10 What’s RIGHT About Fundamentalism?

What’s RIGHT About Fundamentalism?
John F. Walvoord, “What’s Right About Fundamentalism?” Eternity 8.6 (June 1957): 6-
President, Professor of Systematic Theology,   DALLAS THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

Old-fashioned fundamentalism seems to be disappearing. On every hand, Christian leaders are asking to be classified as evangelicals rather than as fundamentalists. Christian periodicals seldom use the word fundamentalist in a good sense. Even Billy Graham, who stands so firmly for biblical truth, is quoted as saying, “I am an evangelical but not a fundamentalist.” A prominent religious editor goes so far as to describe the current spiritual decline as the aftermath of fundamentalism. Vernon Grounds defines historic Protestant orthodoxy (Eternity, February 1956) as that “which sometimes bears the label evangelicalism, sometimes the libel fundamentalism.” Those who reluctantly admit the “libel” of being fundamentalists usually hasten to qualify this classification to escape any odium which may be attached.
Few denominations today accept the term Fundamental in their formal titles and prefer some other designation, as seen in such groups as Conservative Baptists, Regular Baptists, Bible Presbyterians, Orthodox Presbyterians, and Bible Baptists. Quite common is the use of evangelical to designate theological conservatism. Even the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, which officially includes the word fundamental in its title, avoids the term in describing its individual churches. Of more than eleven hundred ministers in the The Independent Fundamental Churches of America, of which the writer is one, less than a score are serving churches which use the word fundamental in their official title. Preferred is the designation Bible Church. The same tendency to avoid the word fundamental is found among the fundamental Baptists. Christian schools in the fundamentalist movement seldom use the word in their official titles. Even those who freely classify themselves as fundamentalists seem afraid of the label. A prominent pastor in the East recently said to me, “No one in our area wants to be known as a fundamentalist.”

The exodus from the fundamentalist camp is obviously an attempt to escape some historic implications of fundamentalism. Many who are fundamental in theology do not want to be associated with irresponsible fundamentalist controversialists. Others are prompted by desire to avoid controversy. Also responsible is a tendency in current evangelicalism to bypass specifics in theology and reduce the basis of fellowship to bare essentials. The Evangelical Theological Society, of which the writer is a member, cites belief in the inerrancy of Scripture as the sole test of doctrine. Many schools and other Christian organizations have inadequate doctrinal platforms. The rising generation of young believers, ignorant of the historic antecedents of fundamentalism, is led to believe that fundamentalism is a bigoted and unnecessarily controversial approach to Christian faith. The result is current trend to avoid the label for reasons foreign to the real issues.


The fundamentalist movement has its roots deep in the Protestant Reformation, and the fundamentalist movement as it is known today arose as a protest against liberal theology, with its denial of biblical inspiration, which swept over America after the Civil War. In 1877 a great prophetic conference was held in New York City, in which hundreds of ministers and thousands of laymen participated. The emphasis of the conference was on the imminent return of Christ in opposition to current postmillennial theology and skepticism which characterized liberal theology. Other conferences followed at Winona Lake and at Denver. In 1885, an important prophetic conference was held in Chicago which attracted ministers from all over the United States, and practically the entire clergy of the city of Chicago. These conferences aroused both liberals and fundamentalists. The liberals decried the conferences as divisive and destructive to Christian unity. They served, however, to alert the conservatives to the attacks of higher criticism on the authority of the Bible as the infallible Word of God, and to acquaint them with prophetic truth. An important chapter in the history of fundamentalism was the publication of a dozen volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, undertaken in 1909. Over three million copies were printed and distributed to Christian leaders and laymen, mostly on a free basis and financed by Lyman and Milton Stewart, wealthy business men who were responsible for the founding of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.


Contributors to The Fundamentals were many outstanding Conservative scholars, and represented a large number of Protestant fellowships. Among them were James Orr of the United Free Church College of Glasgow, Scotland; W. H. Griffith Thomas, noted Anglican scholar; George L Robinson of McCormick Theological Seminary (Presbyterian, U.S.A.); Joseph D. Wilson of the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church at Philadelphia; Andrew Craig Robinson of Ireland; George Frederick Wright of Oberlin College; Melvin Grove Kyle of Xenia Theological Seminary (U.P); J. J. Reeve of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth; James M. Gray of Moody Bible Institute; William G. Moorehead, President of Xenia Theological Seminary; Arthur T. Pierson and Arno C. Gaebelein, noted Bible teachers; Robert E. Speer, Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.; Benjamin B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary; R. A. Torrey, who helped to edit the series; W. J. Erdman, Bible teacher; Charles B. Williams of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; C.I.Scofield, editor of the famous Scofield Reference Bible; Bishop H. C. G. Moule of Durham, England; John Timothy Stone, ex-moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.; Charles Trumbull, editor of The Sunday School Times; G. Campbell Morgan, pastor of Westminster Chapel, London, England; Charles B. Erdman of Princeton Theological Seminary; A. C. Dickson, pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Church; President E. Y. Mullins of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville; and a host of others. It should be clear, as indicated by these authors and their contributions, that fundamentalism was not an isolated movement of a few controversial malcontents, but that at that time it attracted a wide constituency.


Doctrines included comprehended the whole field of conservative theology, especially as it countered liberalism in theology. Many articles were written to sustain the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, in answer to higher criticism. Another series of articles dealt with the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. The great doctrines of sin and redemption, and the place of evangelism and missions occupied a number of the volumes. A section was devoted to Christianity in relation to modern thought in which evolution and non-Christian philosophy were refuted. Also considered was a series on “isms” including the Millennial Dawn movement (Jehovah’s Witnesses), Mormonism, Christian Science, and modern spiritism. The production as a whole presented a solid exposition of Christian truth and theology in answer to the ideologies attacking fundamentalism early in the twentieth century.


The fundamentals of the faith became increasingly a controversial issue in some of the major Protestant denominations, especially in the Northern Baptist, Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian U.S.A., Disciples of Christ, and Protestant Episcopal churches. Fundamentalists insisted that the pivotal doctrines of the faith were essential to vital Christianity and therefore demanded that these be made the test of orthodoxy, the standard by which admission to their respective denominations be determined. Fundamentalism thus became a center of controversy and was opposed by liberalism, which denied that the Bible is the infallible Word of God.


In the great controversies of the twenties and early thirties, the fundamentalists were soundly defeated. A number of organizations were formed, the most prominent of which was the World Christian Fundamentalist Association, but these, too, served only temporarily to stem the tide and soon passed out of existence as influential movements. Much of the controversy centered on a five-point statement of doctrine originally formulated by the Niagara group in 1895. Presented in this statement were the fundamentals for which universal Christian acceptance was demanded, namely, (1) the inerrancy of the Scriptures, (2) the deity of Christ, (3) the virgin birth of Christ, (4) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and (5) His physical resurrection and future bodily return. The liberals usually regarded these fundamentals as not necessary to essential Christian faith and not a proper test of orthodoxy.


Because of the serious nature of the doctrinal controversy, it was inevitable that schisms occur. Liberals end fundamentalists disagreed on vital points, and other issues and personalities were dragged into the conflict.. Out of the Northern Baptist Convention, the Conservative Baptist and the Regular Baptist groups were formed. Among the Presbyterians, the Bible Presbyterians and Orthodox Presbyterians came into being. Thousands of ministers and congregations became independent, some forming new fellowships such as the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. In the South, many churches left the Southern Baptist Church and joined the Fundamentalist Baptist movement. The majority of churches, however, retained affiliation with the old denominations.

The fundamentalist controversy was divisive. The question was: Were the famous five fundamentals, sometimes coupled with other important doctrines, essential to Christian testimony? Could a denomination be divided on these issues and still remain intact? Not everyone agreed. Fundamentalists generally were convinced that agreement on these central doctrines were essential, the sine qua non of spiritual unity. Those who did not hold these essentials should be excluded from fellowship. Liberals flatly contradicted this point of view. To them, the fundamentals were only one point of view, and not in keeping with modern scholarahip. Liberals did met believe that the Scriptures were Infallible. They considered the deity of Christ debatable or at least subject to definition unacceptable to fundamentalists. They considered the virgin birth an impossibility. Substitutionary atonement was to them one of many possible theories about the death of Christ and objectionable to human reason. While they believed in life after death, they stumbled at the idea of a literal resurrection and questioned whether it was demonstrable that Christ Himself was raised from the dead.

Many found themselves caught between the fundamentalists and the liberals, not agreeing entirely with either extreme. For instance, some would accept the deity of Christ but not the infallibility of the Scripture. The greatest difference of opinion, which continues to the present day, was where to draw the line in the matter of fellowship. Some felt there should be large degree of tolerance even on essentials. Fundamentalists generally insisted that tolerance extend only to minor doctrines, not to the great fundamentals of the faith. The controversy, which was doctrinal in its beginning, rapidly became an ecclesiastical conflict.

Its stand on the great fundamentals of the faith. To be considered a fundamentalist, one accepts the famous five fundamentals. He believes in the Infallibility of the Scripture as written by the original authors and inspired by God. Most fundamentalists believe that the Scriptures which have come down to us, through copies of the originals and having numerous textual problems, are nevertheless for all practical and theological purposes essentially the same documents as the originals. The Bible is therefore the very Word of God, having the authority, accuracy, completeness, and infallibility of a document written by God Himself. Fundamentalists further believe in the absolute deity of Christ as the eternal God who became man. They deny that man as the object of divine creation is divine in the same sense that Christ is divine. Jesus Christ is uniquely the very Son of God with all the attributes of God. Coupled with this doctrine is belief in the virgin birth. Christ had no human father but was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and therefore born of the Virgin Mary. His conception was a stupendous miracle just as presented in the Bible. While all fundamentalists do not use the same terminology to define the death of Christ as substitutionary, a true fundamentalist insists that Christ died for sinners, that He bore the sin of the whole world on the Cross, and in so doing He accomplished eternal redemption for all who believe in Him. They deny, therefore, the liberal concepts that the death of Christ was merely a martyr’s death, only an act of devotion, or an unfortunate mistake. Christ was Indeed the Lamb of God offered In atonement for the sin of the whole world. His sacrifice was substitutionary, for He died in the sinner’s place and bore the righteous judgment of God upon the sinner. Fundamentalists are all agreed on the literal resurrection of Christ. The tomb was empty. The same body which hung on the cross was raised from the dead and transformed into a resurrection body. In like manner, fundamentalists believe in a literal return. The same Jesus Christ who ascended from the Mount of Olives will return.


Fundamentalists characteristically hold other great truths as precious and for the most part essential in addition to the five fundamentals. Fundamentalism normally includes realistic doctrines of sin and human depravity originating with a historic person, Adam. The biblical doctrine of creation, as opposed to organic evolution, is considered essential. Though organic creation is not dated in the Bible, it is considered more recent than in non-Christian theories. The miracles of Scripture afford no difficulty to the fundamentalist who accepts a supernatural, omnipotent God. The majority of fundamentalists were premillenarian as the prophetic conference movement made clear. Some organizations with in fundamentalism were exclusively premillennial. However, numbered with the fundamentalists were scholars like Gresham Machen and B. B. Warfield who were not premillennial. All fundamentalists agreed, however, on the pivotal five doctrines.


Many evangelicals believe theologically all the fundamentals of the faith as outlined by the fundamentalists. What is the difference, then, between an evangelical and a fundamentalist? Undoubtedly not all will agree on the exact character of the distinction. It is clear, however, that most evangelicals do not want to be considered fundamentalists. Many evangelicals today are glad to be done with the old, controversial type of fundamentalism. The new designation of evangelical has a warm and human sound. It is nonoffensive. It is much more flexible in its theology. It does not require separation from denominational organizations which no longer require belief in the famous five fundamentals. In fact, it offers some ground for fellowship with modern liberals and does not at once label one as opposed to the contemporary historic and critical study of Scripture usually identified with biblical scholarship today. An evangelical is free to believe all that fundamentalists believe theologically (cf. “The Nature of Evangelicalism” by Vernon Grounds, ETERNITY, February, 1956); or if he prefers, he can deny all the fundamentals and still claim the same name, as does Cecil John Cadoux in his The Case for Evangelical Modernism. In a word, the designation evangelical only declares one in favor of the evangel, or the gospel, but it does not in itself define the term theologically. Its meaning depends upon the one who uses the term. Many evangelicals today hold the same beliefs as the older fundamentalists, but many others claiming the same name do not.


It is the fashion today to criticize fundamentalism. Few modern writers have much to say commending fundamentalism as such, even though they are conservative and evangelical in belief. It is undoubtedly true that fundamentalism as a movement had its faults. Important as is theological orthodoxy, it is clear that orthodoxy is not enough. Doctrine must be lived as well as believed. Fundamentalists have inevitably been controversialists, since historically they have fought the tide of liberal theology. Those who dislike controversy naturally turn away from fundamentalism. It must be admitted that some fundamentalists have used questionable methods. They have attacked persons instead of beliefs, and have made sweeping accusations which were only partly true. Controversies on major theological issues have sometimes degenerated into squabbles over technicalities. Most of the accusations against fundamentalism, however, are unfair and are deliberate attempts on the part of liberals to misrepresent the real issues. Practically all the common criticisms of fundamentalism originated in the liberal camp. The technique of liberals has been to avoid thelogical argument in controversies with fundamentalists. Instead of debating the theology involved, fundamentalists themselves have been attacked. Fundamentalists have accordingly been accused of being intolerant, bigoted, reactionary, devoid of the love of Christ, and unscholarly. Controversy over doctrinal matters has itself been labeled unchristian, and fundamentalists have been charged with disloyalty to their denominations and guilty of schismatic tendencies. Loyalty to a denominations has been considered more important than theological belief. It should be clear to an impartial mind that the liberals have been just as guilty of these attitudes while supporting their own point of view. Once in ecclesiastical control, the liberals have often forced fundamentalists out of their fellowships and have been just as intolerant of fundamentalism as the fundamentalists have been of liberals. The present-day attitude of some evangelical, to condone the practice and doctrine of liberals, and to condemn unsparingly the fundamentalists is hardly justified by the cold facts of history of the church during the last fifty years.


The abandonment of fundamentalism which seems to characterize our day is a tragic error. After all, the fundamentals are important and vital to Christian faith. Little if anything is gained by fleeing to the term evangelical, and it is feared that much is lost. The unfortunate and controversial aspects of fundamentalism should not cloud the real issue that it is impossible to dodge the sword which cleaves asunder those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God and those who do not. The mistakes that fundamentalists have made have not changed the essential fact that Christianity, apart from the fundamentals, ceases to be biblical Christianity.

The ambiguity which continues to surround the term evangelical opens the door for much doctrinal compromise and confusion. In modern literature, the term fundamentalist carried with it a clear historic and theological meaning. while the term evangelical lends itself to manipulation by the modern liberal confusing both laity and clergy. The fundamentals of Christian faith continue to be based upon inerrant Scripture, upon the deity of Christ and 1-us virgin birth, upon his substitutionary death upon the cross, and his bodily resurrection and future literal return. These are unmistakably the fundamentals. Biblical faith is much more than an undefined evangelicalism. Perhaps we need a new term. Until such is devised, however, let us not dodge our sacred responsibility to stand squarely on the fundamentals of Christian faith revealed in the infallible Word of God.


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