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Shall We Surrender the Term “Fundamentalism”?

By January 1, 2007June 6th, 2014No Comments

NOTE: In recent years the word “fundamentalism” and its derivatives, particularly as they relate to Biblical Christianity, have come under scrutiny and even attack. Some cite radical non-Christian groups who are being labeled by this word; therefore some Biblical Christians maintain that we should no longer want to be so identified. Others, meaning well, have sought to replace the word with substitutes, but none have seemed to stick. This article, which appeared in The Baptist Bulletin nearly fifty years ago, demonstrates that the debate is not new. The reprinting of the article in this issue of The Baptist Bulletin reestablishes our acknowledgement of this word as a testimony concerning what we stand for. The article is the first in a yearlong series to observe the GARBC’s 75th anniversary by highlighting several key issues that we as an Association continue to hold to as we endeavor to stay true to the Scriptures.

One of the strangest developments in the realm of orthodoxy has been the repudiation of the term “fundamentalism” by those who have benefited the most from this movement. We are not speaking of the repudiation of the great evangelical doctrines associated with this movement, but a rejection of the militant spirit which has always characterized it. Certain outstanding Bible teachers, evangelists, and Christian magazines are almost desperate in their attempts to avoid the stigma of being counted in the ranks of fundamentalism.

The high watermark in religious confusion occurred when a widely known evangelical declared that the terms “modernism” and “fundamentalism” are now passé. It is being suggested that the term “fundamentalism” be dropped entirely in favor of the term “evangelicalism,” as if it were possible for anyone to be called a fundamentalist without its also carrying the clear implication of his also being evangelical.

One comes across articles warning of the “perils” of independence, and references are found to a “third” party poised uncomfortably between the two extremes of liberalism and fundamentalism. The implication here, if not the declaration, is that fundamentalism as a whole is so characterized by certain evils that as a whole it is to be avoided as an extreme.

The term “fundamentalism” is the result of the publication shortly before World War I of a set of books, The Fundamentals, containing articles written by outstanding evangelical scholars in defense of historical Christianity and against the doctrines of the modernists who had even at that time captured many of the institutions and enterprises formerly committed to orthodoxy. Those Christians who believed that the example of Christ and the teaching of the New Testament warranted their maintaining not only a presentation of the gospel but also raising a hue and cry over the false doctrines of counterfeit Christianity came to be known as fundamentalist, whatever their denominational affiliation might have been.

Fundamentalism, then, was and is characterized by two things: a wholehearted acceptance of all of those doctrines which have formed the foundation of historic Christianity, and a fearless exposure of schools, men, books, and movements which hypocritically continue to bear the name “Christian” while opposing the gospel. True, this opposition very rarely assumes the crudity with which men like Fosdick have denounced orthodoxy, but with all of its affability and politeness, modernism nevertheless wages a subtle and ceaseless war against the deity of Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, the inherent depravity and lost condition of man, and the redemption provided in the death of Christ.

Those who would do away with the term “fundamentalism” are frequently heard extolling the virtues of what they blandly call “a positive message.” By this means they justify their exclusion of any references whatsoever to the monstrous proportions of the apostasy with which we are surrounded, but which yet bears the name “Christian” and by so doing, deceives the souls of millions.

The example of Christ, to which we have already referred, reveals such an attitude to be mere trifling with tremendous responsibilities. Our Lord found it necessary in His day not only to present the way of salvation but also to point out the false religious leaders who had gained positions of influence over the multitudes, and explain the falsity of their doctrines. By so doing, Christ did not indicate that He loved the Pharisees and His other enemies less than the multitudes, but rather that His love for these enemies of the truth could not deter Him from taking whatever action was appropriate to His love for the multitudes.

Another feature associated with the desire to get rid of the word “fundamentalism” is the way in which those who advocate the deletion consort with modernists, giving the impression that some common bond unites them in representing Christianity. It is incredible to suppose that our Lord would have ever consented to associating Himself with the Pharisees, Sadducees, or scribes in such a way as to represent them as being in sympathy with His gospel.

But this is exactly what is taking place in our day. It was not too long ago (a few years) that a leading orthodox school, associated in the thinking of the Christian public with fundamentalism, invited representatives from the most modernistic schools in the country to participate in the installation of its president. In the field of evangelism, we find orthodoxy preaching under the auspices of modernistic groups and in collaboration with modernistic churches and pastors, in open defiance of the plainest Biblical instruction to the contrary but rationalized on the unproved assumption that more can be accomplished for God by working with the unsaved and the saved rather than with the saved only.

This is a thinly disguised version of the proposition that the end, if good, justifies the means, however bad. More boldly, the idea is that a little evil is good if it produces more good than evil in the ultimate.

In the light of their tendency to initiate and encourage such unwholesome affiliations with avowed deniers of Christ’s deity and the Bible’s inspiration, it is slightly on the ridiculous side to hear these Christians complain that fundamentalism has not produced a strong system of ethics for Christian living. One would suppose that one of the most valid elements in a system of ethics would include a refusal to allow the enemies of the cross in any way to validate their lying claims to be accredited representatives of Christ. Fundamentalists not only may but do have their failures, but these do not include the error of leading unbelievers to continue under the ministry of children of the Devil, posing as ministers of Light.

Those who are unwilling to bear the name “fundamentalist” often are found charging fundamentalism with a failure to “communicate” with modernists. This high-sounding word has low implications, however; for when fully grasped, the idea seems to be that modernists are to be handled differently from the unsaved, who are not in positions of religious influence. We are supposed to overlook their tremendous failure in the sacred positions of trust which they have assumed, and refrain from indicting
them as particularly guilty.

Yet it was Christ Himself Who told the false leaders that their failure would bring upon them “the greater condemnation.” The talk of “communicating” with liberals comes down finally to treating liberals as if their position of leadership entitles them to some sort of a “professional discount” when the example of Christ and the teaching of the Bible teach the exact opposite.The Bowery outcast needs to be warned of a Hell to flee. But if the greater sin of the liberal leader of a congregation exposes that leader to much greater eternal sorrow, it is no favor to him to deprive him of the knowledge and no favor to those who accept the liberal leader’s leadership to allow them to continue to regard this leader as a reliable guide to Heaven.

More recently, those who dislike the term “fundamentalism” have become more insistent in their demands. We are told that orthodoxy dare not revive the fundamentalist-modernists controversy at the cost of driving away sinners who want to get saved. I should like to suggest that in the face of increasing modernism in all phases of “Christian” work, the reduction of the gospel to “Hollywood” dimensions with its separation between a movie star’s business and belief and the increasing deterioration of the formerly clear line of demarcation between true and false Christianity, we should regard with a high degree of apprehension any such suggestion even though it comes from undoubtedly Christian resources.

In addition to the objections already considered, the current basis for dropping the term “fundamentalism” and substituting for it the term “evangelicalism” is based on a number of considerations.

The first is the objection that fundamentalists do not teach the Sermon on the Mount. This is beside the point, for while some fundamentalists are committed to a type of dispensationalism which denies any present significance of this portion of Scripture, even these will admit that, in the main, the basic ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are found in the Epistles. On the other hand, many dispensationalists find no inconsistency in accepting the Sermon on the Mount as applicable to all subjects of the Kingdom of Heaven, whether in its present mystery form or in its future manifest from (e.g., Hogg and Watson, The Sermon on the Mount).

Another current objection is based on the claim that fundamentalism cannot be “Biblically defined.” Yet it is admitted that historically it stands for the acceptance of five doctrines essential in true Christianity: the infallibility of the Bible and Christ’s virgin birth, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, and second coming. The claim is then made that by identifying itself with these five doctrines, fundamentalism has limited itself and reduced its effectiveness by failing to declare the whole counsel of God in combating unbelief. It is difficult to believe that anyone familiar with the fundamentalist movement could be so unaware of the fact that these five doctrines represent not the whole but only part of its testimony. It is a rather elementary exercise to distinguish between emphasis and exclusiveness, since the two are so entirely different.

It is not necessary to deny all the charges against fundamentalism in order to uphold the propriety if not the necessity of retaining its name. Within its ranks have been found too often a bitter spirit of controversy which the rank and file of fundamentalists likewise deplore. It is also true that certain exaggerations have been supposed by some dispensational fundamentalists to be necessarily involved in dispensationalism, even though these positions were, either specifically or in principle, rejected by the greatest dispensationalists of former years (e.g., Darby, Scofield, Ridout, Kelly), and some of the positions have hindered the adoption of a sound view of Christian ethics. The revision of the Scofield Reference Bible notes (now under way) should encourage a frank reappraisal of the dispensational interpretation of the Bible usually associated with fundamentalism and a reemphasizing of those elements in this system which are the common property, so to speak, of every dispensation and therefore of perennial significance and obligation.

Having confessed, even if only in small part, the sins of fundamentalism, we hasten to reaffirm our conviction that the term “fundamentalism” represents a certain ministry that will never become “passé” as long as soul-destroying modernism exists side by side with the truth of God. No evangelical is obligated to adopt himself to the label “fundamentalist,” but he has no right to deny the right of other evangelicals so to identify themselves.

In view of the fact that those who wish to get rid of this term have been known to criticize the shortcomings of fundamentalism in the presence of modernists, while neglecting to point out the relatively far greater significance of the sins of modernism, one cannot but suspect that the campaign to erase this title from evangelical circles has for its ultimate purpose the removal of a term which, because it is particularly offensive to the modernists, hinders fellowship and “communication” between them and evangelicals.

We predict that fundamentalists will grow increasingly cautious in accepting the leadership and pronouncements of men, movements, and magazines which even give the appearance of swinging away from a position which has produced and sustained such great evangelical agencies as the Bible institute and college movement, independent missions, and other undertakings dedicated not only to the proclamation of the gospel but an unyielding opposition to false Christianity in all its forms, open or hidden, polite or blatant.

Paul E. McCullough was professor of theology at Piedmont Schools (now Piedmont Baptist College and Graduate School) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when he wrote this article. It first appeared in Daybreak, the official organ of the Schools, and then appeared in the February 1958 Baptist Bulletin. A few minor editorial adjustments have been made to the original article.

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