Friday, October 5, 2012
Fundamentalism Then and Now – II
The story of Fundamentalism did not end with the 1930's, of course. But with the passage of time the divisions within Evangelicalism only deepened. "Neo-Evangelicalism" made its appearance, and Billy Graham made his controversial decision to cooperate with liberals and Catholics in his evangelistic crusades. All the while strict Fundamentalists refused to compromise. Excluded from the life of the major denominations, Fundamentalist evangelists, some of them marked by colorful personalities, built ministry empires around themselves. It was the age of Bob Jones, Jr. and John R. Rice, of Jack Hyles and Carl McIntyre.
Over the course of these developments the meaning of the word "Fundamentalist" underwent a change. In the earlier part of the century the contributors to The Fundamentals, a set of books that argued the case for the essential doctrines of Christianity, included such diverse figures as A.C. Dixon, Charles R. Erdman, James M. Gray, G. Campbell Morgan, A.T. Pierson, R.A. Torrey, and B.B. Warfield. Dixon, Gray and Torrey, along with C.I. Scofield, had earlier been associated with D.L. Moody and were also involved in the Keswick Movement. They were men of deep personal piety and had a passion for reaching lost souls for Christ. But by 1960 only the more militant separatists still wished to identify themselves as "Fundamentalists." The word had taken on a negative connotation that few wished to have applied to themselves.
In 1976 the World Congress of Fundamentalists, meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, adopted a formal definition of the word "Fundamentalist." Most of the seven individual points that made up the definition could be affirmed by nearly any conservative Evangelical. The major exception is point #6, which stated that a Fundamentalist "exposes and separates from all ecclesiastical denial of that Faith, compromise with error, and apostasy from the truth . . ." The problematical phrase is" "Exposes and separates from all ecclesiastical . . . compromise with error." This is what is sometimes referred to a "second degree separation," i.e., not only will a Fundamentalist separate from unbelievers, he will also separate from a fellow believer if he deems that Christian to be "compromising with error." But what constitutes "error"? Denial of the deity of Christ? Rejection of the idea of a Pretribulation Rapture? Use of a modern version of the Bible? Where exactly does one draw the line? The sentence, after all, says "all compromise with error," presumably no matter how great or small.
Therein lies the problem. Fundamentalism has become the very epitome of narrow and unseemly sectarianism. What began as a broad coalition of Bible-believing Christians to defend the historic Christian faith instead has become a narrowly based group of zealots bent on fighting over minor differences of doctrine and practice. Fundamentalist historian David O. Beale even distinguishes Fundamentalists from "Neo-Fundamentalists," claiming that these "reconstructionist evangelicals actually differ quite radically from Fundamentalism because they consider anyone a Fundamentalist who holds to the cardinal Christian doctrines" (In Pursuit of Purity, p. 267). In other words, their great crime, in Dr. Beale's eyes, is that they hold to the original definition of "Fundamentalist"!
The early Fundamentalists faced one of the gravest crises ever to befall Western Civilization. It was their sad destiny to witness the de-Christianization of the West. In this crisis they stood fast amid the raging storm of controversy and persevered to the end. To the extent that the gospel still exists at all in the modern world we owe in large measure to the courage and integrity of those valiant men. Yet it must also be said that in large measure they failed in their objective, which was to rescue the major denominations form theological apostasy, and they failed probably because they put too much confidence in the arm of the flesh and not enough in the Spirit of God. In the end they became a tragic demonstration of the principle "'Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the Lord of hosts" (Zech. 4:6; NKJV).