Fundamentalism is dead, Long Live Fundamentalism Part 3a: The Great Evangelical Disaster.

Today, Evangelical churches appear to be thriving, and Fundamentalism appears to be a relic, often an unwelcome one. A few decades ago, this was not, however, the case.

I’m going to cover the Evangelical-Fundamentalist controversy in two parts, first dealing with Evangelicalism (which will take two articles due to its growing length) then with Fundamentalism. This controversy began as the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was winding down. Fundamentalists began to adopt “separatism”[1] from the major denominations when it became apparent they would not win the battle and began forming their own, new denominational bodies. This separatism then was neither new, nor strange – a number of similar movements have taken place over the centuries.

Modern Evangelicalism was originally known as the “New Evangelicalism” (Sometimes referred to as Neo-Evangelicalism). The term “New Evangelicalism” was coined by Harold Ockenga in 1948, and part of his emphasis was (1) the repudiation of separatism from the mainline denomination, (2) an attempt to reopen a dialogue with the religious left with a new openness to liberal ideas about the Bible, particularly involving issues related to the book of Genesis and the doctrine of inerrancy. This was founded on a repudiation of Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism,[2] and in some quarters, might have led to an over-emphasis on the role of intellect among believers.[3] The New Evangelicals would grow into prominence, however, when Billy Graham’s large campaigns began featuring theological liberals and Roman Catholic clergy on his platform. This would inevitably lead to a split between the Fundamentalists and the Evangelicals, splitting the National Association of Evangelicals along the way.[4]  Francis Schaeffer and others after him traced the defections of the faith to the intellectual compromises along the way.

The Great Evangelical Disaster

Francis Schaeffer’s last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster discussed the Evangelical side of the controversy. Schaeffer’s book was the book that ultimately shaped my views on this controversy for decades – it is still, a profound work about the dangers of intellectual/theological compromise.[5]

And the effects of compromise at the time were dire.

Fuller Theological Seminary had slowly abandoned the faith over decades.[6]

Charles Templeton, a long time Evangelical Evangelist became an atheist.[7]

Major conflicts began in the 70’s referred to as “The Battle for the Bible” in Evangelical Seminaries.

Perhaps to my mind, one of the lesser-known tragedies, that of Bernard Ramm, was the most shocking. Ramm wrote one of the standard introductions to Christian Hermeneutics,[8] yet, in 1983, on relatively flimsy grounds he adapted his thinking[9] to a theological system of existential theology known as Neo-Orthodoxy,[10] or more precisely, he like Briggs sought to combine Evangelical belief with theological liberalism.

Thus, Evangelicalism was not turning into the promised panacea that had been anticipated. Yet, we also know Fundamentalist assumptions that Evangelicalism was dead were also not panning out. Next time, I will posit my theory as to why – Evangelicals were borrowing from earlier fundamentalism as they decided to earnestly contend for their faith within their denominations, and this time, at least some of them would win.

[1] In my years at BJU, one often heard discussions of the “Doctrine” of separation, but this, I believe is highly misleading; it frankly sounds almost monastic. Despite this, separation is ultimately not a separate doctrine persay, but an application of Scriptural principles. The terminology is based on the idea of being holy (which means being set apart), and provides an undergirding theology for discussions of separation. However, the passages cited in discussions of separation themselves are actually discussing discipline for members living in sin, or who repudiate the faith. In this sense, the doctrine of separation is simply the application of Biblical teaching on dealing with the stubbornly errant on a level beyond merely single individuals.

            [2]Fundamentalism was not an anti-intellectual movement, but there were pockets of anti-intellectualism within the movement. This was largely because the theological left was associated with the philosophical elitists of the day.

            [3] There are a lot of discussions about intellectualism when it comes to the faith as a whole. John K A Smith, in his work Desiring the Kingdom for example, discusses this problem, though his approach ultimately seems to descend back into approaches that history demonstrates have failed (such as his ideas about monasticism and a new alternative economy), and while claiming not to want rebuild an anti-intellectualism of the past, is ultimately doing precisely that type of approach.

The quandary of the Christian intellectual is, for the relatively modern world, still answered best in a sermon, Learning During Wartime by C S Lewis, in which he discusses the Christian intellectual in terms of service to God and His Kingdom. Lewis argues the Christian scholar’s work is ultimately no different from anyone else in the truly spiritual economy – his works value is measured in terms of its being an offering to God. Lewis does this on the Pauline analogy of the body of Christ, we all have our place and function within that body.

            [4] This is sometimes presented as a very sudden split, but there is extensive, extant correspondence between Dr. Bob Jones Senior/Dr. Bob Jones Junior and Billy Graham for about two years before the split actually happened.

[5] I was educated at Bob Jones University, one of the central schools of Fundamentalism of the time. While BJU has largely abandoned me, my feelings of my alma mater are at times very mixed. Some of its recent decisions continue to break my heart – and I have many fond memories of a number of my professors. My one profound disagreement with Schaeffer is not in his discussion of Evangelicalism, it is his assumptions about the Fundamentalists of the era. I had the opportunity to meet some of the men of that generation, while some were the stern curmudgeons of popular imagery, many more were cordial, kind and exuded a Christian spirit that is rare except among those who after a lifetime of devotion to the King have lives that have been saturated with His Spirit. Indeed, the kindest man I have ever met, Dr. Stewart Custer, was the Fundamentalist that taught a seven week course on “cults and trends,” including our discussions on Evangelicalism.

[6] See Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller and the New Evangelicalism.

[7] Charles Templeton, Farewell to God, My Reasons for rejecting the Christian Faith.

[8]Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation.

[9] Bernard Ramm: After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology. As a rare second personal note, I wept a little after I read this work.

[10] Neo-Orthodoxy is associated with Karl Barth, who was a theological liberal that felt theological liberalism, in dissecting the Bible provided nothing that was worth communicating. He then posited the possibility that the Bible provided a point of encounter between God and men. His thinking along with two other existentialist thinkers (particularly Emil Brunner and Rudolf Bultmann) changed the nature of liberal theology.

1 thought on “Fundamentalism is dead, Long Live Fundamentalism Part 3a: The Great Evangelical Disaster.

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

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