When Kevin Bauder was invited to contribute a chapter to Zondervan’s Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, he knew he had a difficult task. Many readers from within evangelicalism would have very little understanding of our movement.
“Fundamentalism is generally treated like the crypto-zoology of the theological world. It need not be argued against. It can simply be dismissed,” Bauder said in his introduction.
Describing his position as one of “critical sympathy,” the author marks a distinction between the “great idea” of fundamentalism and the resulting fundamentalist movement, which exhibits more than a few flaws. The following book excerpt contrasts mainstream fundamentalism with two distortions of the idea, hyper-fundamentalism and popular revivalism.
Mainstream fundamentalists find themselves in a changing situation. One factor is that what was once the mainstream may no longer be the majority within self-identified fundamentalism. A growing proportion is composed of hyper-fundamentalists, who add something to the gospel as the boundary of minimal Christian fellowship. If the idea of fundamentalism is correct, then this error is as bad as dethroning the gospel from its position as the boundary.
Another factor is that some evangelicals have implemented aspects of the idea of fundamentalism, perhaps without realizing it. For example, both Wayne Grudem and Albert Mohler (among others) have authored essays that reverberate with fundamentalist ideas. More than that, they and other conservative evangelicals have put their ideas into action, seeking doctrinal boundaries in the Evangelical Theological Society and purging Southern Baptist institutions.
Mainstream fundamentalists are coming to the conclusion that they must distance themselves from hyper-fundamentalists, and they are displaying a new openness to conversation and even some cooperation with conservative evangelicals. Younger fundamentalists in particular are sensitive to the inconsistency of limiting fellowship to their left but not to their right.
Furthermore, many fundamentalists have become impatient with revivalistic influences in their own movement. While they recognize that many revivalists genuinely love the Lord and wish to serve him, they see revivalistic methods as manipulative and pragmatic. These fundamentalists are deeply concerned about the revivalistic vision of worship, preaching, sanctification, and church leadership.
Many have grown weary of the crusading anti-Calvinism that has characterized revivalistic versions of fundamentalism. Few mainstream fundamentalists are thoroughgoing Calvinists, but many see value in some Calvinistic emphases. These fundamentalists are put off by the tendency of some revivalists to demonize even the most modest versions of Calvinism.
Furthermore, mainstream fundamentalists have rejected the anti-intellectualism that has characterized the populist wing of the movement. The days are long gone when mainstream fundamentalist schools refused accreditation. By the standards of the twenty-first century, mainstream fundamentalist institutions offer decent, postsecondary education. The better fundamentalist seminaries still lag behind evangelical schools in publication, but the level of their classroom instruction is comparable.
In recent years, mainstream fundamentalists have become sensitive to their dependence on one another. They have created forums for inter-change among institutions and leaders. They have opened partnerships and networks that would have been unthinkable a generation past. They view themselves as collaborators rather than as competitors.
Examples of such collaborative organizations include the Fellowship of Missions and the American Association of Christian Colleges and Seminaries, both of which are the leading fundamentalist organizations in their fields. The Bible Faculty Leadership Summit is an annual academic meeting that was initially organized by Bob Jones University and Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. For more than a decade, the National Leadership Conference (hosted by Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, Pa.) provided a forum for the exchange of ideas among fundamentalists.
The fact is, however, that mainstream fundamentalism is facing difficult times. Many who were once in the mainstream have drifted into the King James Only movement. Others, disgusted with the excesses of the Right or the triviality of revivalism, have left fundamentalism altogether. Today, what used to be mainstream fundamentalism is dwindling.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on one’s point of view. Many evangelicals are barely aware of the existence of fundamentalism to begin with. They would not miss it if it died. Alternatively, hyper-fundamentalists have been trying to co-opt fundamentalism for decades. The dissolution of the mainstream would give them clear title to whatever remains of the movement, though it would bear little resemblance to historic fundamentalism.
What if mainstream fundamentalism were simply to vanish? Would anyone miss it? I think the answer to that question lies in the value of the idea. In my opinion, fundamentalism is a great idea. It is a necessary idea. More important, it is a biblical idea.
To be useful, however, even the best ideas must become incarnated in practice. Such an incarnation may begin with scattered individuals here and there, but ultimately it requires more. It requires mutual recognition, exchange, and cooperation among those who hold the idea. It requires vehicles of communication and venues for taking counsel. Eventually, it requires organizations and institutions. In short, if any idea, no matter how well worth believing and perpetuating, is going to endure and to affect human lives, it requires a movement of some sort.
The idea of fundamentalism is a great idea. Whatever its flaws, mainstream fundamentalism is the best incarnation of that idea that is presently available. To be sure, the fundamentalist movement bears the marks of human shortsightedness, inconstancy, and depravity. If it were to die, however, the only alternative would be to incarnate the idea of fundamentalism in a different movement—which would also bear the marks of human shortsightedness, inconstancy, and depravity.
Some version of fundamentalism is necessary. Granted, it needs to be a chastened fundamentalism. It needs to become even more serious about worship, preaching, devotion, and holiness. It needs to become more doctrinally careful. It desperately needs to distance itself from the excesses of its worst exemplars. If it cannot rid itself of hyper-fundamentalism and revivalism, and if it cannot learn sobriety, then the fundamentalist movement probably does not deserve to survive.
What is the alternative? Those who hold the idea of fundamentalism cannot help having reservations about certain tendencies within evangelicalism. Admittedly, evangelicalism is even more diverse than fundamentalism. No individual evangelical or fundamentalist can be charged with all the faults of either movement. Still, fundamentalists register two concerns about evangelicalism in general.
The first concern is the tendency of some evangelicals to rethink and redefine the gospel. This redefinition is carried out in multiple ways. Newer theologies, such as open theism or the new perspective on Paul include teachings that threaten one or more of the fundamentals. Some evangelicals have shifted the emphasis of the gospel toward its putative social, psychological, and environmental effects, downplaying the centrality of personal guilt, penal substitution, and personal forgiveness. Some of the foregoing have begun to rethink personal conversion in favor of a rather vague notion of identifying with the work of the kingdom. Other evangelicals are reopening the issue of biblical inspiration by substituting narrative authority for propositional authority and by displaying a new openness to the more destructive perspectives of biblical criticism. Some evangelicals have even begun revising traditional moral perspectives, including (in some instances) the morality of homosexual relations. Fundamentalists see in these trends an incipient or actual denial of the gospel.
The second concern is that some evangelicals extend Christian recognition and fellowship to teachers who deny the gospel (i.e., to apostates). For example, some evangelicals have formally recognized Roman Catholics as Christians. Just as insidious is the practice of cooperative evangelism, in which evangelicals secure the sponsorship of ecumenical liberals by recognizing theologically liberal churchmen as Christian leaders. As long as some evangelicals cannot tell the difference between a person who professes the true gospel and one who denies it (i.e ., between a Christian and an apostate), fundamentalists are not likely to view those evangelicals as thoughtful or perceptive Christian leaders. In fact, fundamentalists are not likely to follow their leadership at all.
The rift between fundamentalists and other evangelicals is more than a half century old. Do we stand on the brink of rapprochement between these two groups? Might we someday have Evangelicals and Fundamentalists Together?
If the above two concerns could be addressed, I think that room would exist for conversation. Fundamentalists think that these concerns are important because the gospel is at stake in both of them. Doubtless, evangelicals have their own concerns about fundamentalism. Main-stream fundamentalist leaders are ready to hear those concerns and in many cases may actually share them.
If some mutual understanding is to be achieved, however, it cannot be for the sake of mere show or political expedience. Any mutualityСany fellowshipСmust manifest what is held in common. Unity is always a function of what unites. Fellowship is always something held in common. Any fellowship between fundamentalists and other evangelicals must grow out of what they hold jointly, and it must not ignore their differences. Wherever fundamentalists are wrong, evangelicals have a right to confront them and to ask them to abandon their errors. By the same token, wherever fundamentalists are right, they have a right to challenge evangelicals and to ask them to adopt ideas and practices that conform to Scripture. The better sort of fundamentalist will take an evangelical’s rebukes as the wounds of a friend. I hope that some evangelicals will also receive this essay as the entreaty of a brother. The idea of fundamentalism is worthy of consideration. It is capable of defense. It merits discussion. So let’s talk.
Kevin T. Bauder (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is research professor of systematic and historical theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minneapolis. This excerpt taken from Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism by Andrew David Naselli; Collin Hansen. Copyright 2011 by Andrew David Naselli, Collin Hansen, Kevin Bauder, R. Albert Mohler Jr., John G. Stackhouse Jr., and Roger E. Olson. Used by permission of Zondervan.