Kevin Bauder believes that fundamentalism needs to get sober if it is to be worth saving. Fundamentalism must be serious about doctrine, the human condition, learning, meaning, piety, and separatism.
He’s made a believer out of me, and it seems that his ideas rang true with a healthy number of others from backgrounds similar to mine. He influenced me enough that I began to apply myself more seriously in some of the areas he outlined. Now, I still have quite a long way to go. Praise the Lord for His patience and His promise of progressive sanctification.
Nevertheless, in the first steps of my move toward seriousness, I’ve given some thought and study to fundamentalist history, and one big question has taken root in my mind: Has the fundamentalist movement ever been serious in the way that Bauder advocates? I have no doubt that there have been individuals who fit his criteria, but the movement as a whole seems to have been a constant mish-mash of diverse sub-groups.
For example, the early fundamentalists differed substantially in a wide variety of doctrines and practices, including (but I suspect not limited to) immersion, premillennialism, church government, denominationalism, tolerance of Pentecostalism, use of alcohol, hermeneutics, soteriology, secondary separation, and Finneyistic evangelistic methodology. The authors of The Fundamentals were not even unified in their willingness to combat theological liberalism in the denominations.
This information was largely new to me. It destroyed a vision in my mind of a fundamentalist utopia from decades past in which leaders agreed on the better part of their theology and attacked a false gospel with a unified voice. I now learn how ignorant I was. I’ve become increasingly aware that early fundamentalism was trying to respond to a specific threat (modernism) in a specific historical context, not trying to define the full range of New Testament Christianity. Their agreement and cooperation were far more limited to the immediate enemy of modernism than I had perceived.
Now, those of you who have read Bauder’s article may be thinking that his standard for seriousness about doctrine recognizes that not all doctrines are of equal importance. I’m looking forward to seeing further discussion of the proper rubric for prioritizing doctrine. To this point all I’ve seen is Bauder’s general reference to what is “essential to the gospel itself,” and what has been offered by the self-professed-but-not-approved fundamentalist Phil Johnson. (Phil is not approved because he associates with MacArthur who associates with Mohler who associates with Graham who associates with all kinds of apostates. If it matters, I’m typing this with a smile, not a sneer.) As I'm writing this, Phil's blog, Pyromaniac, is down, but I hope to provide links to his thoughts when it is up again.
Bauder’s point about a hierarchy of doctrine is well taken, but many people in Bauder’s general segment of fundamentalism would not tolerate nearly so much diversity as the early fundamentalists. If sober fundamentalism demands a reasonable hierarchy of doctrine that puts the gospel at the top of the pyramid but allows for differences on other doctrines, they do not qualify.
So, has fundamentalism ever been serious about doctrine and meaning? If it has been authentically serious, why has diversity on unconditional election been more tolerable to many than diversity in musical styles and the timing of the Rapture? How can unconditional election not be “essential to the gospel itself”? If fundamentalism as a movement has never been serious about the gospel in this way, then Bauder’s call is not for a return to something old but for a pilgrimage to something entirely new. This new think, as he describes it, certainly seems to me to be a good thing, but it is not a thing that seems ever to have existed before, at least in the movement that has called itself fundamentalism. Were one to suggest otherwise, it would seem to me to be revisionist history.
The inescapable implication of the big tent fundamentalism of generations past is that co-belligerence made for some strange bedfellows in the battle against modernism. If fundamentalism is to convince rising generations that its ideas are right, some of these uncomfortable sleeping arrangements that were tolerated for decades will face radical upheaval. Twenty-first century fundamentalism will need to define its doctrinal hierarchy with a primary emphasis on a sound definition of the gospel if on that basis it is to formulate a refined fundamentalism. Only through that process will we improve on the big tent fundamentalism of the past hundred years.