Before "Fundamentalist" Became a Cuss Word

The fighting fundies have made doctrinal debates feel like torch-and-pitchfork meetings. Ever since the battles over liberal modernism in the early 20th century, we've worried that controversies over the inerrancy of scripture, or creation, or the 70th week of Daniel will end fatally for somebody. When did fundamentalists take on the menace of a mob?

Consider the thinkers whom fundamentalists no longer emulate, men like the theologians at Princeton Seminary.

John Witherspoon was the school's 18th century intellectual father, fusing biblical theology with the Common Sense philosophy of his native Scotland, and delivering this minority report on the Enlightenment to the American colonies. Witherspoon became a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was known as a warm and genuine preacher.

His combination of intellectual and exegetical discipline, personal piety, and cultural interaction with Europe remained characteristic of the Princeton theologians all the way to the twentieth century.

From 1826-1828, for example, the young Princeton graduate Charles Hodge toured theological institutions in Germany, gaining a firsthand understanding of the trends that would create liberal modernism. He became Princeton's star scholar for a generation. Hodge's student B. B. Warfield also traveled in Europe after graduating from Princeton, before returning to dominate the next generation of biblical thinkers. In 1905, Warfield's student J. Gresham Machen did postgraduate work in universities at Marburg and Gottingen, and then came home to a career as the last of the Princeton conservatives.

The Princeton theologians are remembered for their precise scholarship, sharp polemics, and deep contributions to the Reformed doctrines of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and Scripture. When they attacked liberalism, they knew what they were talking about at a cultural level, not just at the level of point and counterpoint. They had learned liberalism from the best liberals on the face of the earth -- taking in their nuances of style, sensing the scope of their knowledge, and being innoculated against their hauteur. Once the Princeton theologians gained these things, they had nothing to fear -- either from liberalism or from the culture that fostered it.

So a man like Machen participated fully in his culture, retaining the privileges of his Western inheritance. He saw science and reason as part of this legacy, and he viewed himself as a steward of it. He did not live a cramped existence on the margins of Western society.

But he saw such narrowness gripping American culture (Education, Christianity, and the State, The Trinity Foundation, 1987, p 9):

The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline.

I can't help but notice how well this statement from 1925 describes the atmosphere of the megachurch. Even to ask whether most believers heard anything from the pulpit that reflected scholarly discipline last Sunday is laughable. Megachurches either fondle the Precious Moments figurine they've made of Jesus, sentimentalizing the Christian experience, or they praise a rock hero Jesus, whose masculinity seems all about his three-day growth.

Evangelicals today have to live in a cultural wasteland.

As for those who became fundamentalists in Machen's day, they rejected what he was culturally in defense of what he argued doctrinally. Their rejection was conscious and explicit. The fundamentalists came to believe that if a man studied for a year in, say, Marburg and Gottingen, he would become a liberal. In their eyes, the less educated a man was, the more likely he would defend the atonement. But the more he cared about history and fine distinctions and travel to foreign parts, the more he would certainly favor the documentary hypothesis.

The fundamentalists didn't reject Machen himself, of course. They wouldn't have dreamed of it. But they've rejected men just like him ever since.

I'll be blunt.

I don't rate fundamentalists highly. If you stoke fiery convictions in a group that has no culture to tame its passions, no literacy broader than its fixations, and no experience of peaceable disagreement, what you get is a mob.

And I'm not real high on evangelicalism in general. If you take that same group in its poverty of culture, illiteracy, and narrow experience, and you douse its fiery convictions -- turn them into megachurch mush -- what you get is a mob shopping.

But I'm convinced of three things. First, the average believer is smart -- smarter than her megachurch. Second, when leaders call believers to discipline in their understanding and use of the Bible, believers respond. In this regard, sloganeering won't make the grade as leadership; but stimulating teaching will.

Third, believers will be able to assert classic orthodoxy without bigotry. The average person in a megachurch today puts up with the shallowness in order to participate in the energy. But he is more culturally sophisticated than megachurches make him appear. And if he is shown models for cultural interaction from the days before fundamentalism became a cuss word, models like the Princeton theologians among many, many others, he will know what to do with them.

The biggest problem we have is the character of evangelical leaders. We have yet to point to the true criminal in the story of fundamentalists and evangelicals -- the American populist. More about him next week.