Fundamentalism is Dead, Long Live Fundamentalism Part 4: The Death of the Fundamentalist Movement

The old saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The saying itself implies the central lesson of history itself: people universally die, nation states are dissolved, and nothing survives under the sun. This is true of Church history as well, and will remain true until He comes.

The sad fact of life is that all human beings have feet of clay. Church history records numerous movements that begin with great promise, despite human frailties and failings. In the end, however, that promise often appears unfulfilled. This is in fact the case with “Old Fundamentalism.”

If a vase falls to the ground and shatters, the various shards do not change their composition – the shards are still made of the same material – but what you have is no longer a vase. Fundamentalism, as I noted in part two was a “big tent” movement, focused on the defense of the faith, itself. Many Fundamentalists were still “earnestly contending” but it was difficult to say it was the faith as a whole they were contending for. After the Fundamentalist/Evangelical controversy started, it devolved into a series of camps, many at war with one another over secondary and tertiary issues. This is not to suggest that all fundamentalists were the contentious, anti-intellectual bigots of popular mythology – this is a stereotype, and the only reason why this particular stereotype persists is that American rejection of stereotypical thinking is highly selective. Nevertheless, there were numerous battles in the late period of Fundamentalism, the period in which my own exposure to Fundamentalism began.

Many of these battles were over issues that were secondary, discussions of issues such as music, some of the less extreme discussions of the version debate,[1] etc. Even worse, some camps of Fundamentalism devolved into personality cults, some Fundamentalist leaders, such as Jack Hyles even encouraged this kind idol worship. Secondary issues similarly led to discussions of who was an “authentic” fundamentalist, discussions of Pseudo-fundamentalism and hyper-fundamentalism also began to appear. Many argued that real Fundamentalists must reject all forms of Calvinism, others, equally vehemently, argued only five point Calvinists were real fundamentalists.[2] In the end there were numerous discussions of restoring a more authentic Fundamentalism.[3]

In the early twentieth century, Fundamentalism was a rejection of the growth of theological liberalism, in the late twentieth century it was about Church music. This is not to say a conservative approach to music is wrong,[4] but a conservative approach in issues such as music is not central to the Christian faith; one cannot discuss a movement founded on chiefly peripheral things.

There are many good fundamentalists left, perhaps, but it is no longer possible to speak of a Fundamentalism. This article is not a repudiation of all who stand within the later Fundamentalist tradition, or of the underlying nature of Fundamentalism itself.[5] When I discuss the death of Fundamentalism I am suggesting that the vase is broken, and there is no longer a Fundamentalist movement, as such.

History lessons are fun, but they must have a point to be useful. I’ve discussed why the old Fundamentalism is dead. Now its time to finally shift gears and see why we need Fundamentalism again.

            [1] I say less extreme because some of the more aggressive elements of the King James Only movement have crossed the line into heresy. To argue that the King James is “reinspired” or “corrects the Greek” is to either argue that God did no inspire it correctly the first time or argue that He did not, in fact, preserve His Word for a millennium or so.

[2] A classmate of mine in my graduate school years, in his father’s newspaper ran a series of articles claiming that Bob Jones had departed from the faith. Two of the major contentions underlying this charge was that BJU was not using the Textus Receptus in Greek classrooms and that BJU was not Calvinistic enough.

[3] Douglas McLachlan wrote a book entitled Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism which caused a lot of discussion when I was a student at Bob Jones. The title itself suggests something has been lost, and needs revision.

[4] For decades I rejected the central argument raised for changes in our approach to music in corporate worship partially on the grounds that the major argument raised by those associated with “CCM” (arguments that music was amoral or that it was merely a matter of taste) was an example of the logical fallacy known as “begging the question,” and because our culture had a long-running association between “rock” and a lifestyle of illicit sex, drug/alcohol abuse, and rebellion – attitudes that are not fit company to Christian worship. This was shaped by a number of unbelievers who argued Christians were hypocrites for listening to “Christian Rock,” including a few editorials I read in the 90s. My approach changed as I engaged Millennials on apologetics boards on facebook who clearly did not understand the association between “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll,” in this sense then, this connection no longer exists. Cultures change. I do not believe one can still effectively argue that the values of the Rock subculture are any different from the values of society as a whole. From this point, my major concern in music would be the conscience of believers, as Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14

[5]In most senses I still consider myself a Fundamentalist. My approach to certain aspects of life has changed not because my theology has changed – there has only been one significant shift in my Systematic theology in the past decade, and it is a shift most people would likely not understand since it is in the obscure discussion of the basis for theology in the first place – but my practice and application of that theology has changed due to what I believe to be rapid changes in Western culture over the past two decades. My argument in rejecting a war with Evangelicals, as noted last time, is not a rejection of Fundamentalist teaching on separation, I believe Fundamentalists were probably right to reject Ockenga’s new Evangelicalism in the 50’s, rather it is the realization that Fundamentalists have misunderstood Evangelicals since the 70s. The Evangelicalism of today is significantly different from that of the 50’s and must be treated as such. This article took additional time to write, first because I’m preparing for classes at Southern Seminary and this takes up a lot of my time. But, secondarily, and more importantly, saying Fundamentalism has died in any sense is intensely personal, I am, after all, an heir of that movement.

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