Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Five Points of Fundamentalism: What Are They Good For?

Kevin Bauder's recent article, "The Importance of Separation," got me thinking. Before I delve into one narrow aspect of that helpful article, I thought some clarification might be beneficial as to what exactly are the "Five Points of Fundamentalism," where they came from, and what they were intended to do. This Wikipedia entry is obviously accessible and contains some worthwhile links, but my summary depends on the more reliable sources, David Beale's In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850, and George Marsden's Fundamentalism in American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. These two authors reflect a high level of agreement.

In fact, I'm going to quote Marsden (omitting his extensive bibliographical documentation), just to cut to the chase:
In 1910 the Presbyterian General Assembly, in response to some questions raised about the orthodoxy of some of the graduates of Union Theological Seminary, adopted a five-point declaration of "essential" doctrines. Summarized, these points were: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the Virgin Birth of Christ, (3) his substitutionary atonement, (4) his bodily resurrection, and (5) the authenticity of the miracles. These five points . . . were not intended to be a creed or a definitive statement. Yet in the 1920s they became the "famous five points" that were the last rallying position before the spectacular collapse of the conservative party. Moreover, because of parallels to various other fundamentalist short creeds (and an historian's error), they became the basis of what (with premillennialism substituted for the authenticity of the miracles) were long known as the "five points of fundamentalism." (117)
Marsden footnotes that paragraph, which I'll quote here, albeit without the ellipses for omitted bibliographic information:
The usual form made "the deity of Christ" point no. 2 and combined the resurrection with the second coming as point no. 5. Ernest Sandeen exposes the error of the first historian of fundamentalism, Stewart G. Cole, who attributed this form to the Niagara Bible Conference of 1895. During the 1920s "the five points of fundamentalism" sometimes referred to the Presbyterian points and sometimes to the Presbyterian points with the premillennial return of Christ substituted for the miracles as point no. 5. (262)
Beale concurs and expands:
As a safeguard, however, from anyone falsely assuming that Christianity could be reduced to five assertions, the 1910 Assembly added that other biblical truths were "equally" important. (149)
From this documentation, three conclusions seem appropriate:
  1. The five fundamentals were a specific response to specific theological problems in a specific time period targeted at a specific practical matter—ministerial licensing.
  2. The five fundamentals were never intended to serve as an exclusive summary of essential doctrines.
  3. The five fundamentals are more significant for their demonstration of the timeless, theologically-faithful response to false doctrine than they are a timeless statement of which doctrines matter.

2 comments:

Jay C said...

You said:
The five fundamentals were a specific response to specific theological problems in a specific time period targeted at a specific practical matter—ministerial licensing.

I've been thinking the same thing lately, and it's interesting to survey church history, as it seems [from what I remember of it anyway] that certain doctrines have taken pre-eminence from others at different times. For example, "Who Was Christ" seemed to be the thrust of many of the heretical/orthodox debates right around 100-300 AD. Today's big questions seems to revolve around how God preserved His Word for us. Did he actually do so? Did he do it in a specific text type or translation? How do we know what translations are good and which aren't?

The five fundamentals were never intended to serve as an exclusive summary of essential doctrines.
If you're talking about the list of five that Wikipedia gives, then yes, I think I can agree with that. I would submit that there are more than 5 key doctrines, though; however, some of the doctrines I'm thinking of are probably encompassed in the five key ones that you noted. I'll have to think about this.

The five fundamentals are more significant for their demonstration of the timeless, theologically-faithful response to false doctrine than they are a timeless statement of which doctrines matter.
I'm not sure that I buy into this. I see your point, but we are commanded to "fight for the faith that has been handed down to us", which would imply that there is a kernel of doctrines that do absolutely matter.

Ben said...

1. I agree.
2. I may not be following you here. It seems like your "however" is making the same point that my statement makes and that the Beale quote was making.
3. My point is not that there is NOT a kernel of doctrine. Instead, my point is that the significance of the five fundamentalis is found in the fact that they give a patter for responding to the doctrinal deviations of the day, whatever they may be. There are other elements of the "kernel," but fundamentalists believed that these were the most important at the time.