Sunday, February 24, 2008

"What can we learn from fundamentalists?"

Here's my answer. The body is what will appear in the upcoming 9Marks E-Journal. I cut the introduction and conclusion for length, since even without it I was over the word count limit.
Fundamentalists make easy targets. They’re convenient foils for many an argument, and if you want to set up a straw man, they’ll give you more chaff than you could hope to stuff into any flannel shirt. But if you’re willing to look objectively at the past 50-80 years of evangelical history, you’ll see that they were largely right in their assessment of the direction of the movement, even if you disagree with how or why they said it. Decades ago, fundamentalist leaders prophesied the very same outcomes men like Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry, and David Wells have decried only much more recently.

So what can we learn from fundamentalists? Which of their principles have been proven true, and how can we apply those principles to our contemporary evangelical context? Fundamentalists are most often criticized for their attitude towards the world and their attitude towards other Christians, and they would certainly acknowledge their differences with broader evangelicalism on these points. That’s exactly why we should examine these particular attitudes for fundamentalists’ unique contribution.

Fundamentalists are right to conclude that Christians shouldn’t expect the world to like Jesus or the Bible—assuming of course, that the gospel is faithfully proclaimed as the offense Scripture describes it to be. They recognize far better than most evangelicals that organizations that call themselves Christian churches but deny the doctrines essential to the gospel are, in fact, no churches at all. They perceive, as Machen did, that these “churches” are simply temples for a different religion—just another segment of a world in rebellion against its God. Over the past century, many in the evangelical movement have glossed over these fundamental differences, believing that sincere engagement and better arguments would win hearts and minds. Despite the prevalence of revivalistic anti-Calvinism among fundamentalists, they better understand the implications of depravity than many of their more Calvinistic evangelical brethren. They know that human effort alone cannot mitigate the effects of the Fall, and they resist any strategy that compromises the gospel in an attempt to make it more palatable to those fallen hearts and minds.

Fundamentalists also withhold fellowship and cooperation from many people whom they understand to be genuine believers. They recognize that when a genuine believer treats as a Christian brother one who professes Christianity, but denies it in doctrine or deed, that genuine believer may do harm to the gospel. Cooperation and fellowship with unbelief is unconscionable to fundamentalists because it blurs or compromises foundational biblical truth. Though this kind of separatism has been widely disdained by evangelicals who pursue broad unity, fundamentalists recognize the pitfalls that accompany an age of ecumenism and mass evangelism. These evangelical efforts have created an interlocking network of alliances between people, churches, and parachurch ministries that do not always share the same set of foundational theological convictions. Fundamentalists discern how participation in this network fosters a perception of affirmation and endorsement of those who deny or marginalize crucial facets of Divine truth. Fundamentalists fear that this form of engagement compromises the non-negotiables of the gospel more than cooperation could ever advance it. Fundamentalists gladly exchange this kind of ecumenical unity for biblical fidelity and a clear conscience. In so doing, they remind evangelicals that Christian unity is only authentic when it is unashamedly and undeniably Christian in its essence.

I have full confidence that every reader of this article will be able to think of a specific example of a fundamentalist who’s swung too far to the right in his application of the principles discussed above. I wonder whether we often reject the true ideas within fundamentalism simply because we’ve seldom met fundamentalists who grasped them. But instead of slouching into the intellectual laziness of dismissing an argument because some apply it foolishly, why not pause and consider the ways in which the underlying idea is true? And having done that, let’s consider how we ought to apply it to our thought and practice.


David Stertz said...

Great stuff Ben! I think you really summarized the positives well without denying some blights in the past.

Todd Wood said...


And it will be interesting what the next generation and beyond will be writing about our contributions and weaknesses in this generation.

tenjuices said...

shamless self-promotion!!! Who let you post this?
j/k. good stuff

Keith said...

What should fundamentalists have learned from the puritans?

Check out Doug Wilson at

Bob Hayton said...


I think basically you got it right. Fundamentalist's regard for the truth is something that should be appreciated by evangelicals.

I also appreciated your post in the ejournal, on the potential convergence. I join you in hoping for such a development.

I have a couple little things I think you got wrong, though (and they are minor). First, in your answer to the "what we can learn" question, you said of fundamentalists:

"...they resist any strategy that compromises the gospel in an attempt to make it more palatable to those fallen hearts and minds."

I think you are forgetting the Hyles Anderson version of fundamentalism of which this quote would be resoundingly wrong. The pragmatism and soul-winning strategies Jack Hyles and other Sword of the Lord types employed might make even Bill Hybels or Rick Warren blush.

And I took your mention of "who are the fundamentalists" in your article to be saying they are the descendants of the northern denominational purists like Machen and company. Looking back I see you said "ideological" descendants. It seems there were Northern folks who did separate from denominations and are the forebears of our modern movement, but there are also many Southern folks who split from the SBC (again Hyles is a prominent example) and became (I would guess) the majority in the new (after the neo-evangelicals abandoned the movement) movement. Perhaps I read your comments too closely, but I thought you were ignoring this Southern phenomenon.

Anyway, thanks for your work in this journal, and I love the collection of works in it.

Over at my blog, Fundamentally Reformed, I've been arguing a point (with some very conservative fundamentalists) which is assumed in the e-journal: that doctrines can be ranked: as central to the Gospel, and more peripheral; or as primary, secondary, and tertiary; etc.

I hoped the journal would have opened that question a little and given a bit of a defense on that point. Then again, I think it is kind of obvious that Scripture allows for fundamental and more clear doctrines.

Thanks again,

Bob Hayton

Ben said...


Thanks for the encouragement. I think you're largely right on your first critique. I just didn't quite know how to distill that into such a short piece, and I thought it was necessary to summarize fundamentalist opposition to ecumenism that included apostates.

On your second point, the peculiarities you describe are precisely why I called them the ideological heirs, rather than the direct descendants. I think the way I described them is accurate

Bob Hayton said...

Thanks, Ben. As I said, I had overlooked that word "ideological" in my first read. And you're right, fundamentalism is a many-headed beast that can be hard to describe/explain adequately in such contexts.