Why I Am Not a Fundamentalist (or Conservative Evangelical)

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.”

  • Tim Reisdorf

    “I’m too sacred for the sinners
    And the saints wish I would leave.”
    -Mark Heard

    I once had the temerity in a graduate course for prospective Science teachers to plead with my fellow students to not be hard on those prospective HIigh School students who outright objected to evolution. I confessed that I was unconvinced either way on the issue, but for the other students in my graduate class the issue was settled – and any who called the scientific orthodoxy of evolution into question must be punished. My concern was that the children not be crushed, nor that they be led to be suspicious of their parents/pastors/God/worldview. (Challenged? Yes. Indoctrinated with “settled fact” that calls into question all that they hold to be Most True? No.) Fell on deaf ears. My thoughts and concerns were compared to those of Nazis.
    By temperament and practice, I’m most comfortable around fundamentalists; but I only met one of the criteria in your last post. There is plenty of “not so gently”, and it comes from many sides.
    Thank you for your post, Roger.

    • Damien

      Obviously, you don’t want to punish students for their beliefs. I’m actually baffled that educators could have that kind of attitude, especially since it’s clear that the average creationist HS student is merely parroting what their parents/pastors have been telling them and that they’re not responsible for having been given inaccurate information.

      But, at the same time, should we give the impression that there is any kind of real debate about this in the scientific community? It’s admirable to want to protect teenagers, but it’s actually a disservice to them if they are kept in a bubble until college. At one point, they’ll see that what they’ve been taught is often inaccurate and conflicts with generally accepted evidence. Perhaps students should in fact be more suspicious of their parents and pastors if these people are given to speaking authoritatively about things that are beyond their realm of expertise.

      • Daren

        Is the scientific community the only place where truth can be debated? Perhaps the scientific community speaks with one voice on this particular topic, but that does not mean that truth has been arrived at. Science is not infallible. Further, I think it is most reasonable to view with skepticism (not to dismiss out of hand, but to insist on as much evidence, logic, verification, etc. as possible) any endeavor to verify past realities for which there is no concrete evidence (i.e. eyewitness accounts, written record, audio/video recordings, etc.).

        • pam

          The physical world is concrete evidence. Evidence is not simply ‘what humans have done/written/recorded’.
          As for insisting on evidence, logic, and verification – fantastic. Of course, that already happens and is built into the scientific process (it is imperfect, but science is generally self-correcting). But more importantly, those same requirements need to be put on any questioning of scientific findings. Or any position, philosophical, religious, historical, etc.
          Those same issues are relevant in any religious discussion, and are highlighted well here – questions and new ideas can only be found to be right or wrong if we’re willing to first listen and then assess.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Damien,
        I hear what your saying, but let me ask just to make sure. Are you saying that its a good idea to have government workers intentionally drive wedges between children and their parents? Are you saying that it is up to the government to intrude on the decisions of the parents to raise their children with certain beliefs? (Would you have HS be a forum to divorce a HS student from their silly belief in a silly deity?)
        You say that the average creationist HS student is merely parroting what their parents/pastors have been telling them, but how is that different with all other HS students? Perhaps, as you say, students should be more suspicious of their parents and pastors, but are you the one to sow seeds of discord among them? (Are you a parent?)

        • rogereolson

          Tim, I’m sorry, but I am having to delete most links in comments because I don’t have time to examine them. My policy is to post as few links as possible and only ones I can examine first.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            I understand, thank you for letting me know.

  • http://umbl0g.blogspot.com John Umland

    This has been a great series.
    God is love
    jpu

  • John

    Dr. Olsen,
    Thank you for the interesting columns. I am new to your blog, so perhaps you have answered my question in a previous column that I have not seen. However, as a Christian with a strong science background (PhD in physics), I am interested in your statement of belief in evolution. Do you believe in scientific evolution (i.e., creation of life from random chemical reactions and changes in form due to random mutations combined with natural selection) or do you believe in some form of God-guided evolution? Th reason that I ask is that I see many people who believe that they can “split the difference” between the Biblical worldview and scientific “knowledge’ by believing in the latter. I would contend that God-guided (theistic) evolution is as opposed to the scientific theory of evolution as intelligent design or young earth creationism. By this I do not mean that God-guided evolution is not true; but rather that it is not scientific and is not evolution in the sense that scientists speak of evolution. The difference relates to the conceptual difference between scientific theory and truth. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • rogereolson

      I believe in God-guided evolution. I even believe God “intervened” (not a felicitous word) to make sure the process moved toward the appearance of sentient beings. And I think God took one of them (or several) and somehow gave him/them his own image and likeness. So I don’t really fit any of the known (to me) categories. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle of theistic evolution and progressive creation.

    • John I.

      Perhaps you would be so kind as to use your name plus an initial, as I comment here regularly as “John I.”

      Thanks,

      John I.

  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com Charles Kinnaird

    Roger,
    I think you have Fundamentalism appropriately pegged. Here is my honest concern about “conservative” Christianity. Conservative is by definition and in practice concerned with preserving the status quo. When you look to scripture to see God’s intentions and purposes for His people, it has never been to preserve the status quo. Every leading from God has been disruptive to the status quo whether you look at Moses, the prophets, and Jesus in scripture or if you look at periodic reformations and renewals throughout Christian history. Since I came to this observation, I’ve had genuine difficulty in joining the terms “Christian” and “conservative.” The other thing that I’ve noticed is that Christians who call themselves conservative often have difficulty extricating their Christian faith from their culture – the two are often seen as identical and therefore it becomes impossible to challenge certain cultural norms in light of the gospel message.

    • rogereolson

      My sentiments exactly. And also reasons I have trouble identifying my faith as “conservative” (except in a room full of real liberals).

  • http://campuskritik.blogspot.com Malte

    Thank you for this really insightful post. I live in Britain, where conservative evangelicalism is a somewhat cohesive movement (often defining itself as being different from charismatic evangelicalism by stressing cessationism). Despite the different context the characteristics of the CE outlook are very much what you describe here. I’d add that in my experience (having defined myself as CE in the past), British conservative evangelicals are fond of stressing cessationism and Calvinism, and often see themselves in the tradition of nonconformism and Puritanism. I’ve spoken to some who were inerrantist, but it didn’t seem to be required.

  • David

    Roger,
    enjoy your blog and find your descriptors very helpful. I am one of the many who grew up perfectly comfortable within conservative evangelicalism. I have been uncomfortable there for a while, and it is very refreshing to find other camps besides “liberal” or “emergent.” Keep up the good work.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Roger,

    No takers yet on this one, so I’ll jump in. I’m about 75% through your “Reformed and Always Reforming”. First let me say how very helpful it is in figuring out all the differences, and similarities, among fundamentalists, foundationalists, conservatives, post-conservatives, post-liberals, post-modernists and the early champions of some of these such as determinists, scholastics etc. It’s fascinating that many liberals and fundamentalist/conservatives seem to spring from the same philosophical roots and yet have ended up some distance apart. Do they know this, generally speaking?

    The whole thing brought a metaphor to mind that I cannot resist. Maybe I read it somewhere, maybe I made it up, maybe some combination of the two, but here goes.

    Fundamentalists/conservatives seem to think a bicycle is a very good machine for staying in one place. With great skill, one can actually do this, but the large number of very unnatural movements one must make to do so is very energy consuming. Post-conservatives and post-liberals see the bicycle as a machine for moving about with relatively little effort, and their movements look very smooth and natural. However, they cannot agree on the direction their bicycles should take them. Finally, post-moderns simple don’t believe in bicycles at all and walk about observing their immediate surroundings with great attention.

    • rogereolson

      Good word picture! Thanks.

  • Kevin McKee

    An excellent well thought out piece. Although I am not a huge fan of labels, I think it is important to declare the validity of various positions within evangelicalism. For me, I face the additional “burden” of being post charismatic in addition to being post fundamentalist and post conservative. Many of my friends and colleagues would argue that I am simply being contrarian to the positions from which I have changed. Although I do enjoy being contrarian on occasion, I do not believe that this is at the heart for me. I find that it is the heart, or perhaps better the lack of heart that drives me from fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. To me there does not appear to be a sense or understanding of mercy and grace at the base of their operational belief system, in a manner very similar to Jesus criticism of the religious leaders (Pharisees and to a slightly lesser degree Saducees) in his time in Israel. Thank you again for a wonderful article, it is good to know I am not alone.

  • Derek

    Thanks again for a delightful read Dr. Olson.

    I can’t say I agree with all of your views, and naturally I fundamentally disagree with you as I am a Calvinist, however, I tend to enjoy reading your blogs more than any Reformed/Calvinistic blogger for some reason. =)

    Just a question, if you don’t mind – How do you get along with D.A Carson & Tim Keller (I assume you know them personally)? Also, just out of curiosity, which modern day preachers do you enjoy listening to?

    Thanks again!

    • rogereolson

      I have never met Carson or Keller. I have tried to correspond with Carson, but he has ignored my letters. I don’t go out of my way to hear modern day preachers except the ones who preach in my seminary’s chapel weekly and in my own church (and a few I visit from time to time) on Sundays. One of the best preachers I ever heard was a woman–Julie Pennington-Russell under whose wonderful ministry I sat for eight years. She has now moved on and others have the privilege of hearing her on a weekly basis. I hope they know how fortunate they are.

  • Steve Rogers

    “If it’s new it can’t be true…” Sounds similar to “we have Moses…”, and deserving of the response Jesus gave them. Now, on a personal level, do you ever wish you were free of such labels and at liberty to just celebrate your identity in Christ no matter what anyone else thinks? From experience I know it is very difficult, if not impossible, to do in the institutional milieu.

    • rogereolson

      Right. The only way to do that is to be a totally isolated, individualist Christian without any ties to any Christian community. That’s not for me.

      • Steve Rogers

        Nor me.

  • B Brown

    As I read this blog post I see I’m also not a fundamentalist or conservative boxed Christian. Is there a such a thing as an “Electic Christian Believer”, pulling from fundamentalist, conservative, evangelical, messianic, progressive and liberal leanings, traditions and beliefs… holding to the Apostle’s Creed as a standard for unity and fellowship?

    • rogereolson

      I’ve met many people who claimed to be that, but when I’ve gotten to know them well it always turns out they lean in a certain direction. Very precisely worded questions tend to reveal it.

  • Fred Wallis

    I genuinely enjoy your posts, Dr. Olsen. One of my professors at seminary once defined a “conservative theologian” as one who believed in the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ. That could be a pretty wide camp. While allowing for genuine and thoughtful inquiry about a great number of biblical and theological assumptions and even convictions, that criteria would establish a foundational premise concerning the person of Jesus Christ who must remain as the central focus of any evangelicalism. Many arenas of dialog fall into arguments with battle lines drawn that are unnecessary.

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me possible for someone to believe in Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection and NOT believe in his deity. I think a high, incarnational Christology is a litmus test for conservative, orthodox Christianity.

      • Fred Wallis

        Perhaps. but I wonder if one disbelieves in the virgin birth and bodily resurrection they could or would believe in His divinity? An objection to the two “doctrines” could hardly come for a textual reason. An overall aversion to the miraculous probably reveals a lack of confidence in the “intervention of the Divine” in the created order of our world. We could go back and forth for a while but I would restate the encouragement I enjoy as a result of your willingness to address such issues and invite discussion.

        Thanks you.

  • Rus Hooper

    Thanks for clarifying and sharing further your thoughts about Christian Fundamentalism. Martin Marty describes Fundamentalism as primarily a modernist phenomenon, with its fears of all the changes going on in the modern world, looking to resource the past in highly selective ways in order to resist change. They feel their core identity is under attack. Yet, they oddly tend to take up modernist ideals in order to make their defense. (Inerrancy, as a prime example. Such an extra-biblical word is unnecessary to uphold the reliability of the God-breathed text for guiding our lives into God’s revealed will.) On the surface level, they apppear anti-modern, but then take up very modern inventions and resources in selective ways to accomplish their power struggles — often without noticing the irony of their tactics.

    Marty also contrasts them with Primitivists or Restorationists. Whereas Fundamentalists want to control politically the institutions so that they do not “drift” (from their perspective) Primitivists are more counter-cultural in their interactions with the world, more in the framework of Hauerwas.

    Politically, I have found that there is a “fundamentalist left” as well as a “fundamentalist right.” Both groups tend to demonize each other, both seem disinterested in gentle debate and continued search for proper application of truth (e pluribus unum). Instead, there is an overwhelming desire for power in the culture war, to win over the other side and fend off any who would question their stance. When that culture creeps into the fabric of church life, it tends to become quite unhealthy in my estimation. It tends to toward “choosing up sides” and toward the partisan spirit, just as in 1 Corinthians (even if the four named leaders named would not approve of their names being co-opted for schismatic agendas).

    Repentance is about change, but it is hopefully change toward the ideals of God’s kingdom. Change for change’s sake is quite relative. It can be either good or harmful depending upon what it is centered. The “centered-set” view you and Hiebert articulate is a great improvement to the left-right continuum. We need to build on a Cornerstone that is more stable than the spirit of the age, whether modern or post-modern.

    I would like to see more of your writing on the task of theological reflection, both critical and constructive. I would like to see more about theology’s sources (Scripture, Tradition, and Culture) as well as theology’s focal motifs (the Trinity, Christian community, and Eschatology). Thanks for your blogs. They always provoke good thought and encouragement for a better way.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for this opportunity to promote my books! See Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of Theology (IVP) (co-authored with Stanley J. Grenz), The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (IVP) and Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Baker).

  • http://www.fhcintl.org Minister Johnson

    Dr. Olsen:
    Grace to you and peace be multiplied. I am a student in Dallas Theological Seminary. The book, Who Needs Theology, (you co-authored with the late Stan Grenz) is required reading for my theology class. I am familiar with most of DTS’ doctrinal views. However, what are some of your comments regarding the institution in contrasting conservative evangelism and fundamentalism to your views of liberal theology? Thank-you.

    • rogereolson

      Far be it from me to say anything critical about an institution that uses my books (or even one)! Actually, I do not know very much about DTS. I live not far from it and have never been on its campus. I hear the curriculum and instruction are rigorous. Most people I know and respect as experts on such matters consider it conservative evangelical.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Dear Prof. Olson,

    I wonder if you might clarify something in this post. I follow you on most of what you’ve written here, but there’s one aspect of the distinction between “postconservative” and “conservative” that I’m unclear about.

    You write: “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. ”

    If this statement is actually making a real logical distinction between “postconservative” and “conservative,” then we must infer that whereas the conservative gives SOME tradition a veto, the postconservative gives NO tradition a veto. (Or, if that is not the case, then there is no real logical distinction being made here.)

    Ok. Consider the “ancient Christian consensus.” That consensus included the doctrines of the Trinity (God is three persons in one substance) and the Incarnation (Christ is fully God and fully human). The conservative of the paleo-orthodox variety, giving this tradition a veto, would say that any theological construction that entails the contradiction of either of those doctrines is to be rejected as necessarily false.

    What would the postconservative say? Giving this tradition a vote but not a veto, would the postconseravtive allow that a theological construction that entails the contradiction of either/both of those doctrines could be possibly true? Or, if the postconservative would not allow this, then what is the real distinction here?

    Some clarification would be appreciated. Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      Exactly right. No humanly constructed doctrine is absolute. They are all theoretically open to revision in light of fresh and faithful biblical research and interpretation. That’s the only possible meaning of “sola scriptura.” Anyone who would say otherwise is contradicting sola scriptura. I believe in the Trinity because the Bible teaches it, not because Nicea or Constantinople or some church fathers taught it. That the whole church, the church as a whole, has taught it carries weight, but its ultimate foundation is Scripture, not tradition.

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek

        Thanks for your response. That is helpful, but still leaves me with some questions.

        Is your point simply that the particular formulas decided upon by ancient ecumenical councils are not absolutely binding on the future theological constructions of the church? That is, is your point to draw a distinction between doctrine and formulation? If so, can that distinction–between the matter and the form of truth–be drawn exactly? Perhaps I’m too Aristotelian in my thinking, but it seems to me that all matter is formed–every expression of doctrinal matter will come in some conceptual form: there is no “bare doctrine.” We might try to state the “bare doctrine” of the Trinity by saying ‘God is three in one’–but unless we specify what the “three” and the “one” are (which requires conceptual categories) we haven’t actually said something. (Analogy: we say that the baseball player went 2-for-4 in the game, but that says something only in terms of implied categories–2 hits in 4 at-bats). The formula of Nicaea-Constantinople (three persons in one substance) is expressed in the conceptual categories of Greek philosophy, not biblical revelation. Is your point, then, that only the formulas of Scripture have absolute authority (i.e., have a veto) over Christian doctrine?

        Also, what do you mean by a “humanly constructed doctrine”? The formula of Nicaea-Constantinople is not taught in Scripture, of course. But neither is the Trinity itself, not directly at least. The Trinity may well be inferred from Scripture, but nowhere is it stated as such. Thus, we might well agree that the best explanation for why Jesus instructs his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is that all three name God and therefore all three are (in some sense) God–but that is an inference (the text itself does not actually say as much). The Trinity, then, is a humanly inferred doctrine–divinely inspired, to be sure, but humanly inferred no less. So, when you say that you believe in the Trinity because “the Bible teaches it,” you must allow what “the Bible teaches” to include (divinely guided) human inferences from biblical texts; and because (I infer!) you give the Trinity, as a biblical doctrine, veto over church doctrine, you must allow (divinely guided) human inferences to have a veto over church doctrine. Where, I ask, is the line between inference and construction, such that a human inference from Scripture (Trinity) has a veto on doctrine but a human construction based on a human inference from Scripture (Nicaea-Constantinople) does not have a veto? Or, to put the question differently, why could not the human construction of Nicaea-Constantinople have been divinely guided as much as the human inference from Scripture? Or, again, if the Holy Spirit can faithfully guide the human mind to infer a true doctrine from Scripture, why could not the Holy Spirit faithfully guide a church council to construct a true formula to express that doctrine? (My hunch here is that you are implicitly saying something very important here about how you think the Holy Spirit works, or doesn’t work, in the life of the church, and I would like to know what that is.)

        By the way, it appears that you take ‘sola scriptura’ itself to have a veto–we dare not contradict it. Is ‘sola scriptura’ itself taught in Scripture? Or is it an inference? Or a construction? :)

        Thanks for your patience with my questions!

        • rogereolson

          I was simply pointing out an irony–that many conservative Protestants who loudly proclaim “sola scriptura!” do not seem really to believe it because they add to Scripture creeds and confessional statements as incorrigible truths. I said “in theory” any doctrine that goes beyond simply quoting Scripture is open to reconsideration and reinterpration/reconstruction in light of Scripture. That was Luther’s whole point in going against the medieval Catholic doctrine of justification.

  • http://thoughtsonbiblicalsubjects.blogspot.com Bruce K. Oyen

    Dr. Olson, one of your paragraphs in this post says this: ” 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.)” Your last statement that fundamentalists put all Scripture on the same level of importance is a misrepresentation of most fundamentalists. Most of us believe the Bible is equally inspired in its entirety, but we do not believe all of it is of equal importance. That is why we give out the Gospel of John as an evangelistic tool, and not, for example, the Book of Esther or 1 and 2 Chronicles. That is why we tell a new Christian to read the New Testament before the Old Testament. Even fundamentalist John R. Rice did not believe what you say fundamentalists believe. In his book, “Our God-breathed Book — The Bible,” Rice has a chapter called “The inspiration Of The Bible Is Claimed Alike For All its Parts.” One section of that chapter is called “No Degrees In Inspiration.” In it, Rice says this: “This does not mean that all Scripture is as important in some particular situation as some particular part is. It does not mean that John 3:16, for example, is not to be treasured more than some narrative verse in a minor prophet. But it means that every bit of the Word of God is inspired perfectly and alike. There are no degrees of inspiration.” The most that can be said about fundamentalists on this point is that SOME might take the view you referred to. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find that very few fundamentalists hold that view. In all my reading of fundamentalist literature over the years, I do not recall ANY fundamentalist “putting all Scripture on the same level of importance.”

    • rogereolson

      My criticisms have more to do with the fundamentalist ethos, tendencies, habits of heart and mind, than what fundamentalists say they believe. The only fundamentalist doctrine that separates them from conservative evangelicals (in terms of overt belief) is, I think, biblical separation and especially secondary separation. The rest has more to do with behavior, traits, characteristic attitudes and practices. For example, fundamentalists I have known and read tend to be less than comfortable with the qualifications of “inerrancy” one finds in most books of conservative evangelical theologians.

  • John Osborn

    I think this post comes close to the fundamental problem we have in conceptualizing the theological spectrum: we view faithfulness to a certain modern tradition ABOUT scripture and how to interpret it with faithfulness to Scripture itself. According to this view, any departure from fundamentalism is a step away from Scripture, the revelation of Christ, and a step toward theological liberalism. This misses the fact, that fundamentalism is itself something of a new thing in the 2000 year history of Christianity. One might reject fundamentalism and actually be closer to the Truth as it was revealed to Jesus and handed down to the Apostles. We can actually be more radically conservative than the fundamentalists if the measure of conservatism is conserving the faith revealed to the Apostles, rather than conserving a modern apologetic for that faith.

    This view defies the spectrum with a very conservative element (preserving the faith handed to the Apostles) and a very liberal element in being willing to discard any tradition that fall short of that faith. So even calling it moderate or centrist is misleading as that implies that is between liberalism and fundamentalism, when in some ways it’s more conservative than fundamentalism, but it’s radical in rejecting tradition.

    I’m a Seventh-day Adventist and our denomination was largely influenced by the Restorationist movement which held a high view of Scripture and the Apostolic faith and radically rejected tradition. Our history illustrates some of the danger in this approach as we repeated some of the old heresies that thrived in the early centuries when we rejected the tradition that settled those disputes (for example, in the early years many Adventists were semi – Arian, before we came more mainstream orthodoxy in the 20th cent.), however, in my opinion this approach was also quite helpful in leading us away from some very destructive traditions – for example, it led us away from the belief in eternal hell-fire. We were also progressive in attitude about the equality of women and in opposing slavery. We largely lost this approach in the 20th century as we became more and more influenced by fundamentalism, as the only alternative to rising liberalism. So now we have Adventists who are convinced that granting equality to women will be a huge compromise, despite the fact that our founders were arguing for a more progressive view, a whole 150 years ago. I wonder how many other denominations lost sight of an anti-tradition restorationist hermeneutic, when the late 19th and early 20th century convinced them that fundamentalism and liberalism were the only two choices?

    • rogereolson

      Many. Many. A good argument can be made that much of Pentecostalism fell toward the fundamentalist side. The same can be said, I believe, of the whole “Holiness” movement. Holiness and Pentecostal movements began outside fundamentalism, largely untouched by Old Princeton theological rationalism. But during the 1920s and 1930s they gradually adopted at least parts of the fundamentalist ethos. It was the attitude “If you are my enemy’s enemy you are my friend.” The “enemy” being liberalism in the mainline churches and Catholicism. I grew up in the thick of Pentecostal fundamentalism. Only later did I learn that it was an uncomfortable alliance and that many fundamentalist habits we absorbed were in tension with our original ethos. Gradually, over the years, the original Pentecostal openness the ministry of women fall away.

  • AHH

    To pick a nit on something early in your post, as a theistic evolutionist you might find yourself more comfortable with the earliest fundamentalists on that score than you think. Some of the contributors to the earliest edition of The Fundamentals, such as James Orr, were OK with evolution, at least up to a point. It seems that it was only when the fundamentalist/modernist controversies came to a head a little later that being anti-evolution became a fundamentalist essential.

    I prefer a shorter list than the one in your last post to describe the ethos of modern Christian fundamentalism (which I realize is not quite identical to your paleo definition):
    1) Extreme Biblicism, such as not only holding inerrancy but making it an essential, and/or elevating the Bible to the same level as the Trinity.
    2) A militant “us versus them” attitude, where “them” includes not only the secular world but also non-fundamentalist Christians (your “secondary separation” would be a symptom of this).
    Those two pretty much sum up modern fundamentalism from my perspective; other aspects are mostly either peripheral or flow from those two.

  • Rob

    Do you think fundamentalist/evangelical will be a distinction with any meaning for those Christians growing up over the next thirty years? The young people that I most frequently come into contact with do not seem to be adequately characterized by that distinction. I could probably force them into those categories, but it doesn’t seem to get to the heart of their spirituality.
    (The young Christians I refer to come from churches and backgrounds that are broadly evangelical.) The real categories that present themselves in discussions of Christianity seem to be the young, restless, and reformed and a breed of non-denominationalists that de-emphasize theology and emphasize experiential knowledge of God–especially in worship.

    • rogereolson

      I see at least remnants of a fundamentalist ethos at work in many intelligent and theologically reflective young, restless, Reformed Christians. But, yes, your point is well made. All these labels evolve and sometimes die away. Certainly “fundamentalist” is dying. But that doesn’t mean the ethos is dying. I see it re-emerging outside of fundamentalist circles.

  • Bill

    I hope sometime you can do a blog on inerrancy, maybe you have already; I’m new to your blog. Thanks for the helpful descriptions on fundamentalism; I think all of us within Protestantism have felt its punch.

    • rogereolson

      Look back into the archives. I’ve talked about inerrancy here a lot. I argue it is a concept qualified to death by most who say they believe in it.

  • Aaron

    Hey Dr. Olson,

    I know this is a little off topic for this post but I came across this verse the other day that seemed to support a calvinist Effectual calling interpretation. It is 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 – 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

    Can you help me interpret this through an arminian lens? Thanks

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see the problem. It’s completely compatible with Arminianism. I don’t feel any “burden of proof” to explain it “through an Arminian lens.” Should I?

      • Aaron

        No – I was asking, as an arminian myself. I was looking for some help, wondering the best way to interpret this section. Thats all.

        • rogereolson

          My response was meant to encourage you not to fall into the trap of being put on the defensive of “having to explain” passages of Scripture that in no way support Calvinism or conflict with Arminianism. Turn the tables and ask your interlocutors how they interpret it and simply insist that it does not say anything that conflicts with classical Arminianism. Anyone who thinks that passage does is importing into it a system of theology nowhere implied in it.

  • John Reardon

    This is an interesting article. Personally, I find nothing conservative about the bible. It’s some far out stuff with outrageous stories and less-than-useful examples of morality. Now, that’s just what I get from reading the bible. I don’t know how a Christian of any denomination call themselves a ‘conservative’ Christian. Being a nice person, or shy, or unconfrontional is fine, but to call one’s self a conervative based on biblical beliefs is an oxymoron too me. It’s just my opinion. Comments? I’m curious what anyone on this link might think… Thanks.

    • rogereolson

      I agree that the Bible, true biblical theology, is anything but “conservative” IN THE SENSE of promoting conservation of the status quo.


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