conversing with evangelicals – 2

I am writing in response to a series of posts by a pastor in Alberta (God’s country), Clint Humfrey. I like Clint because he is an Albertan, a cowboy, and a preacher of the Gospel (not necessarily in that order!). In my earlier post, I commented on the similarities between conservative evangelical frustration with the evangelical scene and the frustrations of early fundamentalists with the church of their day.

The concerns of current conservative evangelicals, though perhaps discouraging to them, are encouraging to today’s fundamentalists because we hope there might be a widening of the circle of faithful men of God as a result. This is at least part of the motivation behind the enthusiasm of ‘young fundamentalists’ for the conservative evangelical speakers and gatherings they talk so much about. (My concern with them is that they appear willing to discard fundamentalism in the process of forming a wider fellowship.)

With that in mind, then, for fundamentalists these concerns represent an opportunity for revitalizing the Bible believing church. That is why I am hopeful of conversations with evangelicals. Still, there are a number of hurdles to be overcome before any satisfactory new movement can emerge.

The hurdles are not insignificant. The hurdles are of such importance to men of either movement that it may be impossible to see any real alliance of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. From my perspective, the hurdles to overcome for a new movement include at least these issues:

  1. The issue of militancy
  2. The issue of denominational advantages
  3. The issue of worldliness
  4. The issue of Calvinism

There may well be others! I am blinded by my biases. Nevertheless, I’d like to take up each of these issues as I see them.

The issue of militancy

Militancy, bar none, is the distinguishing mark of fundamentalism. Militancy can (and often has and does) lead to separation, but it is not separation per se that distinguishes fundamentalism. The distinguishing mark of fundamentalism is militancy. That is, the willingness to “do battle royal” for the fundamentals of the faith. This will include, in the fundamentalist mind, a willingness to do battle with those who are indifferent to fundamental error.

It is not that conservative evangelicals are unwilling to ever do battle — they can and do fight significant battles for various points of orthodoxy. But conservative evangelicals still tend to think that fundamentalists are too militant. Indeed, they are bolstered in their argument by the fact that some fundies are too militant. But my view of appropriate militancy is something that most conservative evangelicals think is hyper-militancy. Usually conversations with evangelicals will break down here. The evangelical tends to be unwilling to go far enough to satisfy a fundamentalist, the fundamentalist is unwilling to back off his militancy to satisfy an evangelical, so no common ground can be reached.

For example, consider this comment my Cowboyologist friend, Clint, made in response to a comment of mine:

You may be aware of my connection to Toronto Baptist Seminary whose founder TT Shields was among the North American leaders in the Fundamentalist movement. I believe that there was much to appreciate about Shields’ initial stand (the McMaster Hall controversy), but his later ministry was too inflammatory, divisive, and reactionary (see D.M. Lloyd-Jones personal confrontation of Shields at this point).

T. T. Shields is a good example to discuss on the point of militancy. When a fundamentalist reads some of Shields’ statements, he rejoices. When a conservative evangelical reads them, I suspect that he recoils. This is the hurdle of militancy.

Without coming to a conclusion on Shields himself, let me add this word of caution from Michael Haykin:

But, after reading the review of this book, it struck me that Shields’ anti-Catholicism was quite understandable in the time period given the large numbers who would have shared the views of the young Trudeau.

In other words, we must understand these men in the context of their times. What seems extreme today may have been entirely appropriate for the day in which earlier men lived.

Regardless, it does seem that some kind of militancy is the logical conclusion of the tensions evangelicals feel with the drift of their denominational groups. This can only result in division, ultimately. To be blunt [oxgoad-like], either militancy and contention or keep quiet about your concerns.

Now, I am sympathetic to the risks and costs that militancy might impose and well realize that it is no easy decision to become more militant. My point here is simply that our conversations on these matters, while hopeful, are often stymied by our differences regarding militancy.

On to the second hurdle:

The issue of denominational advantages

This point is one that many conservative evangelicals may be unwilling to give up. There are advantages to denominational structures. Publishing houses, colleges, missions programs… the list can go on and on. These efforts denominationally benefit from economies of scale and not “re-inventing the wheel”.

Fundamentalism has evolved largely into a movement of independent churches. The major groupings are loosely defined fellowships; the schools are independent para-church institutions (for better or for worse). Missions are accomplished by independent mission boards with missionaries individually raising their own support. There is at least some inefficiency in this approach.

One of Clint’s commenters asks the pertinent questions on this point:

It makes me wonder about the place of denominationalism in Canada. If those that are committed to Gospel-centered ministries can’t find likemindedness within their denomination, what further purpose do those denominations serve? Or is there room for both denominations and fraternities?

Because of militancy, fundamentalists have been willing to endure the limitations independency imposes. The more structured denominational groups seemingly always collapse towards leftist theology and practice. Independency may not preserve individual churches from such collapses, but they don’t leave other churches as entangled when they do. My answer would be “No, there is no room for both denominations and fraternities.” And here the fundamentalist/evangelical conversation often ends as well.

The third hurdle is:

The issue of worldliness

The barriers between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals may be most pronounced in these areas, but it seems to me that conservative evangelicals are generally oblivious to fundamentalist concerns regarding worldliness. By this we mean the relations between church and culture, most noticeable in the area of music, but covering many other areas.

Fundamentalists have always called for militancy towards ecclesiastical error (theology), and to practical error (worldliness in its many forms) and to personal error – a resemblance of the Puritan rigor on the self. Conservative evangelicals seem to be concerned with the first of these and also the third, but less so with the second.

The conversations I have with evangelicals often break down here. Some have visited our services, appreciated strong Biblical preaching, even appreciated most of the call to personal holiness, but when it comes to elements of culture — music, movies, alcohol even… well, it is at this point unity between us breaks down. This does not happen in every case, but it is the point of departure for most.

From a fundamentalist perspective, these things are all of a piece. Militancy in doctrine is meaningless without militancy in practice as well. The theological drift of denominations is related to the practical drift of personal standards and increasing worldliness.

The last hurdle, at least to me, is this:

The issue of Calvinism

It is not that there are no fundamentalists who are Calvinists! Many are. But while Fundamentalism has been militant about the fundamentals and worldliness, there are theological issues Fundamentalists have rarely made issues of division and militancy, not seeing them as either denials or compromises of the fundamentals. For a good example of this, I would refer you to an article by Roland McCune in the Journal of the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, “Doctrinal Non-Issues In Historic Fundamentalism“. Among the issues that have historically been ‘non-issues’ in Fundamentalism, according to McCune, is the Calvinism and Arminianism debate.

Today, it seems that many conservative evangelicals are decidedly Calvinist, so much so that they see it as the burning issue dividing the orthodox and the unorthodox. The assumption is (as some have explicitly said to me) that Arminian theology leads to liberalism. When I have pointed out liberal Presbyterians, for example, I am told that such became Arminians before they became liberals. I am not sure that I buy that one!

Nevertheless, many conservative evangelicals are strongly Calvinistic and, along with many so-called Fundamentalists, fail to see the egregious compromises of other doctrines or practices by popular Calvinistic preachers. As long as these doctrines are defining issues, I am afraid conversations with some Fundamentalists and Evangelicals will come to a stand-still.

This is a shame. It seems to me that purity and orthodoxy can be maintained without settling the soteriology question. The debate over sovereignty vs. responsibility in its many permutations has not been settled by thousands of men over hundreds of years preceding our own. Why must we make it a shibboleth now?

For the record, I should say that I don’t see myself as either a Calvinist or Arminian. My own theology is somewhat eclectic and difficult to pigeon-hole with any popular label. (Some might call me confused.) I am adamant, however, that our systematic differences should not be a bar to fellowship or cooperation. When someone insists on a system of theology as the defining parameters of the gospel there is not much we can talk about.

~~~

Still, I remain hopeful that some conservative evangelicals might begin to see the importance of some of the issues we Fundamentalists hold. I hope they might embrace them and own them as their own. I am willing to have conversations to bring such a goal about. I am willing to learn from evangelicals where their philosophy can improve my own.

But while hopeful, I am not optimistic that the conversation with evangelicals will result in major changes in ‘movement allegiances’ soon. There remain too many significant differences that seem beyond resolution without one side or the other capitulating on core values.

~~~

For those unfamiliar with the historical background of the fundamentalist movement, I would recommend Dr. David Beale’s In Pursuit of Purity, which charts the history of these confrontations from a fundamentalist perspective.

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Comments

  1. Pastor Johnson,
    You are not confused about your understanding of Calvinism. God presents the teaching of election and free will as a mystery and it should be accepted by all of God’s people as just that! It is not a “serious” subject as some like to promote it BUT it is a mysterious one.
    What is serious is the unethical and underhanded way it has been taught in recent years.
    For example, a young man goes off to a fundamental, separated Christian college and graduates a five point Calvinist and heads off to McArthur’s school in CA. What happened? The parents in these situations are many times left blindsided and confused.
    I would have more respect for a person who holds to a Calvinistic position if they would just be honest and state upfront where they are on this issue. If you want to believe in Calvinism fine…I don’t agree you but who cares what I think? What I do care about is how my children will be influenced and what they will be taught.
    Mr. Theologian, please be respectful of my home and the values that I have taught to my children. Be honest with my kids when you are teaching them. If you want to try and convince them that Calvinism is the right way, go ahead. Just be honest and tell them upfront.

  2. “I have never known it to fail that when five-point Calvinism becomes the chief end of a man’s ministry and the most important thing in his preaching, that man becomes cold, dead, egotistical, and a liar.”
    Dr. Bob Jones Jr.

    • Hi Len

      Trying to stir things up, eh?

      I tend to agree with Dr. Bob on this one, but it’s not the real point of my article! My point here is that conservative evangelicals seem to be identifying Calvinism with orthodoxy and are thus unwilling to come to closer fellowship with a group like fundamentalists who don’t generally make Calvinism the test of fellowship.

      As I think about it, another hurdle has come to mind, I think I’ll add a blog post about it later.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Dear Don,

    Me!? Trying to stir things up? I love everybody! Lurkers included!

    It is interesting to read the comments of Dr. Bob Jones Jr. on the “issue.” It will be debated and discussed (and fought and separated over) until Christ returns.

    My beef is the way it is being taught. If it is such a “serious subject” as some like to tout, then why not be forthright and very clear and USE the word to identify yourself as a Calvinist.

    I would at least like the opportunity to warn my children of who they need to be wary of.

    I also understand that the shoe fits both ways.

    • Hi Len

      I love everybody!

      Hmmm….

      I thought of several smart remarks to reply to that one, but I’ll keep it to myself.

      I am thinking of a post on this. It is in the ‘cogitation’ stage, but I think it’ll erupt in a day or two. I do agree that it would be nice to have a more forthright presentation of who and what you are, especially when it comes to schools and such. I suppose that these things change gradually over time and some aren’t even aware that they have changed. They think they are standing right where they’ve always been.

      But it remains to us in the trenches to ask the uncomfortable questions. We should not shirk that duty, whether it be for our own benefit or to warn our own flocks and families, etc.

      Well, I am off… sitting in an internet cafe, waiting for my van to be repaired. It’s pouring rain here. The shop called, van is ready (waiting for parts) but I’m thinking this nice warm cafe beats walking up the block in the rain.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Don,
    I would love to know what Dr. Bob Jr. meant when he referenced the “5 Point Calvinist” as a “liar.”
    I am guessing here but I think it may be the less than the honorable way (and I am being nice here!) it is being taught.
    That’s where we need to sound the alarm and hold our Christian institutions accountable.

  5. Maybe the Five Point Calvinist is a liar by stating they are teaching doctrine from the Scriptures when their theology is false and is not truly based on the Scriptures themselves, but on their own theories and eisegesis.

    • Hi Jerry

      Well, I don’t like to use the word ‘false’ in describing Calvinists, but rather ‘mistaken’, or ‘incomplete’. The word ‘false’ is too closely connected to false teachers. I don’t think most Calvinists would fall in that category. They do preach salvation by faith alone and preach Christ.

      In the quote that Len gave us, I think Dr Bob was probably referring to a specific person. He had many friends who were Calvinists. Perhaps one of his closest friends, Dr. Paisley, is of course a strong Calvinist.

      But I do agree that the 5-point system is forced upon the Bible at several points, rather than derived from the Bible.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

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