In this excerpt, Carnell concludes his critique of fundamentalism from his book The Case for Orthodox Theology (1959). Here, he has two criticisms. First, he believes the fundamentalist places an overemphasis on soul-winning at the expense of doctrine and Christian love. Second, he charges that fundamentalists, like well-meaning but delusional latter-day Don Quixotes, revel in their supposed “purity” while ironically demonstrating the worst sort of self-righteousness.1
The Chief End of Man
Whereas orthodoxy says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, fundamentalism says that the chief end of man is to win souls. This conversion of final causes did not come by accident. Lest we be misunderstood, however, let it be clearly and forcefully said that evangelism is an incumbency on the church. Woe to the minister who has no compassion for lost souls! If we are united with Christ’s cross and resurrection, we must also be united with his tears for Jerusalem.
But when the fundamentalist elevates evangelism above other Christian tasks, or when he conceives of evangelism in terms of techniques, he is no longer true to his own presuppositions. While evangelism is a sacred duty, it is by no means our only sacred duty.
We offend the whole counsel of God unless we also stir up the gifts of exposition, teaching, counseling, prophecy, edification, ecclesiastical rule, and the discerning of spirits. It is not the gift which counts, but the humility with which it is received and the manner in which its duties are carried out. A missionary to the Moslems may never see a convert; but if he is faithful, he may receive a more illustrious crown than an evangelist who enjoys a high incidence of conversions. The greatest in the Kingdom must be least in himself. And from the perspective of God this may be a humble Dorcas who knits little coats and shirts for the poor.
The fundamentalist’s quest for souls is subtly interlarded with a quest for status in the cult, for the soul-winner belongs to a new high-priestly caste. He can rise in prayer meeting and discourse on his accomplishments in the Kingdom. Ordinary human kindness does not have this cash value.
Fundamentalism is also governed by a strict code of hero worship. When a notorious felon is converted, fundamentalists promptly make a celebrity out of him. He is sent into evangelism without the discipline of classical theology. This neglect inflates him with the notion that he is omnicompetent. He not only tells sinners to repent, but he stands behind the sacred desk and pronounces on science, the United Nations, and the cause of immorality in France. He egregiously offends humility and truth, but he does not know enough about humility and truth to measure his offense.
He adds to general insecurity by giving dangerously simple answers to bafflingly complex questions. In so doing, he unwittingly verifies Christ’s observation that “the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light,” (Luke 16:8).
Anxiety for evangelism often betrays fundamentalism into strange inconsistencies. For example; to ensure a goodly attendance at a youth rally, the fundamentalist thinks nothing of using an “intelligent horse” for entertainment, or of adapting gospel lyrics to the rhythm of the dance floor. The majesty of God and the sanctity of the church must not impede the work of saving souls. The fundamentalist often takes a magical attitude toward the Word of God. This attitude belittles the necessity of material righteousness in the soul-winner. Get the Word out any; manner will do and God will see that his Word does not return void.
This assumes that responsibility for arousing conviction rests solely on the written Word. But the written Word says otherwise: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). When Jesus addressed the woman at the well, he addressed her as a gentleman would (John 4:7-26). A prophet must speak, but he must speak with compassion. Example first, then precept. Unless kindness arouses a sense of fellowship, the Word of God will not arouse a sense of conviction.
Since the task of general charity is apparently unconnected with the work of saving souls, it rates low on the scale of fundamentalism. Handing out tracts is much more important than founding a hospital. As a result, unbelievers are often more sensitive to mercy, and bear a heavier load of justice, than those who come in the name of Christ. The fundamentalist is not disturbed by this, of course, for he is busy painting “Jesus Saves” on rocks in a public park.
Scripture says there are times many more than a fundamentalist suspects when we must view charity as an end in itself. Since Jesus came to reverse the curse on nature, any act of kindness brings glory to the covenant God. The parable of the good Samaritan shows this. But such pointed Biblical evidence does not move the fundamentalist. In the face of the most distressing social need, Christ’s question “Did you feed the hungry?” means to the fundamentalist, “Are you winning souls?”
The Category of Irony
The predicament of fundamentalism must be viewed through the category of irony; otherwise the base for pity and forgiveness is destroyed. Although fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic, the perversion is fathered by misguided zeal, not malice. This fact should be acknowledged.
Irony is kin to humor, but it is not a direct kin. Irony is paradox brought on by a zeal that overlooks the limits that original sin places on the entire human enterprise. This oversight betrays the zealot into contradiction; for the more he presses toward his goal, the more he pursues a course that is at variance with that goal.
For example, Paul says that Christians should not be conformed to this world (Rom. 12:2). Anxious to honor this injunction, the fundamentalist takes an absolute stand against dancing. In so doing he not only outrages the natural instincts of the body, but he offends the teaching of Scripture elsewhere. Though David danced before the Lord (II Sam. 6:14), the fundamentalist will not. David was more relaxed because he feared God more than he did man. He properly understood that some things are right or wrong according to circumstances. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to mourn, and a time to dance,” (Eccl. 3:1, 4.).
The fundamentalist is so intimidated by the cult that his sense of social grace has all but atrophied. Although many nations perpetuate their traditions through the dance, the fundamentalist takes a harsh and unfeeling attitude toward the institution: all dancing is worldly; there is no stopping point between total abstinence and night-club lust.
The fundamentalist laces religion with so many negative burdens that he often deprives the man on the street of the most innocent forms of recreation. And the fundamentalist defends his negations in the name of the very Lord who came that men might have life, and that they might have it abundantly.
The fundamentalist ends in irony because he does not bring his cause to the touchstone of classical theology. He fails to see that Christ reveals the limits of human virtue as well as the justice and mercy of God. When the world rejected Christ, it rejected its own ideal. An oversight of this tragedy inspires the fundamentalist with the optimism that the existing order can be defecated by orthodox doctrine.
Comforted by this illusion, he takes a cavalier attitude toward the sort of compromise that keeps society decent and orderly. Don Quixote is the literary symbol of this irony. He threw himself into the task of knight-errantry with intoxicating zeal. But since he did not understand the limits of virtue in himself, he did not understand the limits of virtue in history. This made him impatient with the realistic expedients that kept history from converting to an iniquitous tyranny. As a result, he increased general evil by overturning existing safeguards. When he met a line of prisoners, he promptly released them. Pleased with the evil he corrected, he failed to notice the evil he created. But this contradiction did not occur to him, for he thought he enjoyed a perspective that was untinctured by pride and personal interest. He did not reckon with the extent to which the ideals of knight-errantry were enlisted in the service of self-love.
The fundamentalist is a religious knight-errant. He sallies off with the doctrinaire expectation that society would resolve all its problems if other people would only become as virtuous as he is. He entertains this illusion because he identifies possession of the Word of God with possession of virtue. Having never traced the effects of original sin in the lives of those who possess the Word of God, he does not reckon with the degree to which the canons of orthodoxy are enlisted in the service of self-love.
He makes no serious allowance for either his own relative understanding of the Word of God or the moral ambiguity of his vocation. Defending the Bible is a comfortable egoistic accomplishment; battling modernists is a pleasing palliative for pride. Since the fundamentalist acknowledges the virtue of his stand, but not the sin, he invests his cause with more purity and finality than it deserves. He uses the Word of God as an instrument of self-security but not self-criticism. This is the source of his zeal and the cause of his irony.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?