I recently read an article from “The Atlantic” that is about how the “white Evangelical Christians” have lost credibility with people, mainly and most recently because of their endorsement of President Donald Trump, both before and after the election. The author is Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter and policy advisor for George W. Bush. He makes many good points, especially how the evangelicals have sold their message with their endorsement of a man who goes against the values they espouse and promote. I agree when he says: “Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites.”
But there is one paragraph in the article that has me analyzing my own beliefs, and I feel I need to defend them. It is Gerson’s critique of the origin and beliefs of “Fundamentalists.” Here is the excerpt:
“Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea.”
I consider myself a “Fundamentalist” (depending on how you define the word), and see where Gerson is coming from, yet whole-heartedly disagree with this paragraph. On three points, let me briefly defend my viewpoint of Fundamentalism, and why it is largely where Christ would be seated if He were here today.
1. The reaction to higher criticism– Higher criticism is the science of observing ancient documents to determine their validity and in turn return to accuracy of the Bible. In theory, this is not only a good thing, but something Christians have always been engaged in. What Fundamentalism reacted against was not accuracy in the face of the multiplicity of manuscripts, but three major liberal ideas. The first is that the Bible needed to be discovered. This was based on the presupposition that what Christians had in their hands was not the Word of God at all, and hadn’t been for centuries. The second is that some texts were to be preferred over others, which was a matter of opinion that ultimately eroded the authority of the Word of God altogether for the authority of the opinion of man. The third, and most dangerous, was that the Bible was like any other book, and able to be subject to higher criticism, as if there was no supernatural element at all in its origin.
Gerson betrays his bias against this supernatural element when he refers to the Old Testament’s “Iron Age ethics.” But I maintain that the reason Fundamentalists returned to a stricter understanding of the Bible, defending inerrancy over higher criticism, was that without a perfect Bible Christianity is worth nothing. One cannot concede that the Bible is full of errors and at the same time affirm that the resurrection happened. Biblical inerrancy is vital to Christianity, and early Fundamentalists saw how much ground they had already ceded. Of course, in a society where the natural is elevated, not over, but instead of the supernatural, a belief in a supernatural book is dismissed out of hand as “simplistic and overliteral.” I say that new-evangelicals who have followed liberal Christians instead of Fundamentalists have lost what they thought they were gaining, and have gouged their Authority.
2. The reaction to evolution– The teaching of evolution was relatively new in the early twentieth century, and not as fully developed and embraced as it is today. The teaching of evolution took the idea of adaption of species (micro-evolution) and natural selection, both of which are scientific facts, and expanded it beyond the scope of observation to macro-evolution, specifically, naturalistic evolution. This theory says that everything came about as a result of naturalistic origins, and arrived at the current state of being through naturalistic processes. The very definition was science without a supernatural.
Christianity has never bristled against science. James Orr in the Fundamentals says as much: “Science and Christianity are pitted against each other. Their interests are held to be antagonistic… This was not the attitude of the older investigators of science. Most of these were devout Christian men.” He acknowledges that some in some churches have denied scientific discoveries in the past, to their shame, but also acknowledges that “science, too, has in numberless cases put forth its hasty and unwarrantable theories and has often had to retract even its truer speculations within limits which brought them into more perfect harmony with revealed truth. If theology has resisted novelties of science, it has often had good reason for so doing.” Science and religion are not mutually exclusive, and Fundamentalists don’t believe that they are.
However, Gerson has joined the misled multitudes in asserting that Fundamentalism is “anti-scientific in its general orientation.” Again, the issue is one of supernaturalism vs naturalism. He cites the Scopes Trial which did not start as a contest of the Bible vs. Science, but became something like that as the trial progressed. Yes, Darrow won the public opinion, but only because Bryan unwisely took the stand and was unable to accurately speak to the issues. To extrapolate the ignorance of Bryan to every Fundamentalist, or to infer that Fundamentalists are stupid because they dare question a theory, is not fair. Neither is the statement that evangelicals are “encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.”
The great reason Fundamentalists fought against naturalistic scientific theories is that is countered both the evidence and the Bible, the second being of primary importance. Tim Chaffey, of Answers in Genesis, says: “As the weaknesses of each compromise view became apparent, Christians strayed further and further from the literal meaning of Genesis in a vain attempt to conform it to modern ‘scientific’ interpretations of the past. In the process, they set a dangerous precedent. They began reinterpreting Scripture to match scientists’ claims, even when the new interpretation ignored the actual words of the text or forced contradictions into it. When Christians reinterpret God’s Word to try to make it conform to secular ideas, they open the door of compromise. That door often leads to rejection of fundamental doctrines, which is exactly what is happening today.” Fundamentalists are not against science, but are against anti-God scientific presuppositions which lead to naturalistic theories about the world. This is not a “Fundamentalist” problem, but a Christian problem.
3. The reaction to social issues– Gerson asserts in his article that Fundamentalists stopped caring about social issues such as poverty, health care, and immigration. He states, quoting historian George Marsden: ““All progressive social concern, whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.” This was not necessarily true, as Fundamental churches all over the US met physical needs in their communities.
I take issue with the word “irrelevant.” For a Fundamentalist, giving someone something physical was not unimportant. Jesus Himself said this in Matthew 25:40: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” He said in Matthew 10:42: “Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.” Fundamentalists have always believed in helping people.
But there are two reasons that Fundamentalists have the charge of not caring about social issues or the poor. One is that the focus of these churches was meeting spiritual needs, not physical needs. Gerson says: “Social activism was deemed irrelevant to the most essential task: the work of preparing oneself, and helping others prepare, for final judgment.” It is really not an issue of one or the other, but both! However, if a church has just $1000 to spend, is it better to buy $1000 worth of Bibles or $1000 worth of blankets and rice? Jesus also said in Mark 14:7 “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.” Jesus said in Matt. 16:26 “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Fundamentalists would rather a person go to Heaven with an empty stomach than Hell with a full stomach. But at the same time, churches ought to use whatever means as an opportunity to meet spiritual needs as well. A Fundamentalist church would spend $300 on blankets and rice in order to get $700 worth of Bibles into the hands of people in need of Christ.
Two is that in the times, liberalism actually replaced the Gospel message with social justice. It’s not that the liberals were better at giving out blankets and rice, but that that is all they were doing! They never gave out Bibles or a plan of salvation, because they didn’t believe people were saved by believing in Jesus. Many of these liberals were universalists, and so stated that everyone was already saved by God’s grace, and so did not need a message of repentance from sin. This is a prevalent notion today. Instead of using social means toward a spiritual goal, the social means became a goal in and of itself. Thus, often Fundamentalists put distance between them and social issues in order to clarify the Gospel message. This did not mean that they were uncaring, but that their focus was in a different place. Read John 6. Jesus fed the multitudes, then told them to seek spiritual bread instead of just spiritual bread.
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I don’t expect many, especially those of Gerson’s leanings and questionable position, to agree with me. I also don’t love labels, such as “Fundamentalist” that have fluid definitions. However, I also believe that the tenets of the things attacked in the article are not sub-doctrines, but important, and worth understanding why they are held. To paint caricatures is largely unhelpful, yet that is what I feel Gerson has done. This is not surprising, as he spends most of his article tearing apart evangelicals as evangelicals have done to Fundamentalists. Hopefully we will not see the day when Gerson’s position is torn apart by those to the Left of him.