An Evangelical-Fundamentalist Convergence?

Article
02.25.2010

Visiting my grandmother a couple of years ago, she asked for my help getting rid of a pesky groundhog. With no shotgun anywhere to be found, I decided to get creative. I found a hefty 2″ x 8″, stood over his hole, and waited.

A couple of minutes later, he started to nose his way out. I struck.

And missed. Though I’m pretty sure he was a whisker or two lighter. A little later, my grandma saw him basking in the sun.

From Harry Emerson Fosdick to Rick Warren, religious leaders have wielded their own 2″ x 8″s over the heads of Fundamentalists. And whether the Fundamentalist withdrawal is a function of separatist theology or a self-protective instinct, it’s hardly surprising they’ve been largely absent from evangelical conversations in recent decades.

WHY ALL THE LUVIN’?

But recently we’ve seen Rick Phillips at the Reformation21 blog say that he thinks “more highly of the Fundamentalists in general than [he] used to” and has even learned to “admire them and [be] comfortable standing with them.”[1]

And John Piper proclaims “Praise God for Fundamentalists,” saying that Fundamentalism’s “great gift to the church is precisely the backbone to resist compromise and to make standing for truth and principle a means of love rather than an alternative to it.” More recently, Piper spoke extensively about his father’s complex relationship with Bob Jones University and the “unbelievably, providentially, sweet” reconciliation and homecoming in the last years of his life.

So why all the luvin’? Why is anyone even interested? If Fundamentalists are marginalized neo-monastics who wouldn’t engage culture if it punched their mom in the face, why would Christianity Today’s Collin Hansen write about a crisis in Fundamentalism as younger Fundamentalists grow increasingly disillusioned with the Fundamentalist theology of separatism?

WHO ARE THE FUNDAMENTALISTS?

First of all, who are these Fundamentalists? They’re the ideological descendants of the 1920s Fundamentalists in the (mostly) Northern denominations. As those denominations hurtled towards modernism, Fundamentalists defended biblical inerrancy and the historic Christian gospel. Rather than channel funds from gospel-preaching churches to modernistic seminaries and social gospel “missions,” Fundamentalists withdrew and rebuilt those institutions from scratch.

These Fundamentalists were largely synonymous with evangelicalism in the North until the rise of the Neo-Evangelicalism of the 1950s, which coincided with Billy Graham’s first ecumenical crusades.[2] Though Graham was not alone in his ecumenical strategy of incorporating non-evangelicals into his crusades, it was his bigger-than-life persona and ministry that split fundamentalism wide open. The people Piper and Hansen and Phillips are writing about are the theological and cultural heirs of the people who exposed and decried Graham’s ecumenism.[3]

Since the 1950s, generations of Fundamentalists have invested their resources in evangelistic efforts that don’t require immersion in culture and in building institutions for raising future generations of Fundamentalists. The trouble is that, as Hansen points out, these future generations aren’t comfortable with everything that fundamentalism has become.

FUNDAMENTALISTIC INTROSPECTION

They are not alone. Some Fundamentalist leaders recognized the danger of the movement’s trajectory. The Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota is one of the institutions that Fundamentalists rebuilt after leaving the denominations. In 1993, its president, Douglas McLachlan, wrote Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism, in which he defends separatism but describes how easily it degenerates into mere external morality.

Concerning such a mutated Fundamentalist separatism, he writes, “The effect was the development of a classical form of legalism (conformity to an outward code as the sign of spirituality), which corrupted true spirituality by shifting the focus from the internal to the external.”

McLachlan’s book was an important, early introspective work by a theologically-minded Fundamentalist on the direction of the Fundamentalist movement. Such introspection has been sparse, but McLachlan’s work was not the last of its kind. McLachlan’s successor to the presidency of Central Seminary, Kevin Bauder, has expanded on McLachlan’s earlier work.

THE RISING STORM OF 2005

Bauder was also part of a rising storm in 2005 that provided the proximate cause for the discussion of Fundamentalism that we see today. On February 2, he delivered the provocative address “A Fundamentalism Worth Saving” to the leadership of Fundamentalist educational institutions. Bauder challenged Fundamentalism to reestablish its unique ideas through a renewed seriousness, and he stated rather directly that a frivolous, flippant fundamentalism need not survive.

Within six weeks, several other events coincided to bring sentiments to the surface in a public discussion regarding the state of fundamentalism. In March, Jason Janz launched the Fundamentalist blog and forum, SharperIron, the website cited by Collin Hansen in Christianity Today. SharperIron splashed with results of a survey of several hundred younger Fundamentalists across the country that revealed changing attitudes towards Fundamentalism, its culture, and its separatist identity.

That same week, Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, delivered a seminar at Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church titled, “Dead Right: The Failure of Fundamentalism.” Janz obtained Johnson’s manuscript and his permission to post it. Though Fundamentalists had blogged before SharperIron, a conversation now crystallized among a generation of younger Fundamentalists who had an array of questions about who they were and why.

Dave Doran, Fundamentalist pastor and president of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to Johnson with a plea to “Stop the Funeral—We’re Not Quite Dead Yet!” Shortly after, Doran and Johnson engaged in a detailed, lengthy discussion at SharperIron over the ideology of this theological, separatistic Fundamentalism advocated by Doran and substantially shared by Bauder.

THE PIPER FRACAS

A few months after the developments at SharperIron, the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International (FBFI) held its annual meeting in Taylors, South Carolina and adopted a series of resolutions, just as it had done almost every year since 1979.

One resolution in particular expressed concerns about John Piper, which in turn caused a brief fracas among both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Yet the FBFI had adopted resolutionscritical of popular evangelical leaders in the past. If anything, the FBFI’s 2005 resolutions, and the Piper resolution in particular, were noteworthy for a concerted attempt to express both concern and appreciation. Not only that, a companion articleattempted to provide a fuller rationale for the resolution. This article acknowledged Piper’s unusual influence and respect within Fundamentalist circles.

WHY THE GROWING CONVERGENCE?

The increasing familiarity between Fundamentalists and John Piper, the Reformation21 blog, and Christianity Today is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2002, I was more than a bit surprised to see half a wall filled with a BJU Press publication in the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary bookstore about to be used as a text in an SEBTS class. Two pastors from one of the most separatist slices of fundamentalism I’ve ever encountered recently spoke to me of their appreciation for Mark Dever’s books and ministry.

Why is this? For one, I think this growing familiarity reveals the influence of the new media. The Internet has created new opportunities for Fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals to gain mutual appreciation and understanding. And as both Fundamentalist bloggers and Evangelical leaders take advantage of the web to disseminate their messages, traditional gatekeepers to information are circumvented. As one of those two pastors told me, “The Internet changed everything.”

But there are deeper realities in this current Evangelical-Fundamentalist convergence. Broad Evangelicalism continues its rapid devolution into another religion. Many creedal Evangelicals recognize this devolution and are adopting the conclusions and approach of Machen, which pushes them in many ways closer to the Fundamentalism of the 1930s-40s than the Neo-Evangelicalism of the 1950s-60s.

In addition, the theological Fundamentalism of Bauder and Doran represents a matured strain of Fundamentalism that intends to expose and disassociate from the atheological (sometimes called cultural) Fundamentalism that has dominated many segments of separatist Fundamentalism in recent decades.

Whether or not creedal Evangelicalism and theological Fundamentalism can recognize, appreciate, and cultivate common ground and cooperation remains to be seen. Even if they do, they’ll face obstacles of no small size. But the coincidence of these developments presents an opportunity for principled leaders who haven’t yet forgotten how to listen to one another.

1. For the engaging repartee between Phillips and Carl Trueman on this topic, go here, here, here and here.

2. For extensive documentation on why Graham’s ecumenism was intolerable to Fundamentalists, see Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided and Rolland McCune’s Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism.

3. The captivating irony here is that Piper, Hansen, and Phillips are most naturally understood to be the theological and cultural heirs of the people who supported Graham. Piper’s father served on the board of trustees at Bob Jones University until he could no longer support its criticism of Graham. Hansen writes for Christianity Today, the periodical Carl Henry founded to serve as the mouthpiece for the New Evangelicalism—in contrast to the old evangelicalism of the Fundamentalists. Phillips blogs for Reformation21, which is a ministry of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Though the Alliance intends to speak to the Church, rather than to culture, it emerges from the same stream of evangelicalism that advanced Graham’s ecumenism decades ago.

By:
Benjamin Wright

Ben Wright pastors Cedar Pointe Baptist Church in Cedar Park, Texas.