Theology Light: Achilles's Heel of Fundamentalism

Bible StudyModern Fundamentalism has not been widely known for its contribution to biblical scholarship. Nor has it been known for attracting or retaining a great number of men with scholarly instincts. Perhaps a major reason for this is that there are few fundamentalist institutions of higher learning which provide high-level advanced training in the majority of biblical disciplines. Many schools provide good training on the undergraduate level and are to be commended for their commitment to excellence with the resources at their disposal. Their students do not receive poor training, but they do not receive enough. It has become more and more commonplace for graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges, universities, and seminaries to look outside the fundamentalist orbit for doctoral studies. The fact that fundamentalists are doing doctoral studies at non-fundamentalist institutions is not a new phenomenon. Yet it appears that the number of college and university-trained fundamentalists who do graduate studies in non-fundamentalist schools are increasing. Of course, when they leave these schools, many no longer consider themselves fundamentalists or would not be considered as such. Others have recognized this dilemma. Perhaps it’s time to be more candid about some of the reasons for this problem. My viewpoint is my own. I have neither axe to grind nor vested interest in academia.

There was a time when many fundamentalists belittled advanced theological training and considered seminary as another word for cemetery. How often we heard that too much training or too much theology was deadening—and that while it sharpened the intellect, it also dampened passion. At the same time, there was a rash of honorary doctorates distributed for loyalty or ministry achievements, a practice that continues to this day. I have no intention to denigrate the recipients of honorary doctorates, many of whom are my friends and have received recognition for ministry accomplishments that far exceed the labor and years required to earn an academic degree. But I must confess that I’m sometimes at a loss for words when someone with an honorary doctorate introduces himself to me as Dr. So-and-So. Please don’t misunderstand me. This is no elitist complaint that exalts education and degree acquisition beyond their true importance. Some men do deserve an honorary doctorate. An advanced degree may merely indicate that someone had the time, money, connections, and acumen to earn a doctorate and write a dissertation on an esoteric subject that contributed to enlarge the understanding of the few interested in that subject. Yet it seems ironic that Fundamentalism is filled with honorary doctors. Many such doctorates were awarded by schools that have no doctoral studies program, and few fundamentalist institutions provided credible earned doctorates.

The previous observations are not meant to imply that there are no fundamentalist scholars though they could probably be counted on two hands and maybe a few toes. Most of these men have received their terminal degrees at non-fundamentalist schools. Perhaps if a number of these men were concentrated in one institution, there would be the possibility of offering advanced studies that would be compelling enough to draw and retain students. We need to face the reality that these men are spread far and wide between many schools that are often competing for the same prospective students. For example, as it now stands, I don’t know of any fundamentalist institution that provides credible advanced training in missiology by experienced and well-trained specialists. That might sound strange coming from someone who teaches in that discipline, albeit as an adjunct, in a fundamentalist seminary. Many schools, such as the one with which I am associated, have well-trained men who provide helpful courses in missiology. What all schools lack, as far as I know—and please correct me if I’m wrong—is a concentration of such men who together can provide excellent training for cross-cultural ministry.

What is certain is that more men who are looking for advanced missiological studies are finding more rigorous, more balanced, and more academically challenging studies in conservative evangelical schools not traditionally identified with Fundamentalism. I often find myself recommending these schools to post-MDiv mission students who want more than fundamentalist institutions can offer. I say post-MDiv because I still think it is wise for men to obtain this foundational ministry degree in one of the many fine fundamentalist seminaries. This lack of quality advanced studies appears to be the case for other disciplines as well though others would know that better than I. It is no secret that if one wants PhD studies in Old Testament, Westminster Theological Seminary would be a good choice. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School would be good for New Testament and Intercultural Studies. Dallas Theological Seminary would be good for Systematic Theology. Reformed Theological Seminary would be good for Reformed Theology—to name a few and to say nothing of Southern Baptist seminaries. These same schools are also known to have outstanding Doctor of Ministry programs. You would think that with all the fundamentalists who have earned PhD’s and DMin’s from these schools that fundamentalist schools would be able to offer programs of a higher caliber. Perhaps that is happening and I am simply unaware of where that is taking place. Or it may be that fundamentalists have been unwilling or incapable for the present time to partner with like-minded ministries for that purpose.

Many of the fundamentalist schools that offer advanced studies are staffed by professors who have studied in the same schools where they are now teaching. This fact may be due to the desire to adhere to a particular theological or ideological framework. There is nothing inherently wrong in this though there may be a lack of fresh ideas to stimulate thinking. In the end, however, there may be an unhealthy circular inbreeding where little theological progress can be made. My personal recommendation to young men preparing for ministry is to seek diversity in their studies. Whether we like it or not, there will always be some suspicion that those who have received all or the bulk of their training at one institution will not be sufficiently well-rounded in their thinking. This is especially true when the same professors teach courses on different levels and college professors become professors for masters and doctoral-level work as well.

An interesting sideline to this is the fact that for years many schools dismissed or disdained accreditation. The attitude was that Babe Ruth would not have needed to be recognized by Little League. Now there seems to be an about-face in a scramble for academic recognition. The reality has set in that graduates of non-accredited schools are often at a disadvantage in receiving financial assistance or in acceptance at other schools if they do not hold a degree from an accredited school. There may have been good reasons for refusing to seek accreditation. There may now be ways to accomplish that and no longer entail compromise. Whatever the case, there seems to be little incentive for students who desire to pursue graduate studies to receive an undergraduate degree from a non-accredited school.

We should not be surprised that students who have read the scholarly works of non-fundamentalists during their undergraduate years opt to further their studies by sitting under those authors. Others have bemoaned the paucity of scholarly works published by fundamentalists and have proposed ways to rectify that problem. Most of the proposals remain as proposals, and I don’t expect any significant change in the near future. Therefore, I have no proposal as such. It seems to me that as long as fundamentalist institutions remain in competition and where their survival takes precedence over excellence in theological training, then there is little reason to expect change. At a time when schools might consider cooperative efforts in order to provide more credible training, in an environment which has forced some schools to close, there are always new schools entering the picture to continue the practice of substandard, theologically light training. In the end this does a disservice to students who receive spotty training from professors who teach in areas where they have neither experience nor specialty.

In conclusion, I want to be clear that no school—however large or qualified—can provide all students need for ministry. Formal training is one component of training with a heavy emphasis on acquisition of knowledge, sometimes at the expense of spiritual development and real-life experience. We all know men who have had no formal theological training, lacked opportunity and/or inclination, and yet were called, equipped, and used of God in ways and to a degree that would have added little if anything. The only Greek they know is the restaurant owner down the street. And the only Hebrew they know well is the One who really counts. Some men are also auto-didactic and through personal study and hard work have academic achievements comparable to others with degrees. However. they are the exception. The majority of ministry situations require attention to prolonged and strenuous study in order to better understand and live out the Word of God and communicate the truth of that Word to others. There are no shortcuts to excellence in theological training. Those who take and those who provide shortcuts contribute to the dumbing down of Fundamentalism. The work of God deserves better. If fundamentalist institutions continue to circle the wagons, compete rather than cooperate, multiply rather than consolidate, then we should expect further decline of the movement and more young men choosing to pursue their training elsewhere.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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