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Roger, Roger | Part One: Edward John Carnell

In the Nick of Time

I appreciate many aspects of Roger Olson’s work. He has written a clear exposition of Arminian theology that I require my students to read. He can show civility and charity toward those with whom he disagrees. We are on opposite sides of certain issues, but I know him to be a man of both clarity and kindness.

Olson recently published a blog post asking, “What Is Fundamentalism?” He particularly tries to show how American fundamentalism differs from evangelicalism. To make his point, Olson appeals to Edward John Carnell’s book, The Case for Orthodox Theology, calling Carnell’s (negative) delineation of fundamentalism “very powerful.” He believes that Carnell’s description of fundamentalism is “still valid” even for some who prefer to call themselves evangelicals. I would like to respond to Olson’s perspective on fundamentalism. Because Olson relies so heavily upon Carnell, however, some discussion of Carnell’s viewpoint is necessary.

*  *  *

Edward John Carnell was the second president of Fuller Theological Seminary, which was ground zero for “neoevangelicalism” (a term coined by Carnell’s predecessor, Harold John Ockenga). Fundamentalists criticized Carnell, and he responded in kind. Indeed, some of Carnell’s strongest words were directed against fundamentalists and their separatist ethos.

To begin with, Carnell was ambivalent about non-conservative theologies. In one place he recognized that modernism and Biblical Christianity are incompatible.1 On the other hand, he also wrote,

I suffered a rude shock when, in the course of graduate studies, I discovered a few modernists who gave more convincing evidence of devotion to Christ…than some who were celebrated for their piety in fundamentalism. From experiences of this kind I was forced to conclude that a person may be a true Christian, and yet have a long way to go in the organization of his theological convictions.

So Carnell did not necessarily see modernism as an apostasy. While he admitted that “modernism is a system which is contrary to the truth and should be resisted with every legitimate weapon,” he also argued that many modernists “believe a lot more in their hearts than they will admit into their theology.” Since these people give evidence of evangelical repentance, they should not be denied Christian fellowship.2

Carnell refused to make adherence to fundamental doctrines a test of Christianity. He wrote that “the nature of the church is never measured by the doctrinal maturity of those who profess Christ. Doctrine clarifies the plan of salvation, but a sinner is justified by faith and repentance, not by assent to doctrine.”3

What, then, is the basis of Christian unity? For Carnell, love is the sign of a true disciple. Christians find their identity “by personal confrontation with Christ,” not by assent to doctrine. Proof that one has met Christ is found in a “gentle, outgoing charity that takes in all men, and especially those of the household of faith.”4 Carnell did not mean that truth has no place; he conceded that in any contest between unity and truth, unity must yield. He also admitted that “we test the church by the truth, not truth by the church.”5 Nevertheless, possession of truth is not possession of virtue, for even the Devil can pass a course in theology.6

Influenced by the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, Carnell rejected the notion that the purity of the church is an attainable ideal. Speaking of the splits amongst Presbyterians, he suggested in Niebuhrian tones that “since Machen had shaken off the sins of modernists, but not the sins of those who were proud they were not modernists, the separatists fondly imagined themselves more perfectly delivered from heresy than the facts justified.”7 Evidently relishing the irony, he pointed to the chain of divisions among the separatists.

Carnell specifically repudiated J. Gresham Machen’s understanding of the church as a voluntary association. He argued that voluntary associations eventually become institutions in which loyalty to Christ is equated with loyalty to the organization.8 Though a Baptist, Carnell professed admiration for the merits of Reformed ecclesiology and Presbyterian polity, which he charged Machen with having violated. According to Carnell, Machen reacted against the perceived evil of modernism but did not reckon on the evil of anarchy. Thus, Machen inadvertently planted the seeds of anarchy within his movement. After Machen each man was free to do that which was right in his own eyes.9

Carnell called for a return to the classical (anti-separatist) view of the church. The separatist (Carnell asserted) believes that he can measure the presence or absence of the church by the presence or absence of members who possess truth. For Carnell, a church might possibly become apostate, but he insisted that apostasy must be judged by a church’s official creed or confession, not by the lives of its members. As long as the gospel is taught in the official confession, as long as one is free to preach the gospel, and as long as one is free to protest against abuses, then separation is not permissible.10

In sum, Carnell did not simply disagree with certain fundamentalist eccentricities. He rejected the fundamentalist understanding of the Church. This difference lay behind his castigation of fundamentalism as “cultic orthodoxy.” Only if Carnell was right about the Church was he right about fundamentalism. That is the point that Olson has not established—but more about that next week.


1Edward John Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 113-114.

2Edward John Carnell, “How My Mind Has Changed,” in How My Mind Has Changed, edited by Harold E. Fey (Cleveland: Meridian. 1961), 101-102.

3Edward John Carnell, “Orthodoxy: Cultic vs. Classical,” in The Case for Biblical Theology, edited by Ronald H. Nash (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 46.

4Edward John Carnell, “Christian Fellowship and the Unity of the Church,” in The Case for Biblical Theology, edited by Ronald H. Nash (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 21-22.

5Edward John Carnell, “The Nature of the Unity We Seek,” in The Case for Biblical Theology, edited by Ronald H. Nash (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 27.

6Carnell, “Orthodoxy: Cultic vs. Classical,” 46.

7Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 116.

8Carnell, “Christian Fellowship and the Unity of the Church,” 17-18.

9Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 115-117.

10Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 132-137.


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.


From Depths of Woe
Martin Luther (1483–1546)

From depths of woe I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation;
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication;
If Thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?

To wash away the crimson stain,
Grace, grace alone availeth;
Our works, alas! are all in vain;
In much the best life faileth:
No man can glory in Thy sight,
All must alike confess Thy might,
And live alone by mercy.

Therefore my trust is in the Lord,
And not in mine own merit;
On Him my soul shall rest, His Word
Upholds my fainting spirit:
His promised mercy is my fort,
My comfort, and my sweet support;
I wait for it with patience.

What though I wait the livelong night,
And till the dawn appeareth,
My heart still trusteth in His might;
It doubteth not nor feareth:
Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed,
Ye of the Spirit born indeed;
And wait till God appeareth.

Though great our sins and sore our woes,
His grace much more aboundeth;
His helping love no limit knows,
Our utmost need it soundeth.
Our Shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His Israel free.
From all their sin and sorrow.

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is 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 this post expresses.