Why This Discussion?
Some weeks ago I wrote a piece expressing appreciation and even admiration for the contributions that conservative evangelicals are making to the Christian faith. Many people have replied, both publicly and privately, both agreeably and disagreeably. Leaving aside the most hysterical evaluations, responses have generally fallen into four categories.
First, some have questioned whether particular individuals or institutions should have been listed as conservative evangelical. According to this response, some of the evangelicals whom I listed are not so conservative after all. To this criticism I reply that my direct knowledge of some individuals and organizations is less complete than my knowledge of others. It is entirely possible that a few of these people may be less conservative than I had understood them to be.
Since my main concern was with conservative evangelicalism as a movement, however, the inclusion or exclusion of a few names does not fundamentally alter my conclusions. In other words, the first criticism is not directed against the argument itself. The remaining criticisms, however, go to the heart of the matter. Let me put them on the table, and then I can evaluate them together.
Second, some have praised my essay for what they took to be its blanket endorsement of conservative evangelicalism. These respondents seem to believe that no appreciable difference exists between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. In my article they read agreement. They welcomed my observations as a legitimization for abolishing whatever barriers inhibit fundamentalists from fully cooperating with conservative evangelicals.
Third, some were alarmed by what they took to be my blanket endorsement of conservative evangelicalism. The concerned parties are typically fundamentalist leaders who are distressed about the tendency of young men to leave fundamentalism for conservative evangelicalism. They feel that I have failed to point out the differences between the two groups. They seem to think that fundamentalism will retain its next generation of leaders only if we can become more critical of conservative evangelicals (or of their commonly-held doctrines, such as Calvinism or Lordship Salvation).
The same parties were concerned about the criticisms that I offered of some versions of fundamentalism. They seem to believe that, by being willing to recognize the errors of some fundamentalists, I was imputing these errors to all of fundamentalism. Evidently, they hope that if we pretend not to notice the ridiculous behavior on the far Right of fundamentalism, then the next generation of leadership won’t notice it either.
Fourth, some readers expressed substantial agreement with the essay but registered apprehension that it could be misunderstood. Their concern is that people on both sides will see in the essay only what they want to see. People on both sides will use the essay only to prove a point that they are already trying to make. While they accept my conclusions privately, they fear that nothing good will come of the discussion. Fundamentalism will only be further divided by it.
Of course, misunderstanding is always a possibility. Wrong interpretations become more likely as emotional involvement rises. Some people are overjoyed at what they think an author might be saying, while others are alarmed at what he could be suggesting. Not surprisingly, these misunderstandings have occurred with my essay.
In order to avoid those misunderstandings, I attempted to articulate the differences between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Here is what I said.
Anti-dispensationalism seems to be more widely characteristic of conservative evangelicalism than it is of fundamentalism, though it is less vitriolic than the anti-Calvinism of some fundamentalists. Toleration of Third-Wave charismatic theology is widely accepted among conservative evangelicals, but universally rejected among fundamentalists. Conservative evangelicals are willing to accommodate the more contemporary versions of popular culture, while fundamentalists restrict themselves to older manifestations. Most importantly, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals still do not agree about what to do with Christian leaders who make common cause with apostates.
This statement is, I believe, reasonably clear. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are not the same. At least these four differences stand between them.
I think that these differences are worth exploring. Over the next several essays, I intend to explore them. But to examine them effectively requires a presumption of good faith. Therefore, before I begin let me make two statements.
First, to conservative evangelicals and their admirers, I want to affirm that I wish only the best for the conservative evangelical movement. I have no desire to produce propaganda to debunk conservative evangelicalism. I also do not desire to hurt the ministries of conservative evangelical leaders. On the contrary, I want them to prosper.
I do wish to understand the extent to which fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals presently hold the faith in common. This “holding in common” is what the New Testament calls koinonia or “fellowship.” In order to understand the limitations of our fellowship, we must also understand what we do and do not hold in common.
Second, to those who wish to reclaim and strengthen authentic fundamentalism, I affirm that I share your goal. In fact, I am committed to this goal whether or not a fundamentalist movement actually exists today (some have suggested that it does not). Even if the movement has vanished beyond recovery, fundamentalism is still a great idea. The fundamentalist idea is worth believing and worth articulating.
Ideas, however, are like bodies in one way: they must not be identified with their appurtenances. A body may contain phlegm, pus, or even tumors. These substances may be in or on the body, but they are not part of the body. One does not strengthen the lungs by filling them with more phlegm, nor should one seek to nourish pus or tumors. Their presence is a mark of a diseased body.
Much of what transpires under the name of fundamentalism is not the idea, but rather appurtenances. If fundamentalism is going to be made healthy, it needs a good expectorant. A few boils need to be lanced. Perhaps some tumors will require surgery. These procedures may cause discomfort, but they are done for the health of the body.
Someone who criticizes the phlegm and pus may not hate the body, but rather desire its health. Someone may lay a tumor bare because the tumor disfigures and threatens the body. The body is healthier without it.
I write first as a lover of the idea of fundamentalism, though not as a blind lover who cannot perceive the appurtenances of the movement. On the other hand, I write as a friend and admirer of conservative evangelicalism, though not as a party loyalist. In an ideal world these would be a single movement. I wish that they were now. I am not so naïve, however, as to believe that the differences between them should simply be ignored by either side.
Whether or not some rapprochement will occur between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals is more than I can guess. Some fundamentalists seem to entertain a hope that the two can be brought together. Too often, however, their efforts are dogged by the fact that they have not seriously considered the differences that actually exist.
Therefore, an examination of those differences is highly relevant right now. Such an examination is what I propose to do. I hope to say just what the differences are, how characteristic each difference is, and how serious the differences are both singly and together. But before proceeding with that discussion, it is necessary to spend a moment considering the problem of how differences in general are to be weighed.
Hark the Glad Sound
Philip Doddridge (1702-1751)
Hark the glad sound! The Savior comes,
The Savior promised long;
Let every heart prepare a throne
And every voice a song.
He comes the prisoners to release,
In Satan’s bondage held.
The gates of brass before Him burst,
The iron fetters yield.
He comes from thickest films of vice
To clear the mental ray
And on the eyeballs of the blind
To pour celestial day.
He comes the broken heart to bind,
The bleeding soul to cure,
And with the treasures of His grace
To enrich the humble poor.
Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace,
Thy welcome shall proclaim
And heaven’s eternal arches ring
With Thy beloved name.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.