Is Evangelicalism Standing the Test of Time? "The Fundamentals" at 100

Before the year 2010 passes us by, let us note that it is the 100th anniversary of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915). This was a series of ninety essays in twelve volumes that is widely considered a foundation of the modern evangelical movement, or what in those days came to be called "fundamentalism." Today very few Christians accept the label "fundamentalist," but the 1910s were the era of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy within major Protestant denominations. In the face of growing doubts about traditional Christian doctrines and the Bible's authority, an all-star cast of pastors and theologians from across the English-speaking world contributed essays to The Fundamentals to bolster the essentials of the faith.

How much has the evangelical movement changed in the past 100 years? A quick review of The Fundamentals suggests that evangelicals 1) have shed some unfortunate biases of those bygone days, 2) continue to struggle with similar intellectual issues, most notably evolution, and 3) retain a common message of grace through Christ.

The most discomfiting aspect of The Fundamentals is its vicious anti-Catholicism. One essay answered negatively the question, "Is Romanism Christianity?" Another, "Rome, the Antagonist of the Nation," declared Roman Catholicism a "CORRUPT AND CORRUPTING SYSTEM OF FALSEHOOD AND IDOLATRY THAT POLLUTES OUR LAND" and "Satan's counterfeit of the true Church of Christ." In this mindset, The Fundamentals' authors are closer to the wars of the Reformation than today's cooperation between evangelicals and conservative Catholics.

Anti-Catholicism would continue to mark evangelicalism well into the 20th century. It began to ease, symbolically, with the election of John Kennedy as President in 1960. During the culture wars of the 1980s, evangelicals and conservative Catholics realized that they often had more in common with each other than they did with liberals in their own communion. The trend toward evangelical and Catholic collaboration was highlighted by the signing of the 1994 ecumenical statement "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." Certainly evangelicals and Catholics have remaining important divisions over the nature of the church, the means of salvation, and other key issues, but ECT's primary affirmation that "Jesus Christ is Lord" heralded a much more creative dialogue than the fulminations of a century ago.

The authors of The Fundamentals, secondly, had gone on full alert against the dangers of atheistic Darwinism. This was a time in which evangelicals could still hope to win the battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools (the Scopes Trial, the fatal blow in that fight, came a decade later). "The teaching of Darwinism, as an approved science," one author wrote, "to the children and youth of the schools of the world is the most deplorable feature of the whole wretched propaganda."

Yet one sees a surprising flexibility in the authors' understanding of the details of creation. George F. Wright, a professor at Oberlin College, stated at the outset of his "The Passing of Evolution" that "the world was not made in an instant, or even in one day (whatever period day may signify) but in six days." To Wright, this progress over six days (whether literal days or eons) showed a kind of evolution in the Bible. What Wright could not accept was the atheism implicit in popular Darwinism, "which practically eliminates God from the whole creative process," making mankind's origins random and purposeless. James Orr of Glasgow, Scotland, similarly advanced the possibility of a theistic understanding of evolution, in which evolution became "but a new name for 'creation.'"

Many evangelicals in the 1910s were, on this topic, less strict than many advocates of Creation Science today. What mattered most was that God directed the formation of the universe and humankind. The details of how he created the world were mysterious, and still open to scientific inquiry. Even William Jennings Bryan, the defender of Tennessee's anti-evolution law at the Scopes Trial, leaned toward the view that the "days" of Genesis 1 represented ages of time. Evangelical Christians today often suggest that one may only believe in atheistic evolution or the literal six-day creation of a relatively young earth. This was not how many evangelicals saw the issue in the 1910s.

So on Catholicism and evolution, things have certainly changed. By and large, however, the "fundamentals" of evangelical faith have not. Historian David Bebbington's standard "quadrilateral" of evangelical distinctives are crucicentrism (the centrality of the Cross), biblicism (the authority of the Bible), conversionism (the indispensability of personal conversion), and activism (putting one's faith into action in evangelism and service). Each of these themes was robust in The Fundamentals.

12/29/2010 5:00:00 AM