Saturday, April 28, 2012

The New Fundamentalists?

Very few Christians today would actually describe themselves as Fundamentalist today. That's because the use of the term has been both narrowed to include only the most intolerant and narrow-minded sort of religious person, and broadened to include the most fanatical of any religion. This started in the late 70s during the Iranian revolution when the media called those Islamists who overthrew the Shah of Iran, took American hostages for 444 days and established an oppressive Islamic regime, fundamentalists. Before this time, the word Fundamentalist was only applied to those who had applied it to themselves: Christians who held to the historic Christian faith and separated themselves from those they even suspected of holding contrary views. And it is true that many Fundamentalists have been legalistic and have treated nonessential doctrines and attitudes as if they were essential to the true faith. The term became popular in the 1920s when liberal, unbelieving theology challenged the historic Christian faith in seminaries and in mainline denominations. The liberals, or modernists, took over many Christian seminaries and pulpits in America and Europe. They used the new tools of what is called the historical-critical method to interpret the Bible. Some early Fundamentalists directly engaged the modernists and sought to influence the culture and church in order to keep them from abandoning the historic faith. But as the modernists gained control of many religious institutions and became dominant in the larger culture, Fundamentalists withdrew from the seminaries and older churches, and established new churches and Bible colleges. (This might preserve a faithful remnant, but it made the historic Christian faith less influential in the rest of society.) In the 1940s we saw the rise of the evangelical movement. The evangelicals held to the historic Christian faith while leaving behind the culture-rejecting attitudes of the Fundamentalists. They engaged the modernists in the seminaries using good scholarship and respect for their theological opposites. They also did not insist that everybody agree with them on every issue. They were more flexible while maintaining 'fundamental' doctrines and morality. In particular, the older evangelicals held to the inerrancy of the scriptures. That is, the scriptures contain no error of any kind in the original manuscripts. The evangelicals have been fairly successful in challenging the modernists in Bible interpretation, and it now seems that evangelical scholars even have the upper hand. But now there is a bit of a split in evangelical circles regarding inerrancy. Many evangelicals now no longer hold to inerrancy and, hence, have a different attitude towards the Bible than inerrantists. They are more willing to accept modernist conclusions about the "nonessential" things in the Bible. An example: modernists have challenged the traditional view that the apostle Peter wrote the NT book, 2 Peter. Of course, the book itself indicates that Peter did write it. Conservative evangelicals have rejected the modernist view for the simple reason that since the Bible contains no errors we must reach the conclusion that Peter wrote 2 Peter. Modernists, of course, do not feel obligated to believe anything in the Bible, including its doctrine and morality. The evangelicals who no longer hold to the inerrancy of the scriptures still hold to the historic doctrines of the faith and to the theological truth of the Bible. But they often accept notions like the non-Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. They also are more willing to accept some modern ideas about morality and other important issues. They interpret more loosely many Bible passages than do the older kind of evangelical. So there are some big disagreements among evangelicals. But now some of these "new" evangelicals who use some modernist interpretations are calling for a new term to describe the inerrantist evangelicals who hold traditional views of the Bible and morality. They want them to be called "New Fundamentalists". And they want to continue to be called 'evangelicals'. In other words, what we used to call 'evangelical' will now be called 'fundamentalist' despite the fact that evangelicalism was a reaction against Fundamentalism. And the new evangelicals get to redefine what an evangelical is. What if we called these evangelical the "New Modernists" or "New Liberals"? Do you think they would like that? I doubt it. These new evangelicals have much to contribute to Bible study (the parts they believe, anyway), but they are trying to marginalize those who disagree with them. This is easier than actually refuting what they say. Why go to all the trouble of giving a well-reasoned response or argument when we can simply label them as bad or not worth listening to. And here is the real irony: it was the Fundamentalists who were always accused of putting negative labels on their opponents instead of engaging them intellectually. Maybe it is the new evangelicals who are now the "New Fundamentalists". I have to say, though, that I sort of like the label "New Fundamentalist". In some ways, all of us who hold to the historic Christian faith or the inerrancy of the scriptures can, by some definition, correctly be called 'fundamentalist'. We all are fundamentalist about something, even if it is the recent fundamentalism of so-called 'tolerance'. I am 'fundamentalist' about some things. I won't listen to the modernists who reject the historic Christian faith or the inspiration of the Bible. I already know that they are wrong about the most important thing. You might even tell me that some of these modernists do have some insights that we can profit from. But they do not have insights that I cannot get from the conservative camp (Fundamentalist & Evangelical). To me, it is like the servant girl in Philippi who proclaimed that Paul had the message of salvation. Paul cast the demon out of her and stopped the whole thing. God does not need the Devil testifying for him. Before I listen to someone, I want to know where they stand on essential doctrines and morality. I am glad to let evangelical scholars refute them. That is part of the task that God has assigned them, so I am not opposed to it. Finally, it is all too easy to smugly put a negative label on someone and dismiss any challenges to our point of view. Rather we should clarify and defend our perspective without prejudice or hypocrisy.

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