Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists? (by David G. Moore)

Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists? (by David G. Moore) October 22, 2015

By David George Moore.  Dave blogs at

I became a Christian at Arizona State University through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru).  A few months later, I was browsing the shelves in a Christian bookstore.  I stumbled upon a booklet which immediately caught my attention: Campus Crusade Examined in Light of Scripture. The author, Charles Woodbridge, articulated brief, but sharp disagreements with Campus Crusade, especially that they embraced working with Christians from all denominations.  This author was no anti-intellectual rube.  Charles Woodbridge was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University, did graduate work at the Sorbonne, and held a PhD from Duke.

Through professors at both Dallas Theological Seminary (82-84) and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (90-92) I heard the story of modern-day Evangelicalism.  It was described as a movement of sorts which sought to break away from the anti-intellectualism and lack of cultural engagement characteristic of many Fundamentalists.   With exceptions like Charles Woodbridge and more famously with J. Gresham Machen, Fundamentalism had an ethos of anti-intellectualism along with suspicion over the merits of cultural engagement.

Carl Henry, Edward Carnell, Harold Ockenga, and Kenneth Kantzer were concerned over the penchant of Fundamentalists to isolate themselves from engagement with American culture.  These new, Evangelical leaders secured PhDs at secular universities like Harvard and Boston University.  They sought to demonstrate that Christians could be robust intellectually, culturally engaged, all while remaining thoroughly orthodox.  Nothing was compromised when it came to the core, Christian doctrines.  Carl Henry and the rest very much held to the “big five.”  Doug Sweeney describes what was included in these five.

The most popular list was “The Five Point Deliverance” of the Northern Presbyterians. The 1910 Presbyterian General Assembly ruled that all who wanted to be ordained within their ranks had to affirm the Westminster Confession and subscribe to five fundamental doctrines: 1) the inspiration  and inerrancy of the Bible, 2) the virgin birth of Christ, 3) the substitutionary           atonement of Christ, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and 5) the  historicity of the biblical miracles.

Note well that there is nothing about the age of the earth or the role of women.

In the early 1990s, I read George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism (published in 1987).  Even though John Woodbridge had written a book-length critique of those who do not hold to inerrancy, Marsden recorded the dismay of Woodbridge’s father over unwise compromises he believed his son was making.  I vividly remember reading Marsden’s book because John Woodbridge taught me church history.  Professor Woodbridge’s scholarship and many kindnesses were a wonderful blessing during my time at Trinity.  Both father and son were rock solid on the core doctrines of the Christian faith.  However, their conceptions of faithful, Christian practice in the modern world were at loggerheads.

The explanation I heard on numerous occasions is that the Evangelicals, in an admirable desire to engage the world, left the backwaters of the Fundamentalists for good.  It was a clean break.  I’m no longer so sure of that narrative.   At the very least, it seems to me now that the relationship between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals may be a bit more complicated than many of us have assumed.

It seems there remain at least some Fundamentalist tendencies within some/much of Evangelicalism.  I see it regularly in the lack of interest in the church’s history with the attendant skepticism that there is nothing of value to learn from the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox traditions.  It can also be found in the confidence, even hubris, over how one articulates secondary doctrinal issues like the age of the earth.  On a flight years ago I got into a wonderful conversation with a university professor.  He told me to my horror that “he could never be a Christian because he could not believe in early earth creationism.”  I told him this had nothing to do with the gospel.   He vigorously disagreed.  His witnessing friends had folded a certain view of creationism into the gospel.  My attempts to correct this faulty assumption were futile.

I wonder whether the pugnacious and polemical spirit which characterized modern-day Fundamentalism still finds safe haven among too many of us Evangelicals.

Consider the case of respected Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke.  He embodies the original ideal of twentieth-century Evangelicals with his dual doctorates from Dallas Theological Seminary followed by a PhD from Harvard.  His scholarship is widely respected all while consistently holding to the essentials of the Christian faith.  In March of 2009, Professor Waltke, even for all his standing within the Evangelical world, drew the ire of many for what he said in an interview with BioLogos.  Waltke stated:

…if the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us [evangelicals] a cult…some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and  trusting God’s providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.

Suffice it to say, this raised quite a brouhaha.  To quell the controversy Waltke clarified that he believed in the historical Adam and Eve, but the criticisms persisted.

I remember being both dismayed and a bit perplexed by what happened.  Here you have an Evangelical scholar with a long history of impeccable scholarship, a man whose books line the shelves of many Evangelicals, put through the ringer for speaking out on a less than primary doctrine.  I’m not sure I agree with Waltke myself, but my mind was on hyper drive trying to process the way this venerable scholar, and most importantly, gracious servant of Christ, was being treated.

Confessional churches are certainly free to subscribe to whatever non-essential doctrines they want, whether that is a certain understanding of baptism or the role of women.  My concern is that the manner in which we articulate these non-essential teachings not mimic what most of us find troubling about Fundamentalism.

So I leave you with this question: Did we as Evangelicals make a clean break with the Fundamentalist impulse which divides uncharitably over non-essentials?

[I am grateful to Randall Balmer for his encouragement on this piece and confirming that it is indeed a “pertinent” issue.  Randy asked me whether dualism might additionally be an issue worth addressing.  Suffice it to say, I am noodling on his suggestion.]



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