Is Fundamentalism Chasing Its Own Tail?

by Aaron Dunlop

A Dog Chasing TailSee Pt.1Pt.2Pt.3Pt.4 & Pt.5

For the past forty years or more fundamentalism has struggled with its own existence. During that time fundamentalists have been discussing the nature and the future of a movement that was intended to defend the truth, but that has—some would argue—developed into a cold, impotent, and isolated subdivision of the evangelical church. This might sound harsh, but this is, in essence, what many fundamentalists have been saying of themselves for a long time.

Again, we must remember that fundamentalism is not a monolithic movement. George Marsden said “fundamentalism was a mosaic of divergent and sometimes contradictory traditions and tendencies that could never be totally integrated.” In these articles I am speaking of a certain category of individuals within the broader movement. Dr. Bauder, a prolific fundamentalist writer and a professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis,  calls them “the most visible representatives,” the “noisiest” and, he thinks, “perhaps even a majority.” In the next article I will deal with what I believe is the “silent moderate majority” and why the “nosiest” and “most visible” appear to be the majority.

In his 1986 book, In Pursuit of Purity, Dr. David Beale, professor of history at Bob Jones University, wrote of the “neo-fundamentalist defection into broad evangelicalism” which, he said, began about 1970. There were, of course, reasons for this “defection” and Beale identified one of them in another part of his book:

Excesses and vagaries have frightened some Fundamentalists from the fountain of living waters, so that, rather than have wild fire, they have chosen to have no fire at all.

I know in other parts of the book Dr. Beale writes like a very moderate man. This statement however, is astounding and it betrays the deep-seated fundamentalist mentality. I will get back to this a little later; suffice it to say at this time that for many years now fundamentalist leaders have recognized that there were major problems in the movement. If you look through the last forty years of the movement you will discover that there have been some attempts at correcting these “excesses and vagaries,” but they have been minimally successful. Ten years after Beale’s book came out Dr. David L. Burggraff, who was then the academic dean of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, predicted that the “centrifugal forces” driving people out of fundamentalism would only accelerate. He was right, and the problems underlying those forces have not yet been corrected.

We should recognize that there have been attempts to correct. Back in 2012 Dr. Bauder wrote an open letter to Dr. Stephen Jones, then the president of Bob Jones University. In that letter Bauder commended Jones for what he described as “follow[ing] a trajectory of moderation and increasing responsibility.” He pointed out that it takes courage to “acknowledge that some of the past commitments were overstated.”

While some attempts at correction have been going on, in other quarters, an exorbitant amount of time and energy has been expended in defending the old fundamentalist bulwarks, rehashing old issues, reviewing the doctrine of separation, digging more trenches, and resolving to “keep on keeping on” rehashing, reviewing, and resolving. What fundamentalism needs now is a vision for the future, a positive agenda for a struggling church in a post-Christian culture, a grounding in biblical theology with all of its implications, and a return to the “classical creeds of the Church.” More on this later.

It seems to me that many in the fundamentalist movement have been running in circles looking for a way out, not sure that they really want to leave, or, if they do want to leave, being afraid to do so. Fundamentalism is like a dog chasing its own tail. Each year the same ground is covered, the same issues addressed, the same reminders made of who we are, and the same warnings given about who those are on the outside—with the same unwillingness to change, to address concerns, or to do anything productive.

World Congress 1976It might surprise some to know that the World Congress of Fundamentalists was established for the distinct purpose (among other purposes, of course) of combating the attitudes and divisiveness that had resulted from the militancy fundamentalists proudly practiced. The first congress met in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 15–22, 1976. The literature prepared for the congress asserted

The militancy [of Fundamentalism] has tended to fractionalize and divide those who are united in their devotion to the ‘basics’ in Christian doctrine.

Interesting, is it not, that forty years ago, we were talking about the same things: the underlying problems caused by fundamentalism’s particular brand of militancy, the continued “war psychology” that I spoke of in a previous article. It is also interesting and not a little ironic that at the 1990 World Congress in London, England, which I attended, the issue of this militancy directed at its own surfaced again, in meetings intended to bring peace. One of the speakers, among other faux pas, made a very derogatory and pointed comment about the doctrine of predestination. I recall the Calvinistic Ulster blood boiling as a result of that particular incident. It was reported that Dr. Bob Jones, Jr., travelled across London that evening to the offender’s hotel room to tell him to call his dogs off, as it were.London 1990

Did it not occur to the leaders of fundamentalism then that the problems could be corrected only by going to their root—the war psychology and the continued and pseudo-biblical articulation of militancy? Have the fundamentalists ever considered the root of the problem? They were always quick to tell others to be uncompromising and to “lay the axe to the root of the tree” (Matthew 3:10), but in matters which are dear to themselves and which they wear as a badge of honor, they have consistently refused to deal with it and have only patched over the damage.

At the World Congress in 1976 the fundamentalists promoted the same militancy that was splitting them apart. While one was saying, “This Congress is to emphasize the things on which we are united; we want to have fellowship,” another was saying, “The need for such a congress is everywhere apparent. The whole evangelistic arm of Protestant Christianity is in danger of splitting into either marshmallow soft neo-evangelicalism or stone-dead orthodoxy.” The fundamentalists were going to correct the problem by

Expos[ing] and separat[ing] from all ecclesiastical denial of the Faith, compromise with error, and apostasy from the Truth; and earnestly contend[ing] for the Faith once delivered.

This was part of the definition of a fundamentalist given at the 1976 Congress. It is a fine statement as it stands, but the fundamentalists’ assumption was that to contend for the faith meant exposing everyone else’s errors with placards and rallies, by shouting and extra-church activity.

I believe in “the Church militant” (1 Timothy 6:12), I believe that we must “hold fast” (2 Timothy 1:13), and “contend” (Jude 3) for the faith. The problem arises when our focus is so much on the enemy that it becomes a detriment to ourselves, our unity, and our enjoyment of the gospel. This is part of the root problem—our sights are always set on someone else. We have forgotten that theological error is not the only error to threaten the church and that while we are contending for the faith we must, as Jude reminds us, be “building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 20–21). I will address this in a future article; suffice it to say here that a correct understanding of Jude will shift the focus off others and put it on ourselves. It will demand a rigorous spiritual encounter with God, a praying life, and a loving life.

In 1993 James E. Singleton published a booklet called “Fundamentalism: Past, Present and Future.” As a self described “student of history” Singleton had, according to the introduction in his book, “concerns about the movement he had given his life to further,” and he could not ignore the faults. Singleton’s 25-page booklet is divided into three sections: “Where did we come from?,” “How did we get to our present condition?,” and, finally, “The Future of Fundamentalism.” Singleton said the final part of his work was the most difficult to write because, he said, “Some feel in its present form that [fundamentalism] does not have a future.”

Two years later in 1995 David L. Burggraff wrote a 31-page article for the Calvary Baptist Theological Journal entitled “Fundamentalism at the End of the Twentieth Century.” Two-thirds of his piece was devoted to outlining the history and development of fundamentalism, from the Irenic Movement (1860–1919) to Separatist Fundamentalism (1960–present). The last third of the article deals with “The Future of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.”

According to Burggraff, fundamentalist leaders—at least some of them—were hearing the concerns that fundamentalism was “an individualistic, divisive and vitriolic movement.” But they were not listening. They admitted, “We have turned our weaponry on each other … leaving fundamentalists wounded, bleeding, retreating and defecting.” Burggraff confessed, “Young soldiers are reluctant to enter the battle where they fear they might be mistaken for the enemy and shot by one of their own.” What a shocking reality!

The brand of militancy and the war psychology that these men were wrestling with—way back then!—are the issues that I have dealt with in these articles and that young fundamentalists are still wrestling with today.

There is one significant difference between then and now: the leaders around whom we rallied and to whom we looked are gone.  Fundamentalism may have thrived best “when promoted by individuals who are charismatic.” But those leaders are all gone and the movement has begun to disintegrate.

Many of the colleges that North American fundamentalists call their alma maters are closed. Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary closed in May 2014. Clearwater Christian College closed its doors in June 2015. In March of 2015 Tennessee Temple University announced that it would dissolve and merge with Piedmont International University in North Carolina. At the end of the 2014–2015 academic year Northland International University closed its doors after a takeover by South Baptist Theological Seminary came to an abrupt and disappointing conclusion. These recent developments—and there have been others over the past decade—ought to cause any right-thinking fundamentalist to sit up and ask, “Why? Is there any relationship between these multiple closures and the nature of fundamentalism?”

There is a steady stream of men leaving fundamentalist churches, not because they no longer care about truth, but because they are unhappy with the excesses and imbalance and many see no signs of correction. As these men leave, the question fundamentalists are asking is not “why?”(It seldom is!) They ask, “What’s wrong with those who are leaving?” And there is an additional implied question: “How can the Lord call someone away from the fundamentalist movement?” The fundamentalist does not naturally think, Is there something wrong with us? Or, Is there a problem with the movement? These are questions the fundamentalist does not ask because the black-and-white mentality of the early controversy has been continued into every other area and the fundamentalists are uncomfortable with grey areas.

There are those in the movement who are happy to chase their tails and enjoy the dizziness of self-pursuit. There are those also who enjoy the militancy. They can’t live without it, and cannot, or don’t want, to live at peace with their fellow believers.  There are others who nurse the martyr spirit and are happy to think themselves “the remnant.”

booksI mentioned at the beginning the shocking words of Dr. David Beale in his In Pursuit of Purity. I should point out, in the interests of a gracious spirit that these words were written thirty years ago. I can only hope that age has tempered the author’s view of the situation. However, this opinion is still held in certain parts of the movement and so I quote them again and address some concerns.

Excesses and vagaries have frightened some Fundamentalists from the fountain of living waters, so that, rather than have wild fire, they have chosen to have no fire at all.

Notice four striking realities about this common fundamentalist view.

  1. Many Fundamentalists admit that there are “excesses and vagaries” but often sweep over them as though they were talking about sprinkles and ice-cream.
  2. For many fundamentalists Christianity is still all black and white with no grey areas. Apart from fundamentalism, the only other option is apostate religion. It is either “wild fire” or “no fire at all.” There is no middle ground, and, as I said in another article, if you’re not with us, you’re against us—and against the Lord also.
  3. With many fundamentalists it is not enough to be orthodox, conservative, and practicing personal and ecclesiastical separation. Many seem to think that there is only one way to be a fundamentalist and that is to burn like a “wild fire,” in militancy and separatism.
  4. There is a callous acceptance that some will leave. Indeed, the fundamentalist expects people to leave, and when they do leave, they are condemned and criticized as being without fire, leaving the fountain of living water. There are other groups that act like this; we call them cults.

Many fundamentalists will read this without batting an eyelid. They will continue to patch over the damage and plug the holes as they appear in the fundamentalist ship but still attempt to hoist the old flag of fundamentalism up the battered mast.

Some see the hurt that has been caused but they have a deep-seated reservation against jettisoning the movement. What holds many back from identifying the “excesses and vagaries” as wrong-headed and indeed sinful and from doing something about them is, in part, the fear of man which we all know brings a snare (Proverbs 29:25).

It is the fear of what certain colleagues will think, the fear of losing ministry opportunities if we are associated with this one or that one, the fear of being ostracized by our fundamentalist peers, the fear of disappointing our fundamentalist mentors, the fear of moving outside our comfort zone, the fear of leading others into broader pastures or uncharted waters, the fear of moving in circles where we will need to pray for more discernment, greater wisdom, and more grace.

The answer to fear of course is love: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Broader fellowship and acceptance of others who differ, not in principle, but in certain practices or in the application of agreed principles, is the more difficult route, but it is the more biblical in that it enjoys the catholicity of the church of Christ. It is also the more spiritual route in that it demands the engagement and application of “power, love and a sound mind” to make hard choices, to go into difficult areas, to be discerning and gracious.

8 Responses to “Is Fundamentalism Chasing Its Own Tail?”

  1. Please forgive my ignorance, but I would like to understand: What makes a fundamentalist? Is there a certain denomination that falls into that category? Is it any Christian or Church who adheres to biblical inerrancy, Christ as the Son of God and literal interpretation of Genesis and the flood?

    I’m just trying to understand because I grew up in a church that was big on apologetics, hermeneutics and a vigorous teaching of the scriptures, yet a lot of the people and places you discuss are wholly unfamiliar to me.

    I see some of the problems you mention here being present in different conservative churches I have been in. I get frustrated with people who fear to question a teacher that is contradicting the bible; or leaders who fear speaking up about something because they are worried about losing their position.

    They were problems that troubled me then and still bother me when I see them in churches today. One can risk being pharisaical in one’s application of the scriptures and miss the very heart of the law. Entering into an entirely academic study of the scriptures and then determining your own righteousness based on the fact that you think you hold the keys to that knowledge is an egregious error.

    On the other hand, one can recklessly careen towards liberalism and accept all kinds of false teaching. There is plenty of that in our present culture.

    It’s a difficult balance to achieve—respecting the integrity of the scriptures, seeking accurate application and serving God with reverence, godly fear, and above all, love.

  2. Two points seem to explain the problems of Fundamentalism, namely, fear and a lack of maturity. Seeing as how so many bounce over to the Moderate then the extreme in liberal theology, there is a tendency to draw back, the timidity of being too near a precipice. It is as if there were no other ground on which to stand. Just the extremes of right and left. The lack of maturity reflects the believer caught in the black and white stage of moral immaturity – like an adolescent. The real source of the problem is the lack of appreciation for the depth and the nature of the teachings of the Bible, namely, the two-poled position of every truth which produce a tension that enables the mature believer to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic without feeling like he or she has compromised himself or herself to death. Not many realize it, but the failure to grasp the depths of the wisdom of God leads to mark on the Gospel and the one who believes it.

  3. You have knocked the ball out of the park with this article! Good not have been said any better!

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