What Distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Fundamentalist?”

What Distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Fundamentalist?” April 19, 2012

What Distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Fundamentalist?”

Is it possible to be truly, authentically evangelical without being fundamentalist? That’s what I really meant to ask in books like Reformed and Always Reforming, How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative, and Questions to All Your Answers (and in many of my articles about “postconservative evangelicalism.”

The problem is that, over the last few decades, fewer and fewer people call themselves “fundamentalists.” I think that probably began when the media started using the label to describe terrorists. Who wants to be associated in people’s minds with Ayatollah Khomenei? (Some of you may be too young to remember, but, as I recall, he was the first non-Christian that I ever heard labeled “fundamentalist.”)

These days, people who used to identify themselves as fundamentalists and who still exhibit that ethos call themselves “conservative evangelicals.” Of course, there are people who call themselves conservative evangelicals who are not fundamentalists. So it gets complicated.

So why is this even an important question? Simply that, at least here in the good old U.S., there is a huge network of educational institutions, publishers, mission agencies, world relief organizations, parachurch ministries, etc., etc., that identify themselves as “evangelical.” Most of them at one time or another had some affiliation with the so-called “neo-evangelical” or “postfundamentalist evangelical” movement that was born in the 1940s out of disillusionment with the fundamentalist movement.

The story has been told over and over again by scholars such as George Marsden, Mark Noll and Joel Carpenter (to name just a few). Put simply, “evangelical” includes “fundamentalist” but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.  Put another way, fundamentalists are evangelicals, but since the 1940s, at least, there are many evangelicals who are not fundamentalists.

Of course, one of my projects has been to point out that in the last three decades many people who are more like the old fundamentalists than like the new evangelicals, in terms of ethos, are calling themselves “conservative evangelicals” and trying to push many of us who are more like the new evangelicals out of the evangelical movement.  An example, in my opinion, is Al Mohler calling me “postevangelical.”

I claim that my ethos is not essentially different from the evangelical ethos I learned and came to embrace in seminary (North American Baptist Seminary) in the 1970s. My evangelical ethos is closer to the original one of the National Association of Evangelicals than to that of many self-identified “conservative evangelicals” who, in my opinion, operate out of an ethos more like the old fundamentalist one against which the new evangelicals rebelled.

What do fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals and postfundamentalist/postconservative evangelicals have in common? Much.

All of us, as evangelical Protestant Christians, believe in 1) the supreme authority of inspired Scripture for faith and practice, 2) basic Christian orthodoxy as embodied in the consensus of the church fathers and reformers about the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, etc., 3) a supernatural worldview, 4) salvation by God’s grace through faith alone, 5) personal conversion as normative for authentic Christianity, 6) the cross of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation and as vicarious atonement, 7) the virgin birth, resurrection and visible return of Jesus Christ.

The distinctive hallmarks of post-1925 fundamentalism are 1) adding to those essentials of Christianity non-essentials such as premillennial eschatology, 2) “biblical separation” as the duty of every Christian to refuse fellowship with people who call themselves Christians but are considered doctrinally or morally impure, 3) a chronically negative and critical attitude toward culture including non-fundamentalist higher education, 4) emphatic anti-evolution, anti-communist, anti-Catholic and anti-ecumenical attitudes and actions (including elevation of young earth creationism and American exceptionalism as markers of authentic Christianity), 5) emphasis on verbal inspiration and technical inerrancy of the Bible as necessary for real Christianity (including exclusion of all biblical criticism and, often, exclusive use the KJV), and 6) a general tendency to require adherence to traditional lifestyle norms (hair, clothes, entertainment, sex roles, etc.).

Who were these post-1925 fundamentalists? Not all of these embodied all six of the above hallmarks, but they generally functioned within that ethos: William Bell Riley, Frank Norris, Bob Jones, Carl McIntire, John R. Rice and the early Jerry Falwell. And many, many more. Most of them were non-Reformed, but there was a Reformed camp of fundamentalists who shared that ethos without premillennialism. (I would locate Cornelius Van Til there.)

How did the postfundamentalist evangelicals differ from them? Beginning in the 1940s and increasingly throughout the 1950s former self-identified fundamentalists began to shy away from that identity and ethos without embracing liberalism or neo-orthodoxy. They 1) sought to establish ecumenical cooperation and fellowship among evangelicals who disagreed about non-essentials such as eschatology and predestination [“generous orthodoxy”], 2) sought to be cautiously open to secular culture and higher education and its products, and 3) sought to overcome legalism that had become characteristic of much fundamentalism.

In other words, the main difference between the new evangelicals and the fundamentalists was one of ethos—at least from the new evangelical point of view. From the fundamentalist point of view, of course, the difference was more than one of ethos. It was often viewed as one of departure from the gospel.

The new evangelicalism was to be a broad tent that included everyone from conservative Presbyterians to Pentecostals to Advent Christians to Nazarenes to (recently) the Worldwide Church of God. Fundamentalists were invited to join but declined. Still, formally speaking, fundamentalists are evangelicals and, to liberals, anyway, all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

As an heir of and scholar working within the new evangelicalism movement I have found it necessary to warn fellow new evangelicals about a neo-fundamentalism taking shape and growing among us. Its adherents are not exactly like the older fundamentalists, so it’s not easy to identify them. For one thing, they don’t call themselves fundamentalists. They call themselves conservative evangelicals and attempt to style themselves as mainstream evangelicals, even “confessional evangelicals” and so forth. (Using positive-sounding labels that imply THEY are the “real” evangelical heirs of the postfundamentalist evangelical movement.)

Why does it matter? Why do I and others bother to sound the warning alarm about this? Because much is at stake. First, the nature of the gospel is at stake. These people, like the older fundamentalists (some of whom are still around) wish to “enrich” the gospel and evangelicalism with doctrines not all new evangelicals believe. But they pretend that all “real” evangelicals always believed them. In their hands, the gospel becomes a system of theology virtually identical with that of Charles Hodge and the Old School Princeton Theology of the 19th century. The gospel becomes a new law, system of orthodoxy, that requires adherence without mental reservation for salvation or at least for discipleship. In their hands, for example, being evangelical requires not only right beliefs but right way of believing—that is, foundationalism.

Second, the wonderful network of trans-denominational parachurch organizations (colleges, universities, seminaries, mission agencies, world relief agencies, publishers, etc.) is at stake. The new fundamentalists are out to take them over. There is no doubt about that in my mind. I experienced it “extremely loud and incredibly close.” So have many of my colleagues who spent much of their lives in Southern Baptist institutions and were forced into exile by the new fundamentalists. Now the same people, joined by others, are attempting to do with evangelicalism what they did with the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminaries.

The problem is that these new fundamentalists, who are, admittedly, evangelicals too, are not easy to identify. They pass themselves off as mainstream evangelicals, the heirs of Carl Henry, for example. Henry, however, denied that inerrancy was a litmus test of authentic evangelical faith. And, as strongly opinionated as he was about many matters, he attempted to keep the evangelical “tent” broad and inclusive.

I identify the new fundamentalists by their ethos which I find to be similar in many ways to that of the older fundamentalists. They are evangelicals who TEND to 1) spend much energy searching for and identifying heresies among evangelicals, 2) focus a lot of attention on identifying “evangelical boundaries” and solidifying them by demonstrating that some evangelicals are “outside the boundaries,” 3) add non-essential doctrines to the essentials of evangelicalism (boundaries) such as biblical inerrancy, young earth creationism, monergistic salvation and/or penal substitutionary atonement, 4) find nothing of value in non-Christian culture—especially philosophy, psychology and sociology, 5) attempt to frighten the faithful about “doctrinal drift” and “defection from the faith” where those do not really exist.

Remember, I’m talking about an ethos here, not a set of absolute markers or even characteristics those who display them are fully aware of (they would no doubt deny some of them).

Who am I to talk this way? Am I just someone on the sidelines crying “wolf!” when there is no wolf? I don’t think so. Of course, that’s for you to decide. But I have been in this evangelical movement my entire life and have had very keen interest in it most of my adult life. I have been editor of an evangelical scholarly journal, contributing editor to Christianity Today for quite a few years, chair of the Evangelical Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion, professor of theology in three Christian universities strongly historically identified with evangelicalism, author of numerous articles and several books dealing with evangelicalism. I have seen with my own eyes and experienced directly this attempted takeover of the evangelical movement by new fundamentalists.

An analogy is what has happened to the Republican Party in the United States. I can remember when it included influential moderates such as Nelson Rockefeller, John Anderson, Mark Hatfield and many others. Now moderates are unwelcome in the party. The party has been virtually taken over by people who in the 1950s and 1960s would have been considered radically right wing in their economic views.

People ask me all the time “Roger, why don’t you just give up calling yourself ‘evangelical’ and admit you’ve lost it? ‘Evangelical’ now means ‘fundamentalist’.” Call me stubborn and a champion of lost causes, but even if I go to my grave the only moderate evangelical left that’s what I will be calling myself. I hope others will join me in this and not abandon the label and the movement to the new fundamentalists. (Many of the people who ask me that still call themselves Baptist when, to most people in America, “Baptist” is virtually equated with “fundamentalist.” Why don’t they give up calling themselves Baptist?)

Something I’ve been reading set me off on this post. I’ve been reading articles by a certain, not-to-be-named evangelical philosopher/theologian who finds something good and right and helpful in a postmodern, even deconstructionist, philosopher’s musings. He carefully dissects the philosopher’s thoughts, pointing out the benefit for all Christians, evangelicals included, of exposure of idols, while also pointing out areas of the philosopher’s thought that are theologically weak and probably should be avoided. But he’s very adroit at pointing out the fact that in this particular deconstructionist philosopher’s writings, the non-Christian elements seem to stand in tension with the ideas that are beneficial to Christians. The latter could, if followed out consistently, reform the former and help even this philosopher move closer to the kingdom.

This evangelical philosopher/theologian’s work in the area of postmodernity and deconstruction is profound. It displays first hand acquaintance and real understanding of postmodern philosophy. He does not rely on other evangelical sources; he reads the philosophers themselves. What he finds is not exactly the “standard evangelical line” about postmodernism and deconstructionism. For that alone, being cautiously and critically open to postmodernism and deconstructionism, he was denied tenure at an evangelical institution of higher education. That’s new fundamentalism at work. At that same evangelical institution of higher education, not many years ago, the governing board ordered the president to stop the faculty from introducing liberation theology to students in any manner or form. They did not want the students even to know what liberation theology is. All teaching about liberation theology was to stop. Of course, the president refused and was fired. New fundamentalism at work.

Do I know about these and similar events merely anecdotally? No. I have them from the primary sources. I know people on both sides personally. And I’ve been there myself—in a similar situation where we (theology faculty) were ordered by an administration to cease and desist all teaching about open theism. New fundamentalism at work. I was told face-to-face by a powerful pastor that he would get me fired for not siding with him in his attempt to get an open theist colleague fired. New fundamentalism at work. I was invited to speak at a conference of new fundamentalists (who, of course, consider themselves mainstream evangelicals). Not once during the several days long conference would one of them sit with me at a meal. “Biblical separation” at work, new fundamentalism at work. (No “table fellowship” with heretics!)

Something truly awful is stirring within evangelicalism. It’s directly analogous to what has happened in the Republican Party. I call on moderate evangelical leaders to stand up and speak out against it. So far most have not. None dare call it fundamentalism.


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