Thursday, May 05, 2011

When I Left Fundamentalism part eight

Fundamentalism either suffers from or is blessed by many definitions, depending upon how you view that scenario. I took a class in graduate school, called "The History of Fundamentalism," taught by a fundamentalist icon, B. Myron Cedarholm. Our textbook, to which Dr. Cedarholm did not refer at all, was A History of Fundamentalism by George Dollar. We read it, but he lectured from the top of his head (which was quite similar to what the top of my head now is). I've got a copy sitting in front of me as I write this and here is a quote from p. vi, taking up one whole page in about 35 point bold-print font:

Historic fundamentalism is the literal exposition of all the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible and the militant exposure of all non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes.

I would love for that to have been or to be the definition of fundamentalism---if so, there may even be hope for my being a fundamentalist. However, it quite obviously is not. No way. The most out-of-place two words in the fraudulent definition are the two usages of "all." Fundamentalism is not looking to expose "all" non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes. That could even be said to be a joke, it's so opposite of what fundamentalism is and how it operates.

A true church can fulfill that definition of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism itself cannot. Someone is much more likely not to follow that definition by actually being in fundamentalism. Fundamentalism will tend toward masking many affirmations and attitudes of the Bible and covering up the non-Biblical ones.

For a long time I criticized fundamentalism by saying that it was an interdenominational movement. Being an interdenominational movement was indeed a problem in the practice of Dollar's definition. It remains a criticism from me, but I don't see it as the major problem any more. Fundamentalism doesn't even have the capacity to agree on what the gospel is. And denominations are not the major factor in not exposing "non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes." Lots of nots there, but you get the point. From my perspective, those things are not exposed in order to protect fundamentalism itself.

Fundamentalism does not have a scriptural basis for handling disputes. No final authority exists in fundamentalism, like the congregational authority of a church. As a result, fundamentalism stumbles and bumbles at resolving bad situations. There is not authoritative pattern by which it can operate, so it feels its way along, pretty much making it up as it goes, leaving wreckage in its wake.

Why Does Fundamentalism Exist?

All of the above should make someone think. Why does fundamentalism still exist? It isn't in the Bible, which is sufficient. If we needed fundamentalism, God would have it in Scripture.

Buttressing the beginning of fundamentalism was invisible church doctrine, which arose from the allegorical interpretation of Platonic philosophy. Some will scoff at that sentence, but it is true. The biggest danger to Christianity in the first and second centuries was a subjective approach to Scripture. They began to spiritualize the meaning of Scripture. This affected all the doctrines, including salvation, but we continue even more so with the mess in ecclesiology and eschatology.

Politics were involved then too. An individual church wasn't enough in many's estimation to solve the big problems and to offset the authority of the Roman government. Not enough power existed in separate churches to combat the opposition to Christianity. And then Catholicism grew and grew. The separatists became a problem to Catholicism. Cyprian in the third century wrote:

God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one; one in the faith, and one the people cemented together by harmony into the strong unity of a body. . . . Nothing that is separated from the parent stock can ever live or breath apart; all hope of salvation is lost.

Splitting "the church" was worse than sound doctrine and practice. New practices developed out of desire to preserve the coalition.

The beginning of fundamentalism mirrored that of Roman Catholicism. It started as a reaction to worldly problems in accordance with allegorical ecclesiology, which will never harmonize unity and separation. Sometimes a solution in the long run can be more destructive than the problem it's trying to solve. Roman Catholicism used tactics to keep control of its people, as has fundamentalism, albeit in a less powerful and intrusive way. I believe the adherents have often been well-intentioned in their desire to preserve the enterprise, thinking that they are serving God for the well-being of many. They equate the cause with the truth.

The doctrine of separation and fundamentalism are not synonymous. You can be a separatist and not a fundamentalist. And you will not accomplish either biblical separation or unity if you stay a fundamentalist.

How Can You Function Without Fundamentalism?

The first major hold of fundamentalism is emotional. It is understandable. When you make your break, you will be marked off by many. I had professors at colleges tell me, "Don't burn your bridges." An overused cliche, but this particular bridge is the bridge to nowhere, another cliche, but quite fitting here. They are offering a warning. If you get too vocal and then start doing something about some of what you are saying, then you'll lose out on those fundamentalist opportunities that you once thought marked ministry success. And that's not all, because your break will be leaving former acquaintances behind.

Why I say the emotion is understandable is because this is also how church discipline works. The fundamentalist cold shoulder isn't church discipline, but it carries with it some of the same feelings, which God has created us with, that motivate us to get right with our church. I put pressure on people all the time when I believe they are disobeying scripture, and they feel something from that. In this you will have this feeling that you are abandoning some of your friends, and, therefore, not being a good friend to them. Real friendship revolves around the truth. If your emotions are invested in God and the truth, you'll be able to cope with the loss.

Another aspect of the emotion is in your perception of success. Success may have been wrapped up in the approval you felt from some part of fundamentalism. You would have reached a certain level of it by the mere accomplishment of staying in line with fundamentalism. You could feel acceptance and receive praise for your faithfulness within the system. But were you obeying God? Were you sorting out what Scripture said and doing it? True affection for God starts with the right kind of thinking. And the desire for the approval of fundamentalism is not the proper way to be thinking.

For myself, I wouldn't even have time for fundamentalism. It would be too difficult to maintain with everything else I've got going in my life, most all of which I enjoy. I have family. Love it. I have my church, got lots of friendship there. I've got all the projects I work on, including writing on this blog. I have regular obedience to Scripture---preaching, evangelism, prayer, exhortation, discipleship, etc. And then I have school, orchestra, soccer, odd jobs, reading, exercise, keeping up with the news and the government, and more.

A second major hold of fundamentalism is certain resources that churches become dependent on, even addicted to. These are convenient, but unnecessary. I am familiar with many of these in my break with fundamentalism, because I had to rethink how I would operate outside of fundamentalism.

I'm going to talk about each of these in the next edition of this series.


Charles e. Whisnant said...

Well all I can say is praise the Lord. You have to decide to be Scriptural (to the best of your knowledge,) or be a fundamentalist or Baptist I have decided to be scriptural to the best of my understanding. What has surprised me is the many different fundamentalist movement among the Baptist.

Good article. Open and honest I must say.

Gary Webb said...

"Don't burn your bridges." That is what I was told as well. I loved the FBF & wanted to preach in their conferences. BUT ... I kept seeing inconsistency in the practice of separation as it was taught. I would have to choose sides between Bob Jones and some other group. By nature, I am loyal. However, as I preached through Bible books, I saw that separation had nothing to do with "movements" taking a stand for truth, but had everything to do with churches applying the truth, primarily within its membership. When I asked questions about the compromises of those within "the fellowship", it made people angry - not at the compromise, but at me. Eventually it got to the place where I no longer wanted to be a part of a "fellowship" in which I had to keep silent in order to maintain friendships. It also happened that, at the same time, I was seeing more and more from the Bible that the local church was the center of everything. I owe nothing to "the movement" or "Fundamentalism" but everything to the Lord and to my responsibility to obey and honor the Lord in our local church.

Anonymous said...

The sad fact of the matter is, sometimes, bridges have to be the kindling that really lights a fire in our churches.

d4v34x said...

Bro. B. Enjoying these and looking forward to more.

Just out of curiousity, do you have a church "confession". Do you have interest in writing an "El Sobrante Confession, 2011."

Or do you view confessionalism as another sort of fundamentalistic reductionism.

I'm truly interested in your thoughts on this, as well as reading your church's confession if there is one.



Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks everyone.


I have my own doctrinal statement, as does our church, and a covenant. I wouldn't look at it the same as what I believe you are referring to as a confession.

jg said...

George Dollar: "Historic fundamentalism is the literal exposition of all the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible and the militant exposure of all non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes."

Kent Brandenburg: "The most out-of-place two words in the fraudulent definition are the two usages of "all." Fundamentalism is not looking to expose "all" non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes."

Brother Brandenburg, I think you are somewhat unfair to at least some fundamentalists here. "All" means "all", right?

"All" includes the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible about loving brethren (even if they are confused on some things), about humility (particularly intellectual humility -- note I Corinthians 8:1-3), etc.

I am a Baptist because I am convinced that the Scripture teaches what is known as Baptist doctrine. But I have to be honest and humble and admit that I don't know the Scriptures as well as I could, and my mind has been impacted by sin. I just might be wrong on some things.

On the Gospel? No. On the inspiration of Scripture? No. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, risen from the dead, the coming King of kings and Lord of lords. I'm not wrong on those truths.

But when I stand before the Lord, if He explains to me how I got some of what is known as Baptist doctrine wrong, I won't be able to say, "You lied to me." I'll have to say, "Boy, was I confused. It seemed clear to me, but I was wrong."

If I'm going to practice the intellectual humility and the charity that Scripture commands, then it has to impact how I relate to believers who disagree with me on things.

Fundamentalism, at its best, is characterized by wrestling with how we reconcile the commands to doctrinal purity, separation from error, etc., with the commands to love our brethren (all of whom are sinful and wrong) and the commands to humility. These commands are not contradictory, but in our human weakness it is not always easy to see how we obey all of them in a given situation.

Fundamentalism at its worst says some doctrines are "non-essentials" and engages in politics and many of the other problems you've described in this discussion. But it is not accurate to say that characterizes all of fundamentalism. You can find the same kind of problems in independent churches with no ties to "fundamentalism", after all.

We have to limit fellowship to where there is agreement. That is self-evident, and any "fellowship" that goes beyond those bounds is no fellowship at all. In this I find your writing on this very profitable.

Yet, I believe you throw out the baby with the bathwater. With Bible-believing Plymouth Brethren, I can have fellowship in Christ, in the Gospel, in the Word. We do not hold joint meetings, because we have differences, but we rejoice in what we share, which is far more than our differences.

Most of fundamentalism's problems, in my opinion, come down to this -- they formed institutions beyond the one which God ordained, the local church. Then, instead of fellowshipping only in ways which made sense, there grew pressure to support the institutions (whether it be a school, a Bible conference, or a fellowship/association).

Loyalty grows to the institution, rather than to the Lord and His Word, and you are under pressure to ignore differences.

The problem is not with "fundamentalism" itself, but with the institutionalization of fundamentalism.

As usual, I'm probably too long-winded.

Kent Brandenburg said...


The things you mention are what I can appreciate about fundamentalism and that I have pointed out in this series. And I am a staunch defender of fundamentalists where I believe they are wrongfully being attacked by evangelicals and others.

I believe that some fundamentalists might think that fundamentalism, and their understanding of it, is the same as Dollar's; however, it isn't historic fundamentalism. Historic fundamentalism is interdenominational. For a Baptist, the infant sprinkling issue is toward the center of his separation historically. Baptists were killed for believer's baptism.

Fundamentalism itself, I believe, because of how it originated, will always be a problem. I write this in part to show people that doesn't mean evangelicalism for them. People can be separatists and not part of fundamentalism.

What you say in your last three paragraphs seems to say that you agree with what I am saying. Keep it to God-ordained institutions. I appreciate what you have written JG. Thanks.

And I like your lengthy comments---they are more interesting to read, and do take more work.

Thanks again.