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The Truncated Vision of Modern Fundamentalism: A Review Essay

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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A Review of David Beale’s In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850. Greenville, SC: Unusual Productions, 1986.457 pp., including appendices, bibliography, and index. ISBN 0-89084-350-3

This narrative account of American fundamentalism from the “militant” fundamentalist perspective is valuable less for the insights into the theological, historical, and sociological factors giving rise to and sustaining the movement (there are few such insights) than for the recounting of the exploits of the leading individuals, churches, and organizations in the movement. The book consists of vignettes of the exploits of men like A. C.

Dixon, A. J. Gordon, C. I. Scofield, William Bell Riley, J. Gresham Machen, J. Frank Norris, and Robert T. Ketcham, and their churches and organizations. While one fully expects the author to establish both continuity and also differences between fundamentalism’s predecessors and its contemporaries, he may be excused for surprise at the author’s admission that “[h]istoric fundamentalism has changed” (5)1and that the early non-conformist (as opposed to the modern separatist) fundamentalists were in error to remain within their time-honored denominations in the attempt to purge Protestant liberalism and the consequent apostasy from the orthodox Faith (295). Beale asserts that holiness is the index of fundamentalism, but that its contemporaries practice it “in yet another way” than their forebears (9).

This constitutes one dimension of both historic and contemporary fundamentalism that puzzles us advocates of the Reformed Faith and Christian Reconstructionists, and leads us to an ambivalent relationship with the movement. On the one hand, we endorse heartily the affirmation of “unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures’ (3, emphasis in original) as fundamentalism’s definition. If indeed this is the base-line denotation of fundamentalism, we Christian Reconstructionists are ready to sign up. As we examine the interpretation of this definition in Beale’s work, however, particular features give us pause.

The Subjectivity of Purity

For instance, “the doctrine of holiness” which has become a distinctive of fundamentalism (5, 7) seems to spring from an amorphous, subjective ideal. Throughout the book Beale recounts the struggles of early fundamentalists against the encroachments of theological modernism, as well as leniency with non-fundamentalist Christians who do not take separation from modernism seriously enough. Aside, though, from a treatment of the Subscriptionist Controversy among the Old and New School Presbyterians (119-126) (about whom there is serious dispute whether they should be classified as predecessors of fundamentalism at all), Beale neglects expressing a coherent theological and confessional basis on which fundamentalism offers a principled opposition to theological defections. According to Beale, the movement originated in America’s Third Great Awakening in 1857, and one gets the impression from his account that fundamentalism began as a reactionary movement, maintaining no observable theological continuity with classical orthodoxy. He accents the fundamentalist distinctive of both individual and ecclesiastical purity, but apparently concludes that whatever constitutes such purity is self-evident; he does not tie it to any particular theological persuasion.

The Predicament of “The Fundamentals”

The lack of continuity with a particular theological persuasion underscores another perplexing and objectionable aspect of fundamentalism: the so-called “fundamentals of the Faith.” One may be forgiven puzzlement in discovering that almost all professed fundamentalists follow Beale (7) in refusing to limit the identity of their movement to an affirmation of the fundamentals, that is, doctrines like the infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, and so forth. One reason for this reluctance is that too many Christians who affirm these doctrines no less heartily than the fundamentalists refuse to be identified with fundamentalism, or act in ways fundamentalists oppose. Thus, the name “fundamentalist” is somewhat misleading. When fundamentalists stress Beale’s definition of their movement as “unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures,” or George Dollar’s “the literal exposition of all the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible and the militant exposure of all non- Biblical affirmations and attitudes,”2 they require a great deal more than acceptance of the fundamentals. For fundamentalists, the fundamentals are never sufficient. This would have posed no problem had fundamentalism early this century remained nothing more than an ad hoc coalition battling theological liberalism; hut when it developed into a “movement” it required theological identity, much more than the mere fundamentals can offer.

A deeper puzzle and contradiction emerge, though, when one discovers that fundamentalism is intentionally interdenominational (6). For this reason, fundamentalists are required, despite their assertions about the necessity of affirming the teachings of the entire Bible, to diminish the importance of certain Biblical teachings on which fundamentalists cannot agree. In this vein, Bob Jones asserts that questions of baptism, eschatology, and perseverance of the saints, while concerns of individual fundamentalists, are not matters on which fundamentalism as a movement should take a firm position.3 Likewise, fundamentalist Chester Tulga asserts, “Fundamentalism [as an ‘interdenominational movement’] 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. It was a form of essentialism.”‘4 Fundamentalists seem to assert, on the one hand, that fundamentalism is defined as “the literal exposition of all the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible,” and, on the other hand, that certain Biblical doctrines are not of sufficient importance to defend as fundamentals. This distinction resembles seventeenth-century Reformation debates over how much belief is required to guarantee orthodoxy. Set in this context, it is almost always the “liberal” approach which pushes to limit the range of orthodoxy to “the fundamentals.”5 The historic confessional approach is dedicated to defending the Faith expressed in the Bible, not merely “the fundamentals.” In this sense, fundamentalism is itself a form of “liberalism,” a reductionist faith.

The most problematic inconsistencies of fundamentalism, however, transcend merely that of a distinction between Biblical Faith and “the fundamentals.” The fundamentalist approach grants latitude beyond, in Jones’s words, “those fundamentals which are so clear in the word of God as to admit to no differences of interpretation.”‘6 The difficulty is that certain individuals may interpret clear passages in ways that undermine “the fundamentals.”7 It perhaps does not occur to fundamentalists like Jones that some may endorse, in Beale’s definition, “unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures” while denying the fundamentals. This was the dilemma of the orthodox versus the Arians in the patristic church, and the orthodox versus many cults today: how to deal with professed Christians who affirm the infallibility of Scripture but who deny Christian orthodoxy. Merely to reaffirm the infallibility of Scripture is futile; required is a view of Christian history which defends classical orthodoxy and God’s oversight of his church’s interpretive decisions in history, that is, a recognition of the providential preservation of sound theology in the church. The fundamentalist interpretation of the use of Scripture is not inclined to accept this approach, though, and the movement is thus vulnerable to inherent clashes between its view of Scripture and its view of “the fundamentals.

Put in another way, the real problem with the “fundamentalism” (“essentialism,” in Tulga’s words) of fundamentalism is that it leads us only to affirmations about Biblical authority, not to what the Bible actually teaches. This in turn leads to the implicit assumption that belief in the Bible validates beliefs about the Bible. This assumption furnishes one reason why there is little emphasis in fundamentalism on the creeds and confessions of the church; fundamentalists seem to presume that adherence to formal Biblical authority secures correct belief. It fails to realize that the Christian creeds and confessions were necessary precisely because heretics held so firmly to formal Biblical authority. This inability to acknowledge the binding authority of doctrinal formulations is a special blind spot of modern fundamentalists. It reduces much of their program to cheerleading about Biblical authority and to separation from narrowly-defined theological deviants and from brethren who associate with them. The dedication to formal Biblical authority and separatism (creditable and essential though they are) is undermined by fundamentalists’ refusal to define and express a comprehensive Biblical and theological position. They seemingly do not grasp that formal Biblical authority and Biblical separation are almost meaningless concepts and practices unless one can express and defend a comprehensive range of Biblical teaching.

The Omission of History

The fundamentalists commonly and simplistically differentiate themselves from those who do not embrace their view in the following way: “Separatists [fundamentalists] give priority to the holiness of the church; inclusivists, such as Augustine, give priority to the unity of the church.”8 Since the fundamentalist movement is largely ahistorical, however (Beale hastily posits “fundamentalism as the lengthened shadow of Moses and the prophets, of Christ and the apostles, of Augustine and Calvin, of the English Separatists and Puritans, of Wesley and Whitefield, of the German Pietists and the English Brethren, of London’s Spurgeon and Princeton’s Warfield” [3]—and never again discusses continuity with the church historic), it lacks contact with the august creedal and confessional traditions that furnish the boundaries both of unity and of holiness. The corollary is the invention of a new orthodoxy, including new boundaries of fellowship and dissociation. We should not be surprised, thus, when the author suggests that the overriding concern for purity reveals a recent development in the movement: the inclusion of Biblical fellowship, separation from evil, and from every evil practice as “fundamentals of the Faith” (6). A Christian movement sequestered from classical orthodoxy thus finds it necessary to create new distinctives that delimit its theological and sociological boundaries. “American Fundamentalists,” observes Dollar, “have never felt that they had a special obligation to continue the truths and the traditions of the Reformation, but have put foremost their purpose to restore every truth and discipline of the apostles.”9. This trait is sometimes called primitivism: the attempt to restore “New Testament Christianity” without recourse to the insights of the history of the church.

The Susceptibility to Worldliness

A pernicious and ironic effect of this ahistorical approach is that it renders the movement especially susceptible to ideational (and other) fads of history. Marsden has shown how early fundamentalism purchased ideational stock in the inductivist-scientific approach of the nineteenth century, and how this approach buttressed its dispensationalist views. In other words, theirs was largely a religious version of the prevailing ethos.10. It is not surprising that an ahistorical movement would necessarily neglect or dismiss classical orthodoxy and this neglect or dismissal would prevent recourse to the theological molds and traditions which resist capitulation to the present cultural norms—philosophical or otherwise. Fundamentalists lack the capacity to judge the present by the past.

Because, nonetheless, the movement by and large is dispensational premillennial (“the single most influential publication in Fundamentalism’s history [is] the Scofield Reference Bible [37]”11), one is not surprised to note the omission of any discussion of the extent to which Biblical law furnishes the index of sanctification and holiness. Consequently, just as there is no anchor in classical orthodoxy for delimiting fundamentalism’s theological parameters, so there is no anchor in Holy Scripture for delimiting its ethical parameters. We are left with odd, existential advice for the fundamentalist faithful to “pay the price for revival,” restore the “holy art of worship,” and preserve the “pursuit of purity” (356-359)without recourse either to an objective, comprehensive system of Biblical revelation or to the confessional boundaries of classical orthodoxy.

The Gospel of Ineptitude

While fundamentalism is generally ahistorical, it does maintain an emphatic interest in the future: the course of history is one of apostasy, with but sporadic revivals of religion that temporarily impede the predestined apostasy (10, 11). The majority of fundamentalists share with their evangelical counterparts the confidence that the interadvental era is marked by increasing apostasy in the church and society, and ineptitude in Christian efforts to stem apostasy’s tide; it is a retreatist tack. In any case, the design of Christianity is not to apply the Faith to all areas of life and society. It is not clear which comes first in the fundamentalist scheme: the conviction that the Faith should not apply to all of life, or the conviction that any attempts to advance the Christian message in all spheres is doomed to failure. Regardless, the purity and holiness fundamentalists stress is not extended to all his moral creatures. It is the purity and holiness merely of the individual and the church.

The notion that Christ intends to use his Spirit and church to press his claims in all spheres is no aspect of the fundamentalist vision, which is essentially individualistic and ecclesiastical at best. That vision is inbred—keeping fundamentalism “purer and purer,” rather than dominionist— advancing the purity of the Faith in the world.

The Duplication of Humanism

While in the Reformation tradition, the chief end of man is the glory of God, among the fundamentalists it is personal and ecclesiastical holiness. This leads to another flaw in fundamentalism—an anthropocentric orientation that further dilutes its commitment to Biblical infallibility. There is no discussion in Beale’s book of the severe error of religious humanism, though his cursory (68-71) treatment of Enlightenment as the precursor of Liberalism summarizes Kant’s man-centered approach: “Instead of transferring the seat of authority back to the Bible, Kant placed it in man’s inner sense of moral obligation, the ‘categorical imperative’“ (71). Beale apparently does not recognize that a similar charge could be leveled against fundamentalism: because his dispensational premillennialism prohibits recourse to the comprehensive Biblical revelation, and because his ahistorical primitivism prohibits recourse to classical confessional orthodoxy, the typical fundamentalist is left with nothing but an “inner sense of moral obligation” in establishing theological and ethical regulations and boundaries. Naturally, therefore, the fundamentalists have never taken a decisive position favoring soteriological predestination and election (“From its earliest history Fundamentalism has not taken any position on the Five Points [of Calvinism] or on any of the points”12); they are usually synergistic, holding that God and man cooperate in regeneration: God does not save the unconverted; he helps them save themselves. The Augustinian-Calvinist position, on the other hand, issues from an intentionally theocentric approach to the Faith lacking in modern fundamentalism, whose main distinctive is man’s holiness and purity. Beale seemingly does not perceive how this latter anthropocentric orientation flowers from the same theological branch as liberalism: the religion of man. In this soteriological sense (if not in other senses) fundamentalism joins its arch-foe liberalism (69) as an expression of religious humanism.

The Evaluation of Christian Reconstruction

When we Reformed orthodox and Christian Reconstructionists assess fundamentalism, we tend to think, “If only they took many of their foundational assertions seriously!” Although we join our fundamentalist brothers in affirming the full authority of our inerrant Bible, and the necessity of absolute obedience to it, we are convinced our brothers’ practice does not measure up to their profession: not merely that their actions belie their words, but that their actions must perforce belie their words. We do not in any sense accuse our fundamentalist brothers of insincerity; we are convinced, rather, that certain inherent theological presuppositions (like dispensationalism) undermine their formal commitment to obedience to the full authority of the infallible Bible. A prime instance is their inclination to dismiss the claims of Biblical law—for this reason they are maneuvered into positing “spiritual,” subjective, pietistic indices of purity and holiness (Beale’s discussion of the Old Princeton Seminary completely skirts its rigorous theological character and stresses only the devotional warmth and fervor of its faculty [135-141]!). We Reformed orthodox and Christian Reconstructionists would urge our fundamentalist brethren to affirm the full authority of the Bible, not merely an arbitrarily selected subset of it, embracing the eternal authority of the inscripturated revelation as expressed in Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law. When fundamentalists profess “unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures,” we encourage an unqualified acceptance of and obedience to all the Scriptures. “All the Scriptures” includes taking the full range of the Biblical revelation seriously, and this entails deference to (or at least careful consideration of) theological formulations like the Reformation confessions. Fundamentalists, like all Christians, are called to defend, not “the fundamentals,” but the entire range of the Biblical Faith.

This recovery of contact with the history of the church, specifically with its great ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions, will furnish a benchmark in deciding questions about fellowship and separation. The creeds were hammered out to distinguish the Faith from heresy and other deviations, while the Reformation confessions were devised to explicate the teaching of Scripture in its fullness. Questions of theological and individual purity cannot be decisively answered apart from the sort of serious theological reflection undergirding these doctrinal symbols.

Moreover, we advise our fundamentalist brethren to stand decisively with a fully God-centered Faith as represented in the Augustinian-Calvinist vision. We encourage a return to a vigorous God-centered Faith, which perceives holiness and purity not as abstract indicium of a movement hut as the effect of a vital Biblical Faith whose objective is the glory of God in salvation and in all of life. Otherwise, fundamentalism will simply perpetuate a sort of diluted religious humanism in which the will, reason, and instinct of man impose alien meanings on Scripture and impoverish Biblical religion.

Finally, we would stress to our fundamentalist brothers the necessity of applying the holiness and purity which the Scripture requires far beyond the confines of fundamentalism and the institutional church. Holiness and purity are indeed crucial dimensions of Biblical Faith, but we dare not limit that Faith to the individual and church. Rather, it must press outward to all of life and society—education, arts, technology, and politics no less than to church, prayer, and family life.

The Christian Reconstructionist reservations about fundamentalism are perhaps most succinctly expressed by labeling it a truncated vision. Its dispensationalism truncates its view of Holy Scripture; its primitivism truncates its view of history; its retreatism truncates its view of the Christian message; and its synergism truncates its view of God Himself.

We Christian Reconstructionists are confident that were fundamentalism to address these defects, it would become a virile force in modern life and society, holstered by a full-orbed message applying to all areas of thought and life.

1 All parenthetical numbers refer to pages in Beale’s work.

2 George Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America (Orlando, FL [1973], 1983), vi.

3 Bob Jones, Fundamentals of Faith (Greenville, SC, 1964), 55, 56.

4 Chester Tulga, The Fundamentalism of Yesterday, The Evangelicalism of Today, and The Fundamentalism of Tomorrow (Bingham Lake, MN, n.d.), 1.

5 Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy From the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, NY, 1984), 369, 370.

6 Jones, op. cit., 55.

7 James Barr, certainly no fundamentalist, makes this point in Beyond Fundamentalism (Philadelphia, 198), 66.

8 Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle For a Pure Church (Schaumburg, if , 1979), 20, emphasis in original).

9 Dollar, op. cit., 4.

10 George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (Grand Rapids, 1980), 55-62.

11 Note also Dollar, loc. cit., and 265.

12 ibid., 276.

  • 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).

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