What Can Evangelicals Learn from Fundamentalists?
A few of the responses from a pastors’ and theologians’ forum hosted by 9Marks several years ago:
What can we learn from the Fundamentalists? Well, to start with, how about the fundamentals? These sturdy Christians stood courageously for crucial doctrines of faith such as the total truthfulness of Holy Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, his substitutionary atoning death on the cross, etc. when these teachings were under attack by unbelieving theologians. Thank God for them and for their courage!
Another lesson: how to work together across denominational lines for the historic orthodox faith. Fundamentalism is the mother of Evangelical ecumenism at its best.
Here is a third lesson: an unstinted commitment to the cause of world missions. The Fundamentalists gave the lie to the old canard, “Doctrine divides, missions unite.”
But there are negative lessons as well. The twin errors of Fundamentalism, to my mind, were reductionism and separatism. On the first, the Fundamentalists were not fundamental enough (where’s the Trinity?), and on the second, they became, over time, too contentious to contend for the faith once delivered, except in their own sectarian bubble.
Still, there is much to learn here about our Christian witness today.
Darryl G. Hart
The Virtue of Being Suspicious.
As contrary as it runs to popular perceptions, Fundamentalists were not fools. In fact, their powers of discernment make contemporary Evangelicals, who have supposedly advanced beyond Fundamentalists’ defense of simple verities, look downright gullible.
Fundamentalists knew they were in a battle, that the church is always being threatened with false teachers and members with “itching ears.” They took the New Testament seriously when its writers charged the early church to be on the lookout for those who would lead God’s flock astray.
Fundamentalists also knew that the greatest danger to the church invariably came from within her ranks. J. Gresham Machen was a great example of such skepticism. In 1926 he wrote,
Last week it was reported that the churches of America increased their membership by 690,000. Are you encouraged by these figures? I for my part am not encouraged a bit. I have indeed my own grounds for encouragement. . . . But these figures have no place among them. How many of these 690,000 names do you think are really written in the Lamb’s book of life? A small proportion, I fear. Church membership today often means nothing more, as has well been said, than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus; the Church in countless communities is little more than a Rotary Club. . . . It will be hard; it will seem impious to timid souls; many will be hurt. But in God’s name let us get rid of shams and have reality at last.
In a day when Protestants seem to be as easily impressed by smooth-talking television preachers, beautiful liturgies administered by women and gays, or smart popes, we could use Fundamentalist suspicion.
Christian believers of all types might learn much, both positively and negatively, from the history of Fundamentalism. Negatively, the most important lesson is to avoid the frequent fundamentalist mistake of treating some other practice, belief, habit, or even concept of doctrine as more important than living by God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. But there are also other negative lessons to learn:
- not to misread the Scriptures with a naively literalistic hermeneutic (e.g., creation science, premillennial dispensationalism);
- not to be smarter than the Scriptures on behavioral rules (e.g., prohibition);
- not to ignore tradition and the communion of saints in time (the past) and space (other believers);
- not to neglect the sacraments; and
- not to marry Christianity to the American flag.
But there is also much to learn positively, especially the shining Fundamentalist emphasis on Scripture as much more than any other human book. And there are also other positive lessons:
- to insist on the importance of the substitutionary atonement;
- to preach so as to be understood by all sorts of people;
- to perceive that God is the creator of all things and that the supernatural is more real than the natural;
- to understand the force of good hymns (e.g., “Rescue the Perishing,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness”);
- to remember the reality of heaven and hell; and
- to evangelize.
We can learn three positive and three negative things from Fundamentalism.
On the positive side: first, Fundamentalists, despite derision from within academia and scorn from the mainline liberal denominations, preserved the Word of God and sought to live by it; second, though laughed at for being socially uncaring, they actually built an astonishing record of caring, missionary work overseas; third, even while huddling together against the storm on the outside, they also showed how important the church can be in people’s lives.
On the negative side: first, we see how crippling can be the sense of being a minority, in this case, a cognitive minority, for Fundamentalists developed a siege mentality that was unhealthy; second, we see the price that they paid for their anti-intellectualism which issued in a lot of bizarre biblical interpretation and a worldview that was stunted and not wholesome; third, we also see how the passion for truth went astray so often and resulted in rancor, divisions, and the cult of personalities.