The recent alarm regarding the “radical resurgence” of a historical branch of evangelical Christianity that is a close cousin to Baptist fundamentalism seems to me to be something akin to the U.S. Army issuing orders to its troops to commence (or continue) training among its troops to deal with the threat of the U.S. Navy, while both are supposed to be engaged with an enemy that is constantly attacking it.
I sit every week in secular philosophy classes at a university in the Philadelphia area (to fulfill external course requirements at Westminster) and hear deadly error taught with the passion and sophistication one would expect to find in the madrassa schools of Iran or Saudi Arabia. I see the insidious doctrines of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Derrida being swallowed uncritically by the doctoral students around me. Error is so influential in academic circles and its proposals so sweeping in its social implications that I wonder what hope (apart from the sovereignty of God) Christians will have to freely worship and proclaim the gospel in the coming days. I think we are beginning to see the influence of radical philosophy behind the decisions and initiatives of our recently elected president.
The deleterious effects of worldviews that begin in the mountain streams of philosophy departments in colleges and universities trickle down to the literature, science, and history departments (among others). These streams join the flow of cultural tributaries and raging rivers of pop culture until they empty into the ocean of popular consciousness in the world itself. At times in these classes I wonder what hope Christians have to resist the powerful currents of thought that have swept our culture into the sea of unbelief. The cosmos, the system of this world that stands in opposition to the gospel and the redemptive work of God, is our true enemy. It is relentless in its work of suppressing the truth, blinding hearts and minds, promoting hopelessness, destroying lives, and securing souls for hell. Apart from the clarity and power of the gospel, there is no hope for humankind.
As one who is struggling to effectively contend with complex and intricate suppression of truth and opposition to God, I welcome the aid of others who share my commitment to the gospel, love for the truth, adherence to the Scriptures, and courage to contend for sound theology, even when they differ in some doctrinal issues. I have benefited immensely from apologetic and theological sources from outside Baptist circles. (A good argument could be made that the best apologetic and theological literature published in the last thirty years has been Calvinistic). This is not to minimize our differences, for they are real and have the potential (both directions) to weaken the effectiveness of our mission. I’m sure the Army has legitimate gripes with the way the Navy conducts its operations, and vice versa. However, the Army would be seriously hamstrung in its mission if it devoted the bulk of its effort to opposing or correcting the Navy instead of focusing on the true enemy.
The anti-Calvinist trend in some parts of Fundamentalism sometimes seems to me to be an attempt to distract from the fact that we have disengaged from the real enemy for so long that we have ceased to be apologetically effective. I am not against polemics (I love discussing systematic theology!). Discussion of theological distinctions is necessary, but without a proper balance of apologetics, our polemics turn cannibalistic. When we have ceased to struggle with the aggressive attacks of unbelief, we become like rear guard troops fighting over the placement of tents and improperly submitted requests for equipment, while the front-line troops are fighting and dying.
I believe this mindset is equally puzzling and troubling to both missionaries and believers in other countries. Missionaries are puzzled over how we have so much time for polemics. They don’t have much time for it because they are expected to be engaged primarily in apologetic evangelism with unbelievers. It troubles missionaries because mission boards and supporting churches drag the missionary into American polemic debates that have no bearing whatsoever on their mission work. Foreign believers are puzzled at American fundamentalist polemics because they don’t often have the same theological history as America; therefore, the polemic debates don’t make sense in the foreign context. They are troubled by American polemics because problems are introduced that create division and conflict where there need not be. This dynamic tells me that what we often perceive as a universal theological problem (“the resurgence of Calvinism is a threat to biblical Christianity”) is actually a fabricated problem or at the least only a local problem.
To focus much energy on the (perceived or real) imperfections of Calvinism seems to require a significant disengagement from the real enemy, primarily because time and energy are limited. I am reluctant to view Calvinism as a significant “threat” to Fundamentalism (hyper-Calvinism, on the other hand, does qualify as a threat). I believe Arminianism is a far greater threat and has done almost irrevocable damage to evangelicals and fundamentalists alike. So while I do critique the aspects of Calvinism I find troublesome, I cannot see the sense of devoting great time and effort to denouncing it categorically, for to do so would negate my ability to engage the true enemy effectively. I know I am not alone in this reluctance. There are too many attacks against the faith coming from too many directions to walk away from the real enemy. I see the great opportunity that stands before fundamentalists if we will concentrate efforts on bringing the fight to the enemy, and I am not easily dissuaded from this task. I see the same hopefulness in many others who want to remain properly focused.
Sitting in a hostile philosophy class reminds me how easy it is to turn our guns on our own forces when we have lost contact with the enemy. Seeing the enemy up close makes me want to engage unbelievers with everything I have. It makes me want to think and live apologetically, which is often far more difficult and demanding than living polemically. Polemics has its place, but I find fewer fundamentalists who want their legacy to be that they dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s while contributing nothing to the battle. They want to do battle royal for the faith against unbelief. They want to exert great effort to see souls saved, believers discipled, and disciples brought into the church and taught to reproduce spiritually. Along the way, dialogue, correction, rebuke, and separation may happen, but this inter-service interaction will never constitute the church’s main mission. This is perhaps the most significant challenge facing fundamentalists—reclaiming the Great Commission as the focus of our efforts, remembering who the enemy is, and retaining our focus on the real battle.
I want to issue a call for fundamentalists to get out of the church building, get off campus, get out of the ivory tower, and engage in protracted spiritual battle by confronting unbelievers with the demands of the gospel. We will be wounded and energized at the same time. This will drive us to depend on others around us who are fighting the same battle. We will see the enemy up close in the suppression and rejection of the truth, and it will drive us to spend our efforts on casting down strongholds of unbelief. We will not see allies as enemies, but will appreciate the commonality of our mutual cause, even while maintaining our distinctions. We will balance our efforts between apologetics and polemics and in doing so will avoid the twin pitfalls of compromise for the sake of the gospel and isolation for the sake of purity.
|Mark 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 daughters and a son, all teenagers. 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 MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.|