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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:
- They often have the name Baptist or Independent in the title, which does not
necessarily mean that they have a heirarchy or accountability. E.g., a baptist
preacher might have zero seminary training or even zero college education.
- Religious creeds are very important, chosen as much to separate as to unite.
E.g., pre-millenial, pre-tribulation ("Left Behind" series). Contrast with the
Nicene Creed which has the phrase "I believe in the holy catholic church". Rather,
the fundamentalist church emphasizes positions and creeds that are reactionary both
to liberal protestant and the Catholic church.
- Often "dispensationalist" following Schofield's notes, Dallas Seminary,
Moody Press..., though dispensationalism is not a theological tradition with
a long history.
- They canonicalize the King James Version of the Bible, much as the Council
of Trent treated the Latin Vulgate version. Any church still having KJV in
the pews is likely either impoverished or fundamentalist.
- They emphasize "separation" from the world, science and culture. Niebuhr's
"Christ and Culture" found 5 ways that churches interact with society,
fundamentalism belongs to the complete separation flavor. Thus it was a break
with tradition when Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, tried to involve the
church with society.
- Sociologically, fundamentalism was often associated with lower middle class,
"blue collar" constituency.
No matter what Americans say about themselves, it is a class-divided society that
traditionally was most obvious in the church one attended. Blue collar tended to
be Baptists and Pentecostals, lower middle class tended to be Methodist, professionals
(doctors, lawyers) were Presbyterian, and the born wealthy were Episcopalian.
This stratification started breaking down in the latter half of the 20th century,
but remnants are still seen in the South and small towns. Thus the friction between
fundamentalists and pentecostals might be seen as a result of competition within the same
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:
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.
- The authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
- The uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross.
- The need for personal conversion.
- The necessity, propriety, and urgency of 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
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