Friday, November 2, 2007

Historic Fundamentalism?

I often read of guys attempting to claim that they are "historical fundamentalists", or that they are attempting to reclaim "historical fundamentalism". I've often read and spoken to men who are part of my generation of fundamentalists who attempt to slap that tag on the more conservative like John MacArthur, John Piper, Mark Dever, and Albert Mohler. As a matter of fact, I've used the term "historical fundamentalist" to describe some of these men....but I'm starting to rethink that notion.

Just what is "historical fundamentalism"? As descendants of American Fundamentalism, I suppose that all of us "IFB" types (Independent Fundamental Baptists) trace our lineage back to 1897 and the Niagara Bible Conference. It was during this conference and the 1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church that 5 principles which "defined Christianity" (known now as the Fundamentals of the Faith) were hashed out. These are the basic, skeletal tenants by which we tend to define ourselves to this day. They are:
  • The inerrancy of the Bible,
  • The Virgin Birth and the deity of Jesus,
  • The belief that Jesus died to redeem mankind's sin and that salvation resulted through faith in Jesus,
  • The physical resurrection of Jesus, and
  • The imminent Second Coming of Jesus.
These were (and are) "non-negotiables". A series of booklets entitled The Fundamentals; A Testimony to the Truth was written in the early 1900's laying out a clear defense for these principles. There were nearly 100 articles written by more than 60 different authors - men like A.C. Dixon, C.I. Scofield, G. Campbell Morgan, George Pentecost, and R.A. Torrey were among them.

Out of this noble fight against modernism and attacks on the validity of Scripture came an "ultra-conservative strand" of Protestants who began to espouse some ideas that hadn't ever been a part of any mainstream denomination in American Christianity. Most notable among these ideas were exclusivity (the idea that only the fundamentalists are able to authoritatively interpret the "true meaning" of the Bible, and thus are the only legitimate "true Christians"), and separation (the idea that all other Christian interpretations were wrong and that it is the duty of fundamentalists to oppose and overcome them, while remaining apart from their corrupting influence). Today, it's these ideas that tend to define the movement more so than the Fundamentals do.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am separatist, - just not to the same degree that the bulk of American Fundamentalism defines that term. I would will also point out that I am not an exclusivist. For that matter, I don't know that I've even heard the notion of exclusivity expressed within Fundamentalism in the last 15's just one of those stigmas that tends to hang on to us. Now, back to the main point of this article.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that when terms like "historical fundamentalist" are thrown around, it is referring to something other than the movement which ultimately gave birth to today's Fundamentalism. In many respects, I think that men like Jack Hyles were much closer to being "historic fundamentalists" than men like John least as far as American Fundamentalism is concerned. No, I think that this "new fundamentalism" that we are attempting to call historical is something different....and I think we use the term because we don't want the dreaded word "evangelical" tied around our necks like noose!

Many of us like to think that this historical fundamentalism is rooted in the Reformers of like Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Knox, and the Puritans; however, we have taken mere snippets of their theology and adopted it as our own. Some of the beliefs and practices of some of these great heroes of the faith would appear ludicrous and / or heretical to us today. Having said that, I shudder to think of what this world would be like had God not raised up men like them, but that's a subject for another day.

So, back to my original question.....what exactly does this term "Historical Fundamentalism" mean? Is it merely a way to make it clear that we aren't part of the "hysterical" side of the movement? I've described myself as a historical Fundamentalist, but I'm not sure who through the annals of church history would fit that description. I think I've typically used that term as a shortened way of explaining what I am not rather than what I am!

Perhaps I need to just "bone up" on this a bit....Perhaps my ignorance is all mine and is not a fair reflection of others who have used that term. However, if my grasp of history is in any way correct, than my confusion and question is merited....

I'm not going to offer an answer at this time as it is obvious that I've got more studying to do on the subject. But to the few who read this blog, feel free to educate me on the matter!


Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis

I think you are right regarding the term "historic fundamentalist". Most of those throwing that term around are being either deceptive or naive, in my opinion. The so-called 'historic fundamentalists' of yesteryear would not recognize those claiming the label today.

However, along the way in your article, I would have to take issue with your points on exclusivism and separation. I have never heard anyone except cultists and Catholics take an exclusivist position as you described it. And I completely reject a separatism as you defined it.

I agree that fundamentalism is about separation. But I disagree with your definition.

For further thought, you might consider this: the men who wrote The Fundamentals were not (for the most part) fundamentalists at all. They wrote and worked in an era several years removed from the rise of fundamentalism. I believe it was Curtis Lee Laws who coined the term "fundamentalist" about 1925-1927, somewhere in there. The Fundamentals began with the call for them in 1909 and their publication shortly after that.

Fundamentalism was birthed in the controversies among the Presbyterians and Baptists in the 1920s primarily. You really have to understand what happened then to get a sense of what fundamentalism is. The authors of The Fundamentals, invaluable as they are, were before and largely outside of these controversies.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ellis Murphree said...

Thanks for the pointers, Don. The last sentence of your reply ("The authors of The Fundamentals, invaluable as they are, were before and largely outside of these controversies"), if true, proves to me quite adequately that I'm a bit more ignorant regarding the beginnings of the movement than I initially feared!

For the sake of clarification, my definition of seperatism is a bit vague - I meant "christian" in the sense that the world would define it - this would include (amongst others)Catholicism and Mormonism as both claim to be followers of Christ.

Regarding exclusivism, I've only seen this displayed in the more radical offshoots of "hysteric" fundamentalism and it was a point that was likely not worth bringing up in this article. While I have seen it within fundamentalism, it's a pretty rare bird. The only reason I even mention it is that many with a passing familiarity with fundamentalism actually assume that this is a defining character trait within our ranks. I speak only from personal experience and conversations and I cannot offer any further proof to it, so take it for what it's worth!

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis

If you don't have these, I would recommend two books to get an overall history. One is Biblical Separation by Ernest Pickering with a recent update (I think a chapter added) by Myron Houghton. It is available from Regular Baptist Press. The second book is David Beale's In Pursuit of Purity which details the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, among other things.

I should clarify my earlier post by saying that The Fundamentals certainly played a part in forming fundamentalism, but the men who wrote them can't really be called fundamentalists, for the same reason Spurgeon wasn't a fundamentalist - the movement didn't exist when they wrote.

There are other books as well, George Marsden's works will give a view from outside fundamentalism, but Beale and Pickering will give you a reasonable starting place.

More on exclusivity: I do think some self-professed fundamentalists could fall under the 'exclusive' tag, but generally I don't think this has been the view of fundamentalism.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Timothy said...

>" I shudder to think of what this world would be like had God not raised up men like them"

Yeah, the western world might have remained unified in "one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church" as stated by the early Christian church at Nicea.

>"I'm not sure who through the annals of church history would fit that description."

You might start where the Bible ends, at the death of John, and work yourself forward in history. There's a great collection of early Christian writings online at:

God bless...