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The Crisis of Modern Fundamentalism

Defections threaten a proud movement.

There would be no need for a new evangelical movement without the liberal decline of Protestant theology during the 19th and early 20th centuries. But eminent evangelical theologian Carl Henry expected fallen humans to doubt the Bible's authority. "What concerns me more is that we have needlessly invited criticism and even ridicule, by a tendency in some quarters to parade secondary and sometimes even obscure aspects of our positions as necessary frontal phases of our view." This was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947).

Fundamentalism is still with us, though you won't hear many evangelicals talk about it. Not so with the fundamentalists, who worry about a growing number within their ranks who have wandered toward evangelicalism. A 2005 survey released on the popular fundamentalist blog SharperIron "revealed that many in the newest generation of fundamentalist leadership were still committed to fundamentalist theology but uncomfortable with some of the more extreme positions on secondary separation, association, worship music, extra-biblical standards, and other issues." A resolution approved during the 2004 annual meeting of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International (FBFI) revealed the concern of fundamentalist leaders. They urged "young men to reject any temptation to lower biblical standards in order to gain acceptance of those in the world or among theologically accommodating Christian movements." According to Tim Baylor, reared in fundamentalism but now attending an evangelical seminary, "Militancy is at an all-time-low in Fundamentalism, and Fundamentalists are looking for someone to blame."

Who worries today's fundamentalist leaders? According to the FBFI's 2005 resolutions, "Rick Warren and his Purpose Driven Life movement represents an incomplete gospel, a negligent carelessness in the use of Scripture paraphrases, extreme pragmatism, and a disdain for biblical separatism." Another resolution targeted John Piper. "The great popularity of Piper's writings, especially among younger fundamentalists requires that FBFI warn its members concerning Piper's non-separatist position and, for those who read his works, to do so with careful discernment." It's not like Piper is unfamiliar with second-degree separation, when fundamentalists separate from Christians who do not separate from other Christians with poor theology. Piper's father once served on the board of Bob Jones University.

The difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists hasn't been theology, though some fundamentalists would refuse to compromise on dispensationalism, for example. Fundamentalists have a strategy problem: Do they clamp down on these youngsters, risking a deeper generation gap? Or do they reconsider strict separation and cultural isolation? By choosing the latter, they may save their youth and lose their cause.

Lectures Worth Noting (Even Attending)

N.T. Wright at Asbury Seminary

When: November 13–14, 2007

Where: Estes Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky

Cost: Free

Subject: The bishop of Durham will deliver two lectures, "Use of Scripture in Contemporary Political Discourse" and "God Is Public? Biblical Faith in Tomorrow's World." He will also participate in a colloquium, "Acts and the Contemporary Challenge of the Gospel."

What They're Saying: Wright has previously delivered provocative comments on foreign policy, saving pointed criticism for Western leaders. See, for example, his November 2006 address, "Where is God in the 'War on Terror'?" Wright said, "As the terrorist activities of a very small number have grown in importance, the western powers have played into their hands by reacting, as I've said, in immature and counter-productive ways. Every bomb dropped has proved to be another Al-Qaeda recruiting agent, just as several of us were saying four years ago." Watch to see if Wright responds to criticism from Americans such as Joseph Loconte.

Quick Takes
  • The website for Generous Giving offers a generous portion of biblical resources for churches regarding stewardship (tip: Phil Ryken at Ref21). Especially with the spread of prosperity theology, the church desperately needs sound teaching on money.

  • David Instone-Brewer's CT cover story on divorce has triggered no little debate about this sensitive issue. (See responses from John Piper and Andreas Köstenberger. But don't miss Instone-Brewer's response.) Divorce in the church illustrates both the importance and limitations of theology. Importance, because your church's interpretation of key Bible passages will affect how it counsels couples in crisis. Limitations, because evangelical churches have typically preached a hard line on divorce even as many in the pews ignored those teachings.

  • This column is partial to theologians who study culture. So when Kevin Vanhoozer speaks, I listen. Speaking to Gary Shavey at the Resurgence: "The problem in too many evangelical churches is that we know what we're supposed to believe, but we're not sure what practical difference it makes and so we're unable to bring it to bear on everyday life. To be sure, biblical and theological illiteracy remains a problem too. But that doesn't really explain why even in churches where the Bible is faithfully preached the congregation doesn't look that different from everyone else." Check out his hunch of a solution.

Quote for the Fortnight

"Part of being a Christian is that we do theology. That is, we put together different aspects of what we understand about God, and we build it into some kind of coherent understanding of our existence as God's redeemed people living in the world."

Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible

Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns include:

Itchy Ears and Tongues of Fire | Gay-rights group employs Scripture. Also: Pentecostal success invites new challenges. (October 12, 2007)
Immersed in a Baptism Brouhaha | Changes of heart renew centuries-old divisions. (September 28, 2007)
What's Not Coming to a Bookstore Near You | How competition to publish celebrity Christians crowds out theology. (September 14, 2007)
From the Seminaries to the Pews | The 'new perspective on Paul' gets the popular treatment. (August 31, 2007)

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