defining ‘conservative evangelical’

A couple of my recent reading sources lead me to look at the term ‘conservative evangelical’ from a different perspective other than my normal ‘rabid fundamentalism’. One source is a book edited by Timothy George and David Dockery, Theologians of the Baptist Tradition. The other is an article by Michael Clawson appearing on Roger Olson’s site, “Young, Restless, and Fundamentalist: Neo-fundamentalism among American Evangelicals(HT: Sharper Iron).

Both of these sources come at the question from the evangelical side of the spectrum, in the case of Clawson and Olson, it is on the outside of conservative evangelicalism looking in, whereas George and Dockery are more or less on the inside of the movement. Both sources offer some interesting observations of the so-called ‘conservative evangelical’ movement.

Clawson and Olson

The thesis of this piece is that the conservative evangelicals are essentially fundamentalists, albeit a new kind of fundamentalist. They aren’t the same as the original fundamentalists, but are analogous to them.

I contend that this growing concern expressed by MacArthur and many other evangelicals represents a new movement within evangelicalism toward what I have termed neo-fundamentalism.  This is not simply a return to the original Protestant fundamentalism of the early-twentieth century, though it is analogous to it.

The difference between neo-fundamentalism and fundamentalism is those against whom they are reacting. Clawson sees both neo-fundie and fundie as simply reactionary groups. Neo-fundamentalists are reacting to postmodernism in a similar way that fundamentalists reacted to modernism a century ago. Neo-fundamentalism grew out of evangelicalism in the 70s and 80s, according to Clawson, out of a reaction to the massive culture shifts of the 1960s when James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson ‘became increasingly negative towards the culture’. This reaction morphed into neo-fundamentalism as culture itself shifted from humanism/secularism to pluralism/relativism. The new reactionaries “constructed a genuine neo-fundamentalist alternative to any evangelical accommodation with postmodernity.”

All of that seems reasonable enough and it is precisely at this point that the conservative evangelicals become attractive to fundamentalists. The conservative evangelicals are reacting to something that fundamentalists also eschew. Fundamentalists find themselves nodding in agreement at this point of congruence. (And since the dominant culture is now thoroughly post-modern, fundamentalist attention is often focused on this major point of agreement than on points of disagreement.)

Clawson goes on to cite as evidence of his thesis three of the ‘most influential’ leaders of ‘neo-fundamentalism’: John Piper, Albert Mohler, and Mark Driscoll. Driscoll? A reactionary? To post-modernism? Hmm… Even Clawson seems to recognize the weakness of including Driscoll in the list, for he says: “he seems to lack the level of hostility towards secular culture typical of fundamentalists.”

One might therefore assume that Driscoll is not in fact a neo-fundamentalist. And yet Driscoll often shares the stage at national conferences with other neo-fundamentalist leaders. And while many of the older leaders often have gentle criticisms for him (especially in regards to his language choices), Piper and others have made it clear that Driscoll’s doctrine is acceptable to them and that they are unwilling to kick him out of the camp over stylistic differences. Indeed, Driscoll theology is completely in line with the older generation of neo-fundamentalists on everything from gender roles, to biblical inerrancy, penal substitutionary

Driscoll makes the grade for his ‘strong masculinity’ and his alleged hostility to “the deeper ethos of a postmodern culture.”

Well… whatever! Clawson’s thesis makes some interesting points but his examples and the significant cracks in their separatism seem to erode his argument rather than support it.

But please note that Clawson likewise argues for a distinction between fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalists (his term for conservative evangelicals).

George and Dockery

In the book, Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, James Spivey writes a chapter on “Benajah Harvey Carroll”. In this chapter he makes this observation about Carroll’s theology:

Carroll’s theology was influenced most by other conservative Baptists, especially Boyce, Strong, Spurgeon, and Broadus, whose catechism he recommended highly. To say that he was a conservative evangelical is not adequate. Though the term was not yet in vogue, he could be described as a “Fundamentalist.” His doctrine agreed with the basic tenets of The Fundamentals (1910–15), and he thoroughly disdained modernists as “cuckoos of infidelity.” This antipathy was directed against Northern liberals when he encouraged a group of fundamentalist Illinois Baptists to seek admission to the SBC (1910). Led by Landmarker, W. P. Throgmorton, they had intended to align with Ben Bogard, a sympathizer with Carroll’s nemesis, Samuel Hayden. In spite of strong resistance from some Southern Baptists, they were admitted partly because of Carroll’s support.1

The reason for highlighting this paragraph is not B. H. Carroll, but the observation Spivey makes about conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Clearly, Spivey also sees a distinction between the two groups. Spivey implies that conservative evangelicals might not disdain modernists as thoroughly as Carroll did, and certainly not as thoroughly as fundamentalists do. Though there are similarities that might cause an outside observer to confuse the two groups, significant differences remain.

Conclusion

The first point I want to stress in conclusion is that evangelicals are able to see a distinction between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, even though many erstwhile fundamentalists seem to have a good deal of difficulty seeing the distinction themselves.

The second point is that if the conservative evangelicals are distinguished by their opposition to postmodernity, they maintain a general new evangelical  friendliness to modernity (but not modernism). Though they see the corruption of the evangelical church in its embrace of all sorts of worldly wisdom, yet they maintain a comfort level with the worldly wisdom of the 50s and 60s that birthed the new evangelical movement in opposition to fundamentalism.

And finally, if evangelicals are confused about the inclusion of Mark Driscoll in the ‘neo-fundamentalist/conservative evangelical’ orb, ought not fundamentalists continue to maintain their distance? The continuing failure of conservative evangelicalism to separate from Driscoll and his errors is an ongoing testament to the failure of neo-fundamentalism to have much of a concept of separatism at all. Praise the Lord that they seem to be seeing the dangers of cooperation with modernists. May they soon see the need to sever ties with hedonists and libertines.

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P.S. I recommend the book, Theologians of the Baptist Tradition as a good overview of the progress of Southern Baptist theology. There are a few non SBC men mentioned, but most are SBC. The list of men and their theologies reviewed gives an interesting perspective into the progress of theology in the SBC, at least on the (mostly) conservative side of the scale.

Notes:

  1. Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Timothy George and David S. Dockery)
    – Highlight on Page 177 | Loc. 4641-49 | emphasis mine []

Comments

  1. Don:

    Just enough time for a note of thanks for this article. Penetrating analysis provoking serious thought.

    Thanks again,

    Lou