally accepted the presidency. Frankly, no one expected it to survive. It is a testimony to Dr. Crane’s leadership and to the faculty’s commitment that it has remained in operation for more than a decade since.

Dr. Crane has been trying to retire for years, but Pillsbury has had difficulty finding a qualified person who would accept the responsibility of the presidency. Dr. Greg Huffman was led into that office earlier this year. When he came to Pillsbury, he knew that the situation was already dire. He accepted the presidency knowing that he had only a couple of strategies at his disposal. Huffman had to watch those strategies evaporate in the current economic meltdown. Nevertheless, he rates as a hero in my book for having the faith and courage to make the attempt.

The faculty and staff of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College have shown enormous commitment, and they have served at significant personal sacrifice. Surely they have taught as much by example as by word. Only eternity will show what a rich return their investment will receive, but students cannot remain unaffected by such models and mentors.

In a way, Pillsbury Baptist Bible College is a microcosm of what is happening within institutional fundamentalism everywhere. The fundamentalist movement has never been really cohesive, but during the past decade it has shown significant deterioration. Whether the overall numbers of fundamentalists are increasing or decreasing is hard to say. What is clear is that the mainstream of historic fundamentalism is dwindling.

The reasons for the weakening of fundamentalism are varied and should probably be discussed elsewhere. What is clear is that its churches are shrinking and often closing while new ones are being planted with less frequency. Fewer young people are answering the call to missions and ministry. Materialism and amusement Christianity are nearly unbridled. With shrinking constituencies, most of the institutions are finding survival to be a challenge.

The question is not whether fundamentalism is collapsing. The question is how we should respond to the collapse. More fundamentally, the question is how we should even be thinking about these events.

What ought to occur to us first is that God does not need fundamentalism. God did not create or ordain the fundamentalist movement. He did not erect the institutions. We made them up, and even if we offered them to Him, we need to remember that they are the works of our hands. If He chooses not to preserve them, then that is His business.

We ought humbly to recognize that God’s work in the world is much larger than institutional fundamentalism. Some days I wonder whether all of fundamentalism put together accounts for more than a footnote in the book of God’s present dealing with humanity. Much as we might prefer to think otherwise, wisdom will not die with us.

At one time God raised up mighty Reformers. At another He raised up Puritans and Separatists. At still another He raised up the powerful preachers of the Great Awakening. All of those are gone now, but God is still doing His work. If someday the fundamentalist movement is relegated to the museum of theological curiosities, God will still be doing His work. He will still be God.

If it is true that fundamentalism is not everything that God is doing. It is also true that not all of fundamentalism is of God’s doing. In fact, not all of fundamentalism is worth saving. Fundamentalist structures have not infrequently been used to perpetrate abuses or to perpetuate silliness. If those districts of the fundamentalist movement were to disappear, we would be none the worse.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me make it clear that I do value fundamentalism. But the fundamentalism that I value is not essentially a movement or a collection of institutions. It is an idea. It is a good idea, even a great idea. As a friend once remarked, fundamentalism may have been the last great idea.

If we are going to talk about saving fundamentalism, then let us be clear that the thing we need to save is the idea. All of our associations, colleges, seminaries, mission agencies, preachers’ fellowships, networks, alignments, and coalitions are of value only to the extent that they maintain and perpetuate the idea. If they are not propagating the idea, then let them perish.

And here is the real problem: the idea of fundamentalism invariably gets mixed up with other ideas. It can get mixed up with populism, revivalism, imperialism, pragmatism, obscurantism, or any of a variety of unworthy ideas. It has even been known to get mixed up with fascism. Of course, the idea of fundamentalism can also be mixed together with worthy ideas, such as the variety of confessionalism and conservatism that emphasizes orthopathy alongside of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This much is clear: nobody ever was simply a fundamentalist. Every fundamentalist has also been something else, and that “something else” has defined the quality of every variety of fundamentalism.

The only versions of fundamentalism that deserve to be saved are the ones that have mixed the idea of fundamentalism with other right ideas. Sadly, those versions of fundamentalism are in the minority. Not surprisingly, many of the upcoming generation have begun to wonder whether the fundamentalist movement is worth the effort that they are being asked to put into it. They are asking whether we might not be farther ahead if the whole thing were simply obliterated and we were to start all over again.

If the fundamentalist movement continues to decline, even that choice will be taken out of our hands. For the moment, however, some of us are still committed to combining the idea of fundamentalism with other good and permanent ideas. And we need each other. We do not need territorialism or institutionalism. We need to build one another up in our most holy faith.

We are no longer trying to win a battle. We are trying to keep an idea (or a combination of ideas) alive. Someday, whether sooner or later, the fundamentalist movement will die. Our task is to articulate our key ideas, including the idea of fundamentalism, so clearly that those ideas will survive in whatever movements or structures may be erected in the future. If we fail in that task, then nothing else that we accomplish will matter.

Redemption

George Herbert (1593-1633)

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought;
They told me there, that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight return’d and, knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of theeves and murderers—there I him espied,
Who straight, ‘Your suit is granted,’ said, and died.

Kevin BauderThis 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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