Five years later…

Five years ago Phil Johnson, of Grace to You, and I had an exchange over a presentation that he did which was entitled, “Dead Right: The Failure of Fundamentalim.” I’ve copied a portion of my initial response to Phil below (the full interaction can be found here.). It seems pertinent for two reasons: (1) it is fair to say that five years ago I was still trying to say something like, “Those other guys that you’re (Phil) critiquing are not really fundamentalists, but a distortion of genuine fundamentalism” whereas I’ve given up on that argument, not because it’s invalid, but it’s a waste of time; and (2) this section is basically what I’ve been saying on this blog (and other places) repeatedly in the past year or so. What’s interesting about that second point is that some of the folks who are alarmed by what I’ve written on this blog were quite positive about this response to Phil. Anyway, here’s a blast from the past.

Are We at a Realignment Stage?

            The history of Fundamentalism can be viewed as a series of challenges that provoke a response from committed believers. The first challenge was modernism. This happened within the denominations and was eventually met by resistance from those who held to the fundamentals of the faith. The first step of resistance was an effort to remove the modernists. When it became clear that this effort had failed, the next step was to leave the denominations.

            The second challenge was the rise of New evangelicalism. In reality, New evangelicalism was a reaction to Fundamentalism (not vice versa). Some orthodox believers came to the conclusion that separation was a mistake. They wanted to return to a position of fellowship with liberals in order to win back the denominations and influence the culture. They embraced forms of ecumenism that had been previously repudiated. Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, and Billy Graham formed something of a New Evangelical triumvirate—a school, a publication, and a voice—that set the pace and tone for the movement. Profs at Fuller, like Carnell, turned their guns on the Fundamentalists. Graham deliberately drove away the Fundamentalists by including known apostates in his New York Crusade. Christianity Today tried to shape the hearts and minds of its readers according to the new ideology. The Fundamentalist response to this new movement held pretty solidly until the 1960s and then gradually began to unravel as the new movement grew in popularity and influence. By the early 1970s the unraveling reached something of a crisis over the question of how to respond to those who reject the New Evangelical agenda, but don’t break from the New Evangelicals. The movement fragmented and has never really recovered. On this point I agree with Johnson, although I believe he draws the wrong conclusion that one segment actually represents the whole.

            In my mind, this was the third distinct challenge, and the movement stumbled. I don’t know that it could have been avoided, and I certainly believe that God is in control of even this. I wonder, and it really is an unsettled point for me, if the coming battles within evangelicalism and fundamentalism don’t present a new challenge to biblical separatists. I believe there is a growing awareness that evangelicalism suffers from the very problems that Johnson has pointed out in Fundamentalism, namely the lack of definition, doctrinal clarity, and any clear system of due process. Open Theists are claiming the label of evangelical, so how can that movement be well-defined or have any doctrinal clarity? And they can’t figure out what to do with these non-evangelical evangelicals within groups like the Baptist General Conference and the Evangelical Theological Society (to name only two). When I read what Phil Johnson writes, I hear the growing realization that evangelicalism cannot exist for long like this (if it still does even now). The concept of separation is showing up in the writings of men like MacArthur, Grudem, Bock, and Carson. They are not all agreed with each other, but all seem to be realizing that the idea of separation from unbelief is a biblical subject and must be addressed. This is a good thing. I believe they find themselves in the midst of a 21st century version of the modernist controversy. If they do not drive it out or pull out of it, their whole movement will be lost.

            A growing number of Fundamentalists who occupy the historic mainstream also realize that certain segments of professing Fundamentalism have soiled the name and have abandoned some of its truths. The time of toleration has past for these men simply because the Truth is at stake. Johnson is correct to call us to consistent application of our separatist principles and to point out that such consistency demands some housecleaning of the kind described in 2 Timothy 2:20-21. It is time to get this done. We need a fresh articulation of the fundamental doctrines, clearly identifying what these do and do not mean. Biblical truth must lead the way and set the standard.

            Would these simultaneous developments produce a new movement that is united on the fundamentals and a common commitment to separation from unbelief? Possibly, but it is not probable. There are still too many unresolved issues, some of which I have already alluded to. The historical reality is that there are no clear lines of separation anymore because both movements are something less of a movement than they were when Fundamentalists pulled out, for example, of the Northern Baptist Convention to form the GARBC. The day of associations is probably past. We have entered into an era that values networking, not formal organizations. I agree with Johnson on this point—independence is good. My local church beliefs lead me to conclude it is even more than good; it is the best option.

            What this new development may mean, practically speaking, is that the standard labels could lose some of their significance. If some of the conservative evangelicals become committed separatists (i.e. in belief and practice), repudiating the position of the old New evangelicalism, then we may need to view them differently than we have. Likewise, if some of the currently professing Fundamentalists continue on as they have been, then that label will mean nothing in terms of whether fellowship with them is proper. I recognize that the prospect of either of these is unsettling to folks across the board, but changing times demand discerning application of timeless biblical truth. If neither group recognizes this, both seem headed for serious trouble.


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