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.