According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Neo-Fundamentalism, Part 1

by Roger Olson
March 24, 2011

Several have asked me here to explain my meaning of “fundamentalism.” That’s difficult to do in a nutshell. Like “evangelicalism” one has to distinguish between the Fundamentalist Movement (or “movement fundamentalism”) and the fundamentalist ethos.

The Fundamentalist Movement is well understood; scholars such as Marsden and Carpenter have recounted its history and distinguishing features. I have interacted with movement fundamentalists over the years by having them visit my classes. One of those speakers (from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis) emphasized that fundamentalism is marked off from other types of Christianity (including neo-evangelicalism) by its militant (not violent) defense of biblical orthodoxy and its doctrine and practice of biblical separation including secondary separation.

The Fundamentalist Movement, in spite of itself, has no definite boundaries because it is a movement and not an organization. It includes organizations such as the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC) founded by Carl McIntire which became an evangelical rival on the right to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).

Billy Graham started out in this Fundamentalist Movement but was ostracized from it because of his inclusion of Catholics and “liberal” Protestants in his New York evangelistic crusade in the late 1940s. (All of this is described in detail by Marsden and Carpenter in their books to which I have alluded several times before. Look them up on

Harold John Ockenga’s “new evangelicalism” emerged out of the Fundamentalist Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. The major differences had to do with cultural engagement (as opposed to separation), a broader perspective on who is evangelical (Ockenga and the NAE included Pentecostals), a greater emphasis on the good of education (even outside of fundamentalist Bible institutions) and an attempt to rebalance the Christian beliefs that properly belong in the “essentials” and “non-essentials” categories. (Many in the Fundamentalist Movement had come to view premillennialism as an essential of Christian faith.)

The NAE’s statement of faith illustrates well the shift: It does not include the inerrancy of Scripture (although it does use the term infallible for the Bible) or the substitutionary atonement (it says “vicarious sacrifice) or premillennialism.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s the new evangelicalism, largely focused on Billy Graham and his ministries (including Christianity Today), and the Fundamentalist Movement went their separate ways with occasional clashes. Both sides took delight in criticizing the other side. Fundamentalists criticized the new evangelicals for being “compromised” (with secular culture and liberal theology) and for seeking respectability. The new evangelicals criticized movement fundamentalists for being narrow minded, anti-intellectual, too separatistic and for majoring in the minors of doctrine and practice.

To make a long story short, during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s movement fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell began to call themselves “evangelicals” and the media began to call them that (much to the chagrin of some movement fundamentalists and some new evangelicals). Billy Graham began to decline as the glue holding the new evangelicalism together. The NAE’s influence began to wane. Fundamentalism began to bleed out of its normal zone of separatistic isolation into culture and into evangelicalism. Many conservative evangelicals began to sound more and more like fundamentalists.

One major turning point in this blurring of traditional differences between movement fundamentalism and the new evangelicalism was Harold Lindsell’s 1976 book The Battle for the Bible that fell like a bombshell on the playground of the evangelicals. It argued that biblical inerrancy (rather narrowly defined) is an essential of evangelical faith if not of Christianity itself. Even Carl F. H. Henry, the “dean” of the new evangelical theologians, disagreed and was dropped as a columnist from Christianity Today. (Henry had been the founding editor of CT; Lindsell was one of his successors.)

However, numerous evangelical pastors, denominational leaders, parachurch organization leaders and administrators of evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries either agreed with Lindsell or were cowed into seeming to agree with him by pressure from constituents.

A personal, illustrative anecdote. When I enrolled in an evangelical seminary in 1975 it did not have a statement on inerrancy and, to the best of my knowledge, none of the faculty believed in biblical inerrancy. They talked about biblical infallibility but distinguished that from inerrancy. They talked about inerrancy as a fundamentalist view of the Bible and preferred to adhere to the Bible’s full authority for faith and practice. This was a mainstream evangelical seminary, not at all to the “left” or influenced by liberalism. It did have a Pietist background, however, which inclined it toward a more generous orthodoxy (not a term coined by [Brian] McLaren!).

After The Battle for the Bible was published, while I was still in seminary, the denomination’s pastors pressured the seminary to adopt a binding statement of the Bible’s inerrancy in the original autographs. The faculty were asked to sign it. I noticed that several of my professors who had criticized inerrancy in class signed it to keep their jobs. One resigned and went on to a stellar career in American and Canadian Baptist seminaries. The ethos of the seminary changed. A chill came over the classrooms and student-faculty lounge and chapel. At my graduation a fundamentalist pastor and radio preacher delivered the commencement address, much to the chagrin of most of the faculty and students.

It isn’t so much that movement fundamentalists switched sides or joined new evangelical organizations. It’s that some among the new evangelicals began to sympathize with SOME features of fundamentalism and regret evangelicalism’s movement away from it.

The Fundamentalist Movement still exists in relatively clear distinction from the post-WW2, postfundamentalist evangelical movement. The distinction still has to do with separationism and especially secondary separation. Even the most conservative, neo-fundamentalist evangelicals rarely practice secondary separation. Billy Graham is still their hero and they claim him even if some of his specific views are not popular among them.

However, what I call a fundamentalist ethos has bled out of movement fundamentalism and begun to have a pernicious influence among people who are heirs of the original postfundamentalist evangelical founders and leaders. I call this “neo-fundamentalism.” It is beginning to coalesce as a distinct movement within evangelicalism and is attempting to take over the entire evangelical movement (as it did the Southern Baptist Convention).

What are the distinguishing features of neo-fundamentalism?

First, a certain militancy in defense of perceived evangelical doctrinal tradition. Self-appointed spokespersons for neo-fundamentalism are actively seeking to get those evangelicals they consider doctrinally impure or compromised fired from evangelical organizations and not published by evangelical publishers. They congratulate each other and give each other pats on the back for pointing out heresy or heterodoxy where it has not yet been recognized. Their practice of theology is almost exclusively critical; they see no value in constructive or reconstructive theology even if it is based on fresh and faithful biblical research. They are militant defenders and promoters of something they call “the received evangelical tradition” (or by another name).

Second, a certain mean-spiritedness toward fellow evangelicals who disagree with them. Many of these neo-evangelicals see nothing wrong with misrepresenting their opponents’ views in order to marginalize them. (I have myself been subjected to this frequently and could cite names, but that’s not my goal here.) One well-known and highly regarded neo-fundamentalist evangelical theologian tried to get a colleague fired for allegedly not believing rightly in the resurrection. (According to him it has to be “physical,” “bodily” is not enough.) The same man wrote a book claiming that open theism borrows from process theology and cited pages in an open theists’ book to prove it. Anyone who looked up those pages could easily see the open theist author denied influence by process theology while only admitting similarity on one point–God’s knowledge of the future.

Third, a tendency to fill up the “essentials” (dogmas) category of Christian beliefs with non-essentials. For example, many neo-fundamentalists are claiming that substitutionary atonement is an essential of Christian faith. Even the NAE statement of faith doesn’t mention it! Some are claiming that inclusivism is in direct conflict with basic Christian doctrine. (They conveniently overlook that C. S. Lewis was an inclusivist as is Billy Graham.) I could go on mentioning secondary doctrines that neo-fundamentalists within the evangelical movement are contending for in a somewhat militant manner even to the point of questioning the salvation of those who do not believe them.

Fourth, a new version of separationism. Neo-fundamentalists don’t often practice secondary separation. But it is beginning to raise its ugly head among them. One example is the Southern Baptist Convention’s withdrawal from the World Baptist Alliance. Neo-fundamentalists are doing their best to take over organizations traditionally related to the broader “new evangelicalism” movement, but when they can’t, they are beginning to found their own separate organizations to compete with evangelical ones.

What I see emerging, that in my opinion is not being recognized by most evangelical leaders, is a third way–a way via media between movement fundamentalism and the postfundamentalist evangelicalism. People from movement fundamentalism are emerging out of their isolation into this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.” People from postfundamentalist evangelicalism are adopting this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.” THIS is why I call myself a postconservative evangelical. It has NOTHING to do with being liberal; it has everything to do with not wanting to be confused with these people creating and populating this third way via media. I simply refuse to give up the label “evangelical,” but because of the growing influence of this third way I have to use some adjective to distinguish my own way of being evangelical from that.

More to come….
Additional Comments and Notes

*Church Spectrums:
fundamentalism - neo-fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism - classic evangelicalism - post-conservative evangelicalism

*(Non-)Denominational Spectrums: Catholicism - Anabaptism - Protestantism

*Primary separation (not a term used by fundamentalists but helpful to distinguish it from secondary separation) is the refusal of fellowship with false Christians. Secondary separation is refusing to have fellowship with people who have fellowship with false Christians.


John says
These two terms, evangelical and fundamentalist, are very nebulous terms and made all the more so by the various sub-strata related to each. I think your earlier post with a definition of evangelical and this one of fundamentalist are very helpful. The definitions are, of necessity, broad generalities but ones I find to be legitimate.

There is no doubt that there is a hardening of stance among many evangelicals who seem to have lost the ability to vigorously contend for the truth (as they see it) without becoming mean-spirited and exclusionary. There is also no doubt that some well-known and well-respected Christian figures are not above misrepresenting the views of others in ways that can only be described as dishonest.

To be clear, I am not a universalist, not a liberal, not one to question the authority of the Bible. There are teachings that genuine Christians hold that are wrong. There are also “tares” in broader Christendom. The truth should be upheld. But, we should be able to do so without sinking to methods that discredit bout ourselves and our beliefs.


Wikipedia - Christian Fundamentalists believe in:

1. The inerrancy of the Bible
2. The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ’s miracles, and the Creation account in Genesis.
3. The Virgin Birth of Christ
4. The bodily resurrection of Christ
5. The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross
Point 5 expanded would say that the New Fundamentalists require a belief in the “penal” substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

Roger says
Those 5 doctrines were the usual ones promoted as essentials of the Christian faith by the original fundamentalists. After 1925 (according to Marsden, Noll, Carpenter, Balmer and other historians) fundamentalism took a turn. For one thing, many of the leading fundamentalists added premillennialism as a fundamental of the faith. I once taught with an amillennialist who was constantly under attack for being “liberal” even though the college’s statement of faith said nothing about the millennium. Most scholarly treatments of fundamentalism include the pre-1925 and post-1925 phases noting that after 1925 “biblical separation” and even “secondary separation” became hallmarks of fundamentalism.


*Peter says
“THIS is why I call myself a postconservative evangelical. It has NOTHING to do with being liberal; it has everything to do with not wanting to be confused with these people creating and populating this third way via media.”

Hmmm… sounds like you’re retaining a key feature of both fundamentalism and evangelicalism in all their stripes: a tendency to define yourself by your opposition.

Roger says
And who doesn’t do that to some extent?


*Carson says
I read ‘Reformed & Always Reforming’ after graduating from a conservative Bible college, and restored my hope for what the task of theology could be. Yet I was confused by the nomenclature of “postconservative.” Why not just use the term “moderate”? Not conservative. Not liberal. Drawing on element of both. Rejecting elements of both. Sounds moderate to me.

Roger says
I have found “moderate” too broad. I know people who call themselves “moderate Baptists” who are out-and-out liberals. (That’s not true of all who call themselves moderate Baptists, of course, and I use that label for myself in contexts where it will be correctly understood.) Originally, I thought I had coined the adjective “postconservative” and I meant it as sort of a parallel with “postliberal” - not that I agree with everything postliberals believe. The whole idea of “postconservative evangelicalism” was to get off the “right-left” spectrum that still bedevils most of our evangelical theological debates. Postconservative evangelicals are neither right nor left nor somewhere in the middle on that spectrum. The right-left spectrum is inextricably tied to modernity.


Timothy says:
If I have understood Roger correctly, fundamentalism is not so much a theology as a state of mind. Thus one might have the most conservative theology but not be a fundamentalist in Roger’s sense of the word or liberal but a fundamentalist. The key aspect of fundamentalism is how it interacts with those who disagree with it. So to take one issue, if it is able to interact graciously with disagreement then it is not fundamentalist but if it persecutes those with which it disagrees then it is fundamentalist.

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