Against Fundamentalism?

Against Fundamentalism? April 19, 2022

Against Fundamentalism?

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I have now written two books with titles that include “Against” — “Against Calvinism” and “Against Liberal Theology.” Both are published by Zondervan. See them on Amazon. “Against Calvinism” has sold very well. I hope for the same with “Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity.”

I realize it is considered gauche to be “against” something—unless it’s illegal or unarguably unethical. However, my model with these books is church father Origen’s “Contra Celsum” (“Against Celsus”). There are ideas and methods in Christian theology that must be opposed. I am willing to take the heat from those who think it is wrong to be against anything. A theologian cannot be for or even neutral about everything.

Now I am contemplating a book entitled “Against Fundamentalism.” But there are some problems. I welcome suggestions.

Very few people identify as fundamentalists since the modern mass media have identified fundamentalism with terrorism. Back in the 1970s they began labeling certain factions of Islam especially in Iran as “Islamic fundamentalism” and certain leaders were linked to terrorism by the media. That caught on in the popular mind and almost overnight Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell were identifying as “evangelicals.”

What are some books by real Christian fundamentalists about fundamentalism? The authors would have to identify as fundamentalists or be widely regarded as fundamentalists.

I am aware, of course, of the “old fundamentalists” and some of their writings. The first stage of American Christian fundamentalism is well represented by the 1910-1911 pamphlets called “The Fundamentals.” Until I retired, and for years, I owned original editions of those. I donated them to a library when I retired. I read many of the articles contained in them and recognized them as simply anti-liberal essays by orthodox Protestant scholars and ministers.

The second stage of American Christian fundamentalism is well represented by prototypes such as William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, Bob Jones, Sr., Carl McIntire, and others of the 1920s through the 1950s.

During the 1970s the category and label “fundamentalist” began to change. It still contained and referred to the old-line, separatistic, “King James Bible Only” crowd, but it also included and referred to almost any hyper-conservative Protestants. Later, during the 1990s and until today, the category and label have become so fluid and flexible as to be almost meaningless.

Is Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a fundamentalist or a traditional Baptist? Or even just a garden variety conservative evangelical? What about some of the younger mega-church pastors and evangelists who project a very contemporary image but hold and teach a very literalistic view of the Bible and reject as not authentically evangelical anyone who does not believe as they do—for example in the inerrancy of the Bible? What about new style renewalist churches and their pastors, especially those who believe in and teach the gift of prophecy for all true Christians? (Let those who have ears or eyes understand about whom I refer!)

What exactly counts as Christian fundamentalism? Is it a set of beliefs or a certain way of holding them? Is it a style, a posture, toward those of more moderate inclinations, open to modest revisions of traditional beliefs? Is it a case of “I know one when I meet one?”

Some years ago I spoke at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society—about open theism and defended it as not heretical. A professor at a well-known conservative evangelical (fundamentalist?) college asked me if I believed someone who does not believe in the virgin birth can be saved. I knew he was trying to back me into a corner and the question was out of context. It was a kind of litmus test question—to discover and reveal my level of “safeness” as an evangelical. I FELT him as a fundamentalist at that moment, although I seriously doubt he considered himself such.

If I write a book entitled “Against Fundamentalism” what will it be against exactly? I think I know, but I’m not sure I can demonstrate that I am right—because the category has lost its limits. “Fundamentalist” now seems to be an indexical term, dependent entirely on context.

I once read a journalist who called C. S. Lewis an “Anglican fundamentalist.” Really? Well, yes, in the sense that he adhered to the foundations, the “fundamentals,” of Christian orthodoxy. But, no, not in any true historical-theological sense. And certainly not in the popular mind sense.

I am drawn to the idea proposed by James McClendon and Nancey Murphy that fundamentalism and theological liberalism are both overly influenced by modernity. Fundamentalists seem to be obsessed with certainty while theological liberals are obsessed with relevance to modern culture. Both are obsessed with ambiguity—one against it and one for it. What’s the alternative—theologically? According to the authors it is postliberalism—what has sometimes been called the Yale School of Theology—theologians influenced by Hans Frei and George Lindbeck and possibly also Stanley Hauerwas (with H. Richard Niebuhr lurking in the not-very-distant background).

But, back to my basic question. What is fundamentalism? The University of Chicago Fundamentalism Project led by sociologist of religion Scott Appleby identified it as “religious anti-modernism.” I think that’s a bit too a-historical and broad to serve well. Are deconstructionists like John Caputo fundamentalists? Hardly. Are the Amish fundamentalists? Well, not in any historical-theological sense. What, then?

Is it a list of doctrines stated in a certain way? Is it a mentality that functions in a certain way? Is it an ethos lived out in a certain way? Is it all three of those?

Who are the real prototypes of TODAY’S Christian fundamentalism? Is it fair to call someone a fundamentalist if they reject the label?

Thoughtful, informed insights and suggestions are welcome—up to 150 words. No sermons or diatribes or flames welcome here! Just thoughtful, informed insights and suggestions, thank you.

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