Minimalism is the implicit heresy that scales down the Bible's teaching and the Christian Faith to its bare essentials — and often much less. Minimalists wish to arrive at a comfort zone of believing as little as they can and still be a Christian. The two leading groups espousing minimalism in recent times are Protestant liberalism and American fundamentalism. At first blush, this fact may seem highly dubious, since the two are avowed enemies. Both, however, operate on distinct Enlightenment premises that attempt to conform aspects of the Faith to autonomous human reason.1 Liberals, as Donald Miller notes, reshape the Faith in terms of the temper of the times.2 This means, among other blasphemies, that Biblical miracles — including Christ's resurrection — either never really happened or are of no great concern. Fundamentalists, for their part, demonstrate their rationalism by reshaping God in the image of man — almost all fundamentalists deny God's absolute predestination of all things, the salvation of man as solely the work of God, and the lordship of Christ in all areas of life.3 Both Protestant liberals and American fundamentalists believe in the ultimacy of human autonomy; liberals are simply more willing to carry this premise to its logical conclusion.
Today, while liberalism is rushing headlong into a hedonistic secularism, fundamentalism has created a new faith of its minimalism. Because fundamentalism routinely denies most of the authority of the Old Testament,4 it is left with a gaping hole in positing a Biblical ethical standard. Therefore, it has created its own pharisaic ethical standard. In other words, its interpretive ethical minimalism has led to autonomous ethical maximalism. Movies, alcohol, and Steve Green music are prohibited, while tithing, a Christian civil magistracy, and imprecatory prayer are considered "harsh" and "legalistic." Minimalism as an approach to the Bible and the Faith creates a maximalism of man's raw autonomous authority in the church.
The Fundamentalist Vacuum
Minimalism for Protestant liberalism, I say, simply carries this premise to its logical conclusion. The Bible is not infallibly authoritative. Therefore, what must be retained in Christianity is the "ethics of Jesus" and an enthusiastic tolerance for everything except Biblical orthodoxy. In this liberal version of minimalism, homosexuality may be quite Christian, but Biblical law is dangerous.5
A fundamentalist minimalism, in fact, forges a vacuum which liberal minimalism quickly rushes in to fill. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Protestant pietists, for example, with their early fundamentalist-style reduction of doctrine, shred the Faith to a minimally orthodox creed and a maximally emotional subjectivism.6 This was the program, too, of the revivalists.7 It was a dominant form of Christianity from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries. It is not surprising, therefore, that the father of liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who grew up in a pietist home, abandoned any semblance of orthodoxy whatever and redefined Christianity as man's inner feelings.8 Piety without doctrine quickly became religion without Christianity.
The response of the fundamentalists was to create a few doctrines as an "irreducible minimum," in the words of one of their defenders. Chester Tulga, apologist for fundamentalism, was forced to acknowledge: "Fundamentalism was not a full[-]fledged affirmation of the entire range of orthodoxy, as the Scriptures require, but a defense of those doctrines deemed necessary to the integrity of the Christian faith."9
The entire range of Biblical teaching, including such topics as creation, providence, predestination, covenant, baptism, the arts, civil government, and economics seemed simply too ambitious to defend in the face of the onslaught of liberal attacks on the Bible. This meant to fundamentalists that the Faith was reduced to five or seven salvation doctrines, Bible institute courses, missions agencies, and more frequent church services. The medieval and Reformation idea of Christian culture10 and Abraham Kuyper's notion of a Christian "life system" simply evaporated.11
We live today in the wake of the minimalist presuppositions of Protestant liberalism and fundamentalism. We of the West suffer in a world governed by secular presuppositions. It is a world that accords Christianity a small place — between somebody's two ears, or, at best, Sunday evening prayer meetings and feminized, stadium-glutting men's "revivals." The wicked dominate every major area of modern culture. This is the fruit of a minimalist faith that defends the Bible and Christianity on very narrow grounds and refuses to take the offensive and reclaim all areas of society for Christ the King. The only effective antidote to minimalism is a world-conquering Christian maximalism, affirming the full authority of the entire Bible over the entire range of modern thought and culture.
1.On the fundamentalist debt to the Enlightenment, see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 55-62.
On the Enlightenment's shaping of liberalism, see Robert T. Handy, A Christian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 72-73.
2. Donald E. Miller, The Case for Liberal Christianity (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 3-31.
3. P. Andrew Sandlin, "The Truncated Vision of Modern Fundamentalism," The Reign of the Righteous (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon, 1998), 61-68.
4. American Fundamentalism has always been predominantly dispensational. See George W. Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America (Orlando: Daniels Publishing Company , 1983), 27.
5. Gary Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1993).
6. Jaroslav Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 48-59.
7. Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, NY: Harper and Row, 1984), ch. 18, 20.
8. Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (New York: Harper and Row, 1958).
9. Chester Tulga, The Fundamentalism of Yesterday, the Evangelicalism of Today, and the Fundamentalism of Tomorrow (Bingham Lake, MN, n. pub., n.d.), 1.
10. Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960).
11. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931).
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).