on sand in the lines (or, a look at the Sesame Street analysis)

The online fundamentalist world was buzzing last week over the ‘Three Lines in the Sand’ battle, instigated by the publication of articles on the blog, Sharper Iron. The ensuing discussion caught a good deal of attention by those fundamentalists who frequent the online sites of opinion with additional articles and comments appearing at several other sites as well. Here are links to Article 1, Article 2, Article 3 and other links here and here. For very negative reviews with not a lot of grace you can check these artiles here and here [hey, Kent, et al, I love ya, but ‘Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt…’, not the other way around. I know, I err like this, too].

I began to prepare a commentary on this issue earlier in the week, but as events have developed, I decided to simply re-write a comment from scratch. Before I really get into it, I should explain my term ‘Sesame Street analysis’. Joel Tetreau, the author of the ‘Three Lines in the Sand’ article, analyses fundamentalism by calling various forms of it Type A, Type B, or Type C. I have jokingly referred to Joel’s analysis as “Sesame Street analysis” this way: “This analysis is brought to you by the letters, A, B, and C…” If you are old enough, you will get the joke.

Now for my comments on the subject. I really am not so concerned with analysing Joel’s article per se. We have seen enough of that in the last week. But I want to make some observations Joel’s general thesis as I see it.

There is no doubt that there are at least two uneasy camps within self-professed fundamentalism. There is a more ‘traditional’ group, we’ll use Joel’s Type A for ease of reference, but I am not sure there is really a name for this group. This group tends to approach ministry with a more militant attitude than the second group. The second group Joel calls Type B. We have also heard of them being referred to as Young Fundamentalists or NeoFundamentalists. The men in this second group tend to be more recent graduates of fundamentalist institutions, whether it be fundamentalist Christian schools or colleges and universities. They tend to be more heavily represented by younger people who are between 25 and 35 years of age, although there are old fogies (my contemporaries) who sympathize with them and could be called part of this group as well.

Michael Riley’s comments are helpful, especially where he says the real issue is what to do about a group labeled by Joel as “Type C”. These men, the Type Cs, are not usually labeled as fundamentalists. For the most part, the Type C men would not want the label (there are some exceptions) and are not really looking for a common cause with fundamentalists. They represent conservative evangelicals who are willing to contend with other evangelicals over various issues. The Type B crowd apparently wants to label the Type C crowd as a ‘non-identifying branch’ of fundamentalism. The Type A crowd denies that Type C is fundamentalist at all.

The distinctions between Type A and Type B, however, are much more than simply ‘what to do with Type C’. One other major issue to understand with respect to the distinctions is who has the best grasp of fundamentalist history and historic fundamentalist philosophy. Both Type A and Type B would view themselves as having this understanding down cold, and the other fellows to be all wet. I suppose that if we can answer this second issue, the answer to the question of Type C is obvious.

Typically in these debates, we all seem to discuss a certain word when it comes to fundamentalism: separation. There is no doubt that fundamentalists have often and do often separate themselves from other Christians because of perceived compromise of the gospel. In the last few days, I am wondering if this word is obscuring the issues and clouding our understanding. In the past, I have said that if you won’t separate, you are not a fundamentalist. Lately, I am thinking that this description isn’t adequate.

I am thinking now about another word that we should emphasize more strongly than ‘separation’. That word is ‘militancy’. The early fundamentalists who fought modernism in their denominations were militant. They struggled mightily to preserve their schools, churches, and other institutions. It was a ‘battle royal’ in Curtis Lee Laws’ famous phrase. The battle royal led ultimately to separation, but some men stayed within their denominations, fighting a losing battle but still fighting. I wonder if we shouldn’t be charitable enough to say that those who continued to fight, even in a losing cause, should still be considered fundamentalists because they were militant, though not always separatists.

Let’s take this a step further, however. Is militancy the same thing as orthodoxy? Answer: No. One can be personally orthodox in theology but not militant about it, i.e., unwilling to do battle royal for the fundamentals (orthodox doctrine). You just go along with the flow, hoe your own corn, so to speak, and leave the politics alone. Many otherwise orthodox men have taken this position through the years.

The fundamentalist, in contrast, is militant. He is fighting for an objective: purity of the gospel, purity of the church. Historically, we saw fundamentalists agitating militantly for ecclesiastical integrity which inevitably createwd divisions with those unwilling to engage the battle. Sometimes these divisions led to complete separation, a refusal to associate, and I think this was, and is, right. The fundamentalist will also agitate militantly for the personal purity of Christians which inevitably involves repudiation of worldliness and worldly practices. This opens a whole can of worms that has been endlessly debated throughout the history church, but without a doubt the militant fundamentalist mindset will argue in favour of purging worldly elements from the lives of Christians. (The next question to decide is ‘what is worldly’, but we will leave that alone for this article.)

Are the Type Cs militant? Is militancy the same thing as saying hard things about the beliefs and practices of other Christians? In the ‘Three Lines’ article an example was given of Harold Lindsell and his book The Battle for the Bible. [This appeared in Part IV of the article which briefly appeared on Sharper Iron but was later taken down at Joel’s request. I managed to snag a copy of it before it was taken down. Joel has promised to publish it elsewhere ‘later’, but I kind of wish he wouldn’t. Let sleeping dogs lie, Joel. And this dog is one you need to put to sleep!!]

Joel refers to Lindsell this way:

Militancy to the Type C fundamentalist is kin to Ronald Reagan militancy. Reagan led our country through a rebuilding of a military arsenal that eventually led the Soviet Union to an economic implosion. They simply could not keep up with the arms race. “Fundamentalism” to a Type C is a verb. More specifically, it is an action verb. Fundamentalism is not something necessarily that describes their primary identity (Type A), nor does it really modify or explain where they are (Type B). Type C Fundamentalism is a description of what they “do.” These men are actively engaging the faith. They are actively contending within their associations, fellowships, conventions, or denominations. They are not attempting to “smoosh their way” (as in the new-evangelical ethos). They are actively doing “Battle Royal” for the faith. In my way of understanding, the rebirth of Type C Fundamentalism would have been in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Type C fundamentalists are those conservative men who contended in groups such as the SBC and CBA. Harold Lindsell came out with his work, Battle for the Bible. Often Type A’s will not want to give Type C’s the title because these men often demonstrate a disdain for the term “Fundamentalism.” This does not mean they do not fit the historical pattern of Fundamentalism. It is more likely that they had the unfortunate occurrence of bumping into a “fierce” member of A+ Fundamentalism and were offended by their rudeness, theological illiteracy, and/or just bad manners.

I give you that quote for the purposes of getting the context. There are a lot of things wrong with this paragraph and with Joel’s writing in general. Joel, I think it might be better for you to colaborate with someone when writing this kind of thing. It is often hard to follow your thoughts. I think I understand why, but you might be able to succeed better by collaborating with someone else to put your thoughts in a more coherent form. [I know Joel is going to be reading this and promised him my honest critiques. I like Joel and had an extra donut at Tims just this morning in his honour.]

What Joel seems to be saying is that we as fundamentalists don’t respect the work done by evangelicals to fight for the gospel. I think Joel might be saying here that Lindsell is a prototype ‘Type C’ as an example of a Type C who is fighting for the gospel ‘within evangelicalism’. If Joel isn’t saying that, he is at least saying that the Type Cs owe their heritage to Lindsell’s work, his books formed the basis for ‘conservative evangelicalism’. Either conclusion (and perhaps I am missing something)… but either conclusion really is a misjudgement of history.

When Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible came out, it did cause a sensation in the evangelical world, but is it truly an example of a militant mindset? It may be belligerency, but is it militancy? At the time the book came out, Lindsell was editor of Christianity Today. (He retired from that post two years later.) From what I have been able to discover of his life, he maintained his new evangelical position until the end. He is credited as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of New Evangelicalism, a lifelong friend of Billy Graham, biographer of Ockenga, etc., etc. While his book created a divide within Evangelicalism, leading to the Statement on Inerrancy, was it really an example of militancy, crusading to purify the evangelical church, or was it a reaffirmation of the New Evangelical status quo? The New Evangelical philosophy began as orthodoxy minus militancy. Was Lindsell advocating a change of that notion or a return to it?

This example perhaps highlights the differences we have very vividly. The Type Cs are occasional crusaders within their groups for issues that are important to them, but are we seriously trying to say that they have the same militant mindset of the 1920s fundamentalists? Where is the active battle against modernism? Where is the active battle against the allies of modernism?

Should we be making common cause with these men? That was the argument of Jerry Folwell in the late 70s and early 80s, with his Moral Majority movement. He went even farther, and united with very strange groups in hopes of achieving political ends. The fundamentalists of the day labeled him a pseudo-fundamentalist. While the Type Bs today are not advocating the sweeping alliances of Falwell, is there anything essentially different in their philosophy?

Further, we should ask if co-belligerency is a justification for cooperation and fellowship? We are co-belligerents, for example with many people on the subject of abortion, but we will not cooperate with many of them, probably not with the majority of them because co-beligerency does not equal ‘common cause’.

Above, I asked if the Type Cs are militant. Now I ask, are the Type Bs militant? They appear to be militant all right, but they are constantly fighting the Type As, not the modernists, not the compromised evangelicals, but their fundamentalist ‘cohorts’. I am constantly dismayed to see all the energy of these young men spent trying to justify an increasingly loose position with respect to personal purity and a definitely loose application of ecclesiastical association. They justify it, as was done here, by claiming that the Type A fundamentalism is dictatorial, abusive, etc. etc. Where is the equal militancy against the doctrines and practices that are harmful to a pure gospel and a pure church? I don’t mean that we should spend all day every day bashing MacArthur, Dever, et al. But don’t you think there should be a murmur of protest over the rap artist and Piper? Shouldn’t we speak up against incidents where one of these men disappoints us with a poor ecclesiastical relationship?

What we see in these debates is the political energy of the Type Bs being spent in fighting Type As. Why? Are the Type As, such as they are, the greatest threat to the current state of the church?

This is long enough already. I complained that Joel’s article was too long, so I will leave this one here. I gave this article the title “sand in the lines”. The current state of affairs are somewhat confused by the varying positions of the many players claiming the label ‘fundamentalist’. The lines are pretty blurred. It isn’t absolutely clear where everyone stands, but I predict that things will be made clear soon. Joel’s article, with its flaws, contribute to the clarity. The discussions and debates we are having in various spots of cyber-space are contributing to clarity. And then new controversies will blur everything again… more sand in the lines…

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

P.S. As I was mulling this article over, I see Sharper Iron published on its front page more on this from Joel under the header ‘Reflections on the Fight’ or some such. Joel, Joel, Joel, give it a rest man! It isn’t about you! Just shut up already! The more you talk about this fight, the more the pot will be stirred. You will get some oil in your wounds from your friends, but I guarantee you that you are just going to get more guys like me to pour salt in, instead of oil! You might want to look up the word, ‘narcissism’ and ponder its implications.

And, for the SI guys who might wander over here, what are you doing? Why keep this running? Most of the articles on your front page have achieved a certain quality. These are dragging you down. Are you thinking at all? Good night! You are only making yourselves and Joel look bad.

[See, I am a Type A!]


  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    My conscience is clear, Don, and thanks for the love. Excellent verse on speech.

  2. Kent Brandenburg says:

    One more thing. My article wasn’t a review of the Tetreau articles. Mine was using SI as case in hypocritic discourse—the double standard. I only quoted Joel in some other context.

  3. Don Johnson says:

    Fair enough, Kent. You don’t answer to me. But since I am a Type A, I will call it as I see it. Your approach in those two pieces does seem to go too far, from my perspective, but I am not your master!

    God bless.

  4. Joel Tetreau says:


    Thanks for participating in the discussion. That’s a whole lot better than many of your type A buds. Looking forward to future fellowship at Tim Hortons.

    Pondering your points!


  5. Dave Mallinak says:

    Don, thanks for linking to us!

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