Fundamentalism Withdrawal From The Mainstream

What should be done? One answer was given in a series of pamphlets published during the years 1910 to 1915 entitled "The Fundamentals: A

Testimony to the Truth." These essays, drawn from a range of conservative Protestant writers, set out a classic statement of Protestant teachings from a generally Reformed perspective. By an accident of history, they gave birth to the term "fundamentalism," which was first used in 1920 by the journalist Curtis Lee Laws to designate those who were ready "to do battle royal for the Fundamentals."

Since then, fundamentalism has regularly been presented as an unthinking, uncritical, highly dogmatic form of Protestantism. While there is some truth in this generalization, it fails to penetrate to the heart of the matter. The essence of all forms of religious fundamentalism is an oppositionalist mentality arising in response to a major threat.1 To treat fundamentalism simply as conservative religion confuses the characteristic and the distinctive. As Martin Marty has written, "Fundamentalism in any context takes form when members of already conservative or traditional movements experience threat." In this case, the threat did not come from Catholicism, as in the past, but from secularizing forces within American society at large.

Protestant fundamentalism is thus best seen as a specific reaction to developments in the world of early twentieth-century America and is thus, in one sense of the word, thoroughly "modern." It was from its outset, and has remained, a countercultural movement that uses central doctrinal affirmations as a means of defining cultural boundaries. Whereas most nineteenth-century forms of American evangelicalism were culturally centralist, committed to engaging with culture in order to transform it through the gospel, the fundamentalist reaction against modern secularism has entailed a separatist attitude toward culture. Certain central doctrines—most notably, the absolutely literal authority of scripture and the idea of the premillennial return of Christ—have been treated as barriers; they are intended as much to alienate secular culture as to give fundamentalists a sense of identity and purpose.

Controversies broke out within many American denominations over the issues raised by fundamentalism. The debate within Presbyterian-ism was particularly painful and divisive, and it seriously wounded the denomination.2

In 1922 a sermon by the Baptist preacher Henry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) originally entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" was distributed throughout the United States under the new title "The New Knowledge and the Christian Faith." Then serving at First Presbyterian Church in New York, Fosdick noted the emergence of conservative and liberal positions within the churches and pleaded for inclusiveness and mutual respect for each position. A fundamentalist riposte soon followed from across the Hudson River—Clarence Edward Macartney's tract "Shall Unbelief Win?" The situation rapidly polarized, and oppositionalist mentalities on both sides of the debate framed the issue in black-and-white terms: Presbyterians were forced to decide whether they were "unbelieving liberals" or "reactionary fundamentalists."

Yet the situation was far more complex than these simple characterizations suggest. It is often forgotten, for example, that in 1935 Fosdick himself shocked his progressive colleagues with a sermon entitled "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism." Drawing on the emerging neo-orthodox theologies of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, he criticized liberalism's habit of changing beliefs to accommodate culture, softening the reality of God, and downplaying the themes of personal and social sin. Although Fosdick disliked fundamentalism's rigidity, dogmatism, and aggressiveness, he did not consider all of its ideas mistaken. Fosdick was a voice in the wilderness at this point, however, drowned out by the clamor of battle.

Positions were clarified, crystallized, and then petrified. Fundamentalists came to believe that the best way of fighting the "culture wars" that emerged in many denominations in the 1920s and 1930s was to disengage, leave their—as they saw it—liberalized and secularized denominations behind, and found new, pure denominations. By the 1930s, when it became painfully clear that reform from within could not prevent the spread of modernism in the major northern denominations, more and more fundamentalists began to declare that separation from America's major denominations was an article of faith.3 It was a strategy that failed. Why?

Two main problems emerged. First, an oppositionalist mentality, once acquired, proves to be extremely difficult to shake off. Having broken away from traditional denominations over points of doctrine, fundamentalists now continued those debates with equally great ferocity in the supposedly pure denominations that had just been formed by their secession. Having got so used to fighting their opponents, they now started fighting each other.This pervasive infighting simply weakened the movement and prevented it from even beginning to achieve its goals.

One example concerns the great critic of Presbyterian liberalism of this era, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).4 Convinced that the official Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions failed to do justice to the uniqueness of Christianity, Machen formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1933. Those who joined him in this venture shared his opinion. As time went on, however, it became painfully clear that they had little else in common. Divisions over other issues, such as a simmering controversy between strict Calvinists and dispensationalists, soon emerged. Machen was ousted as the president of the board in 1936; worn out by the arguments and dissent within a supposedly "doctrinally pure" body, he died a few months later, in January 1937. By that time, the board had virtually ceased to exist in anything but name. It had simply imploded as a result of controversy and tensions.

The second problem was that fundamentalism's decision to break away from mainline denominations and isolate itself from a tainted, fallen culture simply put it in the position of having no influence over either church or society. It was powerless to oppose the changes it so detested in both the churches and society at large. As time passed, it became clear that fundamentalism had committed a fundamental strategic error by disconnecting itself from any positions of power or influence. Conservative Protestantism seemed to have painted itself into a corner by accomplishing what its opponents had expected to happen only after major battles—its own total marginalization. The enormity of the error soon became apparent. It was only a matter of time before another strategy would emerge.

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