The Fundamentalist Temptation
Fundamentalism, while sincere, sold virile Christianity into 20th century cultural bondage, and wherever it rears its head, it ends up emboldening that cultural depravity.
Dear friends and supporters,
An age stamped by radical secularism, Neo-paganism, New Leftism, and Cultural Marxism tempts sincere, orthodox Christians to adopt fundamentalism. This move, while entirely understandable, is culturally fatal. In the end, despite their best intentions, the fundamentalists aid the very culturally catastrophic causes they find so appalling. This article will point out three ways they do that, why they do it, and the harm they inflict by doing it.
First, what is fundamentalism? In the United States, it is the conservative Protestant movement rooted in the late 19th century but emerging about 100 years ago counteracting and opposing the rising tide of theological liberalism infesting almost all Christian denominations and the wider culture. Its early champions included William B. Riley, J. Frank Noris, and William Blackstone. They were called fundamentalists because they stressed fundamentals of the faith like the Bible’s divine inspiration and infallibility; the direct creation of the universe by God; and the virgin birth, atoning death, resurrection, and second advent of Jesus Christ. These were central Christian doctrines assaulted or bypassed by theological liberalism, which was the ecclesiastical expression of the wider modernist movement.
Fundamentalism as a theological paradigm became a movement, and it created a particular spirit that survives to this day and characterizes many Christians in their attitude toward both cultural and ecclesiastical evil, even if they disdain the label.
First, fundamentalism is anti-intellectual, and it’s easy to understand why. Theological liberalism arising in the last half of the 19th century sprang from intellectuals and higher education in continental Europe, and to a lesser extent, England. The earliest leading theological liberals were all German: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack. Whatever their differences, all believed that orthodox Christianity was simply unsuitable and ineffective for the modern age and, therefore, had to be re-engineered at its very foundation (“the fundamentals”).
This liberalism began, as almost all deviations from biblical Christianity do, in academia or among intellectuals (by the way, the same is true of the earlier error scholasticism, both Roman Catholic and Protestant; never assume that deviant Christianity can never be conservative). When the early fundamentalists looked around, they noticed that virtually all of the theological liberals were intellectuals. Even liberal pastors like Harry Emerson Fosdick were committed to modern scholarship.
For this reason the early fundamentalists almost to a man became highly suspicious of scholarship and higher education. It’s true that R. A. Torrey’s edited multi-volume work The Fundamentals, which widely disseminated the fundamentalist viewpoint, included contributions by James Orr, Benjamin B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen, Christian intellectuals of the highest caliber; but these men were far removed from the fundamentalist movement itself, and Machen specifically repudiated the label.
Suspicion of intellect
In the 30s and 40s, as secularism became widespread in American universities and liberalism more pronounced in the seminaries, fundamentalists essentially turned away from higher learning. Instead, they established Bible schools and Bible colleges, actually high-octane adult Sunday schools, and nurtured intense suspicion of the cultivation of the intellect. Earlier fundamentalist colleges like Wheaton College drifted from fundamentalism as they drifted toward intellectualism, and even such exceptions as Bob Jones University were never known for their scholarly output.
Many fundamentalists, not especially interested in the history of the church or Western civilization, seemed unaware that it was precisely in the medieval monasteries that higher learning was kept alive. They might’ve likewise forgotten that the university was invented by Christians, and many of the church fathers were able to beat back heresies like Gnosticism and Arianism precisely because they were committed to a Christian intellectualism.
Ideology and intellectuals
This anti-intellectualism has borne rotten fruit 100 years later. Almost all of the pernicious cultural evils currently afflicting the West are the result of ideologies, not simply garden-variety human depravity (an ideology is a coherent, articulated explanation of the world and how to change it). Whether abortion, homosexuality, Cultural Marxism, radical feminism, secular environmentalism, or Critical Race Theory — each one, and its specific practical, humanity–destroying fruits — was sown in the seeds of intellectualism first cultivated in the hothouses of higher learning. A leading example, though hardly the only one, is the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory transplanted to American universities by American secularists like John Dewey. In this way, Cultural Marxism was disseminated to students of the most elite American universities in the 60s, and the recent cancel culture, charges of white supremacy, and race riots in the streets are simply the blossoming fruit of that early poisonous intellectualism.
Christians of all kinds should resist these evil theories, but to refute them requires intellectuals (the “adversarial intelligentsia”).
But fundamentalists have been suspicious of intellectuals, even — perhaps especially — Christian intellectuals. This meant that when Cultural Marxism, for example, began to drenching not only the universities, but the wider society in recent years, presented itself openly in the George Floyd riots and cancel culture and transgendered intolerance and “toxic masculinity” and abusive, adolescent gender-reassignment surgery, Christians were angered and astounded. But this ideology and others had largely free rein for the previous few decades precisely because so few Christians were available to refute them at a high level of intellect and discourse.
In this way, fundamentalist anti-intellectualism has passively aided the success of the very social evils it currently finds so repugnant.
Second, fundamentalism is, by its very nature, reductionist. Chester Tulga, prominent fundamentalist, even acknowledged: “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.”
The stress on championing and defending a narrow range of biblical truths, central though they are, diverts attention from other and, in their own way, equally important truths: the cultural mandate, the kingdom of God, God’s creational norms, and so forth.
The fundamentalists courageously fought to defend specific biblical truths while paying scant attention to the wider depraved worldview and ideological issues that made that battle necessary and which contributed to Christian culture’s many defeats. The fundamentalists were aware that the modernist worldview and presuppositions were wrong, but rather than fighting on the ground of worldview and presuppositions, they focused almost exclusive attention on the fundamentals.
In fact, they should’ve been doing both.
Top heavy on soteriology
Fundamentalism was also reductionist in that “the fundamentals” were top-heavy on soteriology (salvation doctrine); therefore, non-soteriological, but equally important, issues weren’t addressed, or were addressed erroneously.
As we think about the virgin birth and atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example, we’re touching on vital Bible truths that have been largely interpreted in terms of their soteriological effects. To be sure, this was also the case with the Reformation, in particular with Lutheranism, which saw Luther’s personal struggle with sin as a paradigm for understanding the gospel. The gospel was seen not about gradually purging the world’s sin first making its entrance in the Garden of Eden — that is, by the all-powerful, atoning death of Jesus Christ and his Satan-crushing resurrection. Rather, the gospel is about individuals getting right with God.
The gospel is that, for sure, and it is that first of all, but that is far from the scope and goal of the gospel. Fundamentalists equated the gospel with individual conversion, but the latter is only a vital component of, and cannot be reduced to, the former (see “Gospel or Salvation”).
Because of these reductionist of tendencies, fundamentalism simply lacked the theological capacity to preach and practice a full-orbed biblical faith which alone could go toe to toe with and vanquish postmodern holistic apostasy.
One striking difference between our Christian forebears and us is their repeated emphasis on prayer and our comparative de-emphasis of it. They prayed frequently and fervently. We pray infrequently and languidly. They called prayer meetings. We call staff meetings. They had revival and reformation. We have apathy and apostasy. A leading reason for these distinctions is that they were inclined to believe what God said about prayer. We are often less confident in God’s word when it comes to his promises about prayer. A blunter way to say this is: we commit the sin of unbelief. Prayer changes things. When we pray, we are asking God to change things. And when he answers our prayer, he does change things. This brings us to a most telling fact that we don’t often consider: if we are perfectly willing to accept the way things are as God's unchangeable will, we will never be people of prayer.
Finally, fundamentalism is separatist. So important a role does separatism occupy that the president of Bob Jones University once wrote that this doctrine is a fundamental of the faith, every bit as important as the blood atonement. The fact that no Christian leader in the history of the church would have made such an inflated claim seemed not to have deterred him.
Why the bloated stress on separation? Because fundamentalists see such evil in the created world that they nearly identify the created world with evil. In a theoretical sense, this isn’t true for them, because they recognize that the world was created good, but they seem to perceive the Edenic fall as seeping into creation itself, rather than simply recognizing a good creation temporarily cursed by God. In this, they are much like the ancient Gnostics. This means that for fundamentalists, money and sex and politics and alcohol, for instance, are in most cases sinful, or if not sinful, so dangerous that they should be used in only the most cautious ways.
The impulse behind this separatism is creditable. The Bible does require that we separate from sin and, on some occasions, sinners. But fundamentalism charges we should be separated, as much as possible, from creation and culture, which is a different matter all together.
This is certainly true in their ecclesiology (doctrine and practice of the church). They rightly oppose the apostasy of mainline liberalism and its apostate councils of churches, but they often end up separating from one another over the most trivial matters such as dress styles, Bible translations, and even over the extent of separatism itself.
Ernest Pickering’s definitive account Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church hails the ancient Donatists, who demanded separation from any in the church who had wilted under imperial Roman persecution, as the forefathers of fundamentalism, and he claims medieval heretical movements such as the Cathari, Bogomils, and Paulicians as preserving the separatist faith against the orthodox church and thereby paving the way for 20th century fundamentalists.
This separatism leads to what Geoffrey Bromley has called an “eschatological counterculture.” By this he means as Christians contemplate the future, they live presently in significant isolation from the culture itself, seeing its inevitably increasing evil as requiring abandonment. Of course, the most extreme example in the United States is not fundamentalists but probably the Amish, and even some forms of the Mennonites; but the fundamentalists, though less extreme, are no less committed to this general culturally separatist outlook.
The world and culture are destined to grow ever more evil as we approach the end, and, therefore, Christians will wisely practice an even greater cultural separation as time goes on. The idea that the world might be growing more evil as a result of Christians’ refusal to engage cultural sin in bold, distinctively distinctly ways hasn’t seemed to occur to them. Or else they believe that such an aggressive confrontation is doomed to failure. And make no mistake: eschatologies have consequences.
This separatism is not just ecclesiological; it extends to the person himself. A biography of a prominent fundamentalist contains these lines:
Jesus places little emphasis on the human body. His word teaches us to take care of the body as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, but never in the Bible is great emphasis placed on the flesh. Instead, it is the soul that claimed the attention of Jesus. He knew that the body is a tabernacle, a tent, a temporary dwelling place in which the precious soul camps for a little while on its pilgrimage toward eternity.
Jesus did not die to save the body; He died to save the soul. The soul of a man is so valuable to God that He gave his only Son in bitter death to make that soul eligible for permanent residence in Heaven.
This construction is more Gnostic than Christian. The idea that the soul is the immaterial, genuine person residing inside “the body [that is] a tabernacle, a tent, a temporary dwelling place” in which the eternal soul “camps for a little while on its pilgrimage toward eternity” is just what Plato and many of the other ancient Greeks believed. It is pagan anthropology (view of man). And if Jesus didn’t die to save the body, there can be no resurrection, and we are of all men most hopeless (1 Cor. 15:15–19). Fundamentalism of this sort robs Christianity of its hope.
In radical contrast, the Bible teaches that the human body, created very good according the Genesis 1, must be offered as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1–2). The spirit and body are intertwined and both are to be redeemed by the blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the body will one day resurrected for its eternal life on the renewed earth (Rev. 21:1–4). God isn’t interested in the soul to the exclusion of the body (in the Bible “soul” is actually just a synonym for being or person). Jesus is Lord of all things, including the human body, and all things are to be subject to him (Heb. 1:1–3). Christ’s Lordship is not separated from the human body.
But in over-inflating separation — cultural, ecclesial, and individual — fundamentalists sacrifice the Lordship of Jesus Christ and condemn God’s good world to the triumph of evil.
Fundamentalists justifiably abhor sin and evil, but in their anti-intellectualism, reductionism, and separatism, they don't oppose it the way God intended. The biblical strategy toward evil is never to hide from or escape it, but to critique, confront, and conquer it. We’re to engage in “Christian Counterpunching.”
Fundamentalism, while entirely sincere, sold virile Christianity into 20th century cultural bondage, and wherever it rears its head as a suggested strategy for navigating an evil world, it ends up emboldening that cultural depravity.
Only a “Crusading Christianity,” intellectually, canonically, and relationally robust, can meet and vanquish cultural evil on its own grounds.
I’m working on numerous books, including Creational Marriage: Issues and Controversies, dealing with the evangelical subversion of marriage that buys into the alleged priority of lifetime singleness, with how sexual egalitarianism and complementarianism both fail, with transgenderism as an ideology, and much else. I’m planing to release this book near Sharon’s and my 40th wedding anniversary next August.
I’m planning next Friday to write on “The Left’s New Normal: Plausibility Structures in the Postmodern World.”
I’m so thankful for all of you who pray for and support CCL. I need you. Bold Christians are coming out of the ecclesial woodwork to confront the cultural evil. Please help CCL to keep them coming and confronting.
Yours for a robust, holistic Christianity,
Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership
Saturday, December 4
Center for Cultural Leadership Annual Symposium in San Francisco
9 AM — 3 PM
Includes catered lunch in a four-star hotel on the Bay
Theme: “Un-Virtuous Economics: Political Interventionism, Woke Capitalism, and Church Pietism”
Tentative presenters include David L. Bahnsen, Jerry Bowyer, Brian G. Mattson, Jeffery J. Ventrella, and me (P. Andrew Sandlin)
Since this isn’t a talking-head conference but a symposium, every attendee will get a chance to comment and share his views.
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