Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Fundamentalism" and "Evangelicalism": What Are They?


"A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something."
~George Marsden


I was raised in a defiantly fundamentalist milieu. My bible professor father proudly wore the "fundamentalist" label, and I was a member of a church that belonged to an organization known as the Independent Fundamentalist Churches of America. My undergraduate work was done at a college (Philadelphia College of Bible, now Cairn University) whose origins lay in the work of one of the 19th century's most prominent fundamentalist precursors, C. I. Scofield. My seminary training likewise occurred at an ecclesiastically-independent school (Dallas Theological Seminary) founded by two fundamentalists, the Presbyterian evangelist Lewis Sperry Chafer  and the Anglican theologian W. H. Griffith Thomas.

Somewhere along the line, however, the "fundamentalist" label began to lose its cachet among theologically-conservative American Christians. My own first reservations came when reading the card-carrying inerrantist Jim Packer's little book, "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God, during my sophomore year in college. But the single event which forever led me to eschew the label was the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was routinely referred to as an "Islamic fundamentalist" by the news media of the day, who could perhaps have been excused for not understanding the meaning or the history of the term's use in church history. This incident, and the use of the term "fundamentalist" precipitated by it, forever taught me two linguistic lessons. First, the meanings of terms can and do change over time, and it is precarious to assume historic meanings if one wants to avoid both anachronism and misunderstanding. Second, meanings of terms involve both denotation and connotation. One ignores the latter to his or her linguistic peril.

In hindsight, it was not only I who ran away from the fundamentalist label. The vast majority of Christians who would hitherto have designated themselves fundamentalists began preferring to be called "evangelicals," a practice that continues to this day and has resulted in further linguistic confusion. For definitions matter. Definitions matter to ensure clarity in communication. Clear definitions also matter when fuzzy, imprecise definitions can become the occasion to use a word as a pejorative, slur term. "Fundamentalist" has, for all practical purposes, been reduced to that level in much popular discourse, much like its mirror image, the term "liberal." In Christian circles, a "fundamentalist" is simply a person more conservative than the speaker, whether that conservatism manifests itself in doctrine or lifestyle. Tied to this, of course, is the often unspoken-yet-assumed connotation that the "fundamentalist" is an anti-intellectual religiously- and politically-conservative zealot. Not only this, but the penchant of formerly-designated "fundamentalists" for self-identifying as "evangelicals" has had a deleterious influence on the popular understanding of what an "evangelical" is. This term, historically used to identify the heirs of the Protestant Reformation as exponents of the biblical "gospel," and later used in the 1940s and 1950s to designate intellectually-rigorous and culturally-sensitive Christians who broke away from the narrowness of the older fundamentalism (the so-called "neo-evangelicals"), now is popularly used as a somewhat-imprecise equivalent of the Religious Right.

This is where a number of blog posts by Baylor church historian Roger Olson have become essential reading for Christians who desire to use terms precisely. Last April Olson wrote a piece designed to distinguish "evangelical" from "fundamentalist." In January he he tackled the issue of defining what it means to be "evangelical." Yesterday Olson published his best post yet, entitled "What Is 'Fundamentalism' and Who Is a 'Fundamentalist?'" Fundamental to Olson's argument is that the terms, if they are to remain useful at all, must be used in a historical-theological sense, rather than in the sociological sense that dominates the popular consciousness. And fundamental to a historical-theological understanding of these terms is the recognition that "fundamentalist" is a sub-set of "evangelical." In other words, all fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

Olson follows David Bebbington's quadrilateral in his definition of evangelicalism. According to this taxonomy, an evangelical is a person who adheres to four basic tenets:
  • Biblicism—the belief in the sufficiency (the inspiration and, often, the inerrancy) of the Bible for all spiritual truth.
  • Crucicentrism—the belief in the atoning character of Christ's work on the cross
  • Conversionism—the belief that all people must experience conversion to be saved
  • Activism—the belief that Christian faith must express itself actively in society
One can, of course, quibble with Bebbington's analysis (Olson himself fleshes it out by listing 7 core theological beliefs all evangelicals historically held), but he was right in seeing that evangelicalism is a trans-denominational Protestant phenomenon committed to historic Christian doctrine and practice within a bibliocentric matrix.


Fundamentalism, on the other hand, arose as a direct response to what were considered the destructive effects such matters as evolutionary biology, German liberal theology, and higher biblical criticism were having on the Christian faith as adhered to by the churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Originally, "fundamentalism" was a rather coherent movement—Olson likens the early fundamentalists to the 17th century Puritans—concerned to fight against the inroads of theological liberalism by rallying around a number of core, "fundamental" biblical doctrines (see, e.g., the 2-volume set entitled The Fundamentals, published in 1910-11). At this early stage ("paleo-fundamentalism") the movement included such august academicians as Princeton Seminary's J. Gresham Machen and even some (e.g., James Orr) that later fundamentalists wouldn't recognize as one of their own. 1925 however, was not only the year of the infamous Scopes "Monkey" trial in Dayton, Tennessee; it was also the year that the fundamentalist movement started to splinter hopelessly. Erstwhile fundamentalists, like Machen, from confessional denominations became less and less associated with the movement as others hunkered down in their opposition to modernity in all its forms, educational as well as cultural. In the 1940s many conservative Protestants grew weary of the anti-intellectual and retrograde stance the fundamentalists had taken, and so formed what has become known as the "neo-evangelical" movement, out of which modern evangelicalism has developed [an aside: even here, however, ambiguity exists; many conservative evangelicals associate the term "neo-evangelical" with those who, like at Fuller Seminary, ultimately abandoned belief in biblical inerrancy; I, on the other hand, link the term to the entire enterprise begun by Henry, Ockenga, et al., encompassing both more and less conservative elements within a broad Protestant orthodoxy].

Olson makes his most important point when he distinguishes between fundamentalism as a movement, which is largely dead and irrelevant in the larger ecclesial scene, and fundamentalism as an ethos, which remains alive and well, and which continues to rear its ugly head in evangelical circles. Olson's contention is a powerful one: many self-proclaimed "conservative evangelicals" today are, in reality, only slightly reconstructed "fundamentalists" of the old sort. And, by pretending to be representative of "historic evangelicalism," such "neo-fundamentalists" have had a detrimental impact on evangelical institutions and on the careers of many evangelical scholars with whom they don't see eye-to-eye on any number of issues. Olsen, I believe, is right on the money.

One issue that defines post-1925 fundamentalism is that of separation—not merely separation from unbelievers and/or heretics in the church, but secondary separation from other orthodox Christians who themselves fail to separate sufficiently from such questionable people. Thus I remember one of my college professors excoriating Billy Graham for allowing Roman Catholics and mainline Protestant ministers to share the stage with him in his famous evangelistic crusades. Likewise, when applying for a teaching position at a very conservative seminary back in the 1990s, I recall being asked to comment on my view of "secondary separation." They were underwhelmed by my rejection of the principle and, needless to say, I didn't get the job. [another aside: when the college where I formerly taught, which considers itself to be a mainline evangelical institution, recently bought this seminary and incorporated it into their organization, its President claimed the two schools "had identical visions"].

Secondary separation, after all, is an ideological pugilist's way of defending the fortress against the intrusion of potentially fatal error. I understand that, just as I appreciate (and follow) the apostles' admonitions in the New Testament to defend the faith against error. The problem, as I see it, is two-fold. First, many neo-fundamentalists draw the boundaries far too tightly. It is one thing to deny the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Jesus, the atoning significance of his death, or the bodily nature of his resurrection. It is another to elevate such matters as particular views of the sacraments and eschatology, a stringent view of inerrancy, creationism, and so-called "complementarianism" (i.e., distinct roles for men and women and subordination of the latter within the hierarchical authority structure) to the status of boundary-defining matters of faith. Scholars on one side or the other in such debates my be right or they may be wrong. But debating such matters is what scholarship is for. And, as one who has operated "within the camp" for more than three decades, I can attest that matters are seldom as cut-and-dried as advocates on either side would have many believe. Particular scholastic institutions and ecclesiastical bodies have the right to draw boundaries as tightly as they wish, but they don't have the right to act and speak as if those who don't adhere to their distinctives—rightly or wrongly—have thereby forfeited the right to be considered an evangelical. The point is this: the neo-fundamentalist penchant for drawing boundaries runs counter to the historically centered-approach for defining evangelicalism. And the current run of evangelical professors losing their jobs over their views of Genesis 1-3, the New Perspective on Paul, and complementarianism vs. egalitarianism will have, if it has not done so already, a deadening effect on the church's witness to the wider society.

The second problem associated with the neo-fundamentalist ethos is that it, like so many other things, breeds prideful self-righteousness and promotes what can only be labeled a theological bullying syndrome. I will refrain from naming names here (to protect those I consider guilty). One can hardly dispute, however, that theological bullies are running rampant in the evangelical schoolyard. And this, for the testimony of then Christ we love and the good of his church, must end quickly. If we are to love our enemies, should we not also love our brothers and sisters?

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