We owe a massive debt of gratitude to the pioneers of the fundamentalist movement. Sadly, few Christians understand the necessity of the war they fought in the last century. If not for their bold stand, the vast majority of American churches probably would have capitulated to the influence of theological liberalism—a juggernaut that spiritually devastated Europe, the heartland of the Reformation.
The original fundamentalists were American theologians and pastors who understood that some biblical doctrines are too precious to take lightly. They resolutely defended foundational Christian truths like biblical inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, His resurrection, the realities of eternal life and eternal damnation, and human depravity. Those first fundamentalists prevailed through their unwavering commitment to God’s Word and refusal to negotiate on its truth. They are the reason why liberalism never overran the American church landscape, and why we can still find churches today where Scripture is supreme and the gospel is faithfully preached.
Sadly, however, the fundamentalist movement began to unravel almost as soon as it had experienced its initial successes. One wing of fundamentalism, desperate for academic respectability, could not resist the pluralism of the modern age. Schools that had been founded to counter theological liberalism were overexposed to liberal theology and began to compromise on the issue of biblical inerrancy, capitulating at the very point where early fundamentalism had taken its strongest stand. Incredibly, some fundamentalist schools and churches abandoned their commitment to biblical inerrancy within one generation of their founding! Most of these institutions and the people associated with them quickly repudiated the designation fundamentalist.
Another wing of fundamentalism moved the opposite direction. They were keenly aware that an obsession with academic respectability had led their brethren to abandon the fundamentals. For that reason they distrusted scholarship or spurned it altogether. This right wing of the fundamentalist movement was relentlessly fragmented by militant separatism. Legalism led to an extreme emphasis on external issues. Petty concerns often replaced serious doctrine as the matter for discussion and debate. This branch of the movement quickly reached the point where some of its adherents spent more time arguing about men’s hair length and women’s clothing than they spent defending the real fundamentals of the faith.
All the squabbling and extreme legalism eventually sullied the term fundamentalism. Intellectually and temperamentally, these fundamentalists utterly abandoned the high ground that the fathers of the movement had held so tenaciously. As a consequence the movement succumbed to a subtle depreciation of doctrine. The published material from this side of fundamentalism is notable for its total lack of any significant works with real doctrinal or biblical depth. The term fundamentalist became exclusively linked with this militant group.
In recent years, the term fundamentalist has been hijacked by the secular media, who apply it to every conceivable kind of religious fanatic.
Widening the Gate
The polemical, theological spirit of early fundamentalism is all but dead. Modern evangelicals are too willing to downplay doctrine. Unlike our fundamentalist forebears, many today are perfectly agreeable to the suggestion that true Christianity ought to be broad enough to accommodate widely differing—even contradictory—belief systems. Many evangelicals are seeking to forge spiritual alliances with Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, charismatic extremists, and even rank liberals—without regard to the fundamental doctrinal differences.
Historically, evangelicals and fundamentalists almost universally have rejected the ecumenical movement. The primary force in ecumenism has been the World Council of Churches, an organization that never really cared for biblical Christianity, preferring to recruit its membership primarily from among ultra-liberal denominations. Consequently, ecumenism has had little or no influence among evangelicals.
Even during the ecumenical movement’s most prosperous era, the 1960s, evangelical churches experienced dramatic growth while ecumenical churches quickly waned. A decade ago the World Council of Churches appeared to be a monument to a lost cause.
But now the picture is changing. Incredibly, today’s most powerful ecumenical forces are all under the banner of a foundering evangelicalism: the charismatic movement, Catholic-evangelical accords, cooperative mass evangelism, and a host of voices in the Christian media.
Lowering the Bar
An aggressive effort is being made to divest “the fundamentals” of key evangelical distinctives. Influential voices within evangelicalism are urging us to pare back the essentials to the barest possible statement of faith, and these voices can be heard across the spectrum of evangelicalism. Appeals for broader tolerance and more inclusivism have come from charismatics, dispensationalists, Calvinists and Arminians, Reformed and Lutheran leaders—so-called evangelicals of almost every stripe.
Paul Crouch, for example, president of the Trinity Broadcasting Network (until his death in 2013), wrote, “As I have said so often, one theologian’s heresy is another theologian’s orthodoxy.” Crouch nevertheless acknowledged that Jude chapter 3 commands us to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. “So what is ‘the faith’?”
Crouch, as one voice in an ever-growing chorus, argued that the Apostles’ Creed should be the dividing line between who is in “the faith” and who is not. But does that creed offer us a definitive set of non-negotiable fundamentals for the Christian faith? And how can we be confidant in it as authoritative on these matters? We’ll examine that next time.