What does it mean today in our increasingly pluralistic culture when someone adopts the term Fundamentalist, Evangelical, or Liberal (or Moderate, Progressive) to describe their vantage point of the Christian faith? Well in decades gone by, there were certain commitments and perspectives of praxis that were represented by these distinct labels. This is not to say that definitions were always clear cut and immune from debate. But in retrospect, historians and theologians of all stripes do share a bit of consensus regarding the views for which these labels stood in the past. As time has progressed, however, these terms have become much more blurry because the theological climate of Christian thought has diverged into so many finely nuanced directions to the point that sometimes the ideologies of these guilds actually intersect. And sometimes this can lead to positive outcomes while in other instances, it can be disastrous.
That being said, the question I want to discuss for a few posts is exactly how I think this kind of overlap is taking place now and how it will continue to do so in the years ahead. More specifically, my observation is that while I think present-day old-school Fundamentalism will endure in microcosmic forms, a larger transition will occur wherein conservative evangelicals will inadvertently be forced to form what I will call neo-fundamentalist coalitions. The reason for such a development will be because many Christians to the theological left will continue to foster divergent views of biblical authority, Christian doctrine, and ethics that conservatives will always find untenable.
Consequently, conservative evangelicals will feel compelled to solidify their core commitments and therein find more in common with Fundamentalism than they may have previously been willing to admit. Yet instead of joining mainstay circles of Fundamentalists wholesale, they will establish their own networks of cooperation for reasons I will highlight later.
Now to defend these claims, at the outset I should probably provide a brief assessment of the initial impasse that made the first evangelicals distinct from their theological counterparts, the Fundamentalists. The backdrop to the divide was set in the mid-20th century when orthodox Protestants in America found themselves on the tail end of a cresting resurgence that started before WW1. During that time, an upsurge of controversy surfaced within the ranks of virtually every mainline denomination because of the growing influence of Neo-Orthodoxy, Liberalism, and Darwinism.
In response, clusters of conservative pastors, church leaders, and biblical scholars combined their efforts to ensure the future of their churches and traditions by galvanizing a trans-denominational movement known as Fundamentalism. In time, one of the results of the Fundamentalist cause was the identifying of five bare bone beliefs that could weed out the camouflaged antics of liberals who used the vocabulary of orthodoxy but denied the definitions underlying those terms. Those core commitments became known as the five fundamentals; those being the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection, and his physical return to the earth in the eschatological future.
Unfortunately as time wore on and America reached the other side of WW2, the Fundamentalist ethos began to morph into more stringent molds. So much so that many conservatives who were committed to the theological fibers of the fundamentals began to express concern. One problem to illustrate this perplexity was the fact that many Fundamentalist leaders unofficially expanded the list of Fundamentals to such an extent that the previous trans-denominational mutuality was essentially nullified. Likewise, some were perplexed over the seemingly isolationist mentality that many Fundamentalists were exhibiting which garnered a “circle-the-wagons” attitude that solely focused on maintaining doctrinal purity to the exclusion of addressing the complexities of social issues and having a Christian voice in the public square.
This perplexity eventually led to the establishment of a non-Fundamentalist, theologically conservative coalition of Christian leaders who again, similar to prewar Fundamentalism, banned together trans-denominationally. As this movement reached its zenith in the early Billy Graham era, though, the evangelical cause eventually proceeded to show signs of wear and tear because unlike its Fundamentalist forebears, it did not bequeath a definitive set of doctrinal cores for future generations. While it did emphasize concepts like inerrancy, conversionism, and the gospel message, the problem was that there was still a large amount of theological wiggle room which allowed up and coming evangelicals in the 70’s and beyond to exploit.
In turn, what happened is that while early prewar Fundamentalism was successful to a degree because adherents knew what they were rejecting (i.e., Neo-Orthodoxy, Darwinism, Liberalism) as well as what they were affirming (i.e., the Fundamentals), the first slate of evangelicals for the most part only agreed on what they were rejecting (i.e., the myopic mentality of postwar Fundamentalism). And it is the dissonance caused by this void that has in many ways led to the current state of crisis regarding evangelical identity. It is the Achilles heel of the evangelical ethos. Evangelicals are somewhat like Goldilocks in that they have concluded that the postwar Fundamentalist chair is too hard and the liberal chair is too soft. However, unlike Goldilocks evangelicals have never been able to agree on which chair fits just right.
So now conservative evangelicals find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. While they probably will never fit in with the theological kinfolk of present-day Fundamentalism, they will not capitulate to the jettisoning of certain doctrinal and ethical convictions that many in the evangelical left crowd have abandoned already. Thereby again, this will force conservatives to find others ways to solidify their partnerships and this is where I think the Neo-Fundamentalist current will start. But how will this happen and what will it look like? Also, why won’t conservative evangelicals just embrace old school postwar Fundamentalism? These questions deserve attention and in my next post, I will address the latter one. Stay tuned…