Why I Am Not a Fundamentalist (or Conservative Evangelical)
I gladly identify myself as an “evangelical Christian,” but I prefer not to call myself or be considered a fundamentalist or conservative even though there were times and contexts in which I might have fit those categories (however uncomfortably).
Recently I posted here about how I define “fundamentalism” and identify a person as “fundamentalist.” Anyone who has come here often for very long knows I am not a fundamentalist by my own definition and description. I might be according to someone else’s, but historically-theologically I am not. Why?
If I were transported back in time (something I don’t believe is possible because the past is closed) to, say, the first decade of the 20th century, I might fit somewhere in the fundamentalist camp, movement, even if not at its center. Then it was not necessary to believe in or practice “biblical separation” (to say nothing of “secondary separation”). I think there are beliefs essential to being authentically Christian. (Although I do not think salvation hinges on doctrinal beliefs.) I have posted here before my thoughts about what those are (e.g., the deity of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection). One reason I would probably be uncomfortably fundamentalist (in that paleo- form), if at all, is that I do not think evolution is false.
However, as I explained in that post, “fundamentalism” changed after 1925. In that sense, the “post-1925” sense, I would not identify as fundamentalist. I do not believe that biblical inerrancy is an essential Christian belief. I believe all truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found (even in “secular” science and philosophy). And I enjoy Christian fellowship with believers who do not practice “biblical separation” (from heresy).
So why am I not a fundamentalist (by my definition of that)? I find fundamentalism too much like the religious type the New Testament describes as “the scribes and Pharisees.” It is too rigid, exclusive, dogmatic, resistant to truth (e.g., age of the earth as proven by science), divisive, suspicious, judgmental, “wooden” in terms of its approach to Scripture. (By that I mean inflexible, literalistic, putting all Scripture on the same level of importance.) And it is too separatistic with regard to other Christians. My own Christianity has been greatly enriched (which includes being challenged so that I have to think hard about why I believe) by my encounters with Christians of all traditions including liberal.
Why do I not identify as a “conservative evangelical?” First, it’s important to understand that “conservative” is an indexical term. There is no specific historical-theological movement to tie it to. It’s a relative term—always meaningful only in relation to someone or something else.
I think most theologians (and I am one, so that’s part of my context) who consider themselves “conservative evangelical” are too close to fundamentalist for my comfort. That category usually includes belief in inerrancy. I do not know many, if any, theologians or educated pastors who consider themselves “conservative evangelical” who do not believe in biblical inerrancy. To me, anyway, “conservative evangelical” means “conservative among evangelicals.” Among evangelicals I am not conservative. That is, relative to most evangelicals, I am not conservative. Among liberals (that is, in comparison to them), I am conservative.
I have labeled myself a “postconservative evangelical.” What does that mean? Unlike most conservative evangelicals, I do not privilege tradition or literalistic hermeneutics (to say nothing of biblical inerrancy) in an absolute way. All conservative evangelicals I know tend to give some tradition a veto in matters of theological controversy. That tradition is usually either “the ancient Christian consensus” (paleo-orthodoxy) or “the received evangelical tradition” (usually meaning something like the Old Princeton School of theology [Hodge, Warfield, et al.]). With Rabbi Kaplan of Reconstructionist Judaism I say that tradition always gets a vote but never a veto. All conservative evangelicals I know agree that the Bible should be interpreted “as literally as possible, as figuratively as necessary.” I think it is possible to interpret Jonah literally, for example, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
The two tasks of theology are critical and constructive. Most conservative evangelicals think the constructive task is finished. (They may not say that, but they are highly resistant to constructive theology.) They are satisfied to practice theology’s critical task of examining beliefs labeled “Christian” critically in light of Scripture, tradition and reason. Some might add “experience” to round out the Wesleyan quadrilateral (but most would not). My experience of conservative evangelicals is that they tend to be highly critical of anyone who dares to reconstruct traditional doctrines even when that reconstruction is done using fresh and faithful biblical research.
So, as usual, here are some stories to illustrate my points. Some years ago I dared to defend open theism as a legitimate evangelical research project. I never adopted it myself—as my own belief. Several conservative evangelical acquaintances told me that it can’t be true because it’s new. I once heard a conservative evangelical speaker tell a church audience about theology “If it’s true, it can’t be new. If it’s new, it can’t be true.” I wonder what he would have said to Luther about his “new ideas” about justification? What he uttered was exactly what many of Luther’s Catholic critics said to him. I spoke on a panel at a region meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in defense of open theism and postfoundationalism—as legitimate evangelical options. A conservative evangelical said to me “Aren’t you just defending the ‘goddess of novelty’?”
Open theism. New interpretation of Paul. Egalitarianism. Inclusivism. All these and more are often criticized by conservative evangelicals as automatically false because they’re “new.” Oh, yes, of course, they go on to attempt to falsify them using Scripture. But the first reaction is “new, so not true.”
Now, what about that “goddess of novelty” jibe? Well, anyone who knows me knows I am not given to worshiping new ideas in theology (or anywhere) or favoring them because of their newness. On the other hand, neither do I think tradition is equal with Scripture. And I think culture sometimes forces us to reconsider traditional interpretations of Scripture. (Even Charles Hodge admitted that science has done that with regard to the solar system and the age of the earth.)
What I think is that many, perhaps most, conservative evangelicals have erected Old School Princeton theology, Hodge and Warfield especially, as authoritative such that any interpretation of Scripture fundamentally in conflict with what they believed must be viewed with suspicion if not rejected out of hand.
There’s a sign on the interstate some miles south of where I live. It promotes tourism to a little town a way off the interstate. The sign says “Gently resisting change since 1872.” Whenever I see it I think of conservative evangelicals I know and Hodge’s Systematic Theology which was published in that year. Sometimes I would like to take that sign (that is, make a copy of it) and erect it outside the entrance to meetings of conservative evangelical theologians. Recently, however, I think I would have to add “Not so” before “gently.”