Fundamentalism is dead, Long Live Fundamentalism part 2: The Fundamentalist Modernist controversy

Fundamentalism has always been maligned, and even more seriously misunderstood, as often by its adherents as by its opponents. Many Evangelicals have outright repudiated it, in part, because Fundamentalism like all institutions in which human beings take part is imperfect. Yet, my contention is that what we need is not a repudiation of Fundamentalism, but an understanding of it. The terms, “Fundamentalism” and “Fundamentalist goes back to debates for the heart of the Northern Baptist Convention, and is related to a series of pamphlets on essentials for the faith entitled, “The Fundamentals”[1] as well as the “five fundamentals”[2] of the faith, one of the rallying points in the early debates against what was then called “Modernism” and is now described as theological liberalism – the “grandfather” of the modern “emerging church,” liberation theology, and similar movements. Some people define Fundamentalism in terms of millennialism and dispensationalism – and for this reason, many of the early anti-modernists did not want to be referred to as Fundamentalists, though they are claimed by many Fundamentalist thinkers, these include Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary.[3] The reason for this discrepancy might be the definition itself – Machen rejected Fundamentalism due to its association with dispensationalism, and yet Curtis Lee Laws, [4] the man who invented the term “fundamentalist” did so because he wanted a term that focused on the larger issue of the defeat of the “Modernist” take over of the NBC, rather than a partisan doctrine. The early Fundamentalists emulated the true soul of the Fundamentalist movement – and can be summarized in the words of Jude, “Earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.”[5] They were defined, and I believe will be forever defined, by the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.” The controversy with modernism in America[6] goes back to the 19th century,[7] but became headline news during the 1893 Briggs Heresy Trial.[8] Liberalism had begun to seep into the major denominations, and the believers sought to push back the forces of darkness, contending for the faith, until they finally felt that these groups were no longer viable and left. During this time, they formed transdenominational organizations, joining hands across denominational lines on the grounds of belief in the basic building blocks of the faith. While, sadly, later generations of men would reignite these debates, sometimes to build petty fiefdoms, the early Fundamentalists were a big tent for those who maintained belief in the infallibility of the Bible, the Deity of Christ, and salvation by Grace through Faith. Fundamentalism in this sense is not an anti-intellectual faith, but rather upholds the tenet of non-contradiction. One cannot accept Christianity and reject it at the same time; one cannot fundamentally change the faith without ceasing to actually be Christian. What these men emulated was backbone – a willingness to accept the censure of the world, they were maligned then as backwards, uneducated, unlearned fools. They bore the reproach of Christ, and cared more about what He thought of them, than what the world thought was true. [1]David O Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850. (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1985), 39-45. [2]Beale, 149.             [3] I will leave people to decide for themselves if they think men like Machen were, or were not Fundamentalists, or more to the point if they believe Machen’s repudiation of the label was based on an accurate or inaccurate assessment of Fundamentalism. In many senses, however, Machen exemplified and inspired the early Fundamentalist spirit, particularly in his book Christianity and Liberalism. Yet, Machen and the earlier Princeton theologians (such as Charles Hodge, A A Hodge, and B B Warfield) interacted with Fundamentalism, inspired early Fundamentalists and ultimately, if they are not to be called Fundamentalists, they at least formed a similar and related movement. History is more complicated than we sometimes believe. [4] The Term “Fundamentalist” was probably coined by Curtis Lee Laws in the July 1, 1920 Watchman-Examiner, to discuss a “preconference” for the general conference of the denomination over the denominations drift away from the historic doctrines of the faith. Beale, 195. The Northern Baptist convention would eventually be renamed the American Baptist convention, but the preconvention group would splinter, and form the General Association of Regular Baptists and the Fundamentalist Baptist Fellowship. [5] Jude 3 [6] Modernism developed, in large part, in Germany. The major point of modernism was the attempt to combine the study of the Bible with modern philosophy, based in part on an outright rejection of miracles. Modernism developed theories about the origin of the Bible based on the Hegelian Dialectic – while many other tenets of the early modernists are no longer discussed these days, the Hegelian understanding of the origins of the Bible are still a major contention of most unbelieving students of the Bible, and sadly some Evangelicals. [7] Some have connected Liberalism with 18th century Universalism and the New School Presbyterians. However, these approaches were significantly different from Modernism, and should be considered a separate controversy. [8] Charles E Hatch The Charles A Briggs Heresy Trial; Beale 144-7. Hatch writes from an unbelieving perspective and is heavily involved in the name-calling approach we noted last time. It should be noted that the Briggs Heresy trial was not a legal trial in US courtrooms. The trial was within the Presbyterian General Assembly, and was an attempt to remove him from Union Theological Seminary over serious doctrinal deviation from the faith.

One thought on “Fundamentalism is dead, Long Live Fundamentalism part 2: The Fundamentalist Modernist controversy

  1. Pingback: Fundamentalism is Dead, Long Live Fundamentalism Part 4: The Death of the Fundamentalist Movement | Truth in the Trenches

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