Reflecting on Applications

The blog has been pretty quiet for a while now. Part of that is simply the nature of life and ministry currently—it’s a busy season right now. The more significant reason, I think, is the combination of feeling I need to say something about the ecclesiastical landscape while, frankly, being tired of saying things about the ecclesiastical landscape. Well, I’ve got about two weeks until I leave for vacation, so I’m aiming to wrap up my contributions to the discussion by then so I can move along to other matters. Perhaps I should be more specific—“the discussion” to which I am referring is about fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and the relationship between these two. That seems to be the hot issue right now. I feel like I need to address this because: (a) I’ve been very vocal in asserting that I don’t believe those labels (fundamentalism, evangelicalism) are very helpful in determining ministerial fellowship anymore; (b) it seems safe that my view is disturbing to some folks, including some friends (and their concern matters to me); (c) some people seem determined to start a new internecine war over these things; and (d) I’ve made some public comments that probably need elaboration and/or clarification. I’d like to start working on that fourth point today.

During the first panel discussion at the Advancing the Church Conference in Lansdale, I made a comment about the need to make fresh applications of biblical principles or we will find ourselves walking away from the principles themselves. I also expressed concern about the fossilization of our applications. That led to a question about what prompted me to rethink my applications of biblical principles regarding separation. As is the nature of panel discussions, I needed to give a compact answer to a large question, so I pinpointed the middle of the last decade as a point where a number of things came to a head for me. Because we were talking about applications, I referred to issues both internal and external to the circles of my normal fellowship. I gave one example from both—a meeting of educational leaders in which a discussion happened about drawing some theological boundaries for our kind of fundamentalism and my interaction with Phil Johnson over the “Dead Right” presentation he made at the 2005 Shepherds Conference. Regarding the former, it became clear to me that something that I felt was a necessary thing wasn’t going to happen. In contrast, Phil acknowledged something publicly about “secondary separation” that, at least to me, hadn’t been readily apparent previously.

I plan to unpack my larger point regarding changing within and without over the next few posts, but here I’ll just add some more color to my point about the meeting of educational leaders. I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but in February of 2005 I did two presentations at the annual meeting of the American Association of Christian Colleges and Seminaries—one on the fragmenting of Fundamentalism and one on the practical side of making separation decisions. As part of the presentation on the fragmentation in Fundamentalism, I contended that Fundamentalist unity will probably only be achieved if there is a clear animating reason for existence, and that the two options for such a reason would seem to be either activist or doctrinal. IOW, it could be a movement around accomplishing something or around believing something. Further, my view was that given our historic roots as a theological movement and the present state of everybody already having their own activity centers, the wisest course of action would be doctrinal (vs. activist). In addition, I argued that the toleration of theological aberrations was not only severely damaging our credibility, but prevented any real unity for action anyways.

It became clear to me that mine was not the prevailing view and that what I hoped and worked toward for some time was not going to happen. In many ways I understand this completely—my proposal would have been difficult to implement and would have inevitably led to some level of conflict. I fault no one for disagreeing with me, though I was surprised at the lack of participation in such an important discussion. Basically, two of us with differing perspectives engaged in a conversation about while others mainly watched. Given the circumstances, it seemed obvious to me: (1) that a significant number of the most influential people within fundamentalism were less interested in a theological reformation of fundamentalism than I was; and (2) that my growing sense that a genuine reformation was not going to happen was in fact accurate. I’ll say more about that phrase “growing sense” later, but for now I’ll just remind you that I said things were coming to a head, not starting, in 2005.

Being the stubborn man that I am, I didn’t quit making my case for a theologically centered fundamentalism. I did a presentation a few months later at the 2005 Faculty Summit entitled “A Fresh Attempt at Identifying the Fundamentals” and a workshop at our 2005 Fall conference entitled “The Gospel and the Boundaries of Fundamentalism” (as well as another one entitled “Christian Liberty and Ecclesiastical Separation”). Later posts will address why this matter was so important to me and what impact preparing for these presentations had on my thinking, but the basic point now is that I was coming to the conclusion that whatever remained of a fundamentalist movement was not mainly held together by shared theological convictions. That is not to say that there were not shared theological convictions, but that these convictions were not the animating force. In fact, there seemed to be some fear that articulating strong theological convictions would divide the movement. To me, in many ways, that was the handwriting on the wall.

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