The release of Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism has sparked much conversation about the relationship between fundamentalism and confessional evangelicalism (sometimes referred to as conservative evangelicalism).
Is there a difference between the two positions, or are we seeing a convergence of concerns? The book’s coeditor, Andrew Naselli, has suggested that “Bauder and Mohler agree on the most substantive issues,” further suggesting that the two positions may really be the same (or very similar).
Despite this, both of the authors continue to maintain there are differences between their respective positions. Here the Baptist Bulletin interviews Kevin Bauder (representing fundamentalism) and Al Mohler (representing conservative evangelicalism), asking about the boundaries between the two groups.
Dr. Kevin Bauder
Dr. Bauder, you refer to “fundamentals” that are essential to the gospel. Are these the same as the “primary doctrines” that Dr. Mohler describes?
I think so. That’s the point at which conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists probably agree. Both groups understand that the gospel is the boundary of Christian fellowship. Both groups agree that the fundamentals are part of the gospel. Both groups agree pretty much as to what the fundamentals are. The point at which we disagree is how to handle other evangelicals who don’t see it that way.
Your chapter articulates a “mainstream fundamentalism.” How is this different than conservative evangelicalism?
First, in the readiness to accept the most recent trappings of popular culture—and to find ways to translate pop culture into Christian ministry. Evangelicals, including conservative evangelicals, are much quicker to go with the latest trends in popular culture, whereas fundamentalists seem to stick with older versions of popular culture, and seem slower to adapt to popular culture. Along with that, fundamentalists still tend to cling to revivalist taboos, such as those against alcohol or theater, a little longer than evangelicals.
In terms of theological differences, the second has to do with the acceptance of charismata. I don’t hear any fundamentalists arguing for implementation of miraculous gifts today. I don’t see fundamentalists speaking in tongues or involved in divine healing, whereas you have a significant influence within conservative evangelicalism for these activities. You have Wayne Grudem, John Piper, C. J. Mahaney—these guys are not just closet charismatics, they are known for their position on continuationism. (They may not claim to excercise miraculous gifts personally or perform them, but they do affirm continuationism.) It’s fair to say that this is a significant difference. Not only are fundamentalists not continuationists, they feel pretty strongly about it. They think it is a bigger issue rather than a smaller one. I know that I do. For example, if we start to talk about prophecy continuing today, we’ve got all sorts of problems.
The final difference—and the most definitive between Al Mohler and me—would be the question of what we do with the people that J. Gresham Machen called indifferentists, or the people who were called neoevangelicals. What do we do with people like Billy Graham? He is now off the scene, but the issue was always his approach to cooperation with religious leaders whom we would consider to be apostates—liberal theologians and Roman Catholics. He was willing to recognize them as Christians, bring them into his public campaigns, give them positions of leadership, have them pray publicly, call them Christian brethren, and send converts back into their churches. This is what Machen called indifferentism. I think the big question is, What do we do with the indifferentists?
Billy Graham is personally a very ethical and honorable man. He has preached the gospel and many have responded. This is not a personal attack on Billy Graham. But what he has done by removing the gospel as the boundary—the barrier—of Christian fellowship, I think is reprehensible. It is a very serious error, and there is no way that I am ever going to point to Billy Graham as a model of Christian leadership. There is no way that I am going to get involved, or encourage anyone to get involved, with the work he is doing.
Al Mohler has been willing to cooperate with Billy Graham and honor him on his campus. We are not willing to honor Billy Graham. We think this is a man who deserves reproof and censure for what he has done to the gospel. There are some conservative evangelicals who agree that Billy Graham is wrong, but they will not censure him.
Are there any evangelicals today who advocate the same approach as Billy Graham?
I’m reluctant to begin naming names—not because people do not deserve the designation, but because there are so many of them. There’s a whole branch of evangelicalism that is willing to draw the boundaries of Christian fellowship much more broadly than we believe the gospel allows. In the book, this is the branch represented by authors John Stackhouse and Roger Olson.
It is more important to learn the principle that the gospel is the boundary of Christian fellowship. Anyone who denies a fundamental of the faith is going to be outside the boundary of Christian fellowship. We should never recognize as a Christian anyone who denies one of these fundamental doctrines.
Conservative evangelicals seem willing to draw lines of distinction, even distancing themselves from other mainstream evangelicals. Why do they seem uncomfortable describing this as separation?
What they are doing is separation. I think they don’t like the word because they have the opinion that it has been done so badly within fundamentalism. And sometimes it has been! They don’t want to come off looking like fundamentalists. But what they are doing is certainly separation at what we would call the primary level. They clearly are doing everything they can do, including purging whole denominations and other institutions, to avoid being involved in institutional Christian fellowship with gospel deniers. They have gone out of their way to do that. At some level they are also doing a certain amount of rebuking, reproving, censuring, and even separating within the evangelical community. In many cases, the conservative evangelicals are being separated from, by people who think they are far too narrow. In one sense we are all separatists; the only question is, Who do you separate from?
Do conservative evangelicals articulate these boundaries differently than fundamentalists? D. A. Carson has used the term “center-bounded set” with lesser emphasis on who is in and who is out.
I think Dr. Carson has conflated two ideas. There are centered sets and there are bounded sets. In the book, Stackhouse and Olson are arguing that evangelicalism is a centered set. Al Mohler is arguing that it is both centered and bounded—and I agree with Mohler at that point. But I am less concerned whether evangelicalism is centered or bounded. I am more concerned with the question of whether Christianity is centered or bounded. I think it’s both. There is a hard exterior boundary. There is a firm, clear perimeter beyond which Christian fellowship becomes impossible—and that perimeter is provided by the gospel itself. So there is a boundary. And yet there is also a center, and the center is the whole counsel of God. So within the boundary of Christian fellowship, our fellowship is not “all or nothing,” and not all fellowship is created equal. The closer you are doctrinally to the center, the whole counsel of God, the greater will be the possibility that you can enjoy actual fellowship and cooperation with other people who are drawing close to the whole counsel of God. The further you are from the whole counsel of God (though still within the circle as a Christian), the more difficult it will be for you to maintain advanced levels of fellowship, cooperation, and involvement that require commitment to the whole counsel of God.
At the end of your fundamentalism chapter, you seem willing to continue discussing these issues with evangelicals. Where do you think the conversation is headed?
I don’t know. I think there are two factors coming to bear. One is that more and more of fundamentalism is being co-opted by what I call hyper-fundamentalism. We’re being slowly eroded by the hard right. That is forcing us to wake up to the fact that there were tough choices that we should have made a long time ago that we didn’t. So our hands aren’t entirely clean in the way we have conducted ourselves. Some of the blame that has been laid against us from outside fundamentalism has been merited. We deserved it.
On the other hand, the conservative evangelicals are people who have never been fundamentalists, or who are reacting against the way fundamentalism treated their parents. They have never seen what I would regard as a really robust, balanced Biblical fundamentalism. And because of that, they are working their way toward a more separatistic position from a less separatistic position. If we articulate our ideas well, I think we have the opportunity to persuade them to a better position that they might not otherwise come to.
I don’t think we’ll see any of them wanting to learn the secret fundamentalist handshake! They may never become members of “the club,” but in my mind it’s not about being members of the club. It’s about strengthening, encouraging, and challenging one another. I think we can perform that ministry to them, and I think there are areas that they can challenge us as well—areas that we have been weak, where they could help us to become stronger.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Dr. Mohler, you refer to “primary doctrines” in your chapter. Are these the same as the “fundamentals” that Dr. Bauder addresses?
I think we would expect them to be very much the same. If not expressed identically, then certainly with rather deep specificity covering the same doctrinal and theological territory, affirming the great truths of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture. And even though we may use a different terminology in the rubric—I refer to different levels of doctrine and he refers to different consequences of doctrines—it’s very much a similar approach.
Now that the book has been released, some have observed that you and Dr. Bauder share very similar positions. How would you describe your differences?
Well, I guess at the first level, the doctrinal and theological level, I would see very little distinction as I understand Kevin’s position and my own. I don’t think there should be much surprise there, because I represent the conservative roots of the evangelical movement, which were not opposed in any substantive theological way to fundamentalism, and so I think we should expect to see a great deal in common.
In reading Kevin’s chapter, I guess what would appear to be the biggest distinction would be kind of unsurprising, given the history of the evangelical and fundamentalist movements—the issue of secondary separationism. Kevin holds to the historic fundamentalist vision of separation, but I think in a very honest and thoughtful way. At the same time, thinking of what has happened in the evangelical experience, some of the same issues are having to be rethought in every generation.
At times you have distanced yourself from other evangelicals, but perhaps not described it as separation. How does that work for conservative evangelicals?
Confessional evangelicalism speaks to an historic identity. There is a certain defined reality to historic Protestantism and historic Biblical Christianity, requiring a separation from those who do not hold to those same truths. So separation has been a central part of evangelical identity from the beginning, but there has been an internal debate among evangelicals about the degree of separation that was historically described as “second degree.”
Now if I were a fundamentalist watching evangelicals have this discussion, I would accuse evangelicals of often being lax in understanding that what was once described as second degree separationism is now an issue of first degree separation. And that’s where I find myself having to rethink many of these equations. The founders of the evangelical movement clearly understood the necessity to separate from liberalism. The question and the debate was what to do with midrange questions having to do with denominationalism and cooperation, not with liberals, but with persons who did have association with liberals.
If anything has been rather tragic over the last several decades, it’s been that a good many of those who claimed not to be liberal have certainly moved in a more liberal and heretical directionСprobably at least in part because of those associations. So I think confessional and conservative evangelicals face a continuing struggle defining with whom we can work and with whom we cannot work.
Fundamentalists still criticize Billy Graham’s ecumenical evangelism. How would confessional evangelicals respond?
I like to put this question in historical context, looking at the ministry of Billy Graham in relation to crusade evangelism in the early part of the century, which grew to maturity in the middle of the 20th century. It appeared that conservative Christians and conservative Protestants had a very good chance of creating a unified movement to wrench control of the denominations away from more liberal forces. What we had in Dr. Billy Graham was not only an agenda for crusade evangelism, but also for creating an evangelical movement. So with Dr. Graham you had a constellation of organizations with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association at the center, but also Christianity Today as a magazine, you had television and radio outreach, and the desire to create this massive evangelical network. He, along with his colleagues such as Harold John Ockenga and Carl Henry, very much had that same ambition. Dr. Graham lent his encouragement to what became Fuller Theological Seminary; he served as a very important force at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for many years.
I think looking back (I want to speak with deep respect but at the same time with historical accuracy) that this movement largely failed. Certainly it failed in terms of gaining control of conservative Protestant denominations. And so decisions were made at that time and in light of that goal that now I think are very difficult to justify, just in terms of the evangelical movement, writ large.
I am at a somewhat interesting position in answering that question because I have here on my campus the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. Dr. Graham spoke at my inauguration. He had a long-standing relationship to this school and to the Southern Baptist Convention. I served as chairman of a Billy Graham Crusade here in Louisville, Ky. But I operated on the basis of my own convictions. The Graham organization agreed to work within my expectations as chairman, so we had no liberal Protestant and no Roman Catholic participation in the Billy Graham Crusade that was held here in Louisville. But this was not true everywhere. Dr. Graham played a very important role in the conservative resurgence here at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and actually did a great deal to try to help this process along, and for that I’m deeply grateful. At the same time, I would have come to some very different decisions than he did about some of the cooperative issues that became central to the identity of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and to his work.
I’m just trying to answer in a way that’s kind and clear!
Dr. Bauder has suggested this is a key difference between his position and yours.
And understandably, just given our context! I’m sure it’s not a matter of accident that I am president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which immediately identifies itself as the seminary of a Baptist denomination. And in this case, we are a denomination that has had its own history of having to recover its theological integrity. We do not define cooperation as tightly as would more independent groups or the GARBC. At the same time, the SBC is being forced by theological and historical circumstance to define those issues much more clearly. So time will tell how much distance will remain between the SBC and independent Baptists on this issue.
You end your chapter by saying “a few quick changes to our cultural context” could change the relationship between conservative evangelicals and mainstream fundamentalists. What sort of changes do you think would encourage this?
Let me put the big picture out there. I think that over the next 10 years there is going to be a radical separation between Bible-believing Christians and all others. And I think this massive divide will be driven by issues ranging from the legalization of same-sex marriage, questions of gender, questions of women serving in the church, and questions as basic as the exclusivity of the gospel and the inspiration of Scripture. And so what had once been a divide that separated, at least to some extent, fundamentalists and evangelicals at one end of the spectrum, and then evangelicals and liberals on the other, is going to be eclipsed by one massive new divide that is going to separate those willing to go to jail for the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of the gospel, and the objectivity of divine revelationСand those who are not.
Do you think that as time goes on, these societal changes will cause more problems for the mainstream and postconservative evangelical positions?
Let me just say that without a very clear commitment to Biblical inerrancy and without a very clear commitment to the objective truths contained in our confessions, then there is no anchor. I can’t predict (or shouldn’t predict) how individuals will decide when this great time of decision comes, but I think we can anticipate this somewhat. I can very clearly say that I think there are theological systems and structures of thought that simply are not adequate to prevent capitulation to the secular tide.
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin.