Against fundamentalism? | Roger E. Olson

Against fundamentalism?

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I have now written two books whose titles include “Against” – “Against Calvinism” and “Against Liberal Theology”. Both are published by Zondervan. See them on Amazon. “Against Calvinism” sold very well. I hope the same with “Against Liberal Theology: Curbing Progressive Christianity”.

I realize that it’s considered left to be “against” something, unless it’s illegal or definitely unethical. However, my model with these books is “Contra Celsum” (“Against Celsus”) by the church father Origen. There are ideas and methods in Christian theology that must be fought. I’m ready to take the heat from those who think it’s wrong to be against anything. A theologian cannot be for or even neutral about everything.

Now I am considering a book called “Against Fundamentalism”. But there are some problems. I accept suggestions.

Very few people identify as fundamentalists since modern mass media has identified fundamentalism with terrorism. In the 1970s, they began to refer to certain factions of Islam, particularly in Iran, as “Islamic fundamentalism” and some leaders were linked to terrorism by the media. It caught on in the popular mind and almost overnight Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell identified themselves as “evangelicals”.

What books are written by true Christian fundamentalists on fundamentalism? Authors should identify as fundamentalists or be widely regarded as fundamentalists.

I know, of course, the “old fundamentalists” and some of their writings. The first stage of American Christian fundamentalism is well represented by the 1910-1911 pamphlets entitled “The Fundamentals”. Until my retirement, and for years, I owned the original editions. I donated them to a library when I retired. I read many of the articles in them and recognized them as mere anti-liberal essays written by orthodox Protestant scholars and ministers.

The second stage of American Christian fundamentalism is well represented by prototypes such as William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, Bob Jones, Sr., Carl McIntire and others from the 1920s through the 1950s.

During the 1970s, the category and label “fundamentalist” began to change. It contained and still referred to the old line, “King James Bible Only” separatist mob, but it also included and referred to almost all hyper-conservative Protestants. Later, during the 1990s and until today, the category and the label have become so fluid and flexible that they are almost meaningless.

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is he a fundamentalist or a traditional Baptist? Or even just an evangelical conservative garden variety? What about some of the younger mega-church pastors and evangelists who project a very contemporary image but hold and teach a very literal view of the Bible and reject as not being authentically evangelical anyone who does not believe as them – for example in the inerrancy of the Bible? What about the new style renewal churches and their pastors, especially those who believe and teach the gift of prophecy for all true Christians? (Let those who have ears or eyes understand who I am talking about!)

What exactly counts as Christian fundamentalism? Is it a set of beliefs or a certain way of holding them? Is it a style, a posture, towards those of more moderate inclinations, open to modest revisions of traditional beliefs? Is this a case of “I know someone when I meet one?”

A few years ago, at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I spoke about open theism and defended it as not being heretical. A professor at a well-known conservative (fundamentalist?) evangelical university asked me if I believed that someone who does not believe in the virgin birth can be saved. I knew he was trying to back me into a corner and the question was out of context. It was kind of a litmus test question – to find out and reveal my level of “safety” as an evangelical. I sensed him as a fundamentalist at the time, although I seriously doubt he considered himself one.

If I write a book called “Against Fundamentalism”, what exactly will it be against? I think I know, but I’m not sure I can demonstrate that I’m right, because the category has lost its limits. “Fundamentalist” now appears to be an indexical term, entirely context-dependent.

I once read a journalist who called CS Lewis an “Anglican fundamentalist”. Really? Well, yes, in the sense that he adhered to the foundations, the “fundamentals”, of Christian orthodoxy. But no, not in a real historical-theological sense. And certainly not in the popular sense of the spirit.

I am drawn to the idea proposed by James McClendon and Nancey Murphy that fundamentalism and theological liberalism are both too influenced by modernity. Fundamentalists seem to be obsessed with certainty while theological liberals are obsessed with relevance to modern culture. Both are obsessed with ambiguity, one against and the other for. What’s the alternative—theologically? According to the authors, it is postliberalism – what has sometimes been called the Yale School of Theology – theologians influenced by Hans Frei and George Lindbeck and possibly also Stanley Hauerwas (with H. Richard Niebuhr hidden in a back -plan not very far away).

But back to my basic question. What is fundamentalism? The University of Chicago’s Fundamentalism Project, led by sociologist of religion Scott Appleby, has identified it as “religious anti-modernism.” I think it’s a bit too a-historical and broad to serve well. Are deconstructionists like John Caputo fundamentalists? Barely. Are the Amish fundamentalists? Well, not in a historical-theological sense. Then what ?

Is it a list of doctrines stated in a certain way? Is it a mentality that works in a certain way? Is it an ethos lived in a certain way? Is it all three?

Who are the true prototypes of Christian fundamentalism TODAY? Is it fair to call someone a fundamentalist if they reject the label?

Thoughtful and informed ideas and suggestions are welcome – up to 150 words. No sermons, diatribes or flames welcome here! Just thoughtful and informed ideas and suggestions, thanks.

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