Who's Who: Why Fundamentalists Draw Boundaries

By Kevin T. Bauder

photo courtesy of MGL via C.C. License at FlickrIn an essay entitled "Let's Get Clear on This," I argued the following: (1) conservative evangelicals are not neo-evangelicals; (2) conservative evangelicals are making a substantial contribution to the defense and exposition of the Christian faith; (3) substantial differences continue to distinguish conservative evangelicals from fundamentalists; but (4) fundamentalists must not treat conservative evangelicals as enemies or even opponents. These points are, I think, as clear in reality as they were presented to be in the essay.

What "Let's Get Clear on This" did not do was to explore the important differences between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. What I have proposed to do is to examine the ways in which fundamentalism differs from conservative evangelicalism.

This is partly an empirical evaluation based on an examination of the two movements as they actually exist at this point in time. But only partly. I am deliberately opting for an a priori definition that excludes some self-identified fundamentalists. The reason for this decision is simple: words refer to ideas, and ideas are anterior to things. This discussion will recognize as fundamentalists only those who approximate the idea of fundamentalism. Of course, none of us perfectly implements the idea. Whenever ideas are incarnated in human institutions, movements, and persons, they display the effects of human finiteness and fallenness. No ideal fundamentalist (or conservative, or Baptist, or even Christian) has ever existed, and none ever will. We judge ourselves by the idea. In the present discussion, I shall consider only those versions of fundamentalism that are closer to the idea.

My concern in this essay is how the idea of fundamentalism addresses the problem of differences between Christians. In order to establish the context for that discussion, however, I must also explain how fundamentalists view differences with non-Christians, and why it is that fundamentalists refuse to recognize certain self-identified Christians as Christians at all.

At the heart of fundamentalism is the notion that the gospel functions as the boundary between Christianity and non-Christianity. Those who profess the true gospel ought to be recognized as Christians unless their lives contradict their profession. Those who deny the gospel must be treated as non-Christians, whatever they may claim to be.

According to 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel revolves around the historical events of Jesus' death and resurrection, both attested by proper evidence (the burial and the witnesses), and both explained in their true significance (Christ's death was "for our sins," and His resurrection made Him the "firstfruits of them that sleep"). The choice of 1 Corinthians 15 as a defining passage is not arbitrary. It is the one passage in the New Testament that clearly aims to articulate a definition of the gospel.

To state that the gospel simply is Jesus' death and resurrection, however, is too facile. Jesus' death for our sins and His resurrection as our firstfruits entails a long list of assumptions and corollaries involving the nature and consequences of human sinfulness, the qualifications of Christ to be our sin-bearer, the nature of the work that He did to remove our guilt, and the application of that work to the individual soul. These assumptions and corollaries comprise what we call essential or fundamental doctrines. To deny any of these fundamentals is (at least implicitly) to deny the gospel itself.

In addition to its cognitive dimensions, the gospel also carries conative and affective implications. Not all of the fundamentals are doctrinal. For the present discussion, however, it is sufficient to note that a denial of a fundamental doctrine entails a denial of the gospel itself. Although other denials are possible, everyone who denies a fundamental doctrine denies the gospel.

Those who deny the gospel cannot be recognized as Christians. Naturally this is true of a Muslim, a Hindu, or an out-and-out infidel. But it is also true of those who name the name of Christ and claim to be Christians while denying fundamental doctrines.

Through the years, any number of theological systems have denied the gospel while claiming to be Christian. They have gone by names like Gnosticism, Arianism, Socinianism, Mormonism, Modernism, and Romanism. No person can simultaneously profess allegiance to one of these systems and to the gospel. Therefore, no person who professes to believe these systems can rightly be recognized as a Christian.