Theology Thursday - Carnell on the "Perils" of Fundamentalism (Part 3)

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.

Notes

1 Edward J. Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1959), 122-125.  

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Bert Perry's picture

Now I'm going to grant that in the eyes of many fundamentalists, what Carnell has written appears to be a caricature of the movement, but if you watch some fundamentalists at work--I'd hope a minority, but I've seen plenty of them--you would come to the conclusion that Westminster does not have it right, and that the chief end of man is to win souls.  We do, indeed, need to come back to the notion that we're here to worship God, and that evangelism is simply an important part of that.

(note; Carnell misses this distinction as well, IMO--he phrases it as a false dichotomy, really)

But that said, Carnell is writing of orthodox theology while apparently casting doubt on the power and efficacy of the Word of God--and that's an orthodoxy that I can do without.  As I've noted elsewhere, Sola Scriptura and the First Fundamental exist so that God's people can correct their course independent of Ed Carnell, Bert Perry, the Council of Trent, Luther, and even Calvin.  No?  So I would argue that Carnell is here, in effect, arguing to protect a shell with no substance to sustain it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Carnell sounds bitter here. He seems to believe that fundamentalists are more concerned with evangelism as a numbers game, than with acts of charity and love. Here, perhaps he's echoing Carl Henry's concerns from The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Now, to be sure, some of this is still a problem today, mainly in far-right fundamentalism. That doesn't invalidate a right emphasis on evangelism. He is eager to paint fundamentalists as buffoons, simpletons with Gospel tracts.

Under the "irony" heading, Carnell basically accuses fundamentalists of self-righteousness buffoonery:

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 claims fundamentalists are externalists who are satisfied with the superficial appearance of rightousness, and are eager to propogate this "gospel." I wonder if Carnell is really reacting to a tribe of self-righteous Pharisees, or if this last bit is more about frustration with fundamentalists who just aren't interested in taking a seat at the scholarly table and being "respected."  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

AndyE's picture

Carnell writes:

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.

I was shocked to read this from Carnell. I wonder what he is referring to since (1) today churches get lambasted for trying to avoid this very thing and (2) he follows this up with criticism of Fundamentalists who reject dance in general. I agree, though, that many churches seemingly ignore the majesty of God and the sanctity of the church in their pursuit of other goals.  I remember a missionary who provided special music by playing a hymn on a long lumber saw.  That turned God and the message of that hymn into a novelty act.  Then there was the SBC annual meeting where they had a group playing a song on trash cans.  That was lovely...

Bert Perry's picture

Andy

One more recent picture of using dance rhythms for evangelism is a "Patch the Pirate" song I remember that starts out in a tango beat--and then proceeds to a march (as heads spin among those with broad experience in music--what was that again?).  I can't remember the name, but it was unmistakeable.  A lot of revival meeting type of music also (ironically) tends towards the simpler melodies of what was becoming rock & roll. 

Can't say that this was what Carnell is referring to, but it's something I've noticed.  Along these lines, there are times when I hear the work of Ron Hamilton (Patch and otherwise) when I wonder what he's up to.  The song I mentioned above almost makes me wonder if he was tweaking his father-in-law to see what he can get away with.   

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

Years ago when I was teenager I remember evangelistic efforts that featured testimonies by converted criminals, Gospel magicians, an organist with no arms or legs (I think he played by "ear"), and animal acts as "drawing cards". Perhaps this is what Carnell was referring to. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bert Perry's picture

Definitely it's likely--let's keep in mind here that Carnell not only was at ground zero of the split between neo-evangelicals and fundamentalists, but also had the misfortune of getting his doctorate from Harvard Divinity.  So not only was he on the receiving end of fundamental ire at going neoevangelical, but he would also have engendered a lot of suspicion and even hostility simply due to his alma mater.  I'm told that it was something of a rough & tumble era.

But that said, don't we need to consider his ideas, and not just stop at guessing his mental state?  I confess that I had fun (really) guessing that he was a smoker that got tired of catching flack for this habit (which I probably would have given had I known him, too), but that's really separate from his criticisms of "my tribe."  I've got to learn to enjoy the wondering while keeping solid in my analysis of what he did. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

AndyE wrote:

II remember a missionary who provided special music by playing a hymn on a long lumber saw.  That turned God and the message of that hymn into a novelty act.

Though I'm guessing this wasn't the case, I would think it perfectly acceptable if that's the standard music where he ministers, and that's what the people know and use in their worship services.  If he was just doing it for the novelty, then I'm pretty much in agreement with you.

I recall seeing a missionary visit some Indian believers *way* out in the jungle.  They used clapping, rhythm with something like bongo drums, and their voices, and I thought that it was beautiful that they were using what they had to worship God.  I'd certainly prefer our church NOT replace our music with that on a regular basis.

Dave Barnhart

AndyE's picture

dcbii wrote:
Though I'm guessing this wasn't the case, I would think it perfectly acceptable if that's the standard music where he ministers, and that's what the people know and use in their worship services.

I'm not sure where such a place might be.  He was going to someplace in Europe.  Evidently, though, the musical saw is a thing...

Jay's picture

Definitely it's likely--let's keep in mind here that Carnell not only was at ground zero of the split between neo-evangelicals and fundamentalists, but also had the misfortune of getting his doctorate from Harvard Divinity.  So not only was he on the receiving end of fundamental ire at going neoevangelical, but he would also have engendered a lot of suspicion and even hostility simply due to his alma mater.  I'm told that it was something of a rough & tumble era.

I think this might be the key to understanding Carnell's position.  He rightly attacked the...idiosyncrasies...of fundamentalism and clearly was concerned with developing intellectual rigor in theology, but he was also an outcast from liberals for his efforts to 'reform fundamentalism', as Marsden wrote.

This entire series just makes me sad.  Sad for all the infighting, sad for all the rancor, and sad for all the damage and resulting chaos.  Carnell was clearly very intelligent and had a zeal for theology, and I kind of feel like his life is emblematic of what happens to men and women who experience the bad side of theological training and argument.  Carnell could have been so much more.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

AndyE wrote:

I'm not sure where such a place might be.  He was going to someplace in Europe.  Evidently, though, the musical saw is a thing...

I didn't visit your link yet, but I was thinking somewhere deep in Appalachia...although I could believe it from eastern Europe or even the Roma people.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

I gotta admit that I was thinking he brought a chainsaw into the auditorium.  I'm pretty sure that Rush Limbaugh used to do a chainsaw version of "Bad to the Bone" as his "Environmental Update" or something.  Not quite sure if it would work for Amazing Grace and the like, though.

That noted, with regards to musical saw and the like, I can see a big place for "different" music in the church simply to help us understand that the world isn't "all just like us".  But that is pretty much off topic.  And here's an example of liturgical saw music, definitely not appropriate for Baptistic church services--since it's Ave Maria.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

CAWatson's picture

From Marsden, "Reforming Fundamentalism," 91

 

“Carl Henry provided the most striking example of the faculty’s simultaneous deep commitment to evangelism and to scholarship. Though a leader in reforming fundamentalism, he always remained a true revivalist at heart. He retained the dedication of a new convert to his fundamentalist faith, including its mores. So on the one hand he could criticize fundamentalists for not keeping their priorities straight when they argued about the game of Rook; yet on the other his son Paul recalls being greatly impressed as a young boy by seeing his father, upon returning from a plane trip, lay on the table a pack of cigarettes and a deck of cards that he had confiscated from a convert to whom he had witnessed during the flight.
Many Fuller faculty took to heart the fundamentalist teaching that everyone should witness to others about Christ at every opportunity. One former student recollects an early Saturday morning seminar to which Carl Henry often arrived looking bedraggled in an old baggy overcoat. Later the class learned that he would periodically spend half the night in Los Angeles witnessing to derelicts and helping them find shelter.” 

CAWatson's picture

Also on Henry - he died in Watertown, WI. And if I remember the story correctly, he used to show up and sit in the back at Maranatha's chapel services. He was also visited in the nursing home by students before he passed. In the end, the fundamentalists were visiting him and showing him Christ's love. Irony. Someone on here would know the details better than I would (because I went to school several hours north of there during that time). 

AndyE's picture

Bert Perry wrote:
  And here's an example of liturgical saw music, definitely not appropriate for Baptistic church services--since it's Ave Maria.

That is probably the very best you can play a saw. Most saw-music sounds like the warbling flying saucer sounds you would hear in old sci-fi flicks. I don't recall the guy using a bow when he played in my church but maybe he did. I guess I just tried to remove that experience from my memory.

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