It isn’t very often that you hear a positive reference to fundamentalism, and I’m not only thinking about Islamic fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism is most popularly known as being “No ‘fun,’ too much ‘damn,’ and not enough ‘mental.’” Being characterized by its most extreme forms, Christian fundamentalism has often been stigmatized not only in popular opinion but also in more scholarly works and studies as being backward and an embarrassment to the faith. But is there any redeeming value in biblical fundamentalism?
Fundamentalism isn’t Monolithic
There are all sorts of ways to define fundamentalism, and even within these definitions, there is a lot of disagreement. Historically, fundamentalism was a biblical response to apostasy within the Christian Church, predominantly around those beliefs of the Christian faith that are central to Christianity.
This basic definition means that true, biblical fundamentalism includes Christians from different denominations, those who reject denominations, and would differ on secondary and tertiary issues of doctrine. For example, J. Gresham Machen (Presbyterian), J. I. Packer (Anglican), and J. Frank Norris (Baptist), would all be considered fundamentalists regarding their commitment to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith—yet all three would differ on secondary issues and even how to go about dealing with apostasy in the church.
The evangelical church needs to see the benefit of fundamentalism and the good that it has contributed to the greater conservative evangelical movement. Much of the stability within evangelicalism is due to the commitment of yesterday’s fundamentalists and the ongoing work of today’s biblical fundamentalists. Where evangelicalism has moved away from its fundamentalist roots, it has often slid farther than it bargained for.
The Legacy of Fighting for Biblical Doctrine
Foundationally, the twin doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility have been a major cause for fundamentalism. Fundamentalists drove the “back to the Bible” movement because they know that the Scriptures are the heart of what we believe. It was upon Scriptures that early Christian liberalism waged its war and it was upon this battleground that the fundamentalists continuously have had to fight.
Liberal theology’s authority rests in critical methodologies and humanistic reason. The higher critic becomes the arbiter of truth, and the Bible is subjected to his scrutiny. He begins with the presupposition that the Bible is merely a human document and then applies his criterion as he would to any other document. In doing so, key fundamental doctrines are rejected, and the deconstruction of the faith continues to this day.
The fundamentalists stand firm on the foundational fundamentals of the faith such as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, penal-substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, miracles, and more. For fundamentalist Christians, these arose from the inerrant biblical text and are part and parcel of the faith delivered once for all. To reject them is to reject the Christian faith.
The Legacy of Fighting Against Apostasy
Preaching and writing were and still are the main weapons of the fundamentalist movement. The Fundamentals were a set of small booklets funded by two Christian laymen, Lyman and Milton Stewart, to warn the church against the influx of liberal theology in American churches. These booklets shared biblical doctrine to warn and arm both clergy and laymen of the dangers of those seeking to corrupt biblical teaching on the fundamentals of the faith.
Along with The Fundamentals, conferences, newspapers, books, and meetings were held to expose the lies of liberalism that were sweeping through the denominations. Influential pastors such as liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick fought back, with sermons such as “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Seminaries taken over by liberal theology trained pastors in the new “modern” methods that would make Christianity more palatable for the new scientific age, and churches were taught that it was fundamentalism that was unloving and divisive because “doctrine divides, but love unites.”
Many fundamentalists did their best to reason with those within the growing liberal movement by going back to the authority of the Word of God. But there eventually came a breaking point when many pastors and leaders understood that the denominations, churches, and Christian organizations were lost to the influence of liberalism and could not be won over to biblical Christianity. Liberal Christianity is like a parasite that does not create anything new, but slowly weakens and kills its host.
Men like J. Gresham Machen fought in the seminaries among the intellectual elite, but soon he and other fundamentalists saw the tipping point where they realized the modernists were too entrenched and they needed to obey 2 Corinthians 6:17, ““Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE,” says the Lord. “AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN, And I will welcome you.” (2 Corinthians 6:17, LSB). The fundamentalists wouldn’t compromise nor capitulate, but many of them realized they needed to fight from outside of these apostate structures.
Where “Neo-evangelicals” wanted to find a middle common ground with liberalism, fundamentalists understood that the leaven of apostasy would spread with every compromise that they allowed into their circle of influence. Fundamentalists understood that they need to separate from unbiblical and anti-Christian accommodations that undermine the truth of Scripture and the integrity of the gospel.
The Legacy of Building and Rebuilding the Church
Having come out from many of the compromised churches and organizations, the fundamentalists began the hard work of rebuilding what had been lost. Machen, having left the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary, founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary, along with the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
The Bible Church Movement also made great strides in planting many Bible churches all over the United States through associations such as the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, along with beginning training centers to fortify the church through teaching the Bible to laymen, Sunday school teachers, missionaries, and evangelists. Missions agencies were also begun to help replace the denominational agencies that were no longer committed to the spread of biblical doctrine. Add to these camps, conferences, Bible institutes, and colleges, and you can begin to grasp how the biblical fundamentalist movement has impacted the evangelical church all over the world.
And to assure that the message would continue to spread, the printing of gospel tracts, booklets, books, evangelistic movies, radio programs, and other forms of media were put into the service of the Church to fend off the spread of liberal Christianity.
From my fellowship (IFCA International) arose great leaders of the faith as well. Radio teachers that had a massive impact on the Church all over the world include men such as Billy McCarrell, M.R. DeHaan, Louis Talbot, J. Vernon McGee, John MacArthur, and his father Jack, and others. IFCA educators have included John Walvoord, William Pettingill, Merrill Unger, Charles Feinberg, Sam Sutherland, Charles Ryrie, and more. Among many of these also came scholarly works—books, articles, and other resources, for both laymen and seminary-trained Christian workers. IFCA members began missions to Russia with Slavic Gospel Association, evangelism and discipleship through Radio Bible Ministries and Our Daily Bread, the biblically centered children’s program Awana, and many more outreaches and organizations. And this list is only from one fundamentalist association—there are many more!
Without the response of fundamentalist Christians, much of today’s conservative evangelicalism would not exist. Although not every church, ministry, and school has remained faithful to its founding principles, their existence still stands as proof that much is owed to fundamentalism.
The Legacy of the Centrality Gospel Proclamation
At the heart of it all, fundamentalists believe the Word of God means what it says, and that what it says matters. There is no greater place that this shows than in the fundamentalist movement’s commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Fundamentalists take seriously the words of Jesus where He said, ““For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”” (Mark 8:38, LSB)
The modernist/liberal theologian seeks the pleasure of men in his compromised message. He wants to be accepted by academia, and all too often, the world. Denial of eternal punishment, the inerrancy of Scripture, the atoning work of Christ, the hope of the gospel, and other cardinal doctrines attack the heart of the faith and empty it of its power. Thank God for biblical fundamentalists that are willing to fight for the centrality of the gospel and give their lives making sure that it is not compromised or silenced.
For some, the word “fundamentalism” brings up images of uptight people who are legalistic about the length of hair and skirts, the use of drums in church, and alcohol and tobacco use. But biblical fundamentalism has contributed to the Christian church in almost incalculable ways. Defending against doctrinal slide and apostasy, the Christian fundamentalist movement has sought to spread the unadulterated gospel message of Jesus Christ across the world. For that and so much more, we should be thankful, and pray that the work of biblical fundamentalists would continue to hold forth the Word of Life as the challenges from within the church and the culture once again seek to silence our witness to Christ.