This article was published in the March 1956 issue of “Christian Life” magazine. It was seen by fundamentalists as a direct repudiation of the movement. One fundamentalist scholar wrote that the contributors were “crystallizing new evangelical discontent with fundamentalism.”1Still another observed that fundamentalists “viewed the leadership of new evangelicalism as a group of compromisers who were abandoning the fundamentals of the faith in order to be accepted by the larger theological world.”2
Here is the article:
During Billy Graham’s 1955 Scotland crusade a B.B.C. interviewer asked him to define the fundamentalist label he’d been plastered with. Billy objected, “I don’t call myself a fundamentalist,” he said. There was an aura of bigotry and narrowness associated with the term—which he certainly hoped was not true of himself.
“I’d prefer to call myself a ‘constructionist,’” Billy said, explaining he was seeking to rebuild the church.
Billy Graham is not the only fundamentalist chafing under the term. Why? Because fundamentalism is no longer what most people think it is. Before going into what fundamentalism is today, let’s take a brief look at what it was.
In the 1920’s fundamentalist was the label for men who, like J. Gresham Machen, Princeton Seminary scholar, rushed to defend certain great doctrines under attack. These included the inspiration of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection.
Then what started as a high-level theological discussion degenerated into a cat and dog fight. The Virgin Birth ran neck and neck with murder on the front pages of newspapers. Evolution was pitted against the Bible in the Scopes trial of 1925. Fundamentalism began to be a catch-all for the lunatic fringe; Holy Rollers, snake handlers, even Mormon polygamists were calling themselves fundamentalists.
That’s why to the man on the street fundamentalism got to be a joke. As an ignorant, head-in—the-sand, contentious approach to the Christian faith, it seemed as out-dated as high-button shoes. But all the while there was a solid core behind the garish shell. Even before World War II that core began to push out.
When the war was over, the crust split wide open. Out popped a younger generation. They agreed with their elders. But they thought there was more to Christianity than being on the defensive all the time. They wanted to build on the contributions of older leaders a positive, not a reactionary, movement.
Fundamental theologians took time out to look at themselves, to find out just what fundamentalists of 1956 believe. Here’s one thing they found: fundamentalism is still a protest against the mishmash liberal Protestantism made of Christianity. It’s still as concerned over preserving the Christian essentials as were the early fundamentalists. But it is something more: a positive witness for God’s redemptive love, wisdom and power as revealed in Jesus Christ.
In short, fundamentalism has become evangelicalism.
The fundamentalist watchword is “Ye should earnestly content for the faith.” The evangelical emphasis is “Ye must be born again.”
That’s the major change in conservative theological thought. What other trends in evangelical thought mark it as different from fundamentalism? A spate of books and magazine articles has recently appeared to give clues. But to get even more authoritative answers CHRISTIAN LIFE went directly to the leading evangelical theologians. For the most part, it found them ready to talk freely—in itself an indication of a new spirit.
The currents of thought brought out into the open by CHRISTIAN LIFE—many for the first time in any publication—are vital to every alert Christian.
Here they are:
A Friendly Attitude Toward Science
For a long time the scientist was regarded as the arch enemy of the fundamentalist. This was natural. For it was denominational Protestantism’s capitulation to so-called science that led it down the path to modernism.
But today, science is steadily getting humbler. And evangelicals, while maintaining there are areas where science shouldn’t presume to tread, are holding out the olive branch.
In 1941 evangelical scientists started with the American Scientific Affiliation (which accepts only men with a doctorate degree in some science). Then it had 44 members. Today it has close to 700. A major contribution of the Affiliation is the book Modern Science and Christian Faith (1946).
Then in 1955 came The Christian View of Science and Scripture by evangelical Bernard Ramm, professor of Religion at Baylor University.
Wrote Ramm: “Evangelical Christianity of today owes to science a great debt in setting us free from the superstitious, the animistic and the grotesque. It has helped in the purification of our theology, our exegesis (explanation of Scripture) and our spiritual life.”
Ramm plumped for the “progressive creationism” theory (God plans, God puts his plan into motion by distinct creative acts and the Holy Spirit, through nature, carries out his plan).
Other opinions: that theologians are wrong to attempt to say how old man is, that the day of Genesis 1 are “pictorial days” not 24-hour days and that the flood was local.
Ramm’s book was roasted by some evangelical reviewers, but the December 1955 issue of the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation gave it three favorable reviews.
Representative of the views of theologians on the book is probably this statement by Vernon Grounds of Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary. He says: “Ramm has simply been courageous enough to put on paper ideas which have circulated sub voce among evangelical scholars. His book, whatever its defects and weaknesses, is a challenge to a thorough-going evangelical re-examination of some cherished opinions.”
Ramm wasn’t even the first to do this. Back in 1948 Edward J. Carnell, now President of Fuller Theological Seminary wrote An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, probably the outstanding recent conservative theological work. He criticized both science and the church for declaring their independence of each other. But he admitted: “the Church has repented of its rashness; it confesses humbly today that it cannot fulfill God’s command to subdue nature without the precision of the scientific method.”
A Willingness to Re-Examine Beliefs Concerning the Work of the Holy Spirit
Time was when Calvinists and Arminians, Pentecostals and holiness groups had no truck with one another. They drew up their skirts and swept on. But now laymen, preachers and theologians are working together. This was out of the question 20 years ago. A good example is the still-young Evangelical Theological Society which got going only in 1949. Membership is now around 300.
Some results of this spirit: some holiness groups are edging away from the old holiness line of second blessing that brings entire and final sanctification. Instead they’re veering to the view that baptism of the Holy Spirit is just the beginning of a new walk which will continue to show gradual growth in grace.
At the same time evangelicals who shied away from holiness experiences are wondering if there might not be some truth to a second “crisis experience” after conversion.
Says Stanley Horton of Central Bible Institute (Assemblies of God): “Fundamentalists now can even discuss tongues without getting hot under the collar—something unheard of a few years ago.”
Conservative theologians (as well as liberals) are doing some soul-searching on the subject of divine healing. Many decry emotional “healing meetings.” But they are seriously mulling over the idea that Christ meant His disciples to heal physical ills as well as spiritual ills.
Says Wilbur Smith of Fuller Theological Seminary: “There has been an obvious change in the attitude of the Church toward ‘faith healing.’ An enormous literature has appeared during the last ten years on this subject … The Christian Church needs to re-examine thoroughly this question.”
He adds, though: “My opinion, however, is that we are being ungrateful to God in placing so much emphasis upon healing when we ought to thank God for the uninterrupted years of health most Christian people enjoy.”
To be continued …
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?