Thursday, January 07, 2010

Short Dialogue on the Definition of "Fundamentalist"

Well-known Presbyterian R. C. Sproul, : young-earth creationist and anti-Catholic. Is he a "fundamentalist"?

This was from one of my comboxes: an exchange with Presbyterian "Pilgrimsarbour" (words in blue) and Baptist pastor Ken Temple (in green).

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A "Fundamentalist" is usually known as the Bob Jones/independent Baptists movements, . . . we believe in "the fundamental" doctrines of the Christian faith as opposed to liberal anti-supernatural scholarship. - John Piper is pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, part of the Baptist General Conference, not an "independent/fundamentalist Baptist" Church. - John MacArthur started out early in his career as associated with the independent baptist movement, but he was never "KJV only" (one strand of the "fightin fundies"), and he has moved away from them in several very important areas. (His defense of Lordship Salvation and Calvinism) - R. C. Sproul is Presbyterian - not an independent fundamentalist group at all.

the folks at Triablogue - some are Presbyterian and other Evangelicals (don't know beyond that), but they are not the "fightin fundies" like Bob Jones or King James Only types.

"Fundamentalist" I could see, in many cases. Steve Hays, for example, from Triablogue, believes that the earth is 10,000 years old.

John MacArthur is a young-earther.

John Piper's church doesn't require particular beliefs in the creation-evolution debate in order to be an elder.

R. C. Sproul has apparently converted to the six-day creation, YEC [young-earth creationist] position, just a few years ago.

But I wouldn't call them "hacks" because of this, just . . . fundamentalists. The category encompasses a much wider field than KJV-Only, who are mostly a bunch of nuts, far to the right of James White.

Everyone draws the line as to who they will interact with. R. C. Sproul disagreed with James White as to debating Catholics. Sproul thought it gave them too much credence.

By the same token, I no longer attempt to debate anti-Catholics, because their position is so absurd that it doesn't deserve any attention. Some people draw that line at YEC, etc. But YEC is one of the signs of fundamentalism in any event. Even William Jennings Bryan of Scopes Trial fame wasn't that fundamentalist.

In typical Protestant parlance, a fundamentalist is (historically) a conservative Evangelical Protestant Christian who is most likely Arminian in his theology, and who embraces a kind of legalistic mindset--that is, "don't drink, don't smoke, don't dance," etc. Reformed Christians are also conservative Evangelical Protestants, but they believe in the "liberty of conscience," that is, the Scriptures alone have the power to bind the conscience of the believer. Therefore, they find (as one example) drunkenness to be sin, but not drinking per se. They are also more likely to be "Calvinistic" in their theology. Typically, Reformed (Calvinists) would not consider themselves to be "fundamentalists."

I agree pretty much with your characterization, but there are also things like YEC that are traditionally the domain of fundamentalism. If Sproul accepts that, then we can clearly see an overlap. Anti-Catholicism is also a frequent identifier, as is over-literalism or pervasive hyper-literalism in Bible interpretation and unwillingness to accept that the Bible has diverse genres of literature that all have somewhat different rules of hermeneutics that need to be applied to them. Such a wooden literalism might lead, for example, not only to YEC but also to a scientifically untenable position like geocentrism (the earth is literally the center of the universe and everything revolves around it) and an earth that doesn't rotate.

My experience has been that YEC is not a big issue causing division within Protestantism. As far as labeling, I would say "Reformed" or "Calvinist" are more accurate terms than "Fundamentalist" which has much more Arminian and dispensationalist connotations attached to it.

I generally use "fundamentalist" myself only for extreme positions within Protestantism, such as YEC, anti-Catholicism, KJV-Only, and overtly anti-intellectual, anti-cultural, know-nothing sorts of groups or belief-systems, as well as an extreme separatist orientation and hyper-legalism over drinking, dancing, rock music, etc.

Reformed Christians generally qualify in this criteria (i.e., when they do at all) by virtue of anti-Catholicism; sometimes YEC. Even Sproul, whom I have liked in many ways (used to listen to him on the radio every day when I did delivery work) is an anti-Catholic and now YEC as well. So is Steve Hays. Calvinists rarely qualify as a result of legalism or anti-intellectualism or an anti-cultural stance. I would say this is where they often excel (Francis Schaeffer et al: a huge influence in my own Christian life).

On the other hand, YEC could easily qualify as anti-intellectual, and anti-Catholicism is severely illogical and viciously circular. So even a guy like Sproul who is thought of as a scholarly sort, oddly places himself in league with anti-intellectualism by adopting these goofy positions.

George Marsden, himself a Calvinist (I believe), in his well-known work, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford Univ. Press, 1980) -- which I read in 1988, two years before my conversion --, did not exclude Reformed Christians from the categories of fundamentalism or evangelicalism at all. He writes, for example:

Baptists, Methodists, Free Church movements, Lutherans, and Reformed all had fundamentalist offshoots . . . Other denominations, including the Missouri Synod Lutheran and the Christian Reformed, were also Americanized to an extent by adopting some fundamentalist ideals while retaining other distinctive features of their European traditions.

(pp. 194-195)

He even places Calvinism right at the heart of fundamentalism:

. . . fundamentalism arose primarily among groups with Reformed origins, such as Baptists and Presbyterians, and was quite rare on the Methodist side of American revivalism, which emphasized the ethical rather than the intellectual aspects of Christianity.

(p. 225)

It doesn't much matter to me how people use the term fundamentalist, except as it pertains to me. I will continue to correct folks if I think it is necessary for the sake of clarity. Those of us in the OPC, perhaps, have a very specific use for the term which is tied to particular events in our history. I haven't talked to my Westminster friends about it, but now I'm curious and plan to do so.

I don't classify you as one. In fact, I use the term "fundamentalist" very little in my apologetics (and even objected to Karl Keating's wide use of it before I converted. I wrote him a long letter). I use "anti-Catholic" a lot precisely because it describes one's stance towards the Catholic Church, that I defend as an apologist, and because it is an accepted description, used widely in academia.

I never was a "fundamentalist" at any time. I was never anti-intellectual or anti-cultural. I was never separatist, or a YEC, or KJV-Only, or legalistic about drinking and dancing et al, or anti-Catholic. I did tend towards biblical literalism as a general principle early on in my serious Christian life, but not in any extreme or dogmatic way.
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