Fundamentalists Flop-flipping

Steven Waldman, editor of Beliefnet, recently sat down with Rick Warren for an interview, and in the midst of that interview Rick Warren said a negative thing or two about the social gospel. Waldman’s had several posts about the interview.  Paul Rauschenbush, grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the social gospel, came out swinging and I thought Paul was unfair to Warren and needlessly trashed him. So I pushed back on his blog … and was I surprised by the response of the so-called liberals. They sounded worse than fundamentalists, which gives me a chance to speak about an issue I’ve observed: fundamentalist flip-flopping.

One the best things about growing up fundamentalist is that we absolutely knew we were on God’s side or perhaps it is better to say that God was on our side. Knowing God is on your side breeds confidence as well as other things … and I want to have a conversation today about those other things.  I’m not concerned today about what a fundamentalist believes. Facts clearly show that fundamentalists and evangelicals and Catholics and orthodox Christians believe many of the same things. What I’ve tried a number of times to do is to think my way into why it is that many get upset with fundamentalists. What is it?


Zeal, too much of it. Relentless zeal. Imposing zeal. Absolute confidence in everything they think is important.

Here’s what I have observed: my experience shows that former and anti-fundamentalists can be just as fundamentalistic — zealous and absolute — about their anti-fundamentalism and new-found beliefs. In other words, they absolutely confident liberalism is another form of fundamentalism.

These anti-fundamentalists (and anti-evangelicals) can be just as confident and cocky that they’ve got it all figured out. That they stand high above the rest in their perceptions of truth. They can be just as zealous for their new convictions, some of them petty. Once they saw all non-fundamentalists in danger of perdition, now they find everyone who doesn’t fight for the cause they believe in as hopeless or apathetic or non-Christian. I call this fundamentalist flop-flipping, from being a pro-fundamentalist fundamentalist to being an anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist.

There’s some good news here. I don’t believe we need to say “once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist.” No, God mercifully grants us grace to find a different way, a third way, the way of grace and love that can hold firmly to one’s viewpoint and yet treat the other with respect and dignity.

At the bottom of the problem many of us have with fundamentalists is the lack of grace or mercy or — and I’d prefer this term the best — love. Jesus taught his followers something that can reshape anyone from zeal-spirited fundamentalism, whether on the rebound or not. He taught them that the whole law hung from two basic commands:

Love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself.

I call this The Jesus Creed
and the discovery of the importance of this Creed to Jesus can reshape more how we live and relate to others than what we believe. Love has the power to reshape fundamentalists from the inside out. I’ve met plenty of them.

Fundamentalist or not, this is what Jesus wants of us: to love God and to love others. No one who loves God and loves others lives in that angry spiritedness, flop-flipper or not.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://schooleyfiles.com Keith Schooley

    Very very good points here. It seems to me that the fundamentalistic impulse–which I might define in this context as love for an idea or position to the exclusion of love toward people who may be in opposition to that idea or position–is a trait of the person who has that impulse, rather than a trait of the ideas or positions that that person holds. We tend to blame the ideas or positions, rather than the person; but such conversions as you discuss reveal that it is the person, rather than the idea, that is the source of the lack of love. Good stuff.

  • MattR

    Scot,
    As a ‘recovering fundamentalist’ I agree…
    I’ve seen people come out of fundamentalism only to be just as fundamentalist about their new, more ‘liberal,’ beliefs… It’s all about love (or lack of love)!
    As one who came out of that world (thankfully)… I’d also add, people often have issues with ‘fundies’ being so insulated. Their view is the only view, and any view to be valid must show how it matches up with their one true view… It’s truly a closed system. Makes for any dialogue very difficult!

  • Jeremiah Daniels

    I have to agree too. I’ve seen the transition of myself and still find that habit appear at the worst moments.
    Though, at the least, I recognize that its not what I _want_ to do.
    What I _want_ is to help people. I just have to understand that not everyone wants my help. Even if I sugar-coat it by saying its not me but Jesus.

  • James Petticrew

    I know that many friends who attended certain Universities’ Divinity School here in Scotland found themselves under very heavy “fundamentalist” attack by some of their lecturers simply for saying they were evangelical. Any devation or questioning of the standard liberal approach to anything whether in question or in essays was slapped down hard. No evangelical works of scholarship could be quoted in academic papers.
    In contrast I attended an evangelical college where we read the works of liberals in biblical studies and theology and would have been marked down for not interacting with their arguments and not just negatively.
    I wondered which institution was truly liberal?

  • http://alanreynolds.wordpress.com Alan

    I believe it was the first of McLaren’s trilogy where he referenced (in veiled narrative form) this same idea. The quote was something along the lines of liberals just being fundamentalists with different beliefs. It’s true. The same narrow, always-right dogmatism comes from just about every one of us, liberal, conservative, in-between, Christian, non-Christians, atheist, etc. We all need grace and a lesson on love.

  • EHG

    I have noticed in myself a sort of fundamentalist-type of attitude about my own positions when responding to fundamentalists. In me, I think it arises from years of anger dealing with those who are close-minded. I want to prove just how wrong they are, and, deep down inside, probably want them to “taste some of their own medicine.” This impulse is obviously not consistent with the way of Jesus, but sometimes it is hard to fight.

  • joel garver

    In Proper Confidence, Newbigin diagnoses fundamentalism and liberalism as sharing some common historical roots, cultural shape, and conceptual assumptions. The application here, I guess, is that the modernist quest for absolute certainty seems to lead to either dogmatic absolutism (for fundamentalism) or absolutist anti-dogmatism (for liberalism).

  • Bob Brague

    I think the basic premise, that all anti-fundamentalists were formerly pro-fundamentalists (whether stated just that way or not), is wrong. Not all rabidly liberal people came out of a rabid fundamentalism. Some grew up in and have always been around rabidly liberal teaching and accept it as the air they breathe. Same thing for the fundies.
    Still, I will give you that a former anything (smoker, for example) usually reserves his or her most vitrolic attacks for those who still hold to his or her “former” beliefs/behavior/habits/ways of thinking.

  • Scott Lyons

    It’s true of converts to ancient traditions too. I often wrestle against this very thing. But this is why Christ calls us to constant conversion, isn’t it? For the Spirit to work in me, often through brothers and sisters in community, to make me “by grace all that Christ is by nature.” To love God and to love others.
    Let me give an odd (for many here) but very real example: As Catholics we believe that holy Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ – no metaphor, but mysterious reality. As US Catholics we are allowed to receive Christ in our hands, but across the world it is the normative Catholic experience to receive on the tongue. Almost everyone in my parish receive in their hands. I like to receive on my tongue (it makes me a better Catholic ;) ). What I’ve come to realize is that my receiving on the tongue makes those distributing the Eucharist (except for our priest) very nervous (it’s a tongue, man!). And so unless I’m receiving from the priest, I try to receive in my hands so that that person’s worship is not disrupted by my demands.
    This is one example in many that I could point to of a heart that becomes Catholic yet still has its roots in zealotry. We sit and judge liturgies and priests because they fail in one respect or another (and I am all for liturgical reform), and we end up calling down judgment upon ourselves for having failed to love our brothers and our sisters. We turn away from mercy and thus make ourselves unable to receive Christ’s.
    Judgment and love are both enormous possibilities. So enormous that one crowds the other out of our hearts, there is not room enough there for both heaven and hell.

  • Scot McKnight

    Bob Brague,
    You say: “I think the basic premise, that all anti-fundamentalists were formerly pro-fundamentalists (whether stated just that way or not)”.
    I do not say this so it is not a premise; it is your statement.
    My point is that some of those who were formerly fundamentalist, when they become non-fundamentalists, are still just as much fundamentalistic in approach.
    And brother: quit being so crabby.

  • Dan

    Seems it would be helpful to define fundamentalism. It is a word that has completely lost a fixed meaning and seems to be used mostly as a “connotation” word, describing rigid belief systems imposed on others. “Islamic fundamentalists” who engage in acts of killing civilians are thus easily equated with “Christian fundamentalists” who espouse a rigid morality.
    But fundamentalism didn’t used to be defined that way. It originally meant simply one who held to certain “fundamental” truths that were unique to historic Christianity. Included in the fundamentals was a belief in the resurrection, in the deity of Christ and the virgin birth as a corrolary to it, in the trinitarian nature of God, and for J. Gresham Machen and others, it did include the inerrancy of scripture, but only in the original autographs, not the copies, not the translations and not every contested interpretation of minor doctrine.
    I wonder why so many in the Christian community have succumbed to this redefinition of what was a fairly useful word. I also wonder if this redefinition only serves to make intelligent discussion of matters like this impossible – everybody has filled the word with a particular negative meaning, everyone assumes they mean the same thing by it, but nobody really stops to define it.
    And for the record, it does make me angry, because I do see the foundations crumbling in the chaos that results from all definitions being redefined in the postmodern impulse.

  • Scot McKnight

    Dan,
    Good comment. Over the years I have thought about this and, no matter what we want to say, we can’t control the connotations of a word. I, for one, grieve what happened to “emerging” since I think that had the potential to become an evocative, useful, and accurate term. Many today use that word with the same kind of snarl that others use with the term fundamentalist.
    Now, two points: (1) I’m not entirely sure, though I could be wrong, that the word “fundamentalist” was ever as gentle, useful and descriptive of a term that you suggest — my read of those days when it arose was that the term even the connoted strong, even fierce, polemics and it probably always had some senses of populist and even backwater; (2) the fierceness of the fundamentalist debate and the overt, conscious and even proud anti-intellectualism of the movement by many of its leaders have led to it being a negative term these days. It is not just the critics. (Dan, the same applies, sadly, to the word “emerging.”)

  • Rick

    I may be wrong here, but there seems to be a sense of surprise in this post. Why is that?
    Perhaps the zeal of the fundamentalists is more evident initally. Maybe they are more apt to wear it on their sleeves.
    Meanwhile, the anti-funds are initally more subtle. However, their zeal begins to show up as time goes by, especially when challenged.
    We see this in numerous ways outside of theology: education (especially higher education), scholarship, media, etc… Some of the “open mind” proponents have a very limited definition of that term.

  • Scott Lyons

    Dan, I think you’re right in that we have broadened the definition of fundamentalism and that it is used in all manner of ways. I often do this and need to watch myself (or find a more suitable word) – I use it to describe literalism, judgmentalism, zealotry – more about perceived truth than love (as I often find in myself). But even originally I’m not so sure that fundamentalism wasn’t the nut of what is today’s tree – it was a way of seeing the Scriptures and a reaction against and rejection of those who did not see the Scriptures the same way. And while many of the original “fundamentalists” did adhere to much of the historic faith (as most still do) there were and are many things that were not the faith passed on. I think, wrestling with this still, that it began (not that it was new) viewing others as other rather than as Christ. Additionally, having a kind of “believe or burn” attitude about the world around them, and being okay with the “burn” part of it. That’s extreme and a generalization, I realize, but it’s what I see in me, anyway.

  • http://trevinwax.com Trevin Wax

    Scot,
    Terrific insight here. If we think of fundamentalists as an ethos or attitude, then we can truly find people of this persuasion on both sides of the political and denominational aisle.
    I guess now, even as you point out the fundamentalists flop-flippers, we’ve got to make sure we don’t adopt the same attitude ourselves…

  • Rick

    follow-up to #14:
    Perhaps the message and causes each group champions is another reason the zealotry is seen differently (initially).

  • Scott Lyons

    I forget to add, fundamentalists are not, either, the bogeyman. They are brothers and sisters. This is a struggle in each one of us, to judge rather than to love – and we do ourselves no favor by talking about “those fundamentalists” or “those liberals” or “those others.” We can certainly disagree with others and think them mistaken, but we must not judge them.

  • Nathan

    I’m sure though that people can see the irony of RW “trashing” the “social gospel”.
    I have to wonder if RW is trying to get some kind of cred back with the more conservative wing of the SBC, etc. etc. Since they’ve been good at trashing him the last few years.
    At the end of the day, the real question for me though is:
    How does one communicate passion without playing into a general reaction against any “strong position” precisely because of the fundamentalist “resistance” in the culture (of whatever stripe)?

  • Dan

    Scot. You are certainly right that at the time there was a connotation with the word in Machen’s day that did even cause Francis Schaeffer to lament the lack of love in the Presbyterian church. Yet your mention of the term “emerging” is an illustration of my second point. It is a word that has no definition, it is a catch-phrase for “what is emerging” that cannot, apparently, exclude anything for fear of appearing to embrace modernist “certainty” or a “closed-minded” attitude. I could accept the word if it had a definition, but as J.I. Packer has said on another issue, lack of clear definition does not serve to enhance unity, it guarantees disunity. It is only by clearly stating what we mean and what we do not mean that we can be sure we are communicating.
    The result is that I really wonder if, in the current stream of “broad” and “inclusive” American Christian thinking, it is possible to take a firm stand on anything. I do not think all emergings or emergents are on the slippery slope to liberalism, but I am waiting for the firm statements of what the movement is willing to stand for and, yes, even fight for. Who in the movement has quietly admonished Rob Bell for his suggestion that the virgin birth was a brick in the doctrinal wall that might be optional? Is that not a creedal issue, much less a biblical one? Who in the movement has challenged Tony Jones for his increasingly irreverent embrace of more and more provacative ideas, including the recent acceptance of full civil and ecclesial rights for gays?
    Are there any “fundamentals” that Christians must still adhere to? Or are intolerance and lack of a charitable “let’s all get along” temperment the only sins left?

  • Your Name

    I think it’s more about becoming mature. some of the certitude vanishes when folks mature. Whether it is fundamentalism or anti-fundamentalist fundamentalism, adherants are so certain of what is true that compassion goes out the window. In becoming mature, i think folks surrender more to God that which they cannot control theologically and relax a bit more. I think emotionally, finding certitude is a need for control of one’s environment in a sense.
    Learning to hold one’s own truth gently is a process of maturity and recognizing that God is at work in another person in another way. It is trusting God to take care of the other. I am in process on this, learning to live with ambiguity is like learning to walk on water. There is nothing firm to stand on but I must keep looking at Jesus.

  • joanne

    @21 is Joanne.

  • http://www.mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Dan @ 20,
    “Emerging” (the term) does have definitions and ideas behind it, and if you don’t have some idea what they are from even just this blog, you’re probably not paying attention. For some emerging or missional or whatever term may be a faddish catch-phrase. I’d imagine so was Methodism or the Reformation for some early folks. Style and hipness aren’t the point.
    And Mark Driscoll (frankly, I wish he wasn’t associated with the emerging church, but he is) has publicly called Rob Bell a heretic. Does that makes you feel better?
    It’s quite possible to take a firm stand. The emerging search is for a generous orthodoxy that is both generous and orthodox. Broad and inclusive (as you derisively put in quotes) but also faithful. We don’t think those are mutually exclusive. If you’re not looking for that, and are happy where you are in your denominational or doctrinal formulations, great. More power to you. Some of us aren’t, but it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped believing in truth, God, and morality.
    Some things, I agree, are worth “fighting for” (I’d probably not use that language, but whatever) even at the expense of Christian unity, though never at the expense of love. The Resurrection is one of these. Is the virgin birth? I don’t know. Does that mean we can’t discuss the issue? That I’m not a Christian? That folks who haven’t gotten that far cannot become Christians? C.S. Lewis didn’t believe in the afterlife for years after his conversion. Does that mean it wasn’t real?
    There was a post on fundamentals or essentials a few days ago. Check it out. But please don’t use as holy a word as “charitable” as if it a synonym for “lazy”.

  • Leo

    Dan,
    I propose a new word – Foundationalism!
    I am surprised on a regular basis by a lack of UNDERSTANDING the foundations of faith, not just a lack of accepting/believing them. There seems to be a generation of younger people who don’t even know what foundation to build from…thus, as you stated in #20, many don’t believe it is possible to take a firm stance. Maybe it is not possible because there is no foundation to stand on…
    Does it make me a fundi to believe there IS a foundation that must be taught, and held?

  • http://julieclawson.com Julie Clawson

    I agree with Travis – some things are worth fighting for, but not at the expense of love. To me fundamentalism is negative because it lacks love. Beliefs trump people – so they see no problem hurting those they dislike – women, gays, the poor, liberals… And while I have seen many fundamentalist liberals, I get really sick of being called one simply for disagreeing with someone. The whole line of “you preach tolerance, but in disagreeing with them you don’t tolerate fundamentalists so therefore you are a fundamentalist/hypocrite” gets really annoying. Its often a cop out line that ends any and all conversation and doesn’t allow the real question of why they hurt people to be addressed.
    And Scot – do you think the term “emerging” would have such negative connotation if it wasn’t constantly being trashed by those that claim to support it?

  • Your Name

    These anti-fundamentalists (and anti-evangelicals) can be just as confident and cocky that they’ve got it all figured out. That they stand high above the rest in their perceptions of truth.
    I’m so glad you said this. There is far too much of this around these days.
    Of course, no one ever thinks this applies to them.

  • ChrisB

    Sorry, #26 was me.

  • Rick

    Julie #25-
    “Beliefs trump people – so they see no problem hurting those they dislike”
    Both sides could be accused of that. However, I think we need to be careful about placing motives on people without clear evidence and/or admission.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/textmessages/ Patton Dodd

    I really appreciate this post–it’s an important insight that, for whatever reason, has yet to become a truism, something generally accepted. More than 20 years ago, George Marsden said a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something; one could insert the term “liberal” (or just about anything else) for “evangelical.” The term “fundamentalism” describes a stance more than it describes a set of beliefs.
    I also appreciate the way Paul and Scot handled this–note that by the end of the comments thread in Paul’s post, he’s regretting his initial tone, he’s talking about how he and Scot had a private exchange, and he’s calling for civility. We see far too little of that kind of humility in the public exchange of opinions.

  • Your Name

    “Fundamentalists have a stereotype of lacking compasion b/c they see the world as black-n-white & if you’re on the wrong side, you cannot be helped. If you clean up and become part of the right side, then we can talk. As such it appears fundamentalists are short on justice because those who need an advocate aren’t the pretty people.” — a quote from a friend of mine who found the concluding part of the post largely expressing their thoughts.
    As for myself, I’ve largely hung with what I would term ‘mere Christians’ or ‘foundationalists’ who navigate the particular structures of which they are part through the lens of God’s story (Creation, Fall, Journey of God’s people with God even through discipline/exile/maturation, the work of Jesus the Christ, the Kingdom of God including us today which includes time of discipline/exile/maturation, and eager anticipation for the coming of the new heaven/new earth which will restore creation/those in the image of God to ‘what was intended’) as a follower of Christ (i.e., part of the people of God which extends through time/space by the grace of the Father through the work of his Son Jesus the Christ made known to us through the Incarnation, the Word of God/Bible, the Spirit, and the people of God including local/larger assemblies of the Body of Christ).

  • http://www.groshlink.net Tom

    #30 was me. I see that info is not remembered …

  • http://www.rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    Thanks for this great reminder, Scot. I too was raised in a really conservative evangelical environment, and have gone through some changes over the past few years. I’ve noticed that now my tendency is to be super open-minded and non-judgmental toward everyone EXCEPT fundamentalists! I recently wrote about this on my blog in a post entitled, “Those evangelicals are so judgmental!”
    http://www.rachelheldevans.com/article-1227576156

  • John W Frye

    As a recovering fundamentalist who was converted into fundalmentalistland and trained in “the fundamentals,” I can say that the primary emotion/spirit controlling the group is pride. They are proud they are right. They are proud that they are certain they are right. They mask their pride with proper words like “defending the faith”/”rightly dividing the word of truth”/”we are ‘righteously’ angry” blah, blah, blah. Actual, listening love as a Christlike attitude is being a wuss and/or skating near the edge of the most slippery slope. War rhetoric is their semantic field: battle, fight, enemy, soldiers, winning, warriors, warfare, etc.
    Oops, I revealed that I am a fundamentalist anti-fundamentalist. Dang.

  • Larry

    I propose a new word – Foundationalism!
    Sorry, that word is already taken, and introducing it here will just add to the confusion.
    In fact I would say that the uniting factor behind the various kinds of fundamentalism is a foundationalist epistemology, one that insists in certainty in all things. Unfortunately the human condition is such that certainty (absolute, 100%, no room for any doubt type certainty) is just not available for us. This foundationalism also causes people, especially fundamentalists, to mistake the degree of your certainty with the depth of your faith, but certainty and faith are not the same thing and one can still have a deep faith without metaphysical certainty.
    And regarding those recommending Firefox over IE, I can only add that adblock-plus and the spell check add-ons rock! Adblock speeds things up and unclutters your brower; the spell checker makes you look smart!

  • http://richardinaz.blogspot.com Richard Jones

    Bill Easum once said that the most intolerant people in the world are liberals who are intolerant of intolerance.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    As usual, I seem to have discovered this a little late. My apologies for skimming, rather than reading fully the other comments, but one observation I had almost immediate that I don’t see here is that both “fundamentalists” and “anti-fundamentalists” seem to do the most ardent attacking when it seems that they themselves feel threatened.
    On the “fundamentalist” side, one need only look at the “War on Christmas” complaints, or those who argue against “activist judges” to see how this feeling of being threatened may be present. On the “anti-fundamentalist” side, I certainly think that Rauschenbusch’s grandson felt that his grandfather’s legacy was under attack, and he therefore rose to the defense. Too strongly? Perhaps. But I would argue that it’s the same impulse at play.
    Speaking for myself, although I write quite a bit in my blog about the need for humility in our dialogue, I find myself needing to ratchet down my own feelings that those I disagree with will attack me for my beliefs, and out of that feeling of being threatened, I’m sure I come off as more ardent that I intend to, myself.

  • ron

    Firefox may not be inerrant, but it is inspired.

  • Karl

    Yes! What a great post. I’ve observed and thought much the same thing but you put it into words much better than I could have, Scot. Even among postmodern former-fundamentalists, I’ve encountered that same attitude – their scorn for and righteous anger against those modernists, evangelicals and fundamentalists with whom they disagree often matches the scorn of any fundamentalist for a liberal.

  • geebo2b

    Very interesting and good points on both sides.
    I have been on both sides over the course of my ‘faith life-span’ and am currently trying to find some ‘middle ground which is proving as difficult for me as when I was trying to act with 100% confidence in either camp.
    I chuckle at the Anti-fundamentalist fundamentalism’ argument insofar as this argument of labeling the opposing side as being a ‘mirror opposite’ of those they are attacking seems to be the standard attack these days. Perhaps it IS true and they are , but the argument seems weak in that it seems an overly used argument. The most notable instance of this is in the arguments of Science versus Religion , especially with respect to evolution where the Religious community accuses the Scientists of having the Religion of Anti-religion.
    For myself, while I have no definite answers for my own life, let alone telling someone else what Who God is and what He REALLY wants, I like to think of a ;Parable’ a Lutheran Missionary once told me about how we as Humans are all blind, and each of us has hold of a different part of an ‘Elephant, (One the leg, another the trunk, and another the tail) and they are each vehemently arguing over the ‘truth of what it is they are feeling, each thinking that the small part they are touching is the WHOLE Elephant.
    I always try to remember, even in this writing, that I barely know anything for my own life let alone argue with others about GOD and who he REALLY IS and WHAT he really wants .

  • Dan

    Travis
    You wrote:
    “The emerging search is for a generous orthodoxy that is both generous and orthodox.”
    Then:
    “Some things, I agree, are worth “fighting for” …The Resurrection is one of these. Is the virgin birth? I don’t know. Does that mean we can’t discuss the issue? That I’m not a Christian?”
    The Virgin Birth is part of the Nicene Creed. Would that not make it an essential to the definition of “orthodox”?
    That illustrates my point, at the risk of bringing up the slippery slope. In the interest of being “generous” I see a increasing loss of “orthodoxy”.
    And the question is not whether we can discuss it. The question is whether we have the responsibility to say to those who identify themselves as Christian, that some things are not “optional” and we cannot be as generous on those things. If Rob Bell rejects the virgin birth, he has “gone his own way”, which is simplest definition of heresy. He is on the outside, (just as you want Mark Driscoll to be on the outside of EC). If we cannot draw at least some lines on some issues – fundamentals of the faith – then there is, as Tony Jones has said, no such thing as orthodoxy. “It ain’t a strike till I call it”.
    I’m just not seeing in the EC a lot of clear examples of those willing to stand firm, with clear definitions, on essential doctrines (fundamentals) or even to define what those essentials are. (Was it LeRon Shultz who said EC should have no doctrinal statement?) Many in the EC are in fact orthodox. That I will grant. But orthodoxy loses it’s meaning if by orthodox we mean “I’ll believe in the resurrection and virgin birth, but for you it is optional.” The whole purpose of the creed was to define who was orthodox and who was not. That by definition is not inclusive. It does not mean we cannot discuss things, but it does set boundaries as to which camp one is discussing things from.
    It is not that individuals cannot inquire about the boundaries, it is moving the boundaries and calling that new territory the “new” Christianity that I find to be troubling. I expect challenges from skeptics, agnostics and atheists. I am very troubled when the corrosion of the faith seems to come from within, and I have to wonder if “discussion” is the path Paul or Athanasius would choose when central matters are seemingly up for grabs.

  • Jason

    I think Mark nailed it. People tend to lash out when they feel threatened or judged. Fundamentalists are threatened by just about everything. Anti-fundamentalist’s are often threatened by fundamentalists, and lash out in kind.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    This conversation takes me back 27 years to my favorite Mark Heard song, Everybody Loves a Holy War:
    “Some say that God has approved of their mob
    Esteeming their purposes alone
    Choosing sides with a definite pride
    And taking their cause for His own
    Everybody loves a holy war
    Draw the line and claim divine assistance
    Slay the ones who show the most resistance
    Everybody loves a holy war …”
    Click the link to see the rest.

  • Rick

    geebo2b #39-
    “I chuckle at the Anti-fundamentalist fundamentalism’ argument insofar as this argument of labeling the opposing side as being a ‘mirror opposite’ of those they are attacking seems to be the standard attack these days. Perhaps it IS true and they are , but the argument seems weak in that it seems an overly used argument.”
    If it is true, as you mentioned it could be, then it is not weak. And why is it overused.
    In regards to the “elephant analogy”,Leslie Newbigin’s response to the “elephant” analogy has greatly diminished that argument. He stated that the problem with the analogy is that the one who originated it assumes he, somehow, is the one that can see the whole elephant.
    Mark #41-
    “Fundamentalists are threatened by just about everything. Anti-fundamentalist’s are often threatened by fundamentalists, and lash out in kind.”
    I disagree. Fundamentalists are threatened by anti-fundamentalists, and anti-funds by funds. Both are zealous and respond harshly when their belief systems are threatened.

  • Jason

    I disagree. Fundamentalists are threatened by anti-fundamentalists, and anti-funds by funds. Both are zealous and respond harshly when their belief systems are threatened.
    Hmm, I think that is what I said. I guess I did add the by everything in the description of what funds are threatened by, like for instance global warming for some strange reason.

  • BeckyR

    Of course Scot, you were painting with broad brushstrokes. What is that called? – caricatures? stereotypes. It is possible to be fundamentalist and have the love and grace. I do agree there are some fundamentalists who hang on desperately to their views, coming out dogmatic. But I think that has more to do with what’s going on with them psychologically – need for control? anger? fear? I think it is important to see what’s going on psychologically in a person ala their views and how they present their views.

  • Rick

    Jason #44-
    I think we would find various issues on both sides in which we would consider the reactions “strange”.

  • rking

    “When the Power of Love
    Overcomes the Love of Power
    the World Will Know Peace.”
    I really dont know where that quote came from, but if you do, cite it for me.
    In our current society and culture, being right seems more important than being loving. I could show many examples of this from almost every side of the religious and political debate. Getting back to living for Christ with a servant leader attitude, first. Then engaging someone in a conversation about theology and worldview second. Understanding that I will love even in disagreement.
    I pray that I get better at this myself someday.

  • http://www.mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Dan @ 40,
    Since you bring up the creeds, I’ll share that I don’t come from a tradition that uses the creeds (I’ve only fairly recently discovered them, and am still trying to figure out the place for them). So I don’t automatically assume they’re the border of orthodoxy. The creeds also mention Jesus descended into hell. Is that an absolute essential? On the same level as the Resurrection? The gospel writers and Paul talk about Resurrection all the time. The virgin birth is in just 2 of the gospels, I think. The descended into hell bit is alluded to I think just once in Scripture (I’m open to correction on these 2 points). I don’t want to turn this into an argument about those doctrines. I believe in them, but I do so much more loosely than something like the Incarnation, Crucifixion, or Resurrection of Jesus, or the existence and goodness of God. Those are the “central matters” of theological belief. The central matters of Christian faith overall are, of course, “Love God and love others.”
    In my faith journey I’ve found that I believe in less things than I used to, but those that I still believe in, I believe more strongly than ever. You can call that “corrosion” if you wish. I call it Spirit-led (and Scripture-formed) growth.
    I don’t want to be condescending, but I suspect your desire for “firm stands” and “clear definitions” is at least partly a generational thing (not necessarily chronological generations; you could be a 20 year old modern and I could be an 80 year old postmodern for all we know). Particularly the “clear definitions” part. You want the detailed, systematic theology that Christians have used in the past to articulate truth. You are understandably disappointed and put off by Bell’s provocative questioning of the virgin birth (which he affirms on the next page) or McLaren’s use of story, such that you can’t always tell which characters he thinks are right (or wrong) in what they’re saying.
    Do not be afraid. We believe we are articulating God’s truth, love, and justice in a way that will be understood by the world as it is and as it is becoming (the world we believe Jesus died and lived to save). We also believe we are articulating truth in a way that is more biblical, not only in the sense that “this is what the Bible says”, but in the sense that “this is how the Bible says it”: via story, song, poem, and fable, as well as narrative history and theological teaching.

  • Jason

    I think we would find various issues on both sides in which we would consider the reactions “strange”.
    That’s true. Point well taken.

  • http://joeyspiegel.wordpress.com Joey

    @ Dan (#40)
    Dan, I think your comments are a discussion worth having. I may counter them a bit though. Paul drew some lines. One example that always challenges me is from 1 Timothy 1. Paul tells Timothy to stop men from teaching false doctrines and spending time on idle myths and genealogies. What is most interesting to me is that he follows this up by saying that Love is ultimate goal and that when you get caught up in doctrinal disputes or false doctrines or idle myths or endless genealogies or definitions of sovereignty or who’s translation is most correct, then you begin to forget about Love.
    Conversely I have to acknowledge that some fundamentalists are trying to do exactly what Paul said by fighting what they believe are false doctrines. I think the problem comes when they start defining their particular belief system as the standard for orthodoxy rather than allowing the whole of salvation history to speak into “right worship”. This is where generosity comes in. I know that the more I study what has been said on a particular issue the more humbled I am in my own position. Not that I am never affirmed but that I become cautious to call anything truth but Christ himself (John 14:6) which is a very (and surprisingly) relational thing to say – that truth isn’t an esoteric standard but is embodied by Jesus himself. Anyway, just some thoughts. Feel free to tear them apart.
    Peace
    Joey

  • My 2 Cents

    MattR,
    I agree…I have long said there is this rabid taking on of issues from one end of the pendulum to the next…it’s very much like replacing one addiction with another, only many times they are naive and dangerous with the little bit of knowledge they have, and possess even less wisdom or discretion.

  • Rick

    Travis #48-
    Not to get too far off topic here, but you stated:
    “The creeds also mention Jesus descended into hell. Is that an absolute essential? On the same level as the Resurrection? The gospel writers and Paul talk about Resurrection all the time. The virgin birth is in just 2 of the gospels, I think. The descended into hell bit is alluded to I think just once in Scripture (I’m open to correction on these 2 points).”
    Here is a quote from Professor/Scholar/Blogger Ben Witherington:
    “I would say that it is an argument from silence to say only Luke and Matthew know of the virginal conception, but that may be true. This may have been a story only circulated within the family, and amongst some of the earliest Jewish Christians. To judge from Acts and Paul it was not part of the public proclamation early on. You can’t however judge the importance of something by how many times it is mentioned in the NT. For example the Lord’s Supper is hardly discussed outside 1 Cor. 11.”

  • Dan

    Travis. I don’t mean to debate specifics either in this forum, but to point out that there is a need for definition. If there are no boundaries, no edge, as Thomas Oden has said, there can be no center. We cannot claim to be holding to the “central” doctrines of the faith unless we know where the edge is. Saying “Christianity includes A” by definition excludes non-A. And most hold the virgin birth as essential because of its relation to the humanity and deity of Christ.
    So the question comes down to what is essential, worth defending, and what is not. Or, what is “fundamental”. The point is, boundaries and limits clarify. Definitions make communication possible. Unclear definitions obscure and thwart real communication and actually encourage greater division. Lack of clarity leads to folks jumping to conclusions, making false accusations and talking past each other. Clear terms serve as a basis for discussion and are not necessarily a barrier to it. Defining “fundamentalism” rather than assuming we all agree on its meaning is just one example.
    So what is the definition of fundamentalism that is at issue in this discussion? Is it merely holding tenaciously to a set of beliefs? Then was Athanasius a fundamentalist? Is it a character trait that appears angry and threatened? Is it something else? Is it a word that ought to be abandoned?

  • John W Frye

    Thanks, Michael Kruse for the lyrics…
    “Choosing sides with a definite pride
    And taking their cause for His own.”

  • RJS

    Dan,
    I think that the virgin birth is an interesting topic for conversation. The humanity and divinity of Jesus is a core doctrine of orthodox Christianity. So one who denies either falls outside of the bounds of the orthodox faith.
    But how does virgin birth play into this? It is not so easy and not so clear when it comes down to detail.

  • RJS

    Let me go one step further – as I understand it the most popular view in the first few centuries AD was that male semen contains spirit that gives shape to the matter of human flesh, which is provided by the female. So Jesus obtained flesh – humanity – from Mary and spirit from divine implantation. Into the Middle Ages and beyond it was thought that the male provided no physical contribution to his off-spring. In this context the virgin birth is inexorably tied to the divinity of Christ.
    But almost no one now doubts the idea that male and female provide DNA (materially contained information content) that combine to produce off-spring. In what sense does virgin birth lead to a human/divine Christ? Where did the male DNA content come from and what form did it take? What genes were present?
    Now I do not actually doubt the virgin birth. But I really don’t understand it or its importance at all. I would defend incarnation with a knife to my throat, but I am not so sure about virgin birth.

  • RJS

    And this marginally relates to the topic of this post.
    One side seems to want to define orthodoxy and given certainty, cut off conversation and condemn those who are thinking deeper as heretics. Some (many) topics are off the table.
    The other side ridicules the believer as an unsophisticated ignoramus mired in simplistic ancient myth. (Especially common in academia.) Again some topics are off the table.

  • http://www.mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Rick @ 52,
    Good point about the argument from silence, although I’ll say again that I’m not trying to attack the virgin birth. I do believe in it. But I stand by my assertion that it isn’t as crucial as the Resurrection, or the Eucharist for that matter. Granted, as you say, Communion is mentioned infrequently, but one of the times is when Jesus tells us to do it…which in my view makes it more important than the circumstances of his own birth, which he does not mention. Am I therefore prioritizing certain elements of Scriptures over (but not against) others as I engage in interpretation? Yes, I am.
    Dan @ 53,
    I would say that you have it backwards…the essential belief is the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The virgin birth is our understanding of how God did that; it’s the one Christians have historically held, and one I’m not interested in discarding. But if it were somehow proven false, it wouldn’t destroy my faith in Jesus as “God with us”.
    In the same way I believe strongly in the Bible as the Word of God, authoritative and useful for Christians. That’s the essential. Inerrancy is how some of us have understood that in the past, but it’s not the essential. Discovering errors in the transmission of the text, or even that certain passages aren’t trying to do what I thought they were (realizing that Genesis is telling a true and compelling origin myth for humanity, not a historical record), doesn’t destroy my essential belief that Scripture is God’s message to us.
    We may be slightly at cross-purposes; when we’re discussing a topic like “fundamentalism”, yes, it’s good to know what we’re talking about when we use certain terms. When it comes to declaring the gospel, frankly, I think clarity is overrated. Jesus was often very unclear. We need more mystery (this all depends who we’re talking to; mission should drive our theology).
    For purposes of this discussion, I’d define “fundamentalism” as a specific religious movement that assigns “essential” status to a whole host of things that just aren’t, such as an inerrantist (and frequently dictation-theory) understanding of Scripture, a penal substitution theory of the atonement (to the exclusion of any other understandings), an exclusivist model of salvation (along with an eternal-conscious-torment understanding of hell), extremely traditional gender roles, dispensationalist eschatology, all often characterized by a judgmental spirit.
    When talking about liberal fundamentalism, that’s usually marked by a naturalistic, mechanistic understanding of the universe that says miracles do not occur (and especially that people don’t rise from the dead), a belief that sexuality is a private area about which the only ethics are those of consent, a concern for the social gospel to the exclusion of the personal gospel (you might notice both fundamentalists tend to accept this false dichotomy), and an utter rejection of any hint of the uniqueness of Jesus or the truth of the Christian faith among other religions.
    Neither of those sound like much fun. Hence the search for a third way, or the emerging church, or being post-conservative, or whatever. The terms don’t matter.
    I think the only difference between us, really, is that my lines in the sand would be drawn around fewer things, and they’d probably be a little fuzzier than yours. Also, I’d want to let the center define the boundaries, not the other way around. But that would get us into centered versus bounded sets…

  • Scott Lyons

    RJS, I think you are overthinking the Virgin Birth. In mythology as well as the real myth of Christ (as Lewis would call it), it is far simpler (though still a great mystery): (1) human + human = merely human, whereas (2) human + divine = not merely human. (The same is seen in mythology, the difference is that the Incarnation did not give us 1/2 man and 1/2 God, but gave us He Who Is, fully man and fully God.) So if Christ was born of a human mother and a human father, then his divinity is rightly questioned and denied. If he entered through the Blessed Virgin as water through a pipe, then he was divine and not truly human. But God the Word was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. So he is fully God and fully man. He is a man, but not merely a man. He is God, but God incarnate.
    Orthodoxy’s purpose is not to end conversation, RJS, but its purpose is for the conversation to end rightly. Though I would argue that some matters are holy mysteries, and that silence would often better serve us.
    I would also add, though I am not accusing you of such, that sometimes, though certainly not always, our “thinking deeper” about orthodoxy simply means that we are thinking wrongly about it. We ought to think deeply with the Church. This is our call. Not to treat the faith handed down as a hypothesis to be tested and refined, but to meditate upon its mystery and beauty and to use the reason that God has given us to explore it faithfully.
    Travis, you said that if the Virgin Birth were somehow disproved, it would not destroy your faith. (Rob Bell also said as much. And though I respect Rob Bell, he’s got this wrong.) This isn’t sound reasoning. And while losing the Virgin Birth may not destroy your faith, it would destroy the faith. Saint Paul says if the Resurrection did not happen, then we are to be pitied above all men. And likewise if the Virgin Birth were absolutely debunked, we are also fools. We cannot in honesty hold to any true meaning of Incarnation or Resurrection if Jesus was not truly born of a Virgin by the Holy Spirit. It that brick goes, to use Bell’s “brickianity,” all then does quickly descend into some strange gnostic docetism and becomes worthless. Saint Athanasius, that great defender of the orthodox faith, said, “The Word of God became man so that man, by grace, might become God.” If God did not become man, and it is the Virgin Birth that is the guardian and guarantor of this dogma, then it would follow that man will not become God (not be united to God, not participate in His Divine Life).
    Holding fast to orthodox dogma, contending for it, does not make one less generous in spirit toward our brothers and sisters, does not necessitate intolerance and judgment. Indeed, a better understanding of orthodoxy facilitates a better understanding of love. Though, unfortunately, this also does not always follow.

  • RJS

    Scott,
    I don’t deny the virgin birth because it is in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 and because there is much to what you say that human + divine = not merely human. This is God come as fully human but not merely human.
    I do deny most of the theological reasons given for it throughout church history, which I think were cultural artifacts. And all of the corollaries with respect to Mary.

  • http://www.mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Scott,
    I’m with RJS on this. I just don’t see the automatic leap to docetism. You have all sorts of theological understandings at play that I don’t necessarily share. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong or bad. I would argue they’re non-essentials.
    I agree with you on Resurrection. I just don’t see it for the Virgin Birth.

  • Matias

    Didn’t you give away a pair of lined crocs last year? Perhaps this is the year a pair of flip-flops would be in order (though fashion rules dictate that men over 40 should never show their toes in public).
    The late Paul Heibert championed a critical realist epistemology in his dialogue and perhaps that would bring warmth to even this discussion. What a sweet and gentle gift humility brings to our relationships.

  • Your Name

    Scot,
    Thank you for this post.
    I’ve been reading John Wesley’s journals recently, and one thing that strikes me (at least in 1738 where I am) is how he was so certain in some things and so full of doubt about others. He knew without a doubt about the fruits of salvation and the marks of a Christian. And he was pained and haunted by the fact that he knew he did not bear all the marks or display all the fruits.
    My point?
    Certainty is hypocrisy when it does not turn in on ourselves as well. Wesely preached a message with certainty. Then he sat down under that message and anguished that he himself failed to live up to it.
    Too often, we move very quickly to assurance – which is that confidence that so many seem to display. We are quick to claim assurance for our faith – liberals and fundamentalists alike. We work out our theory of justification, and then quickly claim the mantle of assurance based upon it. But we forget – in doing so – how big and wild our God is.
    How much better we would be with more long, dark, nights of the soul.

  • http://gracerules.wordpress.com/ Liz

    I almost have to laugh at where this conversation has ended up -but that indicates that a real conversation is going on. Scot M., thanks for giving the time and space to this.
    Scot M – Thanks for the post/article – I couldn’t agree more. Typically I find the right (which I am more closely associated with than I like to admit) to be the most argumentative and mean (calling people names,saying believing or not believing certain things means you aren’t a christian, proclaiming their ideas to be right/biblical/orthodox etc.) but I find it horrible no matter what side it comes from. That attitude is the number one thing that I have spent the last several years trying to detox from. I noticed one day that my faith had become a barrier instead of a bridge – not because of what I believed, but because of the attitude I had. Since then I believe in some things more, some things less and some things not at all – but mostly my heart has changed and I am much more focused on right living instead of right believing.
    Scot Lyons -
    I am chiming in late but I did read all of the comments and wanted to respond to you…Wow – your comment #58 (particularly the fourth paragraph) sounds like you are absolutely certain you have the virgin birth/divinity of Christ/incarnation/fully human-fully God thing all figured out. That kind of certainty is very hard for me to relate to these days (although I am empathetic as I came out of that sort of mind set a while back). IMHO it would be a better conversation if you stated that those are reasons that the virgin birth is important to you and that without it you would be hard pressed to believe that Jesus was God incarnate etc. but the way you say “losing the virgin birth would destroy the faith” sounds like a statement that lacks humility about your(and all of mankinds)ability to understand these things and (although I may be reading you wrong) it also sounds like a statement that is meant to shut down the conversation because if we don’t watch out we could destroy the faith.
    Have you considered that maybe God could have made Jesus fully human and fully divine without a virgin birth if He wanted to. Perhaps the virgin birth was just a sign (wasn’t it prophesied?) and not the only way that God could have made it all happen. Do you have to have that kind of “it’s the only way it could be true” approach in order for you to believe in it?
    Personally I believe in the virgin birth but if I didn’t it would not stop me from believing that Jesus was fully human and fully God and I find it hard to believe that it would “destroy the faith”. I do not see the virgin birth as essential. But that is just my humble opinion.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    Perhaps the virgin birth was just a sign (wasn’t it prophesied?)
    Just chiming in on this one quote from the latest post.
    When telling the birth story, Matthew does indeed quote from the prophet Isaiah “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.”
    Leaving aside for the moment the discrepancy between the Latin Septuigint (which Matthew used) and the Hebrew scriptures (whereby the word in Isaiah is more properly understood as a young marriageable woman, and not explicitly a virgin), and whether or not Isaiah was prophesying about something that was to happen a bit closer to his own time (suffice it to say, there are plenty of debates on this issue), there is still a significant interpretive issue at play here.
    The original readers/hearers of this passage, even if they understood the word as “virgin,” had no tradition of understanding this passage to mean that a person who had never had sex would nonetheless have a baby. Rather, it seems that this would have been understood to read that a young woman–a virgin even–would conceive in the usual way (thus no longer being virgin, yes. But the point here is that she was up until then) and have a baby.
    In other words, the Isaiah prophecy has only been understood to refer to the Virgin Birth because the Virgin Birth actually happened!

  • Your Name

    Mark – Thank you for the response. I wanted to say something about this but didn’t know enough detail(other than the part about the Hebrew meaning young unmarried woman). I was hoping someone would clarify.

  • Liz

    ooops – that was me, Liz, in #65

  • Scott Lyons

    Liz, I’m not questioning anyone’s love for Christ here, whether they affirm the Virgin Birth or not. I’m not questioning whether anyone is saved. I am not judging their souls. I disagree, that’s all. I am (and was) simply trying to state what our faith is, and to say that it is our catholic (little c) faith – believed by all (the Church), everywhere and in all times (as St. Vincent of Lerins puts it). That statement about the Virgin Birth is fairly incontrovertible. Orthodoxy does not equal pride. Uncertainty does not equal humility. I am certain (today) of the Virgin Birth because of the certainty that faith gives (Hebrews 11), not because of anything I have figured out. I may have a terrible day tomorrow and have a very different attitude about it all – I have had plenty of those days.
    (And let me say that I believe “orthodoxy” to be what the Church has always believed throughout the centuries – beautifully summarized in the creeds.)
    So first, forgive me for a tone that sounded prideful to you. I did not write the comment with the intention of coming across as a better Christian than anyone else here or as a better thinker or as a better anything else. I come from a very different tradition than most people here and I try to speak out of that tradition. When that is no longer welcome here, Dr. McKnight will politely let me know and I will simply become a reader of “Jesus Creed.” But to not let someone speak about their belief, even their certainty of their belief, or to simply tell them how amazed you are at their pride and certainty, also ends conversation.
    Nothing anyone says here or elsewhere will destroy the faith. I certainly do not see how the Virgin Birth could ever be debunked – it is simply a hypothetical. It can be believed, it can be denied, and it can even be believed but not believed necessary. My statement was made to Travis because our holy Fathers certainly believed the Virgin Birth necessary to guard the faith and to guard the Incarnation. I am not requiring Travis to believe that or even agree with me in how I think about it. I am not asking RJS or Travis to become something they are not.
    We can think another wrong, disagree with him or her, without thinking the other lost. For me, that’s the difference between fundamentalism and orthodoxy. Regardless of what someone does or does not believe does not change how I ought to love them – not in-pity-for-the-poor-lost-soul and I-pray-they’re-saved, but because I am in need of salvation myself. Because I am loved. Which is another thing that I am certain of.

  • http://bobcharters.blogspot.com Robby Charters

    Is this really a post from 2008, or is the dating thing on the new blog site not working yet?

    Either way, it’s a good one, which I’ve mentioned in my blog.


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