Why Not “Against Fundamentalism?”
*Note to would-be commenters: Know that this is not a discussion board; it is more like an editorial page. Letters to the editor do not always get published. If you choose to compose and post a comment, know that it may not be posted here, especially if it is overly long, off topic, addressed to someone other than me, is hostile or argumentative, and includes a picture or link.*
Many people have asked me why I do not write a book entitled “Against Fundamentalism” now that I have written “Against Liberal Theology.” My answer is that I may yet.
But there are some problems that stand in the way.
First, I find it difficult to locate a fundamentalist tradition of theology comparable with liberal theology’s tradition. My library was full of books by liberal theologians and I knew/know liberal theology first-hand. I served as president of a theological society whose members were mostly liberal theologians. I was a member of two liberal Protestant churches. Over the years I have studied liberal theology and liberal theologians much. Some of my theological professors were self-identified liberal theologians.
My experience with and knowledge of fundamentalism is not as deep or wide. I know it, of course, but one thing I know about it is that it has never produced the kind of intellectual tradition that liberal theology has produced. Fundamentalism, at least since the first stages of the movement in the first two decades of the 20th century, has been largely anti-intellectual and I often find the books and articles I have read by fundamentalists so lacking in intellectual rigor that I despair of describing it. In short, I worry that it is not a worthy opponent – at least for me – with a book against it.
Second, “fundamentalism” is an essentially contested concept—at least since about 1920 and especially since about 1980. Who are the real fundamentalists? Who speaks for them? Who writes their books? I’m not talking about politically right-wing American religion; I’m talking about theology. Where are the tomes of fundamentalist theology that can be taken seriously?
I have gone out of my way to visit fundamentalist churches and heard absolutely ridiculous things said from the pulpits such as “The Christian’s attitude toward secular culture should be ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up’.” That statement, ending a fundamentalist sermon, seemed to me to sum up the fundamentalist ethos.
Fuller Seminary president E. J. Carnell defined fundamentalism as “orthodoxy gone cultic.” That has been my experience of true fundamentalism (whatever that is, exactly). So, when I experience “orthodoxy gone cultic” I think “fundamentalism.” But where to go from there?
Third, I have relatives who are fundamentalists and I mean they say things like “There is no salvation without the King James Bible.” When I asked my uncle “What about, say, people in Germany?” (I had just returned from studying theology in Germany.) His answer was “You mean the King James Bible hasn’t been translated into German?” He was absolutely serious.
Now, I know that not all self-identified fundamentalists would fall into that kind of nonsense, but I have had many conversations with self-identified fundamentalist theologians that reveal a kind of belief that borders on that. Their devotion to the KJV of the Bible is, IMHO, sheer anti-intellectualism, a blindness to facts.
What to do with that? Isn’t it more a subject for a psychologist of religion?
Fourth, and summing up, I simply don’t have enough respect for true fundamentalism to take it on. Whenever I have tried to wrap my mind around it, I find it to be so strange, so disappointing, so untheological, that I can’t contemplate writing a book against it. Where would I start? With what body of literature?
I once went out of my way to visit a fundamentalist bookstore. Again, I’m talking about real fundamentalism – not mere conservative Christianity. This bookstore was in a fundamentalist mega church in Texas. The pastor was a very well-known speaker whose recording (on cassette tapes) influenced an American Vice President and his wife! I browsed in the bookstore and saw these two books that stand out in my memory. One had a picture of a jet bomber in the sky and the title was “Salvation through Military Conquest.” The other one had on its cover a picture of an open Bible descending from the heavens (planet and stars) to earth and the title was “That Manuscript from Heaven.”
I also visited a “Christian book and Bible store” in another city—always looking for respectable volumes of fundamentalist theology – and saw this title: “The Great Conservative Baptist Compromise.” The book was by a founding president of a local fundamentalist Baptist church, college, and seminary. I thumbed through the book for about half an hour attempting to discern what it was about. It was a diatribe against the founders of the Conservative Baptist Association (of churches), claiming that it, the CBA (now CBAmerica), was “liberal.”
I have invited fundamentalist theologians into my classes to speak and answer questions; I have gone to great lengths to visit (real) fundamentalist churches and institutions. I have read the magazine “The Sword of the Lord” and other fundamentalist publications. (I was once even quoted in an article in one!) My “take away” from all this informal research is that I have not found anything like a theological tradition—comparable with Calvinism or liberal Protestant theology—that deserves my attention.
I grew up in churches that some would call fundamentalist – because the word has become so indexical. That is, who or what counts as “fundamentalist” depends very much, in popular discourse, on the religious or secular beliefs of the person using the adjective. My focus in this years-long search for a real fundamentalist tradition worthy of serious attention has been on those who call themselves fundamentalists.
Of course, I know that someone out there will say “But why not write about fundamentalists who don’t use the label for themselves?” Well, that’s a problem. So far my “against” books have dealt primarily with people who did embrace the labels (viz., Calvinist and theologically liberal).
Back to the churches I grew up in. I don’t really categorize them as fundamentalist. Yes, we had fundamentalists in them, but, for the most part, they were not part of any fundamentalist movement. We were “evangelicals” and “conservative,” but were rejected as at best half Christians by the real fundamentalists (mostly Baptists and Presbyterians).
If someone can give me some titles of serious volumes of fundamentalist theology, theology that uses that descriptor, I will gladly see if I can locate and study a real fundamentalist tradition in theology. Now, such books would have to be post-1920 and not by people like J. Gresham Machen who was and is often labeled a fundamentalist but was not at all like fundamentalism became in the mid-20th century and is today. Such books must show evidence of serious thinking, reasonable interpretation and exposition, not absurd rejections of what Bernard Ramm called the “material facts” of science.
If there has ever been a serious Christian critique of fundamentalism it was Bernard Ramm’s “The Christian View of Science and Scripture” published in the 1950s. It’s not a thorough treatment of fundamentalist theology and is not up to date, but I can recommend it very highly to those who want a credible, serious critique of one aspect of fundamentalism, its rejection of modern science.