Edward J. Carnell was a major figure in the evangelical world in the 1950s. He became President of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1957, and wrote a little book entitled The Case for Orthodox Theology two years later. At only 168 pages, this was a short, introductory book intended for an interested, but general audience. In a chapter from this book, which he ominously entitled “Perils,” Carnell unleashed a pitiless broadside against fundamentalism.
In this article and the next, I’ve included nearly his entire chapter. It provides a fascinating look into what a conservative evangelical thought about fundamentalism at mid-century. Carnell writes with passion; indeed, at some points his passion gives way to scornful contempt. Some of his critiques still sting today.1
Orthodoxy is plagued by perils as well as difficulties, and the perils are even more disturbing than the difficulties. When orthodoxy slights its difficulties, it elicits criticism; but when it slights its perils, it elicits scorn. The perils are of two sorts; general and specific. The general perils include ideological thinking, a highly censorious spirit, and a curious tendency to separate from the life of the church. The specific peril is the with which orthodoxy converts to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic.
When we speak of fundamentalism, however, we must distinguish between the movement and the mentality. The fundamentalist movement was organized shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. When the tidal wave of German higher criticism engulfed the church, a large company of orthodox scholars rose to the occasion. They sought to prove that modernism and Biblical Christianity were incompatible. In this way, the fundamentalist movement preserved the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Its “rugged bursts of individualism” were among the finest fruits of the Reformation.
But the fundamentalist movement made at least one capital mistake, and this is why it converted from a movement to a mentality. Unlike the Continental Reformers and the English Dissenters, the fundamentalists failed to connect their convictions with the classical creeds of the church. Therefore, when modernism collapsed, the fundamentalist movement became an army without a cause. Nothing was left but the mentality of fundamentalism, and this mentality Is orthodoxy’s gravest peril.
The mentality of fundamentalism is dominated by ideological thinking. Ideological thinking is rigid, intolerant and doctrinaire; it sees principles everywhere, and all principles come in clear tones of black and white. It exempts itself from the limits that original sin places on history; it wages holy wars without acknowledging the elements of pride and personal interest that prompt the call to battle; it creates new evils while trying to correct old one.
The fundamentalists’ crusade against the Revised Standard Version illustrates the point. The fury did not stem from a scholarly conviction that the version offends Hebrew and Greek Idioms, for ideological thinking operates on far simpler criteria. First, there were modernists on the translation committee, and modernists corrupt whatever they touch. It does not occur to fundamentalism that translation requires only personal honesty and competent scholarship. Secondly, the Revised Standard Version’s copyright is held by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ. If a fundamentalist used the new version, he might give aid and comfort to the National Council; and that, on his principles, would be sin. By the same token, of course, a fundamentalist could not even buy groceries from a modernist. But ideological thinking is never celebrated for its consistency.
Having drifted from the classical creeds of the church, the separatist is prey to theological novelty. Most of Machen’s immediate disciples were shielded from this threat by their orientation in Calvinism, but fundamentalism in general did not fare so well. Dispensationalism filled the vacuum created by the loss of the historic creeds.
Dispensationalism was formulated by one of the nineteenth-century separatist movements, the Plymouth Brethren. Hitherto, all Christians had believed that the church fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament, and that the future of saved Jews falls within the general life of the church.
Dispensationalism overturned this time-tested confession by contending that the church is only an interim period between two Jewish economies, the Old Testament and the millennium. While dispensationalism sincerely tries to honor the distinctives of Christianity, in practice it often honors the distinctives of Judaism. This is an ironic reversal …
Having withdrawn from the general theological dialogue, the dispensationalist has few active checks against the pretense of ideological pride. As a result, he imagines that the distinctives of dispensationalism are more firmly established than they really are. This illusion prompts him to fight major battles over minor issues. If it comes to it, he is not unwilling to divide the church on whether the rapture occurs before or after the tribulation. This is straight-line cultic conduct, for a cursory examination of Philip Schaff’s “Creeds of Christendom” will show that the church has never made the details of eschatology a test of Christian fellowship.
The dispensationalist is willing to go it alone because he is prompted by the counsels of ideological thinking. He compares Biblical doctrines to a line of standing dominoes: topple any one domino and the entire line falls. On such a scheme the time of the rapture is as crucial to faith as the substitutionary atonement, for any one doctrine analytically includes all other doctrines.
This argument, of course, is a tissue of fallacies. It violates the most elementary canons of Biblical hermeneutics. When separatists flee from the tyranny of the church, they end up with a new tyranny all their own; for there is always a demagogue on hand to decide who is virtuous and who is not. His strategies are pathetically familiar: “Things are in terrible shape; errorists are everywhere. The true faith is being threatened; my own life is in danger. Something must be done; some courageous person must volunteer. I’m free; I’m ready; I’m willing … Oh, yes, you may subscribe to my paper and keep up with the real truth. Three dollars will enroll you in my movement, and for $5.00 you may have a copy of my latest book.”
When orthodoxy says that the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice, the fundamentalist promptly concludes that everything worth knowing is in the Bible. The result is a withdrawal from the dialogue of man as man. Nothing can be learned from general wisdom, says the fundamentalist, for the natural man is wrong in starting point, method, and conclusion. When the natural man says, “This is a rose,” he means “This is a not-made-by-the-triune-God rose.” Everything he says is blasphemy.
It is non-sequitur reasoning of this sort which places fundamentalism at the extreme right in the theological spectrum. Classical orthodoxy says that God is revealed in general as well as in special revelation. The Bible completes the witness of God in nature; it does not negate it.
Since the fundamentalist belittles the value of general wisdom, he is often content with an educational system that substitutes piety for scholarship. High standards of education might tempt the students to trust in the arm of flesh. Moreover, if the students are exposed to damaging as well as to supporting evidences, their faith might be threatened. As a result, the students do not earn their right to believe, and they are filled with pride because they do not sense their deficiency.
The intellectual stagnation of fundamentalism can easily be illustrated. Knowing little about the canons of lower criticism, and less about the relation between language and culture, the fundamentalist has no norm by which to classify the relative merits of Biblical translations. As a result, he identifies the Word of God with the seventeenth-century language forms of the King James Version. Since other versions sound unfamiliar to him, he concludes that someone is tampering with the Word of God.
This stagnation explains why the fundamentalist is not disturbed by the difficulties in orthodoxy. Faithful to ideological thinking, he simply denies that there are any difficulties. To admit a difficulty would imply a lack of faith, and a lack of faith is sin.
… to be continued