Why There Will Always Be a Fundamentalism

NickImage

In a recent blog post, self-admitted post-conservative evangelical theologian Roger Olson passed along an essay by a Baylor colleague, Mark Clawson, entitled “Neo-Fundamentalism.” Clawson compared and contrasted late 19th and early 20th century fundamentalism with the recent conservative evangelical luminaries like John Piper and Al Mohler, both of whom serve as exemplars of Clawson’s neo-fundamentalism.

Clawson suggests several reasons why it may be useful to delineate these men as neo-fundamentalists. Significantly, this comparison with the older movement, if carefully handled, can be useful “in predicting possible future developments and trajectories for the movement. It will be interesting to see, for instance, whether neo-fundamentalists will in fact follow the separatist path of their fundamentalist forbears—creating new institutions separate from the mainstream of evangelicalism, or whether they will find a way to remain within the evangelical movement even while critiquing it. If current trends hold, they may even become the dominant force within North American evangelicalism over the next decade and beyond.”

In response to Clawson, I suggest that it is naïve (at best) to think that fundamentalism is ever likely to die out and go away. Clawson never directly advances this particular thesis; he is simply comparing two movements and attempting to disparage the conservative evangelicals by associating them with others that deserve unbridled opprobrium. This is a common ploy among the theological left (and the right, for that matter): simply call your opponent a fundamentalist (or a liberal) and then dismiss his entire argument. In the recent Southern Baptist controversy, Al Mohler and his conservative colleagues have been regularly dubbed fundamentalists, though this is not a moniker they would ever take for themselves.

Fundamentalism as a movement has been on the decline for many years, but fundamentalism as an idea has been a part of the warp and woof of Christianity since the very beginning. In its essence, fundamentalism is a biblicist movement. Those who should be considered fundamentalistic have held the Bible to be the Word of God (read that as inerrant), which alone is the rule of faith and practice. The Anabaptists, for example, argued for the consistent application of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura when it came to baptism. It would take a few years before the New Testament form would be recovered by the early English Baptists, but those early Anabaptists like Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock paid a very heavy price in Zwinglian Switzerland for their strict adherence to what they considered to be biblical truth: believer’s affusion. While they may have missed the mark on the New Testament mode, they clearly understood the correct biblical recipient for the ordinance. In the same way, English separatists debated with their English Puritan cousins on the correct way to respond to the Church of England’s refusal under Elizabeth to whole-heartedly embrace the Reformation ethos and doctrine. In their biblicism, they chose to withdraw from the Church under pain of censure and death rather than violate what they considered to be clear biblical requirements.

Admittedly, neither the Anabaptists nor the English separatists were fundamentalists de jure, but they were clearly fundamentalists de facto on certain points. Moreover, they are certainly not alone in the history of Christendom; such fundamentalistic movements, prizing biblical faithfulness despite significant antagonism, are a common theme in the development of the church. Perhaps these groups can be dismissed as cultural obscurantists or narrow-minded ignoramuses who could not adapt to changing times, but simply because one holds to biblical truth and prizes it above interpersonal relationships, fame, or fortune is no reason to disparage them for their views.

Late 19th and early 20th century fundamentalism may be a distant memory for most of the evangelical church. But the fundamentalists’ cherished view of biblical fidelity will appear again and again in the Christianity of the future. There will always be those whose allegiance to the Law of God will persuade them to refuse to offer strange fire on the altars of religious accommodation. Call them fundamentalists, neo-fundamentalists, narrow-minded conservatives, or whatever. I suspect there is a title that many of them will one day hear that is far more significant: good and faithful servants!

It may be useful to cite again Kirsopp Lake’s well-known but little pondered assessment of fundamentalism (1926) found in The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow:

“It is a mistake often made by educated persons who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that Fundamentalism is a new and strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind; it is the partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians…. No, the Fundamentalist may be wrong; I think that he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition, not he, and I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the corpus theologicum of the Church is on the Fundamentalist side.”

If Lake was correct, being the eminent scholar that he was, then it seems like fundamentalism is biblical and those who wish to adhere to biblical revelation will be, in one way or another, fundamentalists.

Who Are These Like Stars Appearing
Heinrich Schenk (1656-1727), trans. by Frances Cox (1812-1897)

Who are these like stars appearing,
These before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
Who are all this glorious band?
Alleluia! Hark, they sing,
Praising loud their heav’nly King.

Who are these of dazzling brightness,
These in God’s own truth arrayed,
Clad in robes of purest whiteness,
Robes whose luster ne’er shall fade,
Ne’er be touched by time’s rude hand?
Whence come all this glorious band?

These are they who have contended
For their Savior’s honor long,
Wrestling on till life was ended,
Following not the sinful throng;
These who well the fight sustained,
Triumph through the Lamb have gained.

These are they whose hearts were riven,
Sore with woe and anguish tried,
Who in prayer full oft have striven
With the God they glorified;
Now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

These, like priests, have watched and waited,
Offering up to Christ their will;
Soul and body consecrated,
Day and night to serve Him still:
Now in God’s most holy place
Blest they stand before His face.

[node:bio/jeff-straub body]

3306 reads

There are 16 Comments

DavidO's picture

I'm trying to heed Aaron's advice and consider things as logically as possible.

The argument is:

1. Fundamentalism is biblicism*.
2. Biblicism will never die out.
3. Therefore Fundamentalism will never die out.

*Biblicism here defined as holding the Bible to be the Word of God, which alone is the rule of faith and practice and perhaps further qualified as prizing biblical faithfulness despite significant antagonism and/or holding an allegiance to the Law of God that refuses to participate in religious accommodation.

This seems to me to be an inadequate description as it would include many groups who would not self-identify as fundamentalist, no?

G. N. Barkman's picture

I think this is what "bugs" many about fundamentalism, as it has been generally practiced in the last few decades. That is, categorizing everyone in some group, and then pronouncing them sound or not according to the group to which they belong, or have been assigned.

That's too easy. It requires little thought nor serious Biblical evaluation. The fact is, everyone labeled as a fundemnatlist has plenty of faults that fall short of the Biblical ideal. Likewise those Bible-believing evanglicals who are rejected because they are not strongly identified with one of the favored fundemantlist groups. This almost always leads to minimizing the failures of those in "my group" (including myself), and maximizing the failures of those who are "outside." This is the opposite of Christ's teaching, who taught us to think of our own faults as beams, and our brother's as specks.

That's why SI is helpful. It doesn't behave in this all too typical fundamentalist fashion. That is also, I suspect, why it is not appreciated by some fundamentalists. SI is not playing the fundamentalist game according to the agreed-upon rules. Some fundamentalists are recognizing that the old rules are not really Biblical. If fundamentalism, as we have known it in the last century in America is to be "saved," it has a fair share of house cleaning to accomplish. We must stop evaluating according to traditional fundamentalist standards, and begin to evaluate according to Bible standards. That begins by recognizing that the traditional standards are not as Biblical as has been widely assumed.

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Jeff isn't talking here about groups or individuals that self identify as anything.
"The idea of fundamentalism" as he's used it here is a set of beliefs and practices, not a label or a membership in an organization.
So the argument is more like this:

1) Fundamentalism is faithfulness to the Scriptures
2) There always will be some who are faithful.
3) Ergo, there will always be fundamentalists.

I've oversimplified a little ("faithfulness" doesn't quite cover it completely, at least not without some elaborations), but that's the gist.

And I believe he's right. Regardless of whatever kinds of falling away have happened and will happen, Christ will build His church and the gates of Hell will not prevail. So there will always be some who hold to the fundamentals of the faith, stand for them without apology and fight for them where they have cause and opportunity.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron,

Thanks for the clarification. Actually, I wasn't responding to Jeff's article, but rather to someone else's respone to it. I agree with Jeff's article. However, now that I look for the post I was responding to, I don't see it. So either it has been withdrawn (I guess that is possible), or I must have picked up something from another blog.

Sorry. I guess my post will have to stand alone. I believe it does represent a weakness in fundamentalism that needs to be examined more carefully, and that is what I see SI doing. Thanks!

G. N. Barkman

DavidO's picture

This just seems quirky to me in many ways.

For starters, we all affirm Matt. 16:18. I'd rather not plug the term fundamentalism in there where Christ names the church/the Church.

We don't call ourselves Anabaptists or Mennonites or whatever even though we trace our spiritual heritage from some of those sources. Our successors might go by a different name. For us to call all faithful christians fundamentalists de facto or . . . a priori (?) strikes me as sort of nom-centric.

Perhaps Dr. Straub just meant to clarify the fact that fundamentalism really is faithfulness to scripture for Dr. Clawson/his readers?

I mean it's fine, but I must be missing the point.

DavidO's picture

Let me put this another way. In my hometown we have an Evangelical Free Church, a WELS Lutheran Church, a Hyles-type Baptist Church, and an unafiliated evangelical Presbyterian church.

I have met people from each one who, as far as I'm able to judge, are faithful believers who affirm "the fundamentals" and would die at the stake for at least some of them. So they are fundamentalist(ic)?

I'm not saying this because I don't want to "let them in". I'm not big Mr. Circledrawer, believe me.

If the point of the OP is to define fundamentalism as I describe above, again, that's fine. Is that a fair definition, though, or does a greater level of militarism/separatism really have to be a part of it?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Ah, there it is. It didn't go anywhere, I just overlookied it. I was responding to the "many groups" comment in the last paragraph of David O's first post at 8:14 am.

Things can get really sticky fast, which is why we need to re-think the "put everyone into a group and label the group" mentality.

I am thinking of a well known pastor of a large, independent church, who belongs to nothing except the IFCA (INdependent Fundamental Churches of America). His church's doctrinal statement includes a good statement on separation from apostasy, and he is a strong voice in defense of the Bible as God's infallible Word, and makes strong denunciations of those who compromise truth in various ways. Is he a fundamentalist? He strongly believes, proclaims, and defends the fundamentals of the faith. He separates from apostasy, and publicly denounces compromising evangelicals. Some call him a fundamentalist (mostly those who are to his left), others do not (those who are strong, Type A fundamentalists).

Those who say he is not a fundamentalist point to his willingness to invite speakers to his church who belong to non-fundamentalist "groups", (such as the SBC), although the men he invites are strong Bible preachers and aggressive defenders of the faith, those who are leading the charge for the conservative resurgence in the SBC. He also speaks on platforms that would not be considered fundamentalist, but conservative evangelical.

In the early days of fundamentalism, he would have been acclaimed a solid fundamentalist. But as the movement has devloped, the "group mentality" of putting everyone into categories, puts him outside fundamentalism as defined by many fundamentalists. My opinion? I think he is a fundamentalist in the original sense of the term. I hope we can get back to that original meaning.

G. N. Barkman

DavidO's picture

Again. I'm not trying to keep anyone "out". But, Bro. Barkman, you're essentially doing the same in/out of the group thing here:

Quote:
In the early days of fundamentalism, he would have been acclaimed a solid fundamentalist.

Different size group, different metrics for qualification, but in it based on them.

Dr. Straub/Aaron do the opposite. The whole Church is in the group apparently, and because there will always be The Church there will always be the group.

For if the group is merely a subset of the Church, the group loses the certainty of the promise--The Church can go on without the subset.

Charlie's picture

Quote:
Fundamentalism as a movement has been on the decline for many years, but fundamentalism as an idea has been a part of the warp and woof of Christianity since the very beginning. In its essence, fundamentalism is a biblicist movement. Those who should be considered fundamentalistic have held the Bible to be the Word of God (read that as inerrant), which alone is the rule of faith and practice. The Anabaptists, for example, argued for the consistent application of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura when it came to baptism. It would take a few years before the New Testament form would be recovered by the early English Baptists, but those early Anabaptists like Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock paid a very heavy price in Zwinglian Switzerland for their strict adherence to what they considered to be biblical truth: believer’s affusion. While they may have missed the mark on the New Testament mode, they clearly understood the correct biblical recipient for the ordinance. In the same way, English separatists debated with their English Puritan cousins on the correct way to respond to the Church of England’s refusal under Elizabeth to whole-heartedly embrace the Reformation ethos and doctrine. In their biblicism, they chose to withdraw from the Church under pain of censure and death rather than violate what they considered to be clear biblical requirements.

My thesis is simple: there is no idea of fundamentalism that can be separated from actual practicing Fundamentalists. Thus, Fundamentalism is whatever Fundamentalists are or have been. This is a difficult truth to accept, because it means that the meaning of Fundamentalism cannot be spun and respun endlessly in hopes of driving the movement in one's preferred direction. Fundamentalism, like any other movement, is open to historical examination by anyone who cares to look. The "truth" of Fundamentalism cannot be restricted to self-appointed leaders.

This absurd anachronistic approach to history discredits Straub entirely. Anabaptists were Fundamentalists? I suppose medieval Franciscans were Marxists. There is no respect for historical circumstance or the development of historical theology here. American Fundamentalism is marked by a revivalist and individualist ethos, permeated heavily with Dispensational and Keswick theology, and reacts against modernism and (usually) globalism and integration. So, the Anabaptists were Fundamentalists? Hardly. Oh, and by the way, Straub's narrative is utterly incoherent, since it would make being Baptist of the essence of Fundamentalist, a clear historical error. Seriously, did the magisterial Reformers not believe the fundamentals of the faith and devote their lives to defending them? This is as silly as the Trail of Blood theology that looks to Montanists and Donatists and Waldenses in order to confirm the idiosyncrasies of certain sectarian Baptists.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

G. N. Barkman's picture

David,

I don't think I am doing the same thing. I am merely pointing out the shift in fundamentalist thinking over the years. The list of qualifications required to be pronounced a fundemantalist (by many self-identifying fundamentalists) has grown with time.

My desire is to see a return to the concept that fidelity to the authority of Scripture, belief in the fundamentals of the faith, and willingness to oppose apostasy should be sufficient to earn the respect of fundamentalists and identification as a fundamentalist.

A problem develops when the list of necessary fundamentals grows way beyond the bounds of historic orthodoxy, and the degree of opposition to apostasy required expands to include everyone's personal opinions of excatly how, when, how often this must be done. When we classify every ministry as either fundamental or evangelical (but not both), and exclude from our definition of fundamentalist everyone who has any contact with someone classified as evangelical, we are pushing the Biblical doctrine of separation to excessive, and potentially sinful proportions.

Many evangelicals could benefit from a better understanding of Biblical teaching on separation from apostasy. Many fundamentalists could benefit from a better understandiing of Biblical teaching on the essential unity of all who are joined to Christ.

G. N. Barkman

DavidO's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:
A problem develops when the list of necessary fundamentals grows way beyond the bounds of historic orthodoxy, and the degree of opposition to apostasy required expands to include everyone's personal opinions of excatly how, when, how often this must be done. When we classify every ministry as either fundamental or evangelical (but not both), and exclude from our definition of fundamentalist everyone who has any contact with someone classified as evangelical, we are pushing the Biblical doctrine of separation to excessive, and potentially sinful proportions.

I understand what you are saying. I was not really addressing or promoting this at all in any of my posts.

I was getting at more what Charlie was getting at. Of course, he said it much better than I.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks, David. It's sweet when efforts at clear communication result in enlarged understanding and, in some cases, unexpected agreement.

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
Dr. Straub/Aaron do the opposite. The whole Church is in the group apparently, and because there will always be The Church there will always be the group.

For if the group is merely a subset of the Church, the group loses the certainty of the promise--The Church can go on without the subset.


I see the problem here.
Here's a go at a solution:
1) The whole church isn't the scope of Jeff's "idea of fundamentalism," I'm confident of that.
2) The Matt 18 promise doesn't say "I will build those faithful to the Faith and practicing separation and the gates of Hell will not prevail against them."
3) However, it's doubtful that "the church" can continue for long without a remnant who are faithful to, and separating over, the core doctrines of the faith. So "will build my church...." implies the continuation of a subgroup that is essential for the larger group's continuing existence.
Make sense?

On Charlie's point... I've seen him make it before, and I still struggle to put my finger on what the problem with it is. I guess I'll start with the suggestion that reasoning that way requires that "fundamentalism" be seen as term that can only have reference and cannot have sense. I'm using these terms as D. A. Carson does in Exegetical Fallacies (in my edition, it's p.63... at the end of ch.1 on word study fallacies).

I admit to not fully understanding all of what Carson says in that couple of pages, but I do see the difference between reference (a word that refers to an actual entity) vs. sense (a word that is descriptive of a quality... at least, that seems to be the idea).
So I suggest that there is really no reason why we cannot use "fundamentalism" as a descriptive term for a set of beliefs and practices, somewhat distinct from a particular movement that has approximated those beliefs and practices (with varying degrees of real accomplishment).

DavidO's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Make sense?

Sure but now the question of the word always in the title of the OP (and the ensuing confidence express) is begged.

Not an untenable assertion. Perhaps even likely? But well short of guaranteed.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.