Theology in 3D

The Danger of Fundamentalism?

Ken Casillas | October 12, 2022

Something entitled “The Temptations of an Evangelical Theologian” is sure to get the attention of a seminary professor. This was the title Dr. Albert Mohler chose for his address when he served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). He delivered the speech at the seventy-third annual meeting of the ETS in Fort Worth, Texas, on November 17, 2021. It was then posted online, and a revised version was recently published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 65, no. 1 (2022): 1–9.

Mohler writes out of concern for the doctrinal integrity and ongoing role of the ETS. After sketching the beginnings of ETS in 1949, he aims to frame the work of the Society over against the cultural and intellectual forces being faced seven decades later. Specifically, Mohler urgently warns his fellow Society members against four temptations that conspire to undermine their work as evangelical theologians.

Three of the Dangers

One of these is the danger of atheism. It’s not that evangelical theologians stand in grave danger of becoming atheists. They might, however, fail to keep clear the antithesis between belief and unbelief.

Roman Catholicism represents another danger. Rather than cave to the alleged security of the Catholic magisterium, evangelical theologians must hold tenaciously to sola Scriptura.

They must likewise avoid the danger of Protestant liberalism. This involves rejecting not only the theology of liberalism but its attitude of accommodating to current academic trends in an effort to make Christianity palatable to contemporary culture.

In this regard, Mohler says that the ETS may need to expand its bare-bones doctrinal statement. “For example, there is nothing in the present bylaws or commitments of this Society that would prevent a presidential address to be delivered by someone who identifies with a gender contrary to his or her chromosomal structure. (Try explaining that sentence to one of the Society’s founders.)” (p. 9).

The kinds of warnings above are standard fare in fundamentalist schools. They could pass for quotations from lectures and sermons I repeatedly heard as a student at Bob Jones University and Seminary. However, I have left until now Mohler’s first warning: the danger of fundamentalism.

An Unexpected Danger

Mohler reminds ETS members that their Society began intentionally as a middle road between liberalism and fundamentalism. The founders of the ETS viewed fundamentalism as a failure. By the mid-twentieth century it was apparent that the fundamentalist movement would not influence the mainline Protestant denominations toward conservative theology. Nor was the movement exerting significant influence in academia at large. The reason was that due to its separatism fundamentalism was not engaging with the intellectual world. Rejection of such “isolationism” was core to the platform of the “new evangelical” movement that gave rise to the ETS.

In his original address, Mohler acknowledged that some ETS members embrace a fundamentalist identity. Yet, he indicated, he is not especially worried that the Society will join the fundamentalist movement. Nevertheless, his journal article warns, “The temptation towards an intellectual isolationism . . . has in no way dissipated” (p. 6).

I’m not sure what specifically Mohler has in mind here. For years observers have been declaring that fundamentalism and its separatism are dying, and fundamentalist leaders have been decrying the hemorrhaging of young people to other streams of Christianity.

Yet other developments are unfolding as well. On the pastoral level, I think of several dear folks who have come to my congregation out of less conservative churches. They are frustrated with the shallowness, pragmatism, and wokeness that are prevalent in many evangelical churches, and they are looking for something more biblical.

I think as well of the brothers over at G3 Ministries, a newer organization that has distanced itself from mainstream evangelicalism over the same kinds of concerns. At the same time, however, “isolationism” would be an unfair description. The leaders of such evangelical counter-movements are energetically engaging in the life of the mind on both the popular and scholarly levels. The same could be said of multiple pastors and professors in the fundamentalist orbit. From what I’ve observed, it is not poor scholarship that makes such theologians unappealing to the establishment. Instead, it seems to be simply that they are making the case for a more conservative approach than is common in broad evangelicalism.

On the other hand, is there not something to Mohler’s warning about fundamentalism? Can we honestly deny that fundamentalism has at times been guilty of isolationism and anti-intellectualism or that this has weakened our efforts to influence unbelievers toward Scripture and Christ? Additionally, might there be some benefit in participating in a group like ETS that, without implying endorsement, provides a forum for interaction with evangelical scholars about theological trends and concerns?

The Danger of Compromise

Exploring such questions would be a worthy goal for another occasion. But what is most striking to me about Mohler’s piece is that his concluding statement on fundamentalism goes in an entirely different direction (p. 6):

Yet, it may well be that in the present a greater temptation stems from a radical rejection of fundamentalism to the point that evangelicals risk theological accommodation as we seek the intellectual respect and affirmation of the larger culture. We are tempted, in a rush to reject the fundamentalist impulse, to blur the lines of what makes us distinctly evangelical. Doctrinal clarity is surrendered in order to earn accolades from the secular academy. In other words, an evangelical can only be so non-fundamentalist and remain evangelical. While evangelical theology, biblical scholarship, and philosophy have made strides and gains in the broader academy, the day will probably never come when the systematic theology students at Harvard Divinity School confront a textbook written by a member of the Evangelical Theological Society.

These comments so temper Mohler’s warning about fundamentalism that one wonders why the warning was urgent in the first place. His words again echo my fundamentalist teachers. Ironically, it seems that Mohler’s greater burden is to warn against the legacy of “new evangelicalism” rather than against fundamentalism. Fundamentalism may have failed to capture the centers of religion and academia, but after over seventy years have evangelical theologians fared much better? As Rolland McCune eloquently argued, the promise of “new evangelicalism” has gone unfulfilled.

Not only that, but evangelicalism’s aversion to separatism has introduced profound theological compromise in the Church. Consider the musings of evangelical thinker David F. Wells. Back in 1998 Wells wrote,

The final chapter has not yet been written on this [evangelical] experiment, but when the time comes there will be an interesting question to answer. For all the warts and flaws of fundamentalism, it did succeed in preserving the Word of God and the Gospel. Will this also be true of the evangelicals? They are undoubtedly much nicer than the fundamentalists, but in the end will they fail where the fundamentalists had succeeded? That will be a delicious piece of irony if it turns out to be true.*

My purpose here is not to defend a movement or to predict the future. It is simply to draw attention to a vital point that easily gets lost in the theological shuffle. The answer to the dangers of separatism isn’t to reject separatism. It is rather to pursue a separatism that is shaped by Scripture rather than fear or tradition or personal preferences. It is to maintain both truth and love. Or as Jude put it, we must contend for the faith (v. 3) even while we reach out to the world with compassion (v. 23).

*“Introduction: The Word in the World,” in The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, ed. John H. Armstrong, p. 27.

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