Kevin T. Bauder
I am responding to colleague Roger Olson who, in a recent blog post, attempted to articulate the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. His argument relied upon an old critique in which Edward John Carnell labeled fundamentalism as “cultic orthodoxy.” My first step was to flesh out Carnell’s critique by placing it in the context of his other writings. What became clear is that Carnell’s objections were not so much against fundamentalist personalities as against a core fundamentalist idea: the notion that both the church and the Christian faith must be defined doctrinally.
Importantly, Carnell did not direct his criticism against populist fundamentalists like Billy Sunday or John R. Rice, but against Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen and his allies. His central complaint—and the reason he labeled them “cultic”—was not that they held bizarre beliefs or that they elevated personalities (though Carnell dwelt on some of that, too) but that they held a particular understanding of the church. He understood that their ecclesiology led them into a particular course of action toward religious liberalism.
Carnell (a Baptist) accused Machen of abandoning the Reformed theory of the church, which Machen thought he was faithfully implementing. The truth is that both men were expanding upon themes found in Reformed ecclesiology. The core insight of Machen’s theory was that all Christian fellowship is grounded upon the gospel, and the gospel must be defined at least partly by doctrine. For Machen, certain doctrines were so essential to the gospel that where they were denied, the gospel was fundamentally altered. Consequently, people who denied these essentials must never be recognized as Christians. No Christian fellowship could ever rightly be extended to them.
Machen developed this insight at length in Christianity and Liberalism. There he argued that liberalism is not a form of Christianity but a distinct religion that even belongs to a different class of religions. Machen also argued that when a church denied the gospel it could not be recognized as a true church; it was not a Christian church at all. A church that formally permitted its leaders to deny the gospel (by denying essential doctrines) was no longer a true church, even if some within the church still professed the gospel.
Of course, that was precisely the situation in Machen’s PCUSA. When this church refused to take action against liberals in its ministry, it became formally committed to permitting the denial of the gospel. On Machen’s view, that was the point at which the PCUSA ceased to be a true church. Probably Machen would eventually have left the PCUSA, but he was not given the chance. The PCUSA demanded that Machen dissolve his Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions and support the church’s board. Since this would have implicated Machen in the direct support of liberalism, he refused, upon which the PCUSA removed him from its ministry. That is when Machen helped to establish the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Here was the ecclesiology that Carnell dismissed as cultic. Against Machen he argued that some liberals were more convincingly pious than some fundamentalists and that consequently he had to recognize them as Christians and extend Christian fellowship to them. It is worth noting that Carnell’s approach also implements an insight from Reformed ecclesiology, though it is a more subordinate one.
That insight (found in Calvin, Turretin, Owen, Charles Hodge, and others) draws a distinction between profession of the gospel and possession of the gospel. Clearly some people who profess to believe the gospel do not, and often their lives will contradict their profession. The reverse may also be true. Because humans have a massive capacity for inconsistency, they may in some cases formally deny the very things in which they trust. At the end of the day, only God can see the heart. Only God knows who actually possesses true, saving faith in the gospel. He will keep the gate of heaven; humans on earth cannot pass final judgment upon the saved and the damned.
This is the insight upon which Carnell built, but he took it far beyond the limits that traditional Reformed ecclesiology was willing to recognize. Carnell found that some religious liberals sounded pious and they were nice people. Upon this basis, he was willing to assume that they must be genuinely Christian—in spite of their profession, which quite literally denied the gospel. Effectively, Carnell was arguing that his experience of these liberals’ piety and niceness was sufficient to outweigh their considered theological conclusions.
Older Reformed theologians had protected themselves against this move. They knew that God would judge the heart, but they could not. Consequently, they insisted upon evaluating each profession to determine whether it conformed to the true gospel or implemented a false, imposter gospel. Carnell demoted doctrinal criteria and substituted the appearance of piety and the practice of niceness. Nice and pious liberals could be better Christians than perfectly orthodox fundamentalists.
To be fair, Carnell wrote in the heyday of neo-orthodoxy. This new theology represented a reaction against old liberalism in what seemed to be the direction of orthodoxy; neo-orthodox theologians certainly sounded closer to conservatism than old-line modernists. Carnell and his cadre of neoevangelicals hoped to influence these churchmen to keep moving all the way into traditional orthodoxy.
Any serious examination of neo-orthodoxy and other crisis theologies, however, reveals that they repeated too many of the fundamental errors of the older liberals. From the perspective of history it is possible to see how the theologies of Barth, Brunner, Bonhoeffer, and others gave rise to even newer theologies that were (and are) far more radical than old-line liberalism. The hope of attracting these individuals to genuine, biblical orthodoxy was forlorn.
The point is that Machen’s vision of Christian church and fellowship was strongly doctrinal, while Carnell adopted an ecclesiology of pietistic sentimentalism. To overstate the case (but not by much), Carnell was arguing that anybody he found agreeable had to be a Christian. Furthermore, anybody who disagreed with his judgments had to be “cultic.”
Machen and Carnell represent distinct and incompatible approaches to Christian fellowship. Fundamentalism involves more than Machen’s approach, but it certainly does not involve less. Carnell’s approach is one justification (others are possible) of neoevangelicalism. So far, the difference between the two accords with Roger Olson’s attempt to distinguish fundamentalism from evangelicalism.
When we begin to examine this difference, however, two problems emerge. First, at the time Carnell was writing, Machen’s approach to Christian fellowship was shared by many evangelicals who did not wish to be identified as fundamentalists. Second, Carnell’s approach—and neoevangelicalism in general—still represented a minority position within the evangelical world, and it was propelled by more than one consideration. In other words, most of evangelicalism was neither fundamentalist nor neoevangelical, and neoevangelicalism was not all one thing. These problems need to be explored before Olson’s proposal can be evaluated fairly.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Softly Now the Light of Day
George W. Doane (1799–1859)
Softly now the light of day
Fades upon my sight away;
Free from care, from labour free,
Lord, I would commune with Thee:
Thou, Whose all-pervading eye
Naught escapes without, within,
Pardon each infirmity,
Open fault, and secret sin.
Soon, for me, the light of day
Shall forever pass away;
Then, from sin and sorrow free,
Take me, Lord, to dwell with Thee:
Thou Who, sinless, yet hast known
All of man’s infirmity;
Then, from Thine eternal throne,
Jesus, look with pitying eye.