A Theology for Hipsters (Part 11): Rebelling Against Fundamentalism (Part 1)

I wonder when it was that Christianity garnered the label of being uptight and no fun. It was probably fairly quickly in the modern world, but as a Christian I can say I am having fun. Not all the time of course, but I don’t feel that my “slavery to Christ” has turned me into a “stick in the mud.” I enjoy great television and film, solidly artistic music, brilliant literature, and a good brew (coffee or beer). I don’t take issue with my music because it has a beat, I had no problem ditching my neck ties, and I even (dare I say it) can tolerate a game of cards. In fact Christians historically have a great reputation for having fun. Many of the Puritans invented games that we love today, including both baseball (America’s past-time), and (believe it or not) drinking games.[1] And if you think your church has wars over the worship music, imagine setting the lyrics of your hymns to the latest Kanye West album (nothing like rapping “There’s power in the blood”)…that’s what early modern Christian hymns did when they took the music of the bar and put in the church. If anyone can and should have fun it should be Christians, so how did we get labeled as killjoys? Some of it we earned for being Biblical and unwilling to compromise on Christian ethics. The early English and American Puritans refused to participate in the vain and vulgar play of their day. But some of it is also earned because we took a strong and odd defense against all secular culture, not just against sin. This fighting stance took place largely in the 19th century and came to be identified with a brand of evangelicalism known today as Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism started out right, but eventually all the “fun” disappeared.

Taking the “Fun” Out of Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism was not an organized movement and not everyone willingly accepted the label itself, but historians have identified five different streams that together came to represent American Fundamentalism.[2] The first stream, or root, was Dispensationalism. In the 19th century there was a renewed interest in premillennial theology, which divided history into stages or dispensations. Currently, they taught, we are just on the cusp of the last stage which will culminate in the return of Jesus. This particular brand of theology led many Dispensationalists to conclude that the world must go to “hell in a hand basket,” for it is prophesied that way (they taught/teach) before Jesus can return. Their theology, then, led them to distance themselves from the world and let it run its course to destruction.

The second stream flowed from Princeton Theological Seminary with its strong emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture. The 19th century saw some of the biggest debates surrounding the Bible since its original publishing. The development of German Higher Criticism, which viewed Scripture as simply another ancient document to be analyzed and critiqued, brought about a necessary Evangelical reaction. The church had always held to the inspiration and authority of Scripture and therefore as this conviction came under attack their defenses grew stronger. This was, in my opinion a right move, and all Fundamentalists had this point in common. The unforeseen result, however, was a Christianity on the defensive in the modern culture. The slow displacement of Christianity from the center of culture had begun and Christians were becoming more hostile to the world around them.

The third stream developed out of a joint Christian publication, edited by R.A. Torrey, called The Fundamentals. This work became the systematic formulation of Fundamentalist convictions for a whole segment of Evangelicals. It stressed, in particular: the inerrancy of Scripture, the literal interpretation of Scripture (especially on Christ’s miracles and the creation account), the virgin birth, and Christ’s substitutionary atonement. This work represents a significant cross-denominational effort to hold fast to the basics of the Christian faith, but it also became the sole standard of orthodoxy and faithfulness in the church. What resulted was that things not listed in this book were deemed either unimportant or, worse, heresy (one will see this particularly with things like social justice).

The fourth stream was a reaction specifically to Darwinian Theory. Christians took seriously the threat of Darwinism, but only after many in the church had already bought into it.[3] The threat of evolutionary theory to the church brought a massive revolt and public backlash from Christians. The Scopes Trial, which was a disaster for Evangelicals, was one such attempt to dismantle what was already becoming a sacred cow in the world. Christians, after a devastating defeat at The Scopes Trial, however, began to retreat from secular society all together and Fundamentalism became irrelevant to the culture in which it was formed.

The fifth, and final stream, was rooted in a deep urgency for mass conversions. Out of this burning desire for souls to be saved we received the modern revivalist movement. As modern revivalism was born it was also rooted in the modern world. This meant that instead of viewing revival as a gracious act of God, revival became an event that men could create where they were able to manipulate the emotions of their hearers into responding to the gospel call.[4] Charles Finney’s “anxious seat” was only one example of this type of manipulation. For all its stress on avoiding the world, Fundamentalism had found itself permanently affected by the pragmatism of it.

While all these streams have some good intentions and some are even without obvious fault, they nonetheless combined to create a very negative culture for the church. Fundamentalism was very much a reactionary movement. As the culture shifted and sin encroached they reacted, but they were little on the offensive side. This began, then, to create a picture of Christians as negative, grumpy, critical people and to some degree it was becoming true.

[1] Bruce Colin Daniels, Puritans At Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

[2] See George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture.2nd Edition. Oxford UP, 2006; Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Carl F. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003 (reprint).

[3] In fact many historians and theologians believed that Princeton scholar B.B. Warfield was an advocate of evolution until only recently, with the publication of Fred Zaspel’s The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

[4] For more on this see Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994.

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