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Robert H. Gundry

A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism

If Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the remaining books of the Bible offer theologies that vary according to the different circumstances in and for which these books were written (without any negative prejudice I leave aside the question of an underlying theological unity), if we accept the entirety of the Bible as canonical and therefore its various theologies as all divinely authoritative, and if it is not enough for us to know these theologies, if we must also apply them variously to circumstances like those for which they were originally tailored, then we might well ask ourselves whether we North American evangelicals are fast falling, or have already fallen, into circumstances that call for a reinstatement of John's sectarianism with its masterly, totalizing, but divisive Christology of the Word that speaks truth so incisively that as the Word, Jesus is the truth over against the father of lies, Satan, who has deceived all unbelievers. Extreme? Yes, but there are times for extremes.

Habitually, those who recognize the sectarianism of John, in particular the narrowing down of the love commandment, minimize as much as possible that narrowing (if they do not reject it altogether) and then expatiate on its dangers. Those dangers include an isolation from the world that goes beyond separation, makes impossible an effective Christian witness to the world, and hardens the world's opposition to the gospel and oppression of the church. Other dangers often cited are a tendency to let the division of believers from unbelievers degenerate into divisiveness among believers themselves, and a repression of non-Christians in the event that sectarians gain political power: "Christian universalism linked to christological exclusivism, when given the power to enforce its will, can result (and sometimes has resulted) in coercion or repression of all that refuses Christianization."[1] Even those who see in the narrowing some positive values—mutual encouragement, nonassimilation to worldly culture, and the like—overhastily stress the dangers, or hastily overstress them, rather than perceiving in general an equality of values and dangers, variations depending on particular circumstances. David Rensberger, for example, describes John's sectarianism as "the defiance of a sect that has suffered exclusion itself and now hurls exclusion back in the teeth of its oppressors," yet adds, "Whether this can bear theological fruit today. … remains problematic."[2] Richard B. Hays comes close to perceiving an equality of values and dangers, but even he considers some amelioration necessary: "exhortations for love within the community sound less exclusionary and more like an urgent appeal for unity within an oppressed minority community."[3]

But despite its dangers and because of its values, do our circumstances call for Johannine sectarianism? On the one hand, the sociological research of Christian Smith has led him to trace the thriving of North American evangelicalism to a sense of embattlement with the world:

American evangelicalism. … is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is—or at least perceives itself to be—embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it. Indeed, evangelicalism. … thrives on distinction, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat. Without these, evangelicalism would lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless [italics original].[4]

On the other hand, the sense of embattlement with the world is rapidly evaporating among many evangelicals, especially evangelical elites, among them those who belong to "the knowledge industry." In the last half century they have enjoyed increasing success in the world of biblical and theological scholarship. They reacted against the separatism of their fundamentalist forebears, who precisely in their separation from the world knew they had from God a sure word for the world. Penetration replaced separation. Evangelical biblical and theological scholars began holding their meetings in conjunction with those of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, both of these societies populated with heretics, non-Christians of other religious persuasions, agnostics, and outright atheists as well as with true Christian believers. And in droves evangelicals (including me) started joining these societies and participating in their activities.

Would John approve? I do not know, and maybe it does not matter whether he would; but noncanonically he is said to have fled from a public bath on perceiving that the heretic Cerinthus was there.[5] At the same time there is cause to celebrate that the expanding presence of evangelicals in the mainstream academy and the improved quality of their scholarship have made it increasingly inexcusable and intellectually unrespectable to ignore their research and argumentation, which are now exerting much more influence than before outside the confines of evangelicalism. So I do not condemn penetration by evangelicals any more than I condemn separation by fundamentalists. Separation was necessary to save the gospel against the inroads of modernism, I think; and penetration has been necessary to save the gospel from irrelevance and a seclusion that threatened to keep it from being heard in the world at large.[6]

But what about now? What present circumstances should we evangelicals take into account? With nonevangelicals' increasing recognition of our contributions to biblical and theological scholarship and with the consequent whetting of our appetite for academic, political, and broadly cultural power and influence are coming the dangers of accommodation, of dulling the sharp edges of the gospel, of blurring the distinction between believers and the world, of softening—or not issuing at all—the warning that God's wrath abides on unbelievers (John 3:36), in short, of only whispering the Word instead of shouting him, speaking him boldly, as the Word himself did.

Besides these dangers, we have as a matter of fact— especially among liberally educated, aesthetically attuned evangelicals—a shift of emphasis from preaching to liturgy and sacrament.[7] As noted by sociologists of religion, this shift marks antisectarianism inasmuch as especially among conversionist sects "there is a grave distrust of ritual and rite,"[8] and inasmuch as "in the church [as opposed to a sect]. … the spirit is remote and can be brought nearer only by formalized means."[9] So Robert Webber is correct to link his advocacy of ritual and rite with a rejection of sectarianism.[10]

But the stress of John the sectarian on verbal communication by Jesus the Word leads him to depress sacrament and liturgy. The baptism of Jesus goes unmentioned. His baptism of others is introduced only to provide an occasion for John the Baptist's testimony to Jesus' superiority as the one who "speaks the words of God" (3:22-36, esp. 34) and to be qualified as a baptizing performed not by Jesus himself but only through the agency of his disciples (4:1-2). Nor does John's version of the Great Commission (20:21) contain a command to carry on the practice of baptism (contrast Matt. 28:19 and the emphasis in Acts on baptism in carrying out the Great Commission). The water in 3:5 represents the Holy Spirit as the agent of birth from above (cf. 7:37-39, where drinking the water that is explicitly identified with the Spirit rules out baptismal water). The wine that Jesus produced at the wedding in Cana (2:1-11) replaces the wine of the Eucharist and represents the superiority over Judaism, represented in turn by the water of Jewish purification, of the new order brought by Jesus (cf. Mark 2:22) and bought at the cost of the blood that flowed from his pierced side (John 19:34). And despite John's devotion of several chapters to the Last Supper, he omits the institution of the Lord's Supper and transmutes the words of institution into metaphors for the life- and Spirit-giving benefit of believing Jesus' words (6:52-65).

Accompanying the un- if not anti-Johannine shift to sacramentalism and liturgy among a growing number of evangelicals are a curtailment of the doctrine of eternal punishment; a migration from exclusivism to inclusivism; an edging toward universalism, so that it has become acceptable in evangelical ranks to express the hope—not always a wistful hope, either, but sometimes a half-expectant one—for universal salvation; a cooling of missionary ardor; and a growth of worldliness.

The "seeker sensitivity" of evangelicals—their practice of suiting the gospel to the felt needs of people, primarily the bourgeoisie—contributes to their numerical success but can easily sow the seeds of worldliness (broadly conceived).[11] How so? Well, in a society such as ours where people do not feel particularly guilty before God (though in fact they are), seeker-sensitivity—if consistently carried through—will softpedal the preaching of salvation from sin, for such preaching would not meet a felt need of people. As a result, the gospel message of saving, sanctifying grace reduces to a gospel massage of physical, psychological, and social well-being that allows worldliness to flourish. Since evangelicals fall into the category of what Bryan R. Wilson has called "a conversionist sect," i.e., one that vigorously seeks converts,[12] the Niebuhrian development from antiworldly sect to worldly church may apply especially to evangelicals; for it is only "sects less interested in recruitment or better insulated from secular forces [that] tend to retain sectarian characteristics more or less indefinitely."[13]

The question before us is whether we can or will cut short what sociologists describe as the likely if not inevitable evolution of a successful sect into an institution through accommodation to the surrounding culture, and whether John's Christology of Jesus as the Word who entered the world of unbelievers to separate the elect, who are not of that world, from it and thus save them from the wrath of God that abides on unbelievers—whether that Christology is just the sort of message which, if recaptured, might halt our journey from vibrant sectarianism to torpid institutionalism. So I ask, are we overdosing on the this-worldly ethical, social, and psychological benefits of the gospel? Is it time for some Johannine counterbalancing that puts emphasis on other-worldliness, on the final fate of human beings, and on the authoritative Word from above more than on the merely suggestive words of human counsel that most preachers minister these days? With John's relatively apsychological, asocial, anethical stress on the Word, is it time for evangelical elites to remind themselves of the preeminence of evangelism over private therapy, political activism, and moralistic pronouncements in the public sphere?[14] Is it time for John's anti- or at least un-sacramentalism to halt our drift into the sacramentalism that characterizes institutional churches and into the liturgies that frame such sacramentalism?

I have been asked, Why turn for correction to a fundamentalistic sectarianism that entails a Johannine separation from the world? Why not call North American evangelicals to break out of their provincialism and attend to voices from the church in the Two-Thirds World and from nonwhite, nonmiddleclass churches in their own backyard? Well and good, but we would probably learn from those sources precisely what John writes about, a sectarian separation from the world accompanied by a powerfully proclaimed Word from above. Or, as I have also been asked, why not call North American evangelicals to do their biblical and theological scholarship without embarrassment in the context of a worshiping community (cf. John 4:21-24), so that their scholarly agenda does not react to the interests of the academy so much as it responds to the needs of the church? Again well and good, but such a doxological and ecclesial turn strikes me as precisely sectarian rather than an alternative to sectarianism.

The Bible offers more than one theology of church and world—Luke-Acts represents almost the polar

opposite of John's, for example (as a sidelight, contrast the typically institutional emphasis on sacraments in Luke-Acts with the typically sectarian deemphasis of sacraments in John, not to detail Lukan cosmopolitanism)—and circumstances differ from place to place as well as from time to time. Judgments will differ accordingly, and for other reasons, too. But the question is a serious one: Do our present circumstances call for John's Word-Christology, for North American evangelicalism to take a sectarian turn, a return mutatis mutandis, to the fundamentalism of The Fundamentals and their authors at the very start of the twentieth century? Like that early fundamentalism and unlike the fundamentalism which evolved in the 1920s through the '40s,[15] this new old fundamentalism, comparable in its neopaleoism to the new old commandment in 1 John 2:7-11; 3:11, would be culturally engaged with the world enough to be critical rather than so culturally secluded as to be mute, morally separate from the world but not spatially cloistered from it, and unashamedly expressive of historic Christian essentials but not quarrelsome over nonessentials. Such a renewed fundamentalism would take direction not only from fundamentalism at the very start of the twentieth century but also, and more importantly, from the paleofundamentalism of John the sectarian, whose Christology of the Word has Jesus come into the world (there is the engagement with it), sanctify himself (there is the separation from it), and exegete God (there is the message to it).

A Postscript on Some Theological Desiderata

As Christians should we bring to bear the totality of the Bible in our every situation so as to avoid imbalances and extremes? Or should we choose parts of the Bible that seem particularly relevant to a current situation and with a situational change shift to other parts so as to avoid the homogenizing of distinctive messages and a consequent loss of special applicability? Since the Bible is a collection of books written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at different times and places by different authors in and for different circumstances, I have adopted here the situation-sensitive alternative. But these alternatives deserve full discussion.

Doubtless some will argue for both/and rather than either/or. Others will propose further possibilities. But the basic questions remain: Does the Bible present theological data to be organized neatly, or a range of canonical options to be kept discrete? To what extent should the theological enterprise be systematic? To what extent selective? Ought systematic theology to dominate biblical theology, or vice versa? Or ought they form a partnership of equals, or go their separate ways? What weight should be assigned to theological common ground in the Bible? What weight to theological peculiarities? How important to good theologizing is a perceptive exegesis of the world, or worlds, in which we live as well as a perceptive exegesis of the Bible? And in practice, if not expressly, what answers to these questions has recent evangelical theology given?

Robert H. Gundry is scholar-in-residence at Westmont College. Among his books are commentaries on Matthew and Mark. This essay is excerpted from his book Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, in North America, published in September by Eerdmans.


1. John M. G. Barclay, "Universalism and Particularism: Twin Components of Both Judaism and Early Christianity," in A Vision for the Church: Studies in Early Christian Ecclesiology in Honour of J. P. M. Sweet, edited by Markus Bockmuehl and Michael B. Thompson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), p. 222.

2. David Rensberger, "Sectarianism and Theological Interpretation in John," p. 146 in "What Is John?" Vol. 2, Literary and Social Readings of the Fourth Gospel, edited by Fernando F. Segovia (Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 7/Scholars Press, 1998); see also Rensberger's Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (Westminster, 1988), pp. 135-54, where it is said that John's sectarianism is not wholly negative but has some positive value.

3. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), pp. 145-47.

4. Christian Smith, with Michael Emerson, Sally Gallagher, Paul Kennedy, and David Sikkink, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 89. For Smith's whole discussion of this point, see pp. 84-153.

5. Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 3.3.4.

6. See the classic discussion in H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (Harper & Brothers, 1951). I am not unaware of the view that fundamentalism itself was a kind of modernism, particularly in its sharing historicism, and therefore evidentialism, with modernism (see, e.g., Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity. … What? [Zondervan, 1990], pp. 66-69). But here I am using the vocabulary of fundamentalists, who called modernists those who denied historic tenets of the Christian faith.

7. See especially Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Baker, 1999), pp. 27, 94-96, 100-101, 107-15; cf. Nathan O. Hatch and Michael S. Hamilton, "Can Evangelicalism Survive Its Success?" Christianity Today, October 5, 1992, pp. 24-25. Webber argues for liturgy and sacrament, ritual and rite—which he calls "symbolic communication" with "pomp and ceremony"—on the ground that postmoderns are audiovisually oriented rather than verbally oriented or print-oriented. But the audio may feature the verbal, indeed usually does feature it; and one wonders how Webber would explain the proliferation of large, thriving bookstores that sell a lot more than picturebooks. I should add that abetting the shift to liturgy and sacrament is a sharp decline in the biblical, theological, and rhetorical quality of most preaching.

8. Donald E. Miller, "Sectarianism and Secularization: The Work of Bryan Wilson," Religious Studies Review, Vol. 5 (1979), p. 165.

9. Peter L. Berger, "The Sociological Study of Sectarianism," Social Research, Vol. 21 (1954), p. 480.

10. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, p. 73. To the extent that Webber rejects a sectarian fragmentation of the church, I agree; but to the extent that he rejects a sectarian separation from the world, I disagree. John presses for the latter kind of separation, but stresses the unity of the church (10:16; 11:52; 17:11, 21-23) and regards heretics as split-offs who never did truly belong to apostolic Christianity (6:60-71; cf. 1 John 2:18-19).

11. By worldliness I mean not merely the disregard of fundamentalist taboos against smoking, drinking, dancing, movie-going, gambling and the like, but more expansively such matters as materialism, pleasure-seeking, indiscriminate enjoyment of salacious and violent entertainment, immodesty of dress, voyeurism, sexual laxity, and divorce (cf. "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of livelihood" in 1 John 2:16).

12. Bryan R. Wilson, "A Typology of Sects," in Sociology of Religion: Selected Readings, edited by Roland Robertson (Penguin, 1969), pp. 364-65; see also Wilson's "An Analysis of Sect Development," American Sociological Review, Vol. 24 (1959), pp. 5-6.

13. Benton Johnson, "On Church and Sect," American Sociological Review, Vol. 28 (1963), p. 543. I, not Johnson, make the application to evangelicals; cf. Bryan R. Wilson, "Analysis of Sect Development," pp. 11, 14, though he does wrong to contrast adventism—an emphasis on Jesus' return in the case of Christianity—with evangelism, for the two have gone together in evangelicalism despite a recent decline of adventism among evangelical elites.

14. I say "relatively" in acknowledgment of some ethical, social, and psychological implications in John's references to sins and evil deeds (but he never provides a list, as is often done elsewhere in the New Testament), to loving one another (but only in the Christian community, as noted above), and to an untroubled heart (but only in reference to Jesus' departure from and return to the disciples). Ethics may deal as much with the formation of character as with rules of behavior, but John does not relate even the new birth from above to character-formation.

15. But see some words of appreciation for mid-twentieth-century fundamentalism by Richard J. Mouw, The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (Zondervan, 2000).

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