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Fundamentalism and a Conservative Philosophy of Culture

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series

"That They May Be One: Conservatism, Cooperation, and the Center of Christian Unity"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

That They May Be One

Last week I suggested that biblical cooperation is not an “all-or-nothing” sort of thing, but is rather dependent upon the particular matter under consideration and the circumstance, whether it be simple fellowship, joining a church, or proclaiming the gospel.

This was the genius of the idea of fundamentalism. Beyond refusing to recognize as Christian those who do not believe the gospel, fundamentalism asserts that cooperation among Christians will be dependent upon the level to which Christians agree in important matters of doctrine and practice, and this will vary based on the kind of cooperation. For example, I might be able to stand side-by-side with a conservative Presbyterian in order to preach the gospel, but I would not be able to plant a church with him given our disagreement regarding church polity and baptism, among other things. I may be able to teach in an educational institution where there exists considerable diversity in a number of areas that I believe to be extremely important,1 but I would not be able to join a church with the same spread of divergent views. Fundamentalists have perhaps notoriously made too big a deal of some issues and too little of others, but this is the fault of fallible people, not the underlying conviction that all biblical truth matters and affects unity to one degree or another.

In fact, the difference between what I have called a conservative philosophy of culture and a progressive philosophy can be illustrated in the Fundamentalist/New Evangelical divide of the mid-Twentieth century.

Some will insist that a Fundamentalist was simply one who believes in the fundamentals of the faith. However, what is evident historically is that the divide between Fundamentalism and a New Evangelicalism was never over core doctrine. As late as 1982, Harold Ockenga stated that when it came to doctrine he wished to always be classified as a Fundamentalist.

Others will claim that a Fundamentalist is one who will separate from those who deny the fundamentals. While this is certainly true, the issue of separation was not the primary reason for the Fundamentalist/New Evangelical divide. Actually, separation was a secondary issue for the early New Evangelicals. It was a symptom of a greater agenda, and that agenda involved their philosophy of culture.

The primary reason New Evangelicals split from Fundamentalists was their desire to “engage” their culture. Fundamentalists had been known to separate from the world, and the New Evangelicals saw that posture as extreme. They wanted to engage the world, and they had to get rid of separation to do so. In the words of Roland McCune, they wanted “to make the truth-claims of Christianity intellectually respectable and to penetrate the culture for Christ.”2

It is in this agenda that the Christian progressive philosophy of culture rises to prominence. The New Evangelicals argued that culture is neutral—something to be assimilated into the Church in order to engage the world with the gospel. Relevance was key to gospel propagation.

This philosophy led them to downplay passages like James 4:4 and 1 John 2:15. Instead of viewing “the world” as manifest in the unbelieving culture around them, New Evangelicals limited “worldliness” to only those vices explicitly condemned in Scripture. Therefore, culture around them was no longer critiqued with careful discernment; it was now welcomed with open arms as the best means to reach the world. In Evangelicalism Divided, Iain Murray notes that with this New Evangelical philosophy, “the rule of Scripture has given place to pragmatism.”3 He observes that as a result, “instead of churches revolutionizing the culture the reverse has happened. Churches have been converted to the world.”4

I would also argue that this agenda and this philosophy of culture will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise. One cannot assimilate the world without being influenced by the world. That this has happened in Evangelicalism is without question. One of first doctrines to go was inerrancy, followed soon by justification by faith alone in Christ alone (evidenced by statements by New Evangelicalism’s poster-boy, Billy Graham and the New Perspective on Paul) and the omniscience of God (evidenced by Open Theism).

Now what is certain is that many conservative Evangelicals today would not agree with the agenda of the early New Evangelicals, nor do many adopt the pragmatic assimilation of the world that the Mega-church Movement promotes. Many conservative Evangelicals are recovering and defending the core doctrines they lost, are beginning to practice separation over cardinal doctrines, and are even beginning to preach on holiness and separation from the world. However, and this is the key point, the underlying philosophy of culture remains the same. Culture is still viewed, for the most part, as generally neutral.

Furthermore, while conservative Evangelicals are recovering the doctrinal orthodoxy that they lost, they seem to be unwilling to jettison what worldliness they have already assimilated (since their philosophy of culture does not see it as worldliness), and this is where the importance of philosophies of culture and worship fit. Contemporary Christian Music as we know it, for example, rose out of a progressive cultural philosophy, because they viewed pop culture as essentially neutral, and the New Evangelical agenda called for cultural assimilation in order to reach the culture.5 Conservative Evangelicalism has inherited the same philosophy of culture and worship. Paradoxically, they are conservative theologically while progressive culturally.

Conservative fundamentalism,6 on the other hand, has historically looked at the culture around it with an eye of suspicion. Not all culture of unbelievers is seen as necessarily evil, but the conservative default is to distrust it, because as I have noted, conservative Christians believe that culture embodies values. Conservatives have always been concerned to separate themselves from the world, and this includes pop culture.

Because of this philosophy, conservative fundamentalism has for the most part preserved doctrinal orthodoxy. This does not mean that error has not crept into the belief systems of many Fundamentalists. But by and large, important doctrines including the deity of Christ, the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the exhaustive foreknowledge of God, and justification by faith alone are maintained by Fundamentalists.7 Fundamentalists did not have to deal with liberal professors in their institutions, for example. This cannot be said for the grandchildren of New Evangelicalism.

Ironically, some conservative Evangelicals are recognizing this philosophy of culture as a strength of Fundamentalism. Consider, for instance, a blog post by Rick Phillips, an Evangelical pastor in Greenville, SC. He was explaining his reasons for sending his children to Bob Jones Academy, even though he may disagree with some of their standards and doctrine:

The fundamentalists get the idea of antithesis. . . .8 I find in general that the fundamentalists get the idea that the Bible really is the Word of God and that our only salvation is in the blood of Christ. There is no talk about postmodern hermeneutics among the fundamentalists. They believe the Bible is the Word of God because it says so, and so do I. They believe that men, women, and children are sinners who must believe in the cross in order to be saved.  There is no talk of alternative theories of the atonement with them. They understand that the church must stand out against the world, that holiness is our calling, and that Christians are to witness to the lost. Amen, amen, and amen. They get the Christian antithesis, that light has shined in the darkness and that we are to walk in the light and shine the light into the darkness.

Frankly, because of the big idea of antithesis, I am more comfortable with the fundamentalists than I am with the broad evangelicals. More and more, broad evangelicals do not get the idea of antithesis, and for this reason even when they have a pretty good formal doctrinal statement, they seldom really stand up for it. In Psalm 1 terms, the broad evangelicals are too willing to “walk in the counsel of the ungodly.” Broad evangelicals want to be successful; fundamentalists want to be faithful.9

The “big idea of antithesis” is code for the conservative philosophy of culture. It is a certain posture that assumes the world is in opposition to God, thus protecting biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy from subtle attacks. Consider also comments by John Piper:

What I want to say about Fundamentalism is that its great gift to the church is precisely the backbone to resist compromise and to make standing for truth and principle a means of love rather than an alternative to it. I am helped by the call for biblical separation, because almost no evangelicals even think about the doctrine.10

Now, it may appear that I am suggesting that fundamentalists have always been culturally conservative, and broader evangelicals have always been culturally progressive, and so the answer to whether we should cooperate is as simple as finding out who holds the fundamentalist ID card. Yet this is not at all what I am suggesting. I agree with those who have over the past several years argued that cooperation with other Christians is more complicated than that, and so allow me to offer a few caveats concerning the relationship between those who have called themselves fundamentalists and conservative Christianity.

First, it is my belief that the early Fundamentalists applied this conservative philosophy of culture a little bit too late. Or to put it another way, they did not recognize the sinfulness of culture around them until it got so bad they could not help but notice. Early on (even before the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy) churches assimilated forms of pop culture that seemed to be harmless (mostly Victorian sentimentalism). Later when pop culture slipped even further, Fundamentalists thankfully resisted. However, some Fundamental churches today are still using those same out-dated pop musical forms that do not really fit the weight of biblical truth. In this way, some Fundamentalists, too, seem to be unwilling to expel what they have inherited, even if it is not demonstrably good.

Second, a truly conservative Christian will always embrace the idea of fundamentalism, but unfortunately many of those who claim the label of fundamentalist have long abandoned a conservative philosophy. This is why cooperation at various levels should not be based on particular labels; rather, deciding whether or not cooperation is possible necessarily involves evaluating deeper philosophical and theological commitments.

Third, ironically, what we have seen in movement Fundamentalism over the last ten years is that in the face of diminishing numbers, churches, colleges, and seminaries are jettisoning any remnants of a conservative philosophy of culture, believing that this will make them more marketable. Yet even purely from a marketing perspective, they are eliminating the only thing that distinguishes them from conservative evangelical churches and institutions of higher learning. They are getting rid of exactly the qualities that evangelicals like Rick Phillips and John Piper cited as the unique contributions of fundamentalism. The problem is that the conservative evangelical institutions have a considerable head start in terms of constituency, money, and name recognition; why, if the traditionally conservative institutions give up their conservative philosophy of culture, would anyone choose them over larger and more prestigious evangelical ones? The answer is, they wouldn’t; there is a reason fundamentalist churches and schools who have distanced themselves from cultural conservatism have closed more quickly than others. There are undoubtedly many other factors contributing to the shrinking of fundamentalist institutions, but I would humbly suggest that getting rid of the one thing that has distinguished fundamentalist institutions from their conservative evangelical counterparts is not the answer.

Next week, I will begin the specific discussion of where I think philosophies of culture fit on the spectrum of Christian fellowship and cooperation.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. I actually believe such diversity is quite healthy in an educational institution. []
  2. McCune, “The New Evangelicalism and Apologetics,” DBSJ 6 (Fall 2001), 75. []
  3. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 255. []
  4. Ibid., 255-6. Emphasis added. []
  5. Actually, I would argue that its roots began much earlier. But it is only with a view of cultural neutrality that something like “Christian Rock” could have been born. []
  6. I do not believe that all who call themselves “Fundamentalists” are or have been Conservative. []
  7. Admittedly, some of these doctrines are denied implicitly within Fundamentalism in extreme forms of the King James Only Movement, easy-believism, and forms of Semi-Pelagianism. Furthermore, the gospel itself has often been weakened by Revivalism. Even so, most Fundamentalists have remained orthodox. []
  8. “Antithesis” refers to the view that culture is not neutral. []
  9. Phillips, Reformation 21 Blog. []
  10. Piper, Desiring God Blog. []