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Lecture 16: Fundamentalism & Evangelicalism

What is Fundamentalism?

To begin with, it admits to no hierarchy, like most of the Protestant Church, it distrusts authority. For example, the Southern Baptist convention recently had an issue about their seminaries being taken over by "liberals". They began a grassroots campaign to dislodge seminary presidents, who then dislodged seminary professors. Probably the only success story I know to date about fundamentalists taking on the liberals! It seems to illustrate, however, a mistrust for authority, even their own theological leaders. Another example is my cousin, the son of a Fundamentalist preacher whose denomination was known by the letters IFCA, for Independent Fundamentalist Churches of America", and whose initials he told me really stood for "I fight christians anywhere". Independence at any cost.

Here are some characteristics:

Evangelical breakaway

This separation from culture deepened from the beginning of the 20th century up until about 1950. Carl F.H. Henry and Billy Graham (both graduates of my alma mater, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.) popularized a more culturally sensitive approach that was called "neo-evangelical". Some of the changes were a reemphasis on Biblical scholarship (rather than naive literalism). There was a creedal de-emphasis, with a reliance on fewer and more universal creeds. (Robert Webber's book, Common Roots is an example.) This was an attempt to be more inclusive, so that you can be an evangelical + Lutheran/ Catholic / Presbyterian / Baptist / Greek Orthodox. Thus, for example, the Church of England divides up into thirds, 1/3 Anglo-Catholic, 1/3 Broad Church, 1/3 Evangelical. The purpose of all this cultural sensitivity was a sociological reintegration, and a shift from blue collar to white collar. The history of Wheaton College personifies this trend. Two interesting historical trends that I lack space to fully describe here, are how Wheaton College handled the theory of evolution, and the abortion issue. In both cases, Wheaton broke with its fundamentalist roots and quietly accepted the mainline position.

Alistair McGrath, a renowned Evangelical in the the Anglican Church, and a theologian at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, summarizes the four assumptions (creedal statements) that unite Evangelicals:
  1. The authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
  2. The uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross.
  3. The need for personal conversion.
  4. The necessity, propriety, and urgency of evangelism.
It is perhaps this fourth point that has made such an impact on society, and which differs from many mainline denominations whose primary growth is the birth rate. I think my source of information is the Barna pollsters, but the fastest growing churches in America today would be called evangelical. Anecdotal evidence are evangelical episcopal churches in TN and VA which are both the fastest growing and the largest churches in their diocese. This is *not* just a rediscovery of the Californian, "seeker-friendly" church, but a distinct theological phenomenon. For example, the church I used to attend in Huntsville acquired a more "liberal" pastor and instituted a "seeker-friendly" service with a rock band. After 1 year the attendance has dropped, suggesting that it isn't the approach but the theology that is important. Thus the breakaway evangelical presbyterian denomination, PCA, has been outgrowing the mainline PCUSA, and this trend is seen throughout the mainline denominations. Likewise, the growth of the Nigerian Anglican church in the face of mounting Muslim persecution is at root, a theological phenomenon of concerted evangelism.

One perspective on this shift, is to say that the evangelical attempt to reintegrate with society is the same trend that promoted "liberalism" in the 19th century, the expressed desire "can't we just all get along?" and find common ground among our doctrinal differences. A fine piece by Stanley Kurz describes how liberalism has mutated from an objective detachment from religion into a crusading religion of its own. Nonetheless, the same motivation can be seen operating in the evangelical movement, attempting to turn ecumenism (tolerance if not reunification of denominations) into a goal in itself. When this occurs, it seemingly converts evangelicalism into just another tributary of mainstream liberal protestant practice.

Where evangelicalism resists this pull, the liberal perspective perceives no essential difference between evangelical and fundamentalist thought. Even though Wheaton College has taught evolutionary theory for 40 years, they have been characterized in the Chicago press as a fundamentalist school. Contrariwise, from a fundamentalist perspective, evangelicals have abandonned the creeds that defined fundamentalism, and are therefore worse than liberal, they are apostate. So it is difficult sometimes to know what to call the people in the middle. Nor do the lines stay clear, as churches wander right and left through this "evangelical oasis" between the coastlines of liberal and fundamentalist theology, with many evangelical schools becoming indistinguishable from mainline liberal schools and vice versa. My own view is that moderation is an unstable point in human existence whose own success is its greatest enemy.

A modest proposal

There is perhaps a 3rd way between the yin and yang of fundamentalism and liberalism. I would propose that both fundamentalism and liberalism are hampered by an outdated metaphysics which perversely is manifest in nearly identical approaches to truth. Thus an attention to epistemology may uncover a third way, different from both, that is both a stable and sustainable theological position. It may be that evangelicalism is on the right track, but needs a better foundation that can carry it into the 21st century without succumbing to the pull from the right and the left. This goal motivates our following examination of fundamentalism and naturalism as a guide to a better hermeneutic.
Last modified, March 4, 2002, RbS