I’ve been writing a series of posts here about the phenomenon among evangelicals (especially evangelical scholars and those under their influence including certain influential pastors and authors) that I call “neo-fundamentalism.” I’ve already identified several common (perhaps not universal) characteristics or hallmarks of this movement (if it can be called that).
First, let me reiterate that I’m not claiming there’s some kind of secret cabal or conspiracy at work. Rather, I think I detect a relatively new ethos among conservative evangelicals that feels a lot like the fundamentalism “the new evangelicals” supposedly left behind in the 1940s and 1950s. (In its broadest sense “evangelicalism” includes fundamentalists, but beginning with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals and then taking off with the founding and growth of the Billy Graham ministries including Christianity Today in the 1950s a “new evangelicalism” struggled to distinguish itself from the fundamentalist movement led by men like Bob Jones, Carl McIntire and John R. Rice.) This neo-fundamentalism consists of (mostly) men who claim to be part of the new evangelicalism and are usually so identified but who seem to be turning back to something more like fundamentalism in terms of their attitudes and approaches to evangelical theology and ministry. But there doesn’t seem to be any unifying organization tying them all together even though they do tend to huddle together in certain organizations.
The one hallmark of the older fundamentalism not shared by these neo-fundamentalists (who prefer the label “confessional evangelical”–a label I can’t give over to them because we postconservative evangelicals confess a lot!) is the doctrine of “biblical separationism” and especially “secondary separationism.” However, even these seem to be returning to some extent among these neo-fundamentalists. (I’m thinking for example of the SBC’s withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance.)
One hallmark I don’t think I’ve talked about here before is the neo-fundamentalists’ tendency to publish ONLY scholarship aimed at “correcting” doctrinal drift or declension among fellow evangelicals. For them, theology should not be creative or engage in reconstruction. Apparently, anyway, God does NOT (for them) have new light to break forth from his word. They are defensive of whatever they perceive as “the received evangelical tradition” and pump out books and articles attacking those evangelicals they regard as somehow departing from it. It always turns out that they see all those straying evangelicals as “on a liberal trajectory.” They (the neo-fundamentalists) are obsessed with liberal theology–as if it still poses a huge threat. (In fact, although it is still around, it has almost no real influence except in some of the mainline Protestant denominations.) Fellow evangelicals like N. T. Wright, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, the late Stanley Grenz, and numerous others I might mention are treated very harshly by the neo-fundamentalists merely for daring to push the envelope of tradition so as to rethink some traditional doctrinal formulations.
I am not against polemics, so long as they are practiced in a civil and respectful manner. But what puzzles me is why these seemingly brilliant neo-fundamentalist scholars, many of who teach in very respectable evangelical institutions, don’t get to work on something more constructive theologically than criticism of fellow evangelicals. They seem always to be waiting and watching for an evangelical to write or publish something they consider less than fully orthodox so they can jump on it and write another book attacking it.
This current evangelical situation reminds me of Karl Barth’s response to the question of possible universalism in his theology. In The Humanity of God (p. 62) he wrote: “One question should for a moment be asked, in view of the ‘danger’ with which one may see this concept [viz., universalism] gradually surrounded. What of the ‘danger’ of the eternally skeptical-critical theologian who is ever and again suspiciously questioning, because fundamentally always legalistic and therefore in the main morosely gloomy? Is not his presence among us currently more threatening than that of the unbecomingly cheerful indifferentism or even antinomianism, to which one with a certain understanding of universalism could in fact deliver himself? This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”
I think Barth’s comment there speaks powerfully into the ongoing debate over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. And into the plethora of publications attacking moderate and postconservative evangelicals for daring to engage in fresh and faithful biblical research in order to test whether time honored (but still human) traditions are valid. We have too many “morosely gloomy” evangelical theologians today. I’d like to challenge them to take a year off from their inquisitions to write something positive and constructive.