Friday, April 14, 2006

Playing with Words, Fighting Words, and Badges of Honor

Few words in the English lexicon are as capable of inspiring strong, visceral reactions as the term "fundamentalism." Abused and misused by just about everybody -- progressives, evangelicals, and "fundamentalists" -- the word bears closer scrutiny.

If we are to use the term “fundamentalism” with any kind of denotative meaning, we should consider it in its historical expression. As a movement arising during and following WWI, it sought to reaffirm orthodox Protestantism and to “defend it militantly against the challenges of liberal theology, German higher criticism, Darwinism, and other isms regarded as harmful to American Christianity” (“Fundamentalism” in Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984).

Fundamentalism can be chronicled in its four historical phases:

1920s – Fundamentalism identified the core doctrines of the faith and sought to expel enemies of orthodox Protestantism from the ranks of the churches. The 12 volume series, The Fundamentals was provided to hundreds of thousands of Christian workers. It articulated the faith clearly, fairly, and with respect for its opponents. Quickly the core narrowed to five doctrines: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, Christ's bodily resurrection, and the historicity of the miracles (later replaced by the second coming by the premillennialists).

Late 1920s to the Early 1940s - By 1926 or so, those who were militant for the fundamentals had failed to expel the modernists from any denomination. Moreover, they also lost the battle against evolutionism. It was during the 1030s that the term began to refer to only one party among those who believed in the traditional fundamentals. This period was characterized by a “literal interpretation of the Bible" and the call to express one’s purity in organizational separation from liberals. “Thus, the term 'fundamentalist' came to refer largely to orthodox Protestants outside the large northern denominations, whether in the newly established denominations, in the southern churches, or in the many independent churches across the land.”

Early 1940s to the 1970s - The period began with a gradual division into two camps: those who accepted the term as a badge of honor and those who saw the term as “undesirable, having connotations of [being] divisive, intolerant, anti-intellectual, unconcerned with social problems, even foolish. This second group wished to regain fellowship with the orthodox Protestants who still constituted the vast majority of the clergy and people in the large northern denominations.”

Late 1970s and the 1980s - The fundamentalists became associated with national prominence as “offering an answer for what many regarded as a supreme social, economic, moral, and religious crisis in America. They identified a new and more pervasive enemy, secular humanism, which they believed was responsible for eroding churches, schools, universities, the government, and above all families. They fought all enemies which they considered to be offspring of secular humanism - evolutionism, political and theological liberalism, loose personal morality, sexual perversion, socialism, communism, and any lessening of the absolute, inerrant authority of the Bible.” This phase exalted names like Falwell, LaHaye, Lindsey, and Robertson.

(Source: Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Copyright © 1984 by Baker Books..)

It seems to me that most people who use the term in a derogatory manner conjure up cultural memories of divisive, intolerant, anti-intellectual rubes, those unconcerned with social problems, a refusal to embrace a holistic message, taking on the sense of even foolishness itself. Since the mid-1990s the word has picked up an even more toxic connotation: Islamo-terrorism and Jihadist radicalism. And, for those who are ex-pats from the SBC, the negativity of the word is colored even more darkly with tales of a carefully orchestrated political take-over by a faction within the SBC (although the conservatives in the SBC would consider it a re-taking of the denomination from a faithless minority).

When used by the left, the word becomes invective, almost always a term of derision and evocative of the collection of unsavory images mentioned in the previous paragraph. Honestly, it is not “playing fair” to plaster the designation on one’s opponents since it virtually always carries semantic and psychological meanings that prove more prejudicial than probative. The same objection may be lodged, although to a far less significant degree, for the term “liberal” when used by the right against those on the left.

In my own dialogues with friends on the left, I prefer to refer to them as progressives and myself as a traditionalist or conservative. None of those words have become so freighted with baggage as to become automatic “hot button” triggers.

However, in the final analysis, if “fundamentalist” may be defined in the sense of the 1920s, I would proudly embrace the term as a badge of honor. Why would I want to reject the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, Christ's bodily resurrection, and the second coming? Indeed, these expressions of historic Christianity allow for a fairly wide ecumenism, bringing together traditionalists in all major denominations and traditions: An Anglican such as John R.W. Stott, a Reformed R.C. Sproul, a Baptist like Albert Mohler, and the Pentecostal Jack Hayford could all embrace the doctrinal distinctives of "fundamentalism" sans the connotations of pugnacious divisiveness, anti-intellectual bigotry, and fear of diversity.

[His Barking Dog barks like an evangelical and tries to stay as close to his master as a fundamentalist)


Northeast Baptist said...

I enjoy reading your blog. Your picture of traditionalist ecumenism is complicated by the fact that while Stott and Hayford would join with Sproul and Mohler, it is not at all clear that Sproul and Mohler would reciprocate.

C.Stephen said...

Dennis, this was a great post. Northeast Baptist - are you speculating, or has Sproul expressed something specifically about Stott or Hayford that you are referring to? I listen to Sproul quite a bit and am surprised by your characterization of him as divisive, but willing to hear what Sproul has to say.

revdrron said...

The problem with the label fundamentalism is that it has become a shorthand cheap-shot way of pinning the Islamofascist reproach and all the other evil implications of that word onto Christians who simply take the Bible seriously and want to remain faithful to the essential truth of Christ.

Simply put, to affirm that specific truth-claims are absolutely essential to the gospel is a kind of "fundamentalism." Those essential, non-negotiable truths are the "fundamentals." That's where the word fundamentalism comes from.

J. I. Packer defined fundamentalism as "just a twentieth-century name for historic Evangelicalism" (Fundamentalism and the Word of God, p. 19). He added that he thought the term itself neither very good nor very useful, and it's surely an even less helpful expression these days, because of the way it has been abused by its friends and foes alike.

But the main gist of what the expression originally meant is true and right: certain key biblical doctrines cannot be compromised without abandoning Christianity itself.

Which doctrines are essential and which are secondary is a much harder, slightly different, and very important, question.

BTW: Have you noticed that no one defines evangelicalism in theological terms anymore? When a person says he is an "evangelical" nowadays, more often than not he is describing an experience, or a particular style of ministry, or an interest in the pragmatics of evangelism, or something like that. The word evangelical has been stripped of virtually all fundamental doctrinal content.

Happy resurrection day! ron