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Albert Lee


Fundamentalism

Four takes on evangelicalism.

If a friend asked you what a Christian is, what would you say? After reading Kevin T. Bauder's chapter describing his fundamentalism in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism , I have a good idea of what a fundamentalist would say. And I think it's a great answer to this question of Christian identity. For Bauder, this question and the related issues of unity and separation are at the heart of fundamentalism, and he proves to be a sagacious guide to fundamentalist answers to these questions and to the fundamentalist movement.

Bauder is restrained and careful, writing with a clarity and steady sensibility that echoes in his style the primacy of identification, distinction, and separation to the fundamentalist vision. He notes that this essay is less a scholarly treatment and more a personal perspective, albeit one informed by immersion in fundamentalist circles and conversation outside those circles. My review of Bauder's basic introduction to fundamentalism will carry a similar tone of personal perspective, beginning with a summary of the significant elements of fundamentalism as described by Bauder and ending with a few comments and observations I hope fundamentalists and evangelical readers might find edifying and helpful.

Fundamentalism

Bauder begins by describing what fundamentalism is primarily concerned for: the "unity and fellowship" of Christians grounded in the gospel. Belief in the gospel creates an invisible and inward unity that contrasts with the outward, external, and tangible unity of ethnic Israel. Bauder is careful to assert that the fundamental importance of the invisible and intangible unity of the church "does not imply that outward, visible unity is unimportant." But for fundamentalism, outward unity follows a prior invisible and inner unity which is constituted by belief in the gospel.

But what is the gospel? In summary, the gospel is the good news of the death and resurrection of Christ interpreted in an interrelated complex of essential doctrines (or "fundamentals") that generally must be known and accepted to believe the gospel. Not all the fundamentals must be explicitly known and affirmed to be saved, though some must. None of the fundamentals, however, can be denied without implicitly denying the gospel itself.

The fundamentals described by Bauder include sin as personal guilt before God; Christ's atonement for our sins through penal substitution; and forensic justification involving a double imputation of Christ's righteousness to his people and of their sins to Christ, resulting in retributive punishment for Jesus and a declaration of righteousness for his people. Further, the gospel presupposes a future second coming of judgment, the reality of hell, the personal union of Christ's fully human and fully divine natures, the virgin birth, Christ's perfect obedience to the Father, the ascension, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and biblical inerrancy. For fundamentalists, these are the fundamentals of the gospel from which fundamentalism derives its name and to which the early church creeds testify.

Separation

The foregoing constitutes a straightforward platform from which fundamentalists decide how to interact with others. Those who accept the basic fundamentals and so believe in the gospel are to be considered Christians at minimum; those who do not should not be considered Christians. Among Christians, the greater the agreement on secondary and tertiary doctrines, the greater the level of unity, fellowship, and collaboration possible. For example, amillenialists and premillenialists would find it difficult to collaborate on promoting eschatology. At maximum, though, Christians may be united not merely by the fundamentals of the gospel but by the "entire system of faith and practice, the whole counsel of God."

Because maximal Christian fellowship (resting on complete agreement with the entire system of faith and practice contained in Scripture) is rare, a process of discerning separation is necessary. Bauder's version seems rather sensible to me: before joining together, Christians should ask themselves what they believe to be true, whether those beliefs are shared, and whether the degree of likemindedness permits the particular sort of cooperation and fellowship envisioned.

Fundamentalists apply these principles and processes of separation in a number of ways. Bauder argues that it is appropriate to separate not only from apostate teachers of a false gospel but also from Christian leaders who gain "a share in the evil of apostasy" by calling apostates Christian or encouraging or joining with them in the Lord's work. In particular, Bauder is concerned that recent evangelical collaborations with Roman Catholics like the Evangelicals and Catholics Together and Manhattan Declaration documents wrongfully recognize Roman Catholics as Christian. He is also critical of populist revivalism and hyper-fundamentalism (movements that overlap with fundamentalism), concluding that mainstream fundamentalism may need to "distance itself from the excesses of its worst exemplars." It seems more of the tried and true process of separation is in the future for fundamentalists.

Reflections

This issue of separation may be a good place to start asking questions and stating observations that have percolated in my mind while reading this chapter. My own background is diverse: after growing up in the Assemblies of God, I joined a loving student fellowship in college where I was influenced by the writings of John Piper and learned the Reformed faith. Since graduating from college, I've become a member of a conservative Presbyterian church. In addition, my work has brought me into significant contact with other historically Christian traditions. Though I count myself an evangelical Christian, my observations and suggestions here fall within the bounds of fundamentalism itself, and so I hope they may be edifying to fundamentalists.

Regarding separation, I agree that there are times and circumstances in which the separation of Christian groups is necessary, and the steps and considerations outlined by Bauder are wise. What I am more concerned about, however, is how groups of Christians get to that tragic point in the first place, and how that process might be reversed. This is crucial, and not much time is spent in Bauder's (admittedly introductory) essay on this matter. Almost all the space is spent on the fundamentalist practice of separation, while little is spent on how fundamentalists might grow in unity.

Bauder admits disunity is an evil but argues that pretending to be unified amidst disagreement is even worse. I think that is true; and yet, the results of division nevertheless may not sustain the health of a particular body of Christians. This is because the fullness of life-giving love is both outward and inward, and both visible and invisible unity is a part of the fullness of love. However justified separation may be in a particular instance, it may still ruin communities over the long term and damage Christian witness (John 13:35). This does not mean separation is never the right thing to do. But it does raise the question of whether there were other right things to do in the life of a given congregation that were not done in the years and decades culminating in the decision to separate.

So what can fundamentalists do now to reverse the trajectory of separation? My exposure to fundamentalism and my reading of this introduction lead me to suggest a more biblically structured and ordered emphasis in doctrine and teaching. The fundamentals of the gospel are crucial, but in this introduction to fundamentalism, creation, for example, is not mentioned at all. God is described as "moral lawgiver" but never described as Creator. I realize this is an introductory chapter, and some omissions are to be expected due to space constraints and a given agenda that intends contrast with three other views of evangelicalism. But I suspect that, for historically understandable reasons, so much focus is given to defending the fundamentals under attack that the majority of fundamentals not under attack tend to be given short shrift.

Taking the time to immerse fundamentalist congregations more proportionately in the entire set of truths of the gospel (rather than focusing mostly on the controversial ones) will help us obey God's command to be united in a number of ways. First, it will do more justice to the overall biblical picture and so will be more accurate. Second, a deeper immersion with the overall biblical picture will put difficult or unpopular doctrines in a supportive context that will make them more credible and seem less arbitrary than a stripped-down series of selected fundamental doctrines. Third, it will serve to unite congregations and build relationships that will be stronger, more trusting, and better prepared to meet the inevitable strains of controversy or difficult moments in congregational life.

This brings me to a second possibility which may serve to deepen the life of fundamentalist congregations in love and unity. Much of Bauder's essay describes the fundamentalist emphasis on the individual or personal nature of sin and guilt before God. This idea is certainly true, but the fundamentalist tendency to describe sin and guilt as "primarily" individual and relegating the social dimension of sin to a secondary tier or even to the realm of mere consequences of sin seems unjustified to me.

After all, Scripture is clear that human beings were made in the image of a God-in-three-persons who has never existed apart from social relationship. Since Father, Son, and Spirit are their relations, we should not be surprised that humans made in the image of the triune God are also intrinsically and ontologically social. Individuality and sociality are equally basic. We see this with sin as well: the sins of Adam, Israel, and Christian churches are not merely or primarily an individual phenomenon, but an individual and social phenomenon. It is not merely the consequences of original sin that are transmitted to the race of man but original sin itself, such that all are born in sin. Likewise, just as in our federal head of Adam all sinned, so in the federal head of the Second Adam, the people of God are all righteous. We are saved as individual persons, but we are not saved "primarily" as individual persons; Christians are saved into the body of Christ which is irreducibly social. Salvation is irreducibly social (as well as personal and cosmic).

To be explicit, I affirm the personal and individual dimension of sin and righteousness. After all, because the persons of the Trinity exist distinctly, so do humans. However, viewing sin and righteousness as "primarily" individual or personal and so belittling the social is a serious mistake that leads to de-emphasizing the common life of the people of God, including their lives interacting with the environment, society, politics, the economy, etc. This de-emphasis, because it does not conform to the truth of God's creation of, judgment on, and redemptive purposes for all of reality, will enervate the church of God rather than nurture a congregation in the fullness of love in all of life and fostering the care and trust necessary for a living unity based on a living faith.

Hope for Renewal

I admire and have learned from the depth of focus fundamentalists have shown for decades and their ability to zero in on the most important fundamentals of the faith under attack and demand the gospel be upheld with clarity and without compromise. I firmly believe much good for a broad range of American Protestant traditions has been accomplished through their efforts. The suggestions I have made are by no means final. But they are made from a desire that fundamentalist churches become more of what God desires them to be: communions united by the invisible Spirit in visible love through faith in Christ by the grace of God. The way in which fundamentalists have articulated and lived their theological vision is valuable and powerful, and yet I wonder whether the form of the vision and the effects over time of battles on that vision have brought fundamentalism to a place where a modest reformation might be in order.

Of course, every Christian tradition—and every Christian—is in need of reforming. To this end, I've followed much of recent evangelicalism in reaching for the resources of the historic Church with renewed interest, from the early Church through the medieval period and into modern times. My aim in particular has been to examine not merely doctrine but culture and history to discern how the unity of the Church unraveled over time, so that the damage might be undone through love. Through this process, the importance of the gift of tradition to the life of the Church has become apparent to me: tradition, not as empty formalism, but as the necessary spiritual-cultural inheritance we all receive by grace from God through Christ and his members. It is not merely the talking about divine grace but the living of it that is the salvation Christ paid for and gives, and life requires tradition.

And so, despite the flaws of the evangelical tradition, I resist the temptation to distance myself from my evangelical roots, doing so only with much sadness when strictly necessary, and above all viewing it not just as a failure of the tradition and its adherents, but as my own failure to persuade in love as well—perhaps even primarily. Consequently, though I chiefly identify as a "Christian" because of the much observed tendency of identification to become little more than instances of 1 Cor. 1:12, I still regard myself as an evangelical. May all of us grow in love, being "united in the same mind and the same judgment."

Albert Lee is a technical assistant at Mars Hill Audio in Charlottesville, Virginia. He earned a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

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