The god of religious tolerance is not the God of the Bible. It is Satan who doesn’t care what we believe—or how sincerely we believe it—as long as we don’t believe God’s Word. To portray God as tolerant of all forms of worship is to deny the God of Scripture. After all, this was His first commandment: “I am the Lord your God. . . . You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2–3).
If we believe the Bible, we cannot concede that other religions might be true as well. Christianity, if true at all, is exclusively true. Inherent in the claims of Christ is the assertion that He alone offers truth—and all religious systems that deviate from His truth are false (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
Of course, such a view contradicts the relativistic values of modern culture. Pluralism and diversity have been enshrined as higher virtues than truth itself. We’re not supposed to say our beliefs are right and all others are wrong. That is regarded as backward, outmoded, discourteous. In other words, we’re not really supposed to believe our religious beliefs; we’re only allowed to hold them as personal preferences.
These are not new issues; the church has waged an ongoing struggle over these very matters at least since the turn of the century. This very same appeal for broad-mindedness in religious standards and beliefs has always been at the heart of the agenda of theological liberalism; indeed, it is precisely what the term liberal originally meant. What is new about today’s appeals for tolerance is that they come from within the evangelical camp.
Liberalism first began to dominate the major Protestant denominations nearly a hundred years ago. Schools formerly committed to biblical truth began to attack the very doctrines they had been founded to uphold. Even Princeton Theological Seminary, long a bastion of Reformed orthodoxy, ultimately succumbed to the spirit of the age. For a time it seemed that evangelicalism would be completely overwhelmed and overthrown by liberalism.
Liberals characterized evangelicalism as outmoded, unenlightened, and hopelessly intolerant. They argued that Christianity should be broad enough to embrace all kinds of beliefs. In their opinion the narrow and exclusive nature of historic evangelicalism did not appropriately represent Christ; tolerance and liberality were more fitting for modern Christianity. That argument evidently fell on receptive ears. Sound doctrine began to give way to compromise, liberalism, and even rank unbelief within the church.
Then a remarkable movement began. Evangelicals from both sides of the Atlantic united in writing and publishing a series of articles titled The Fundamentals. Originally published in twelve volumes, those articles laid the basis for a movement that became known as fundamentalism. With men like J. Gresham Machen, James Orr, and R. A. Torrey leading the way, fundamentalism employed sound doctrine to combat liberalism, higher criticism, evolutionary theory, and modernism.
The doctrinal basis for fundamentalism was broad enough to involve evangelical Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, Independents, and others. The issues they identified as “fundamentals” were doctrines they collectively viewed as essential, primary, non-negotiable truths. These were, of course, the very articles of faith that distinguished evangelicalism from liberalism. The fundamentalists believed they were also the doctrines that separated the true church from false Christianity.
What were the fundamental articles they identified?
The most basic were the authority, inspiration, and infallibility of Scripture. Against the higher critics, fundamentalists argued that the Bible is the literal Word of God, that it is historically and factually accurate, and that it is the complete and only binding rule of faith for believers. These precepts, of course, determine a host of other issues. If we agree that Scripture is the authoritative and inerrant Word of God, we have no legitimate reason to dispute its historical assertions, such as the creation account, the virgin birth of Christ, His bodily resurrection, and the miracles. If we believe Scripture is the only authority in matters of faith and practice, we cannot set religious speculation or church tradition alongside it.
All those issues were enumerated as “fundamentals,” along with the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross, the resurrection, justification by faith alone, salvation by grace through faith, the necessity of sanctification, and the rejection of every cult that distorts or contradicts any of the other fundamental doctrines.
In short, the early fundamentalists used sound doctrine to define true Christianity—against the liberals, who insisted that the only issues that really mattered were practical, not theoretical. A well-worn liberal slogan was “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” The fundamentalists correctly argued that true Christianity is a doctrine that affects all of life.
So in contrast to those who were willing to enlarge the designation “Christian” to embrace the broadest possible spectrum of beliefs, the fundamentalists sought to identify the core of objective truth that was absolute and non-negotiable. That body of sound doctrine, they claimed, is the very foundation of all genuine Christianity. Every brand of religion that rejected the fundamentals was regarded as pseudo-Christian or non-Christian.
Fundamentalists were not able to recover most of the mainline denominations from encroaching liberalism. But they did manage to establish new schools, new denominations, and new churches faithful to historic biblical truth. Those institutions have enjoyed a century of vigorous growth and spiritual influence while mainline denominational churches have suffered severe decline.
That America still has healthy Bible-believing churches is testament to the triumph of our fundamentalist forebears. If they hadn’t stood their ground and defended the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the American church landscape would resemble the wasteland we now see in countries like Germany. European churches have never recovered from the devastation wrought by the pseudo-Christianity of liberalism. They leave us with a stark reminder of what might have been, were it not for the conviction and courage of men like J. Gresham Machen.
While the benefits of the fundamentalist battle against liberalism reach into the present, the fundamentalist movement itself never enjoyed that kind of longevity. It began to unravel almost as soon as it peaked. And understanding fundamentalism’s fragmentation is key to comprehending the diversity we now see on the evangelical landscape. We’ll turn to that next time.