A Young Fundamentalist, on Fundamentalism
Michael P. Riley
It is a periodic priority for the leaders of fundamentalism to attend to the mindset of their young folks. This essay is another contribution to that discussion, although I must acknowledge at the outset that it is based on a survey of no one but me. I therefore begin by defending the significance of these observations, despite the paltry sample size.
I grew up in some of the very best neighborhoods of fundamentalism. I’ve become convinced of this in recent years as I’ve found that, unlike many of my peers, I have precious little in my ecclesiastical upbringing to react against: neither scandal and abuse, nor outlandish authoritarianism, nor anti-intellectualism, nor pervasive mishandling of Scripture, and not even an intolerable measure of crisis-inducing revivalism. Friends whose experiences in fundamentalism have been nothing so benign as mine have decided that theological conviction—if not common decency—compels them to abandon the movement. But I am not of their disillusioned number.
Not only have I had few bad experiences in the movement of fundamentalism, but I’m still wholeheartedly committed to the idea of fundamentalism. The most important distinctive of fundamentalism remains its willingness “to do battle royal” for the fundamentals (recalling Laws’s definitive expression). Christian fellowship cannot exist with anyone who denies a fundamental of the faith. Those who extend such fellowship have erred, and not insignificantly. As the regular author of this publication insists, compromise on this point is scandalous, and those who advocate and perpetuate scandal are derelict of duty and patently untrustworthy. Separation is both theologically and historically justifiable.
In addition to boilerplate separatism, I also adhere to a litany of other common fundamentalist shibboleths: cessationism, young-earth creationism, dispensationalism, cultural conservatism. That last item merits special attention in establishing my traditional fundamentalist credentials, as it makes me something of a demographical oddity. (As I write this, I’m wearing a tie. Voluntarily.)
So, were the institutional fundamentalists to draw up a profile of a young man likely to remain among their number, the description would fit me comfortably. This is why I feel justified in offering my reflections on the movement, although I have taken no survey: I am a representative sample of those most likely to be the next generation of fundamentalists.
And yet, as one who might be expected to stay in the movement, I confess that I’m disinclined to align myself with the institutional fundamentalists. (An aside: I intend nothing pejorative when I speak of institutional fundamentalism. I simply use the term to refer to institutions which identify themselves as fundamentalist, and indirectly, to the informal but real network of such institutions.) It should be obvious that my reluctance is not caused by any substantive disagreement with the principles of fundamentalism; point by point, I’m a convinced fundamentalist. Nor do I hesitate to join the fundamentalists because I have any thoughts of throwing my lot in with the conservative evangelicals. Rather, my disinclination is rooted in the shifting identity of the fundamentalism most familiar to me.
Nearly a half-decade ago, a blogger stirred up spirited discussion when he projected an emerging coalition of the saner fundamentalists and the more conservative evangelicals. From where I sit, I think that his prediction is unlikely to come to pass. I say this despite the obvious increased mingling between the camps, with conservative evangelicals being featured in fundamentalist conferences, chapels, and classrooms. To form an intentional coalition, however, the evangelicals would have to care that we exist, and (perhaps with rare exceptions) they don’t. Rather than some third thing emerging, I contend that many fundamentalists are simply being absorbed into the organizations of the conservative evangelicals, organizations that would have been there without us (but, hey, we’re welcome too!). To this Detroiter, the situation suggests the DaimlerChrysler “merger of equals,” although I doubt that fundamentalists will be granted the dignity of a compound name.
As a consequence of these new relationships, the institutions that still proudly wear the label fundamentalist are increasingly dominated by those who are (or tolerate those who are) the most rabid anti-Calvinists, and by those who uphold (or tolerate those who uphold) disastrous heresies on the text of Scripture. This shift in power is occurring for two reasons. The first is obvious: the fundamentalists who are most inclined to seek common cause with conservative evangelicals are also those who have repudiated the stereotypical fundamentalist eccentricities. As they forsake (or are expelled from) the institutions of fundamentalism, the deleterious influence of those who remain grows proportionally.
Second, those fundamentalists who are alarmed by these perceived defections are ratcheting up their separatist rhetoric and reforging wholly indefensible alliances with the most extreme segments of self-proclaimed fundamentalism. This is not a new problem for fundamentalists, but the day for patience with such inconsistency is long since past. The same men who decry sharing a platform with Mark Dever will then share a platform with Jack Schaap, thereby abandoning any credibility on the topic of separatism. I have no issue with militancy, but misaimed militancy is appalling.
Given the changing complexion of institutional fundamentalism, I suspect there is decreasing tolerance for an outspoken Calvinist—even one no more outspoken than the semi-Pelagians who receive choruses of amens. Is there a place in fundamentalism for one who happily acknowledges that he has profited from the ministries of brothers not of our tribe, commends their resources, and applauds them in their battles for the evangel (even as he sees no good reason to join their battles)? Is it possible to be a fundamentalist in good standing while also standing opposed to overtly pragmatic, manipulative methods of ministry?
If not, what am I supposed to do? Read that less as a rant than a lament. It is a lament because there ought to be sadness when one feels cut off from those to whom he owes gratitude. It is a lament because I retain my principled objections to the compromise of evangelicalism, so much so that I can find no home there.
The idea of fundamentalism remains as sound as it ever has been, and there are many good men committed to instantiating the grand idea. And I’ve become acquainted with other rooms in the house of fundamentalism, rooms where the problems I’ve cited aren’t nearly so prevalent.
Even so, I’m saddened about my fundamentalism. I love the house, but hate what’s being done to the place.
This essay is by
, Assistant to the President at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee
Martin Luther (1483-1546); composite translation
From depths of woe I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation;
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication;
If Thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?
To wash away the crimson stain,
Grace, grace alone availeth;
Our works, alas! are all in vain;
In much the best life faileth:
No man can glory in Thy sight,
All must alike confess Thy might,
And live alone by mercy.
Therefore my trust is in the Lord,
And not in mine own merit;
On Him my soul shall rest, His Word
Upholds my fainting spirit:
His promised mercy is my fort,
My comfort, and my sweet support;
I wait for it with patience.
What though I wait the livelong night,
And till the dawn appeareth,
My heart still trusteth in His might;
It doubteth not nor feareth:
Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed,
Ye of the Spirit born indeed;
And wait till God appeareth.
Though great our sins and sore our woes,
His grace much more aboundeth;
His helping love no limit knows,
Our utmost need it soundeth.
Our Shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His Israel free.
From all their sin and sorrow.