Edward Carnell continues his infamous broadside against fundamentalism, from his 1959 work The Case for Orthodox Theology. Many fundamentalists may not agree with his characterizations. Others may still see relevance for Carnell’s criticisms. No matter what you think of his writing here, it is a fascinating look at an evangelical’s view of the fundametnalist movement in the late 1950s.1
J. Gresham Machen
The mentality of fundamentalism sometimes crops up where one would least expect it; and there Is no better Illustration of this than the inimitable New Testament scholar, J. Gresham Machen.
Machen was an outspoken critic of the fundamentalist movement. He argued with great force that Christianity is a system, not a list of fundamentals. The fundamentals include the virgin birth, Christ’s deity and miracles, the atonement, the resurrection, and the inspiration of the Bible. But this list does not even take in the specific issues of the Protestant Reformation. Roman Catholicism easily falls within the limits of fundamentalism.
While Machen was a foe of the fundamentalist movement, he was a friend of the fundamentalist mentality, for he took an absolute stand on a relative issue, and the wrong at that.
Machen gained prominence through his litigations with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. He contended that when the church has modernists in its agencies and among its officially supported missionaries, a Christian has no other course than to withdraw support. So Machen promptly set up “The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions,” and with equal promptness the General Assembly ordered the Board dissolved. Machen disobeyed the order on the conviction that he could appeal from the General Assembly to the Constitution of the church. But this conviction traced to ideological thinking, for if a federal system is to succeed, supreme judicial power must be vested in one court. This Is federalism’s answer to the threat of anarchy. Wrong decisions by a court are not irremediable; but until due process of law effects a reversal, a citizen must obey or be prosecuted.
Machen became so fixed on the evil of modernism that he did not see the evil of anarchy. This prompted him to follow a course that eventually offended the older and wiser Presbyterians. These men knew that nothing constructive would be gained by defying the courts of the church. Perhaps the General Assembly had made a mistake; but until the action was reversed by due process of law, obedience was required. No Individual Presbyterian can appeal from the General Assembly to the Constitution, and to think that he can is cultic.
Ideological thinking prevented Machen from seeing that the issue under trial was the nature of the church, not the doctrinal incompatibility of orthodoxy and modernism. Does the church become apostate when it has modernists in its agencies and among its officially supported missionaries? The older Presbyterians knew enough about Reformed ecclesiology to answer this in the negative. Unfaithful ministers do not render the church apostate.
“Dreadful are those descriptions in which Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habakkuk, and others, deplore the disorders of the church of Jerusalem. There was such general and extreme corruption in the people, in the magistrates and in the priests, that Isaiah does not hesitate to compare Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah. Religion was partly despised, partly corrupted. Their manners were generally disgraced by thefts, robberies, treacheries, murders, and similar crimes.
Nevertheless, the prophets on this account neither raised themselves new churches, nor built new altars for the oblation of separate sacrifices; but whatever were the characters of the people, yet because they considered that God had deposited his word among that nation, and instituted the ceremonies in which he was there worshiped, they lifted up pure hands to him even in the congregation of the impious.
If they had thought that they contracted any contagion from these services, surely they would have suffered a hundred deaths rather than have permitted themselves to be dragged to them. There was nothing therefore to prevent their departure from them, but the desire of preserving the unity of the church.
But if the holy prophets were restrained by a sense of duty from forsaking the church on account of the numerous and enormous crimes which were practiced, not by a few individuals, but almost by the whole nation, it is extreme arrogance in us, if we presume immediately to withdraw from the communion of a church where the conduct of all members is not compatible either with our judgment, or even with the Christian profession.”
Machen thought it would be easy to purify the church. All one had to do was to withdraw from modernists; the expedient was as simple as that. “On Thursday, June 11, 1936,” said Machen to his loyal remnant, “the hopes of many long years were realized. We became members, at last, of a true Presbyterian church.”
It was not long, however, before Machen’s true church was locked in the convulsions of internal strife. The prophecy of the older Presbyterians was fulfilled. Since Machen had shaken off the sins of modernists, but not the sins of those who were proud they were not modernists, the separatists fondly imagined themselves more perfectly delivered from heresy than the facts justified. This illusion spawned fresh resources of pride and pretense.
The criteria of Christian fellowship gradually became more exacting than Scripture, and before long Machen himself was placed under suspicion. He had not taken his reformation far enough; the church not yet true. This time the issue was not modernism; the issue, ostensibly, was Christian liberty. And before this quarrel ended, a second true church was founded.
Still, no classical effort was made to define the nature of the church. This is how the mentality of fundamentalism operates. Status by negation, not precise theological inquiry, is the first order of business. When there are no modernists from which to withdraw, fundamentalists compensate by withdrawing from one another.
Machen tried to blend the classical view of the covenant with a separatist view of the covenant people. He honored Reformed doctrine, but not the Reformed doctrine of the church. This inconsistency had at least two effects: first, it encouraged Machen’s disciples to think the conditions of Christian fellowship could be decided by subjective criteria; secondly, it planted the of anarchy.
If Reformed theology could not define the nature of the church, how could it define the nature of anything else? The result was a subtle reversion to the age of the Judges: each man did what was right in his own eyes. Rebellion against the courts of the church converted to rebellion against the wisdom of the ages and the counsel of the brethren.
The Negative Ethic
When the fundamentalist develops his ethical code, he is somewhat prompted by a quest for status in the cult. Consequently, he defines the good life as the separated life separated, that is, from prevailing social mores. Whereas Christ was virtuous because he loved God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself, the fundamentalist is virtuous because he does not smoke, dance, or play cards.
By raising a scrupulous demur over social mores, the fundamentalist can divert attention from grosser sins anger, jealousy, hatred, gossip, lust, idleness, malice, backbiting, schism, guile, injustice, and every shade of illicit pride. This strategy places fundamentalism in the general tradition of the Donatists.
Since the Donatists had not handed the Scriptures over to the Diocletian inquisitors (they were not among the traditores), they supposed they were virtuous. By accenting the sins that they did not have, they took an easy attitude toward the sins that they did have.
An anxiety for negative status betrays fundamentalism into glaring hypocrisy. For example, a fundamentalist is very certain that smoking is sinful, for smoking harms the body and it is habit-forming. Yet, reasonably equivalent objections can be raised against excessive coffee drinking. The nerves may be upset or a stomach ulcer induced, and the practice is habit-forming. But the fundamentalist conveniently ignores this parallel. An attack on smoking ensures status in the cult, while an attack on coffee drinking does not. Moreover, the fundamentalist enjoys his coffee, and plenty of It. Since medical tranquillizers soothe his nerves, he does not need to smoke.
The fundamentalist is also very certain that movie attendance is sinful, for the movie industry is a tool of Satan. But when the fundamentalist judges films on television, he uses a radically different criterion. There is a cultic reason for this shift in standards. Fundamentalists, it so happens, are afraid of one another. If a fundamentalist is seen entering a theater, he may be tattled on by a fellow fundamentalist. In this event the guilty party would “lose his testimony,” i.e., his status in the cult would be threatened.
But when he watches movies on television, this threat does not exist. Drawn shades keep prying eyes out. One of the unexpected blessings of television is that It lets the fundamentalist catch up on all the movies he missed on religious principles. Fundamentalists defend the gospel, to be sure, but they sometimes act as if the gospel read, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, don’t smoke, don’t go to movies, and above all don’t use the Revised Standard Version and you will be saved.” Whenever fundamentalism encourages this sort of legalism, it falls within the general tradition of the Galatian Judaizers.
Paul says we are to “avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all men” (Titus 3:3). But the fundamentalist is often so Intent on negative status that he confuses courtesy with compromise. As a result, he drives cultured people from the church. For example, if a fundamentalist receives a letter from a modernist, he may go right ahead and publish it without the writer’s permission. Overly anxious to attack modernism, he neglects his own duties as a Christian gentleman. He has perfect vision to see heresy in others, but not in himself.
While we must be solicitous about doctrine, Scripture says that our primary business is love. But the fundamentalist finds the first task much more inviting than the second. Despite the severest apostolic warnings, schism in the church is often interpreted as a sign of Christian virtue. Separation promotes status in the cult; unity through love does not.
… to be continued.