Roger, Roger | Part Three: Necessary Qualifications
Kevin T. Bauder
[Editor’s note: A technical difficulty prevented last week’s essay from being emailed. Part Two of this series can be found on Central Seminary’s website.]
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been responding to Roger Olson, who teaches at Truett Seminary (Baylor University). Not long ago Roger blogged about the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. He dwelt on Edward John Carnell’s accusation that fundamentalism is “cultic orthodoxy,” an accusation that has to be understood in view of Carnell’s critique of J. Gresham Machen. As we have seen, the nub of the difference between Carnell and Machen was ecclesiological. Machen believed that certain doctrines were essential to the boundary of the Christian faith, of Christian fellowship, and even of the recognizable Church on earth. Carnell asserted that these doctrinal markers could be ignored when a person who denied them seemed pious and kind.
It would be convenient to take Machen as a template for fundamentalism and Carnell as a template for evangelicalism, and Roger actually seems to do that. This binary schema, however, is too facile to explain the reality of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, either then or now. The situation is a bit more complicated, and a few necessary qualifications must be recognized before the conversation can proceed.
First, Carnell did not represent the evangelical mainstream of his day. He was a spokesman for the academic wing of neoevangelicalism. The new evangelicals were a small coterie of mainly young scholars who centered around Fuller Seminary. They had earned doctorates at places like Harvard and Boston University (Carnell had one of each). They thirsted for intellectual respectability. In the wake of World War II and (as they saw it) the impending collapse of Western civilization, they made it their mission to shape the emerging culture and rescue the West. To do that, they needed a platform within the mainstream academy and the mainline denominations; consequently, they eschewed most forms of ecclesiastical separation.
Carnell spoke for the scholarly side of neoevangelicalism, but there was also a populist side. Led by the young evangelist Billy Graham, populist neoevangelicalism was driven by a concern for mass evangelism. Graham was able to draw large crowds and to influence thousands of decisions, and these decisions were as vital as Carnell’s scholarship to saving the West. Indeed, Graham’s sermons from the period contained a mixture of Americanism, gospel preaching, and anti-Communism.
Both scholarly and populist neoevangelicals agreed that cooperation with religious liberals and mainline denominations was essential to their success. Both rejected separatism in favor of a strategy of toleration and infiltration. That was the move that brought them into direct conflict with Machen’s theory of Christian fellowship.
To be sure, the rejection of separatism was nothing new. The fundamentalists lost the denominations, not because they were outnumbered by liberals, but because many evangelicals were able to make their peace with liberal control. Some evangelicals—Charles Erdman among the Presbyterians and Earl V. Pierce among the Baptists—became notorious for their antipathy towards separatism. When the National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1942, it deliberately chose not to make separatism a criterion for membership.
What was different about neoevangelicals is that they came out of the context of separatist fundamentalism. Charles Fuller, the founder of Fuller Seminary, had built a reputation on his separation from the PCUSA. Billy Graham had begun his career as a protégé of separatists like John R. Rice, Monroe Parker, and Bob Jones. The neoevangelicals aimed to leverage the considerable resources of fundamentalism to advance their agenda.
They faced a problem, however. Machen had already addressed the anti-separatism of people like Charles Erdman and J. Ross Stevenson, people whose theory of Christian fellowship closely resembled that of Carnell. Their philosophy was that Christians could and should, at least some of the time, ignore the fundamentals (i.e., ignore the gospel) as boundary markers for fellowship. Machen called this philosophy indifferentism, and he saw it as even more deadly to spiritual vitality than outright modernism.
Consequently, when the neoevangelicals came along, some evangelical leaders were ready with a response. They saw in 2 John 10 a clear biblical demand for separation over essential doctrines. They also saw in 2 John 11 a clear implication that failure to practice this form of separation gave one a share in the evil done by gospel-deniers. These leaders believed that modernism came under the former rubric and neoevangelicalism under the latter. The upshot was that they felt obligated both to challenge neoevangelicalism as unfaithful to the Word of God and to refuse cooperation in neoevangelical endeavors.
Not all critics of neoevangelicalism wanted to identify themselves as fundamentalists. This reluctance is not surprising, since some of them saw fundamentalism as a kind of doctrinal minimalism. Even Machen saw himself as more Reformed than fundamentalist. Eventually one of Machen’s younger associates, Cornelius Van Til, would produce a seventy-plus page paper against the new evangelicalism. Van Til did not wish to be known as a fundamentalist, but this paper expressed well the core ideas of separatist fundamentalism.
Most evangelicals, however, were reluctant to speak that pointedly about the neoevangelicals, and especially about Billy Graham. They substantially agreed with the fundamentalists’ assessment of liberal theology, but they could not bring themselves to break ranks with the charismatic young evangelist. They did not want to fellowship with liberals, but they did want to help and support Graham, and that desire sometimes led them into a kind of back-door cooperation with liberals through the Graham crusades.
Consequently, by the middle of the 1960s American evangelicalism fell into three groups. At one extreme were the neoevangelicals, who, though orthodox in theology, thought that they could extend Christian fellowship and cooperation to people who were not. At the other extreme were the separatist fundamentalists who separated from liberals as gospel deniers and from neoevangelicals as disobedient brethren. Caught in the middle were the bulk of American evangelicals—like Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, or J. Vernon McGee—who, faced with a choice between working with neoevangelicals or working with fundamentalists, would not abandon the neoevangelicals.
This is the point at which Roger Olson’s evaluation begins to break down. He asks what the difference is between evangelicals and fundamentalists. The way that he asks the question effectively places fundamentalism outside evangelicalism, then explicitly identifies evangelicalism with neoevangelicalism. In other words, he reduces the alternatives to only two positions, and then introduces a strong disjunction between the two (thereby committing the fallacy of the excluded middle). He then compounds this mistake by committing the persuasive definition fallacy.
That last paragraph is what I need to come back to next week. Now that all the pieces of the puzzle are on the table, I’ll aim to address Roger’s distinctions directly. I’ll also respond to the direction in which he takes those distinctions—which is actually an attempt to exclude a significant segment of contemporary evangelicalism from the conversation by dismissing that segment as tacitly fundamentalist.
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.
Jesus, Great Shepherd of the Sheep
Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
Jesus, great shepherd of the sheep,
To Thee for help we fly;
Thy little flock in safety keep,
For O! the wolf is nigh.
He comes of hellish malice full,
To scatter, tear and slay;
He seizes every straggling soul,
As his own lawful prey.
Us into Thy protection take,
And gather with Thine arm;
Unless the fold we first forsake,
The wolf can never harm.
We laugh to scorn his cruel power,
While by our shepherd’s side;
The sheep he never can devour
Unless he first divide.
O do not suffer him to part
The souls that here agree;
But make us of one mind and heart,
And keep us one in Thee!
Together let us sweetly live,
Together let us die;
And each a starry crown receive,
And reign above the sky.
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.