the fundamentalist phenomenon

… to steal a phrase.

I ran across an article about the Reformed Church in America at the Christian news site, Christian Post. Entitled “Reformed Church in America Is Imploding, Professor Says”, the article describes turmoil in a denomination I don’t know a lot about.

Several things struck me about the way the conflict was described however. Note these key paragraphs:

Amid years of contention between liberals and conservatives over issues such as the civil-rights movement, women’s ordination and evangelism with regard to social witness, Luidens says "loyalists" emerged to keep the denomination together. They were more dedicated to denominational survival than to ideological purity, he notes.

Though the two extremes were held together then, today many liberals have left the RCA in significant numbers and conservatives have shifted their target to the loyalists and continue to "rail against ‘liberalism,’" he says.

Now before anyone shrieks, ‘none of these people are fundamentalists’, let me say I am quite aware of that. But the conflict illustrates exactly what fundamentalism is all about, how it came into existence, and why a need for it still exists.

First, let’s note the nature of the participants and the focus of the struggle. There are three groups mentioned here:

  1. Liberals
  2. Conservatives
  3. Loyalists

Note in particular what the issues are: civil-rights, women ordination, social action (social gospel?). These are all left-right issues. They are perhaps not ‘gospel issues’, but they are probably at least tangentially related to the gospel and are promoted by the liberals on the basis of a more or less gospel-denying philosophy (I am assuming here).

Initially the conflict is between liberals and conservatives, presumably brought on when some conservatives decided to raise a stink about liberal teaching or programs. A period of conflict ensued, but a third force arose, the loyalists, who want denominational peace at any cost. These would be akin to the famous ‘moderates’ whose traitorous compromises did the fundamentalists in during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

Isn’t this the way the fundamentalist phenomenon started?

In this particular case, the end game may be less dramatic than the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Note this paragraph from the article:

The glue that once held the RCA together may have eroded, but Lewis suggests that new glue is already forming. Lewis sees hope in some of the new developments including: the new array of options for training ministers in Word and sacrament, coached clergy networks that offer support and encourage accountability, general synods that have given greater voice to delegates, greater dialogue between conservatives and liberals on what they’ve learned from visiting Christians in other countries, and foreign churches seeking partnerships with the RCA.

In this case, it appears the conservatives are being co-opted and are staying in.

What would have happened to fundamentalism if all the fundamentalists in the thirties had decided that unity was more important and had decided to just shut up, stay in, and work for ‘renewal’ from within?

  1. Would there have been a fundamentalism at all?
  2. Would there have been an evangelicalism at all?

We know how the story ended – the fundamentalists came out of the mainline and started over. Thirty years later, they received a broadside, seemingly from within, when the evangelicals decided they had enough of the contention and withdrew to form closer ties with the modernists from whom their forefathers had withdrawn a generation before.

If the fundamentalists hadn’t been separatists, would there even have been an evangelicalism today?

I don’t think so.

So today, on many levels, we are being told to rethink fundamentalism. We are being told that fundamentalism is the problem.

Is it really?

Of the three groups in the RCA, mentioned above, which ones are the biggest problem, the liberals, conservatives, or loyalists?



  1. Keith says:

    Your approach is just another example of the standard fundamentalist self defense routine — paint the picture in overly simplistic terms.

    You’ve got — Liberals, who are no Christians at all. The Moderates who are the compromisers.
    And the come out Fundamentalists, who are the good guys.

    Of course in real world history things aren’t this tidy.

    Machen was right that an actual “Liberal” is no Christian at all.

    Furthermore, any “Moderate” who said that unity is more important than truth and really didn’t care about resisting liberalism was compromising wrongly.

    However, many who stayed in liberal denominations were not actual liberals themselves and they were working against liberalism not compromising with it.

    Finally, in abstract, general terms, the Fundamentalists who came out were the good guys.

    However, many of the actual flesh and blood individual “good guys” went on to do some truly bad things. They bear a large part of the responsibility for the New Evangelicalism’s emergence. They were nasty. They were petty. They did fight over turf. They did major on the minors. They did inappropriately neglect scholarship. If they hadn’t done these things, the New Evangelicals and those that you now call Conservative Evangelicals would never have separated from the fundamentalists.

    • Hi Keith

      Thank you for the comment. I think you are missing my point. My point is that if no one had come out, we would not have anything like the current ecclesiastical scene.

      With respect to some of the fundamentalists who were ‘nasty’, I don’t think that circle included Machen, did it? Remember from whence Ockenga came. He was trained, if memory serves, at Westminster, not one of the nasty fundamentalist places. Machen himself didn’t really like to be identified with the fundamentalists and (again going by memory) would not be viewed as absolutely pristine by many fundamentalists today.

      In saying that, I mean to say that though the excesses of some fundamentalists certainly played a part in the motivations of the new evangelicals, those excesses do not tell the whole story nor are they the sole motivating factor for new evangelicalism. Conservative evangelicalism is a johnny come lately version of essentially the same mindset.

      I don’t think the answer is ‘stay in’ when staying in means accepting unbelievers in the church. I don’t think the subsequent traitorous moves of the new evangelicals is the answer either. By traitorous, I mean to Christ, not to the fundamentalist movement as such. It simply isn’t acceptable to allow Christian recognition to be given to unbelievers which is exactly what the new evangelicals did (and continue to do).

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Keith says:

    Of course you are correct that if no one had come out we wouldn’t have what we have today. Isn’t that tautological (If what happened hadn’t happened, what happened wouldn’t have happened)?

    No Machen was not one of the nasty ones. Also, Machen got thrown out of the Norther Pres Church he didn’t walk out. In other words, he stayed as long as he could and tried to do what he could, fighting for truth, until the true liberals kicked him out. At that point, what choice do you have. It’s quite different from arbitrarily deciding that there is no hope and choosing to leave.

    Additionally, Machen died not too long after he got kicked out. The real nasty fundamentalist in-fighting didn’t begin in earnest until after he was gone. And, at least one wing of what he left behind (the Macintire wing) became openly fundamentalist and engaged in some of the nastiest of fundamentalist excesses. This group’s excesses not only contributed to the departure of the official “New Evangelical” club but also to the departure of folks like Francis Schaeffer.

    When you say that the fundamentalists’ excesses weren’t the sole motivating factor, you aren’t saying anything different that I said. I wrote, “They bear a large part of the responsibility,” not all.

    However, I believe that they bear the lion’s share of it. Okenga, Fuller, Graham, Henry, et. al. were primarily reacting to fundamentalist pathologies. It’s fine to say that their attempt at a remedy introduced new toxins. It just doesn’t remove the primary initiating illness.

    Finally, I don’t support traitorous moves any more than you do. I just acknowledge that there is more than one way to be a traitor.

    • Fair enough on the Mcintire wing.

      Could you expand more on what you mean by ‘more than one way to be a traitor’?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Keith says:

    The fundamentalist in-fighting and “excesses” were traitorous to the cause of Christ. Not the same traitorous as liberalism, but wrong just the same.

    • I suppose you can say any sin is a betrayal of Christ, correct?

      So it sort of muddies the water to use it in such a broad-brush way.

      When I think of traitors to Christ, I am thinking of various moves to give Christian recognition to men who claim they are Christians but most certainly are not. I am thinking of such things as the modernists of the old fight, the liberals and others whom Graham et al hobnobbed with, and ECT.

      I will grant you that fundamentalist sins are also wrong just the same, but it seems foolish to be talking about them in the same category as these failures.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Keith says:

    Saying that schism is the other side of the coin of false unity is not painting with a broad brush.

    But, like I said, I can see more than one kind of traitor.

    • I thought you were talking about nastiness. That would be different from schism, no?

      Perhaps we should be more specific than to just say “nasty”, then.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  5. Keith says:


    This is what is impossible about fundamentalists. They can’t just accept/say, “We were wrong.” They have no problem saying, “The other guys were wrong.” But when it comes to their own wrongs they get qualified away –“They were traitors, we were merely nasty.”

    There is a nastiness that leadeth unto schism and it is that type of which too many fundamentalists were guilty.

    Additionally, I originally said, “They did fight over turf,” in addition to “They were nasty.”

    • Well, what is your point? I am not aware of any point at which I have been personally guilty of schismatic activity. If someone else was at some point, I have no problem saying specifically “he was wrong about that”. However, if we are just talking generalities, what am I supposed to say?

      The article I linked to with this post illustrates the process that repeats itself over and over again with respect to liberalism. Liberalism creeps in to a denomination, conservatives react, controversy ensues, and the moderates generally side with the liberals and kill off any attempt at purification. That is what I was writing about.

      So you want to chime in and say, well, yeah, but fundamentalists have been nasty in the past and fought turf wars, etc, (and feel free to add in any extra charges you like, it doesn’t bother me). My response is basically, “and your point is?” The fact that certain fundamentalists may or may not have erred (or worse, use harder language if you like) is really irrelevant to my point about this continuing and constant pattern where moderates actually side on the anti-gospel side of the equation just for the sake of ‘peace’ and ‘unity’. Are you defending this kind of betrayal by moderates or not?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Keith says:

    You don’t seem to have any problem talking about the generalities of “liberals, conservatives, and moderates”. You have no problem labelling the behavior of the generality “moderates” as betrayal. But it’s off limits to say that the generality “fundamentalists” committed a different kind of betrayal?

    Again, “they” can be generalized. “We” can only be addressed as individuals.

    My original point wasn’t just turn the knife on the fundamentalists. My original point was to say that your original point is overly simplistic in regards to what went down in the original fundamentalist/modernist controversy and the follow up emergence of the New Evangelicalism.

    If you want to say that some fundamentalists were schismatic and lacking in Christlike love and others weren’t — fine, I fully agree.

    Can you say that some of the original “moderates” and later New Evangelicals weren’t “siding with” the liberals?

    • Keith, I am talking in this post about a specific situation that parallels the historic positions taken in the various ecclesiastical debates. It isn’t simplistic, it is history. That is the way this thing has worked time and time again.

      No, the original moderates and the New Evangelicals were all siding with the liberals. That was the point of the movement, whether all involved realized it or not. Decisions were made to open the arms to liberals and Catholics and what have you. The moderates saw it and behold it was very good in their eyes. They couldn’t be more wrong.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  7. Keith says:

    Let me try another approach . . .

    Your original question: “If the fundamentalists hadn’t been separatists, would there even have been an evangelicalism today?”

    Answer 1: If you mean, “Would there be people who believe like today’s evangelicals?” The answer is yes. If you mean would there be an evangelical “movement” like the one we have today, Who knows? If we did, it would have to have emerged in a different way, but maybe it would have. Kind of like it did in the SBC.

    Answer 2: If those who came to call themselves fundamentalists hadn’t been schismatic and unloving, would there even be a fundamentalism? Even Bob Jones Jr. was originally an evangelical — a card carrying member of the National Association of Evangelicals. If the “nasty” ones had behaved maybe there would be a unified evangelicalism instead of your Liberal, Evangelical, Fundamentalist trichotomy.

    • Ok, I think this is more in line with what I was posting.

      I think Answer 1 is possible. But I think you would have an extremely anemic kind of evangelicalism much sooner and probably more pervasive. I think you can argue that the SBC is kind of anemic, although it certainly has many strong pockets … but it is huge group, and they aren’t all Al Mohler clones (or Dever, or Patterson, etc). But in general, I would agree that Answer 1 is possible.

      On Answer 2, you have to remember that the impetus for New Evangelicalism wasn’t just that fundamentalists were nasty, and not all were. And yes, Dr. Bob Jr was Vice President of the NAE, not just a card carrying member. But that was before the New Evangelicalism caused him to pull out. The NE motives were scholarship, social action, broader tent on creation… and something else, I can’t remember the forth motive. And these aren’t just made up, they were stated repeatedly by Ockenga and others. I think you can find them in Ockenga’s foreword to The Battle for the Bible, among other places.

      The NEs didn’t come about simply because Fundies were schismatic and unloving. That just isn’t true, or at least, not completely true.

      So my response to #2 is no, not true. The NE movement was clearly a moderating, inclusive movement, led by men who clearly wanted to change the separated approach that concluded the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. They didn’t want to perpetuate a dichotomy – a Fundamentalist/Evangelical vs. Liberal divide. They wanted to bridge the gap with the Liberals and didn’t care what the Fundamentalists thought or did. They wanted the trichotomy. Or at least, were quite prepared to allow the trichotomy to persist if they couldn’t move all the fundamentalists to come along with them.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  8. Keith says:

    You wrote: “But I think you would have an extremely anemic kind of evangelicalism much sooner and probably more pervasive.”

    Well, you are begging the question. Your definitions and the way you are posing the question include this conclusion. So, there is really no way to discuss further — unless you are willing to reconsider your categories.

    You wrote: “the impetus for New Evangelicalism wasn’t just that fundamentalists were nasty, and not all were.”

    I have stated agreement with that truth previously.

    You wrote: “The NE motives were scholarship, social action, broader tent on creation… and something else, I can’t remember the forth motive.”

    I believe that the fourth motive was to include more eschatological or hermeneutical options (pre-trib, pre-mil, dispy shouldn’t be only or predominate views within evangelicalism).

    All four of those motives were/are praiseworthy! They are not liberal. They are not compromising. They are not traitorous. They are things that should have characterized fundamentalism but did not. And, they are things which fundamentalism was characterized as being nasty and schismatic about — though (again) not all individual fundamentalists failed in all these areas.

    • I am on the run, so my discussion will be hit and miss.

      With respect to your last paragraph, I don’t agree that all of these motives were praiseworthy at all. The so-called motive of scholarship is, I think, baloney. I don’t think Fundamentalism was bereft of scholars and I am not that impressed with many of the scholars evangelicalism has produced, nor with the motive of desiring the approval of liberal scholars. I totally disagree with the motive of social action – it is a broad road straight to liberalism. The broader tent on creationism is gospel denying when we take Rm 5 into account. As for more openness with respect to eschatology, I think that existed. There were fundamentalists of many eschatological persuasions. T. T. Shields for example, although some would say he was one of the nasty ones also… matter of opinion and perspective, I think.

      Ok, that’s all I can do for now.

      Maybe more later tomorrow.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  9. Keith says:

    Even though there were learned fundmantalists, fundamentalism had begun neglecting scholarly work to the point that all it could do was react against liberal scholarship. It was not proactively setting its own agenda.

    Social action is absolutely not a guaranteed road to liberalism anymore than commitment to truth is a guranteed road to nastiness. Giving cups of water in Christ’s name is important.

    Without violating Romans 5 there are several ways to interpret Gen 1-2.

    • Maybe so on point 1 – but what really necessary “proactive” significant advances to scholarship have the evangelicals added in the last 50 years? So many of the scholars I have read have advanced to the stage where they can now wonder about inerrancy or the real authorship of Psalm 51 (for example) or how to explain the supernatural by natural means or any number of other similar advances. Spare me the delight for these advances.

      Giving cups of cold water are not a church responsibility.

      And last, I don’t agree. Any view of creation that rejects literal 24 hour days is simply wrong and unacceptable.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  10. Keith says:

    1. Even if you are right, even if not one stitch of valuable scholarship has emerged as a result of the New Evangelicalism, that does not prove the fundamentalists were right. If scholarship is needed, it is needed — even if two groups have failed at it. Your complaint is like criticizing a farmer because his crops failed in California after he moved away from Oklahoma because his crops failed there. He needs to keep trying, not decide that he should just stir the dust.

    2. Here are some Scripture passages that say otherwise:

    Luke 12:32-33, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

    Luke 14:12-14, “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

    Matthew 10:42, “If anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42

    See also Matthew 25:31-46.

    James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

    Galatians 6:10, “As we have, therefore, opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”

    Romans 12:20, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”

    3. Again, even if you were right, your beef is not with the New Evangelicals alone. Plenty of godly men held views different from contemporary young earth creationism — long before the New Evangelicals got fed up with the direction fundamentalism was heading. For example: Charles Hodge, C.H. Spurgeon, William Jennings Bryan, William Bell Riley, and B.B. Warfield.

    My point has not been to defend the outcome of the New Evangelicalism — it’s not too difficult to find things to criticize there. My point is that fundamentalism as a group/movement made certain grave errors which led some to try another approach. That this new approach introduced errors of its own should be no surprise. Sons of Adam were involved.