A New Kind of “Fundamentalism”

 i spent some time reading this article on the New York Times, entitled “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason” that was posted on several of my friends’ facebook feeds.  and i have a few thoughts.  and before i give them, just know that i don’t know any of the authors, and have no prior knowledge of their theological or political beliefs (although i think i could make a pretty accurate assessment).

i appreciate the authors’ attempt at speaking against the anti-intellectualism that is woven into fundamentalist Christianity (not to mention American culture at large). a little background on fundamentalism: fundamentalism developed around the turn of the 20th century as a result of cultural developments that were occurring across the Western world, like historical criticism and evolution, that challenged many Christians assumptions up that point.  as a result, Christian leaders created a schism between the bible and science/academia, as if these two things were incompatible, even though there were fewer conflicts between the two than anyone would acknowledge.  the created a false gulf between their understanding of Christianity and modern intellectual developments, a gulf that still persists.

moreover, they demanded that Christians make a decision between the two. either one believed that the bible was “inerrant”, a term developed for this sole purpose, or did not believe in the bible at all.  either one accepted that the universe had been created in seven literal days, or else that we were descended from monkeys solely through unguided evolution.  in order to be a true Christian, one had to subscribe to all of the tenets of fundamentalism, or admit that they were godless.  again, these choices were based on false dichotomies, but nonetheless, had a potently divisive effect on American culture, and Christianity as a whole, the effects of which still reverberate to this day.  Christians felt compelled to choose one of two sides, when no such two sides existed.  fundamentalism was a showcase of the danger of humans creating false theological and cultural dichotomies and demanding that others impossibly choose a side.

and this is exactly what the authors of this little piece are doing as well.  let me explain:

the title of the article is called “evangelical rejection of reason”.  but strangely, the main criticism of the author seems to be directed towards fundamentalists, some of whom are evangelical, some of whom are not.  even by their own admission they say that “evangelicalism at its best” is somehow distinct from “fundamentalism”.  so who has rejected reason, evangelicals, or fundamentalists?  are they distinct and opposite camps, like sides of an army?  no, the truth is that you cannot so easily separate the term evangelical from fundamentalist, because there is some degree of overlap between these two groups, more so than they would like to admit.  this is a very sloppy title for a topic that is so very nuanced.  i would expect such semantic sloppiness from non-Christians who aren’t aware of the differences, but for mature Christians who teach at a seminary level?  not so much.

in the same way, reason is not the same thing as science.  science is a discipline through which we use reason, among other intellectual tools, to distinguish the origin and mechanism of the world around us.  they are obviously related, but not the same.  although i’m sure that many would disagree, someone can be reasonable and yet skeptical of the authority and reach of science.  that’s one of the principle generalizations that westerners repeatedly make of other cultures: a muslim fundamentalist is reasonable within their own cognitive schema – it’s just that their schema is fundamentally different from our own, not that they are madmen.  so what exactly would they have people choose between, evangelicalism and fundamentalism?  science, or reason?  is anyone able to make a conscious choice between these options?  do we have to?

and the messy and false generalizations continue.  the authors make repeated mention of the issue of gay marriage, again, in the context of the evangelical rejection of reason.  what this means then, is that Christians who believe in a traditional view of marriage have abandoned reason, or are not evangelicals – they have gone to the dark side of fundamentalism.  but i know many evangelical Christians who are very reasonable, well-educated, even the top of their scientific field…but don’t support gay marriage.  clearly, you cannot so cleanly say that reasonable Christian evangelicals all support gay marriage, because some do, while others do not, another false dichotomy created by the authors.

and these dichotomies are then used to impose a strange choice upon the reader: in order to be the reasonable Christian evangelical that they ostensibly believe themselves to be, you must pick a side…but based upon those false assumptions mentioned above.  in other words, you must be pro-evangelical but anti-fundamentalist (because you can’t be both!), not only reasonable but never doubt science’s authority (because anyone who is reasonable never doubts science), and pro-gay marriage (…just because).  otherwise, you are nothing but an unreasonable and backwards fundamentalist, a perverter of the true gospel – no way around it, really.  and the repeated name dropping used in the article is full evidence of this “choose-your-side” mentality: who do you follow, james dobson or francis collins?  sojourners or focus on the family?  quick, choose your affiliation and make your loyalties known!  it’s funny – i wonder if francis collins himself would feel comfortable being named as a foil to conservative Christian leaders?  i somehow doubt it.

and now, think back to the fundamentalism problem of the early 1900’s, how they told everyone that certain ideas and mentalities were altogether incompatible with one another, and that you had to choose between them in order to distinguish yourself as a true Christian.  how exactly is that different from what i am reading in this article?  it’s not, not really.  this is just fundamentalism of a different type, with a different theological and political point of view.

people often say that two ideas or mentalities are completely incompatible with one another, and make this argument fairly convincingly.  but always double check that this is really true, because more often than not, they are to some degree creating false divisions between terms and ideas that are not diametrically opposed to one another.  the truth is that there is a great deal of ideological and political diversity in the body of Christ – there are true Christians who serve in the military, true Christians who support gay marriage, true Christians who are anti-abortion, true Christians who are creationists, true Christians who are evolutionists.  be extremely cautious with anyone tries to tell you that their unique understanding of faith exemplifies what it means to be a true Christian, whether they be a “fundamentalist” or a “liberal”, because the only way they can say that is by drawing arbitrary lines between principles that truthfully may be profoundly different, and yet, have some intersection.

likewise, don’t give in to their attempts to make you choose sides based on those faulty assumptions, to divide Christians against one another, as if one side has no strong association with the other.  that is exactly what fundamentalists did over a century ago, and obviously what people continue to do now.  if Jesus is God, and your Lord and Savior, then you are a Christian.  that is the most basic definition of a follower of Christ.  and the profound differences that exist between those who follow Christ are natural and expected, and will be made clear to us when Christ comes again.  this isn’t to say that some Christians cleave closer to the gospel than others, because clearly there are those who by their actions and beliefs show that they have no understanding of who Christ truly is, i.e. Westboro Baptist.  but to expect total ideological and cultural homogeneity between all parts of the Body of Christ is unreasonable for anyone to assume.  we should not be forced to pick between jim wallis and james dobson – i love both of those men for different reasons, and disagree with both of them for other reasons.  i’m quite sure that i will see both men in heaven one day, at the feet of Christ.  and i’m quite sure that neither of them know who the heck i am.

let’s not go through the whole fundamentalism thing again, in one form or another.  and we can only avoid that calamity if “reasonable” “Christians” reject false and messy dichotomies that are used to divide us messily against one another.

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7 thoughts on “A New Kind of “Fundamentalism”

  1. I guess I would be a “Fundamentalist” in the sense in which you have defined it. I think that I am a little more convinced than you apparently are that the Modernist / Fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th Century did involve some pretty significant issues. In particular I am especially impressed by J. Gresham Machen’s argument in Christianity and Liberalism. His thesis was that Christianity and Liberalism are two different things. Christianity, as preached by the apostles, is a supernatural redemptive religion based on divine revelation. Liberalism was a naturalistic philosophy of life based on reason and belief in human progress. Some of Machen’s opponents, such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, certainly thought that there was a significant difference as well.

    1. hi bob! hmm, at least for the purposes of this writing, my definition of “fundamentalist” would be someone who uses false dichotomies to force people into false decisions regarding their faith – obviously not the classic definition of fundamentalism, but the one that is most appropriate for this piece alone, and so would apply equally to both classic Fundamentalists or modern Liberals.

      i don’t disagree that the fundamentalism of the early 20th century did involve very important ideas, and was a reaction against some very unsavory developments both intellectually and culturally. where i would disagree with you is in machen’s definition of both Christianity and Liberalism. Christianity is a certainly a supernatural redemptive religion, based on divine revelation…and natural revelation, and one that we use some degree of reason to apprehend and appreciate. Liberalism is a naturalistic philosophy of life based on reason and belief in human progress, but that does not inherently violate God’s ability to work through natural processes that he himself has designed, nor does it necessarily mean that human reason cannot be used to humbly understand God’s good purposes and creation more clearly. when both terms are defined more fully, these two ideas are no longer in diametric opposition, but actually have more intersection than previously thought.

      surely machen’s understanding of both was accurate to a point, but in my estimation, incomplete. and incomplete definitions of ideas and terms are just as dangerous as inaccurate ones because they can be used to create convincing and yet false dichotomies between beliefs that are not actually incompatible. i don’t think this necessarily means that we need to water down the gospel in order to accommodate every crazy belief out there, but that we should have the humility to recognize the possibility that we may not understand everything as clearly and completely as we think we do. i believe then that a fundamentalist is someone who purposely limits their definition of their faith and the faith of others in order to create a clearer gulf between the two.

      1. The context of Machen’s book was the “Five Fundamentals” adopted by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910 and reaffirmed in 1916 and again (just barely) in 1923. The Five Fundamentals were: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture, 2) the virgin birth, 3) the vicarious atonement, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and 5) the miracles recorded in the Bible. Machen said that Liberalism was “naturalistic” in the sense that it denied “any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity.” (2009 Eerdman ed., p. 2). He then went on to discuss six areas where he thought that historic Christian orthodoxy and modern Liberalism differed from each other: their conception of God, the fact of sin, the Bible, the Person of Christ, the way of salvation, and the church. Most of these issues revolved around what the historical Jesus actually said and did in first century Palestine. It is kind of hard to avoid a “dichotomy’ over historical facts! RWW

      2. hi bob! hm, i don’t disagree with most of what you are saying. i think a good way to ascertain someone’s understanding of the gospel is how they understand the life of Jesus, and whether they just see him as a social teacher or what he truly is, which is the Son of God. so i would wholeheartedly agree with your final point, that in some way, the historicity of the gospel narratives and the works of Jesus is an important acid test of faith. i think how i stated it was that what makes a person a Christian in that they believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and their Lord and Savior, which implies they believe that Jesus really did what he purported to do.

        BUT.

        when it comes to the five fundamentals, they were really four fundamentals, plus a huge footnote. four of the fundamentals were biblical events or concepts at least, which most evangelicals support. but inerrancy is not a biblical event or term, but rather a unique method of hermeneutic. it was created in that time period for this express purpose, and in essence gave fundamentalists the ability to take any passage of Scripture and add it to the list of fundamentals – a literal 7 day creation, Mosaic authorship of the Torah, specific interpretations of the eschatology, and on and on and on. now, it was not just whether you believed in the four fundamentals, but all the other concepts that had been added according the inerrancy hermeneutic. and that’s where the dichotomy began. now, a person could begin the resurrection of Christ and the miracles of Scripture, but if they thought that God used the miraculous mechanism of evolution to create all life, then they were a liberal who doubted God’s ability to create. and i don’t think that’s fair, at least coming from someone who personally believes that evolution is a miracle of God that does not discount all the other miracles of God in the least.

        sooo…all of this to say that some form of dichotomy and differentiation is okay and even appropriate, but dichotomy that is man-made and expressly used to divide Believers according to arbitrary lines is not. we should be wise in our faithfulness to the former, and cautiously self-aware in our avoidance of the latter.

  2. Of course the two big issues that inspired the Modernist / Fundamentalist debate were Evolution and the Higher Criticism of the Bible. On the first issue I have to confess I am a little baffled by your phrase “the miraculous mechanism of evolution.” The whole point of Darwinism is that there is nothing miraculous about evolution — the whole thing can be explained by a natural process. Historically theological Liberals who advocated “Theistic Evolution” held to some form of Idealistic philosophy (e.g. Hegel), but hardly anyone is an Idealist today in that sense. As for evolution itself you may want to take a look at the review I wrote of Jerry Coyne’s book — it’s on my blog (The Berean Observer).
    As for inerrancy, it is generally taken to be a logical corollary of plenary, verbal inspiration. The question here is, is what the Bible says about its own origin true? My own view on the authorship of the Torah is that it was probably written in the form in which we have it now by Samuel for King Saul at the beginning of the monarchy, and the it incorporates documents, many of them from the hand of Moses himself, that were kept at the tabernacle. So the question is, did Moses really say all the things that the Torah says he says? Did God actually speak at Mt. Sinai and write the Ten Commandments down on the tablets of stone?
    Machen himself disliked the term “Fundamentalist” because he thought it implied that Christianity could be stripped down to a few essential points. Machen’s point was this: if the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then we are responsible to believe and practice all of it. We are, of course, saved by faith, and this is why I won’t be surprised if I see Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth in heaven. But that does not mean that there were not serious flaws in the theology of both. In fact, the common underlying problem with both (and with St. Augustine and Jonathan Edwards, to mention two of my own personal heroes) is that they tried to import too much secular philosophy into their theology, instead of relying on the simple exegesis of Scripture.

    Bob Wheeler

    1. hm, some good points bob, and i don’t think our thoughts are too far from one another really.

      i’m not qualified to reply to much of what you shared, but i will share my understanding of modern evolution, which is slightly different from early Darwinism of the turn of the past century. from a scientific perspective, there are a few “naturalistic” phenomenon that evolution is based on: genetic drift, mutation, natural selection, stuff like that. and someone with a purely naturalistic (and i emphasize that word) understanding of evolution believes that those mechanisms are what make evolution work. but even those people would admit that those mechanisms are not sufficient to explain the diversity of natural life, and the uniquely suited characteristics that life has. in other words, evolution, even from a purely naturalistic and scientific perspective, is something of a miracle. now, no scientist would explain it that way, but would rather say that there is some mechanism of evolution that has yet to be discovered. so the fact is that the whole thing cannot be explained as a natural process. that is the point that francis collins makes in his book, the language of God.

      it’s been good rapping with you!

Comments are closed.

A New Kind of “Fundamentalism”

 i spent some time reading this article on the New York Times, entitled “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason” that was posted on several of my friends’ facebook feeds.  and i have a few thoughts.  and before i give them, just know that i don’t know any of the authors, and have no prior knowledge of their theological or political beliefs (although i think i could make a pretty accurate assessment). Continue reading “A New Kind of “Fundamentalism””

7 thoughts on “A New Kind of “Fundamentalism”

  1. I guess I would be a “Fundamentalist” in the sense in which you have defined it. I think that I am a little more convinced than you apparently are that the Modernist / Fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th Century did involve some pretty significant issues. In particular I am especially impressed by J. Gresham Machen’s argument in Christianity and Liberalism. His thesis was that Christianity and Liberalism are two different things. Christianity, as preached by the apostles, is a supernatural redemptive religion based on divine revelation. Liberalism was a naturalistic philosophy of life based on reason and belief in human progress. Some of Machen’s opponents, such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, certainly thought that there was a significant difference as well.

    1. hi bob! hmm, at least for the purposes of this writing, my definition of “fundamentalist” would be someone who uses false dichotomies to force people into false decisions regarding their faith – obviously not the classic definition of fundamentalism, but the one that is most appropriate for this piece alone, and so would apply equally to both classic Fundamentalists or modern Liberals.

      i don’t disagree that the fundamentalism of the early 20th century did involve very important ideas, and was a reaction against some very unsavory developments both intellectually and culturally. where i would disagree with you is in machen’s definition of both Christianity and Liberalism. Christianity is a certainly a supernatural redemptive religion, based on divine revelation…and natural revelation, and one that we use some degree of reason to apprehend and appreciate. Liberalism is a naturalistic philosophy of life based on reason and belief in human progress, but that does not inherently violate God’s ability to work through natural processes that he himself has designed, nor does it necessarily mean that human reason cannot be used to humbly understand God’s good purposes and creation more clearly. when both terms are defined more fully, these two ideas are no longer in diametric opposition, but actually have more intersection than previously thought.

      surely machen’s understanding of both was accurate to a point, but in my estimation, incomplete. and incomplete definitions of ideas and terms are just as dangerous as inaccurate ones because they can be used to create convincing and yet false dichotomies between beliefs that are not actually incompatible. i don’t think this necessarily means that we need to water down the gospel in order to accommodate every crazy belief out there, but that we should have the humility to recognize the possibility that we may not understand everything as clearly and completely as we think we do. i believe then that a fundamentalist is someone who purposely limits their definition of their faith and the faith of others in order to create a clearer gulf between the two.

      1. The context of Machen’s book was the “Five Fundamentals” adopted by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910 and reaffirmed in 1916 and again (just barely) in 1923. The Five Fundamentals were: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture, 2) the virgin birth, 3) the vicarious atonement, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and 5) the miracles recorded in the Bible. Machen said that Liberalism was “naturalistic” in the sense that it denied “any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity.” (2009 Eerdman ed., p. 2). He then went on to discuss six areas where he thought that historic Christian orthodoxy and modern Liberalism differed from each other: their conception of God, the fact of sin, the Bible, the Person of Christ, the way of salvation, and the church. Most of these issues revolved around what the historical Jesus actually said and did in first century Palestine. It is kind of hard to avoid a “dichotomy’ over historical facts! RWW

      2. hi bob! hm, i don’t disagree with most of what you are saying. i think a good way to ascertain someone’s understanding of the gospel is how they understand the life of Jesus, and whether they just see him as a social teacher or what he truly is, which is the Son of God. so i would wholeheartedly agree with your final point, that in some way, the historicity of the gospel narratives and the works of Jesus is an important acid test of faith. i think how i stated it was that what makes a person a Christian in that they believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and their Lord and Savior, which implies they believe that Jesus really did what he purported to do.

        BUT.

        when it comes to the five fundamentals, they were really four fundamentals, plus a huge footnote. four of the fundamentals were biblical events or concepts at least, which most evangelicals support. but inerrancy is not a biblical event or term, but rather a unique method of hermeneutic. it was created in that time period for this express purpose, and in essence gave fundamentalists the ability to take any passage of Scripture and add it to the list of fundamentals – a literal 7 day creation, Mosaic authorship of the Torah, specific interpretations of the eschatology, and on and on and on. now, it was not just whether you believed in the four fundamentals, but all the other concepts that had been added according the inerrancy hermeneutic. and that’s where the dichotomy began. now, a person could begin the resurrection of Christ and the miracles of Scripture, but if they thought that God used the miraculous mechanism of evolution to create all life, then they were a liberal who doubted God’s ability to create. and i don’t think that’s fair, at least coming from someone who personally believes that evolution is a miracle of God that does not discount all the other miracles of God in the least.

        sooo…all of this to say that some form of dichotomy and differentiation is okay and even appropriate, but dichotomy that is man-made and expressly used to divide Believers according to arbitrary lines is not. we should be wise in our faithfulness to the former, and cautiously self-aware in our avoidance of the latter.

  2. Of course the two big issues that inspired the Modernist / Fundamentalist debate were Evolution and the Higher Criticism of the Bible. On the first issue I have to confess I am a little baffled by your phrase “the miraculous mechanism of evolution.” The whole point of Darwinism is that there is nothing miraculous about evolution — the whole thing can be explained by a natural process. Historically theological Liberals who advocated “Theistic Evolution” held to some form of Idealistic philosophy (e.g. Hegel), but hardly anyone is an Idealist today in that sense. As for evolution itself you may want to take a look at the review I wrote of Jerry Coyne’s book — it’s on my blog (The Berean Observer).
    As for inerrancy, it is generally taken to be a logical corollary of plenary, verbal inspiration. The question here is, is what the Bible says about its own origin true? My own view on the authorship of the Torah is that it was probably written in the form in which we have it now by Samuel for King Saul at the beginning of the monarchy, and the it incorporates documents, many of them from the hand of Moses himself, that were kept at the tabernacle. So the question is, did Moses really say all the things that the Torah says he says? Did God actually speak at Mt. Sinai and write the Ten Commandments down on the tablets of stone?
    Machen himself disliked the term “Fundamentalist” because he thought it implied that Christianity could be stripped down to a few essential points. Machen’s point was this: if the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then we are responsible to believe and practice all of it. We are, of course, saved by faith, and this is why I won’t be surprised if I see Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth in heaven. But that does not mean that there were not serious flaws in the theology of both. In fact, the common underlying problem with both (and with St. Augustine and Jonathan Edwards, to mention two of my own personal heroes) is that they tried to import too much secular philosophy into their theology, instead of relying on the simple exegesis of Scripture.

    Bob Wheeler

    1. hm, some good points bob, and i don’t think our thoughts are too far from one another really.

      i’m not qualified to reply to much of what you shared, but i will share my understanding of modern evolution, which is slightly different from early Darwinism of the turn of the past century. from a scientific perspective, there are a few “naturalistic” phenomenon that evolution is based on: genetic drift, mutation, natural selection, stuff like that. and someone with a purely naturalistic (and i emphasize that word) understanding of evolution believes that those mechanisms are what make evolution work. but even those people would admit that those mechanisms are not sufficient to explain the diversity of natural life, and the uniquely suited characteristics that life has. in other words, evolution, even from a purely naturalistic and scientific perspective, is something of a miracle. now, no scientist would explain it that way, but would rather say that there is some mechanism of evolution that has yet to be discovered. so the fact is that the whole thing cannot be explained as a natural process. that is the point that francis collins makes in his book, the language of God.

      it’s been good rapping with you!

Comments are closed.