When The Fundamentals : A Testimony to the Truth were published from 1910 to 1915, they consisted of a defense of Christian orthodoxy, particularly from a Reformed perspective. But the papers were not limited to the basics; several of the volumes included newer ideas and theological formulations, as well as works by great minds like Torrey, Warfield, and Morgan. The Fundamentals were a good thing, and fundamentalism, as one of the first ecumenical movements, represented a positive development for Christianity. But fundamentalism as a movement would evolve, a process about which numerous books and doctoral dissertations have been written. Certainly this history is too broad for a blog post.
What came out on the other side was something of a monstrosity. Fundamentalism included many questionable elements which it retains to this day, but today’s post addresses one of the more concerning elements of this movement. One of the things that most set fundamentalism apart as a movement was its insistence on upholding social and cultural values and standards as inherently Christian. Fundamentalists preached (and still do, in many circles) that it was a sin to dance, or smoke, or drink, or go to movies. Sometimes they preached that women shouldn’t wear pants, or that wearing blue jeans was a sin of rebellion, or that playing-cards were sinful.
Now there is an inherent problem with a law-based approach to Christian living, but what this post focuses on is the simple fact that these teachings are not to be found in the Bible. Anywhere. Yet, like the Pharisees before them, fundamentalists continued to teach that these cultural elements were sinful. I want you to think very carefully about what is going on here. A person is standing up and saying “thus saith the Lord”, and then proceeding to say something which God never said. This is the centerpiece of false religion throughout time. But the issue was a bit more complex than that. You see, the fundamentalist movement had a method for theologically defending their false religion. The process goes something like this:
1) Begin with a behavior that you want to control (usually a “thou shalt not” in fundamentalism, but examples of “thou shalts” also exist).
2) Find a text is Scripture that could be used to defend this command, including inductive reasoning and synthesis if necessary.
3) Preach the new law as if it were in the Bible.
There are two problems with this approach. The first is that it has the position of text and reader precisely backwards. The ethical imperative upon the reader of Scripture is to come to it on its own terms, in its own context, and to change our thinking based upon text. Fundamentalism instead began with what it wanted to believe, and then looked back into the Bible to justify its teachings. This is backward. The second problem is that people can use this approach to justify almost anything. Before The Fundamentals were published, and long before fundamentalism as a movement came into being, James Boyce, one of the founders of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that he was an “ultra pro-slavery” man. His close friend and colleague, John Broadus, wrote that Negroes were “a lesser degree of human being”. These men were simply parroting the ideas of learned men of the time; nevertheless, Boyce still spent ink explaining how his position was ultimately “Biblical”. Today you have many pro-homosexual Christians who do the same thing – having determined that sexual orientation and practice is outside the scope of religious affection, they spend gigabytes explaining how their position is Biblical.
Now these examples are specifically used to jolt the reader – no civilized person today embraces slavery the way Boyce did, and most conservative Christians are shocked that anyone calling themselves a Christian would argue that homosexuality is ok. Nevertheless, the fundamentalists engaged in this exact same kind of argument. When we begin with what we want to believe and then work backward to the Bible, we can find almost anything we want. But at the end of the day, women wearing skirts, or abstaining from going to the theater, or any number of other of cultural values quite simply aren’t in the Bible. The Christian who tries to preach as if these things are has, at least at that point of faith and practice, denied the truth and adequacy of the Bible as firmly as any so-called liberal. Post-hoc defenses of man-made religion do not make a false teaching any more Christian, only more devious. This is why of all the groups Christ could have damned as “twice children of hell”, he chose the Pharisees. The Herodians were disgusting hedonists, but Jesus barely commented on them. The Sadducees were Jewish traditionalists who denied “new” doctrines like the resurrection from the dead, but Jesus barely commented on them. The Pharisees, however, claimed to speak for God. And they used their positions as teachers to bind up heavy burdens and control the behaviors of their people in a manner that, as Jesus said plainly, nullified the actual commandment.
Unfortunately, this approach to the Bible and theology is not some antiquated traveling road-show with all the grotesque irrelevance of the bearded woman or world’s strongest pygmy. It is still alive and kicking, and in many cases resides in major institutions and evangelical churches across the land. Our blind spot to these issues was brought home forcefully in my first ever commencement ceremony at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In his address, Al Mohler commented on how he would chuckle as a student at the absurdities of the fundamentalist publication “Sword of the Lord”, with articles like “Why it is that the Lord Hates Playing Cards” (I don’t know if this was a real article, but he nailed the grammar perfectly. It was quite a funny line!) Then he went on to say that despite their misguided ideas, the fundamentalists were at least trying to believe the Bible, unlike the liberals who denied Scriptural authority. These were possibly the most chilling words I heard in my short seminary journey. Fundamentalists who teach that playing cards is a sin have absolutely denied Scriptural authority. You can’t make up a law of God without supplanting God. Going back to the Bible to defend your position doesn’t mean that you accept the Bible’s authority. It means that you are using the Bible to justify false religion. Again, the Pharisees beat us to this by a few thousand years.
Today, one of the code words for neo-fundamentalism is “biblical”. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this word used, almost as propaganda, to insist that a certain theological perspective is authoritative. In fact, other than the word “gospel”, this is possibly the most overused word in evangelicalism today. In fact, it has become so much of a bludgeon that some speakers (Driscoll comes to mind) have made endless pulpit jokes out of it. “I beat the crap out of that guy! The Bible says, ‘whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might’. It’s biblical” (cue requisite applause and laughter). The joke is funny because it’s true. We can go back and “proof text” almost anything into Scripture.
I could here go into a list of ideas being floated around the evangelical world that fit this model of beginning with what we want to believe and then proof-texting it back into Scripture. “Complementarianism” is a good example, as are many expressions of Biblical counseling, as are endless tweets that (in 140 characters or less!) assure the reader that something is “Biblical”. But rather than dig into these (a good homework project for thinkers who care to find out how deep the rabbit-hole goes), I would rather spend this last space explaining how to overcome this tendency.
It begins with a paradigm. This paradigm is that I, as a professing Christian, must put myself in the position of a learner. All my theology is held loosely for the simple reason of sola scriptura. It is my ethical duty to approach the Bible in a critical fashion – aware of my biases and doing what is necessary to avoid privileging them. Our guiding principle should be what is the author trying to say to his readers. The next horizon is the application of this to one’s own faith. You might be amazed how your own pre-conceived notion of what the Bible should say (!) influences your understanding of a text. Using the best tools of the critical thinking apparatus, we should ask what an author is saying (hint: the Bible does not always make arguments; sometimes, it simple makes pleas or pronouncements) on his own terms and in his own context. Is it forensic? Is it figurative? What actions or behaviors does the writer expect? Why? Try to trace the author’s argument or structure. Once you have an idea of what the author is trying to say, you should probably consult a few commentaries, just to make sure you aren’t out in left field. This is especially true if you have limited knowledge of the original languages. But make sure you examine a cross-section of commentaries and be aware of the commentator’s biases and pre-conceptions. Another important guiding principle is to be careful of your values. If a Biblical author stresses one thing, and barely mentions another, you might be in hot water if you constantly stress the lesser. It may be that your affections are mis-ordered. And finally, consider it your responsibility to change your thinking to match the Scripture, and not the other way around. If you constantly find a pre-trib, dispensationalist rapture in the Bible, you are doing it wrong (hint: that’s not in there either). Instead, come to terms with the author and consider his ideas authoritative and superior to your own. May God bless your faithfulness†
- Marsden, George M. (2006). Fundamentalism and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Malone, David (May 29, 2009). "Fundamentals". Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections.
- Almond, Gabriel A.; R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan (2003). Strong religion: the rise of fundamentalisms around the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Forster, Roger; Marston, Dr Paul (2001). "7 - Genesis Through History". Reason Science and Faith. Chester, England.
- Marsden, George M. (1991). Understanding fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- John A. Broadus (2001), “Memoirs of James Pettigru Boyce.” Selected Works of John A. Broadus. 4. Cape Coral: Founders.
- A.T. Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus (1901). Philadelphia: American Baptist Society, 1901
- Tom Nettles, Baptists: Beginnings in America (2005). Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2005.
- John Wesley Brinsfield Jr., The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains (2005). Macon: Mercer UP, 2005.