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Thoughts about the term "Fundamentalist" - A Response to Ken Fields

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Over at The World from Our Windown, blogger Ken Fields has asked an interesting question: "Should I Continue to Embrace the Fundamentalist Label?"

Similar comments have been made for various reasons over the years. Even Dr. Bob Jones, III asked the question about the term in one of his columns in a BJU Review a few years ago.

However, Ken's comments are not geared so much in regards to the term as it is in regards to the Fundamentalist movement. (For some of my previous comments along these lines, see my article, "The Best and the Brightest: The Idea of Fundamentalism and the Movement of Fundamentalism.")

I have chosen to respond here to his post, rather than just in the comments section of his blog for a couple of reasons. One reason is that I have found that sometimes long comments get lost in the comment sections of blogs and I did not want to spend time on this only for it to disappear. A second reason, however, is that I don't believe that Ken is the only one with these thoughts and I thought I would attempt to address at least the main points of his thoughts here.


I would also like to clarify that I have nothing against Ken and this is not meant to be an attack upon Ken. I do not know Ken except through his blog. He seems to be a smart guy with a desire to please Christ and he is a much better writer than me.

Ken comments that he has been thinking about this for several months, and has decided to "articulate my concerns over the tendencies of those who embrace the Fundamentalist term."

Ken has every right to take whatever label he feels like he should take and I am not arguing that he should keep the label. In fact, I would encourage him and others who do not like the label to abandon the label, but that is a completely different issue. I think there are entirely too many people who claim the Fundamentalist label but don’t hold to its principles (on both sides of the label). I am not saying that Ken necessarily fits into this description, since I know little about Ken other than reading his blog occasionally. I do not have time to address everything in his post. I would, however, like to briefly address some of his reasons that he gives for asking that question.

The first reason Ken gives is that the label (and movement) is unpredictably liquid.

Ken states it this way:

From the lengthy treatise that commenced the movement ('The Fundamentals'), to prohibitionism, to dispensationalism (which many of the original 'fundamentalists' were not), to KJV-onlyism, to the de-pantsing of women, to the nixing of mixed bathing, to third and fourth degree separation ... fundamentalism seems to change with the latest cultural and ecclesiastical fads and tides, as does its very definition.

A little later, he adds:

It is a sad fact that many who embrace the term cannot agree on an accepted definition. Some describe themselves as fundamentalists simply because they ascribe to the five aforementioned statements. Others find it necessary to add a separation clause. Still others claim secondary separation (others even go further) is a must for any and all who embrace the fundamentalist label.

I will agree with Ken that it is often frustrating that there is no standard definition of fundamentalist that all will agree upon. Part of that is the problem of those who intentionally choose to hijack the term and part of that stems from those who would use the term out of ignorance.

The reality is that there is no "fundamentalist pope" to be able to lay down the law regarding the definition of the term. While this may lead to frustration (I know I have often been frustrated with needing to clarify that I do not identify "that person" or "that group of people" as Fundamentalists - or that I am not "that kind" of Fundamentalist).

However, the nature of language and labels is such that there is no authoritative language police that can dictate a terms meaning - as much as we may wish that were the case in some areas.


However, to abandon the label "Fundamentalist" because it is "to liquid" leaves us with a question about other labels as well. If this is a valid reason to ditch the label, can not the same argument be made regarding the term "Christian"? Surely there are a multitude who use the term "Christian" to describe themselves who would not come close to matching an accurate reflection of what the Bible says is true of a Christian. The same thing could be said of many other terms, such as "Evangelical" and even "Reformed".


The second reason that Ken gives is that the term seems to be characterized by an elitist attitude.

Ken’s comments here include the following:

Too often fundamentalists have elevated secondary doctrines to the level of primary doctrines. Do we separate from those who practice paedo-baptism? Do we
break fellowship with those who may be of differing eschatological persuasion?
Should I invite a trichotomist to preach in our church, or how about one who
believes in three dispensations rather than seven? And what if he supports the
Gideons or Samaritan's Purse? Why are present day Fundamentalists not able to
differentiate between primary and secondary doctrines and practices? An
unwillingness to do so emits an aroma of superiority. It smacks of elitism. It
needlessly ostracizes. It divides the body of Christ.
I actually agree with part of what Ken is saying here. There is definitely an aspect of any type of separation that comes across as elitism. After all, if we refuse to have fellowship with someone, we are generally saying that we believe that they are wrong in the particular area of doctrine or practice that has led to this separation. Many would say that being a Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to heaven is elitist - in fact, this is so true that many supposed spokesmen have compromised the truth on this very question when faced with it in public venues such as Larry King Live (see the LKL interviews of Billy Graham and Joel Osteen in the last couple of years).

It is interesting to me that this same charge of elitism is one that I have often heard that same argument used (wrongly, imo) against the very Reformed doctrines that Ken holds to so dearly. (Again, for clarity sake, I am not criticizing him for holding to these doctrines.)

Traditionally, there has been latitude in Fundamentalism regarding eschatology, mode of baptism, church government, and many other issues. Existence of such groups as the American Council of Christian Churches show that these are not areas where the disagreements exclude one from being a Fundamentalist.

It is ironic to me, however, that Ken speaks about a failure to differentiate between primary and secondary doctrines and practices when he seems to have a similar fail to understand the difference between different levels of fellowship. I will grant him that there are some who do focus on the secondary issues (the IFBx groups seem to be particularly skillful at this), but judging by some of Ken’s other posts, part of the problem he has is that more narrow groups of fellowships (such as a fellowship of churches) will not allow the same latitude in their membership that is permitted in broader Fundamentalism. I think Greg Linscott has done a good job at trying to point out this issue in some of his comments to Ken in various posts, but it does not seem to me that Ken "gets" what Greg is trying to say. Perhaps what I am reading as a failure to understand Greg's point is merely a disagreement with Greg's point.

If a church or a group of churches chooses to join together, they often do so because they have similar doctrinal, theological, denominational or philosophical views. For instance, Ken is attending the upcoming Founders Conference. If Ken chooses to be a part of this movement and have his church listed on their website, he must click a button declaring that he wholeheartedly subscribes to some particular confessions that are listed on their website. The nature of the fellowship would not only make it acceptable to refuse fellowship with Ken in that level if he did not agree with those confessions (say Ken was a thorough-going Arminian instead), but would actually make it necessary for them to refuse Ken fellowship at the level of being listed on their website. This does not mean that the group would be declaring Ken as unsaved, but rather would be acknowledging that on this particular level of fellowship they do not walk together.

It seems to me that some of the frustration that Ken speaks against often stems from the fact that a particular group that have joined together for fellowship is not as broad as Ken would like in some areas (see his recent post on Edwards, etc.). In my view, a fellowship has the right to set their own guidelines for inclusion and a person (or church) has the right to reject that fellowship if they disagree with those guidelines.

The third reason that Ken gives for possibly abandoning the label is that the label and movement seem to be characterized by an unhealthy reactionism.

Ken states this:

Does it not seem ironic that fundamentalists are known (and this is a reputation they have brought upon themselves) for what they are against rather than what they are for? The clarion call of the original fundamentalists was an affirmation of five clear and concise theological statements.

The reality is that Fundamentalism has always been a reactionary movement. Even in Ken’s own article he makes a couple of comments that indicate this in regards to the early Fundamentalists.

For instance, he states:

It is my understanding that the fundamentalist movement began in response to the modernist's higher criticism (emphasis added)

He also quotes from Wikipedia (an interesting source that is in need of some revision in regards to its article on Fundamentalism).

A movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.

Notice the words that I have highlighted in both of those quotes. Fundamentalism has always been reactionary - and that is okay - and that is also why there has been a legitimate shift in some areas over the years. As new problems arose and new departures from the faith take place, there is a need for a reaction against those departures.

When Ken speaks of "current fundamentalist infatuations," I take exception to both the terminology and the list that he uses to qualify the terminology. While I may actually be fairly close to him on some of those issues, I object to his list and terminology here for a few reasons.

1. I don’t think it is fair to describe them a "current fundamentalist infatuations." Most of these issues are much broader than Fundamentalism. Think about it - the "big debate" that never came was not between Fundamentalists. The King James Version Debate by Carson was not written to or for Fundamentalists.

2. I think that some of these issues are legitimate reasons to have a lack of fellowship at some levels, although I will grant that there is a lot of extremism in some of these issues as well.

3. I don’t find mainstream Fundamentalism (such as the AACCS or the ACCC) making these official areas of separation.

I would also comment that to say that the Fundamentalist framers did not deal with the "current fundamentalist infatuations" is to be anachronistic. To say that these men did not have/would not have had concerns in some of the areas that are "current fundamentalist infatuations" just because they lived in an era when these things were not issues is to unfairly read back into history our own views. Would Spurgeon have issues with some of the modern church music? I believe he would have, but we cannot know because the issue was not an issue in his day. You cannot argue that the Fundamentalist founders would not have taken a strong stand on some of the issues raised today just because they were silent on them back then. For instance, I cannot imagine Machen remaining quiet against Open Theism if he were alive today.

I not expect my post to change Ken's mind, but I did want to at least attempt to answer some of his comments.

Just my thoughts,

Frank

4 comments:

Peter Beninate said...

There's a lot of good stuff to think about in there...

As for me, I've always avoided the term "fundamentalist" because it seems to have the result of minimizing the Gospel.

The Gospel is what should unite the Church. The clarity of the Gospel contrasts with the differing beliefs of various denominations.

It seems that fundamentalism minimizes the unity of the Church by focusing on a set of differences. I know that this is far from their intention, but in my limited experience it seems to be the case.

Joel Tetreau said...

Frank,

Good interaction with Ken. Let me just comment on one interaction point your making. I'd love to say more but am limited today. I would be inclined to agree with you that Ken should see that fundamentalism has always had "levels" of fellowship and cooperation. If you and Greg and other men were in the main "representative" of the movement at large I would be inclined to agree with you. Up until recently I don't think that has been the main "view." The view at least to me (with Type A fundamentalists at least) has been a viewing of fundamentalism as a single circle....You are either with us or against us.

Now....perhaps that's changing in the main. If that has changed then I would agree with these comments your making to Ken. It's obvious Ken understands the point you and Greg are making....He's just not buying it yet. I can fully appreciate where Ken is coming from on that.

Blessings bro. Prayerful your mom is doing better. Thanks for your good work here.

Straight Ahead!

Joel

PS - Frank, I'll try and make comments on the rest of your response later.....busy day....getting ready to be out of town next week.

Don Johnson said...

Frank, good response.

Joel, your point is one of the points of departure. I reject the notion that fundamentalism has ever been in the main a single circle. Were there some who were very narrow-minded? Sure. But the example of Paisley on the one hand and O. Talmadge Spence on the other hand both speaking at a bastion like BJU belies the notion of the single circle.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Frank Sansone said...

(I tried this earlier, but for some reason I have difficulty commenting with this new version of Blogger. My answer then was worded better, too :))

Hey, Peter, good to hear from you. It's been a long time. Seeing your pictures on your site and seeing Tony's stuff on his blog makes me feel REALLY old.

I got back in to coaching soccer this last year. I coached Josiah's U-10 soccer team (we lost 6-5 in the championship game) and it reminded me of coaching back at HCA.

I am glad you stopped by, you have to stop by some more.

Regarding the term "Fundamentalist", I will state what I commented on Ken's blog. I am not wed to the term "Fundamentalist," but I am committed to the idea of Fundamentalism.

I agree with you that the Gospel should unite the Church. However, I would add a clarification that it is the responsibility of those who love the Gospel to stand against those things that oppose the Gospel.

If I say that I love my wife and yet I do not stand up against those things that would seek to harm her, I am revealing that I do not really love my wife.

Likewise, if I say that I love the Gospel and do not stand against those things that denigrate it or deny it, I am revealing my true feelings towards the Gospel.

I would also say that while we should be united around the Gospel, the concept of unity necessarily includes the idea of separation. A proper unity with my wife requires a necessary separation from all other women. A proper unity around the Gospel requires a necessary separation from all perversions and denials of that Gospel.

Anyway, it is good to hear from you. If you get some free time from your busy life over there by D.C., I would love to have you come over and visit us on the Eastern Shore. (Of course, being engaged, I am guessing you have other trips that take up your free time :) ).

It is good to hear from you.

In Christ,

Pastor Frank