April 25, 2013

Our Fundamentalist Future

by Nathan Busenitz

 The year was 1878. Modernism was on the rise, and its attack on the church was full scale. In response, a group of conservative Bible scholars established a set of fourteen doctrinal principles to outline what they believed was the essence of biblical Christianity. Known as the “Niagara Creed” (because it was associated with the Niagara Bible Conference of 1883–1897), these principles laid the foundation for a movement that would later be called fundamentalism.

On the broader front, the dispensational organizers of the Niagara Bible Conference were joined by non-dispensationalists like B.B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen in their fight against modernism. In 1910, the fourteen-point Niagara Creed was distilled into “five fundamentals” by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. These five fundamentals were as follows:

1. The inerrancy of Scripture

2. The virgin birth and deity of Jesus Christ

3. The substitutionary atonement through God’s grace and human faith

4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ

5. The authenticity of Christ’s miracles (or later, by others, the imminent return of Jesus Christ)

It was also in 1910 that a wealthy Presbyterian layman, named Lyman Stewart, funded the publication of twelve pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These pamphlets, which together consisted of 90 essays written by 64 authors from several denominations, were published between 1910 and 1915. The articles themselves expanded on the five fundamentals, and strengthened the fundamentalist stance against modernism.

Those who embraced the five fundamentals (and were thus associated with The Fundamentals pamphlets) came to be known as “fundamentalists.” They were those who held tight to the fundamental doctrines of the faith, and were willing to fight for the truth in the midst of modernist compromise. For conservative evangelicals today, our spiritual and doctrinal heritage goes back to those men.

Will History Repeat Itself?

Fast forward 135 years from 1878.

Now it’s 2013.

Yet the basic theological issues of today are not all that different than in 1878. The church of their day was faced with the temptation to compromise. The church today is faced with the very same temptation. The only difference is that we put a “post” in front of the “modernism.” So it’s not really that surprising to observe the numerous similarities between the early fundamentalist movement (of the late 19th/early 20th century), and what is already beginning to happen in conservative evangelical circles.

The original fundamentalists rallied around core doctrines, desperately desiring to honor the Scripture, and vowing to stand firm against the advances of modernism. Interestingly, they found their rallying point not in denominational ties, but in a common love for Christ and a shared commitment to the truth. Their fellowship crossed denominational boundaries, finding an outlet in national Bible conferences like the one held near Niagara Falls. The movement itself was led by godly leaders from various backgrounds. It was undergirded by doctrinal creeds, and it was promoted through preaching and writing.

In the face of postmodernism, faithful Christian leaders are again rallying around the same core doctrines as the original fundamentalists. Vowing to stand firm against the advances of postmodernism error, today’s “fundamentalists” again cross denominational lines. They are willing to stand united because something more important than denominational lines is at stake. The purity of the gospel is at stake.

Like the original fundamentalists, these faithful evangelical leaders don’t agree on every secondary doctrine. But they do agree on the essentials. And that’s what makes them fundamentalists: they hold fast to the essential doctrines of biblical Christianity and they are willing to contend earnestly for the faith.

Now I’m not suggesting that the new fundamentalists call themselves “fundamentalists.” That name (in my opinion) has too much associated with it, in part because of the evangelical/fundamentalist split of the 1940s, and even more so because the media has equated any type of fundamentalism with Islamic extremism. For that matter, I’m not suggesting a new label is needed at all. (Though I do like Iain Murray’s “Old Evangelical.”)

But I do see history repeating itself, should the Lord tarry. And I think reflecting on the example of the original fundamentalists gives us motivation to mobilize and encouragement to stand strong. Over the next fifty years, I believe that similar lines will be drawn, similar alliances made, and similar battles fought as were seen 125 years ago. May God give us the courage and resolve of the original fundamentalists, as we stand firm for the truth against the tempting tidal waves of compromise.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • dcsj

    Nathan, I’d quibble with a few historical points and your understanding of the early fundamentalists, but there is one glaring difference between 1878 and 2013. It is true that the problems of post-modernism are not really all that different from the problems of modernism. But the conservative Christians, such as they are, are really in disarray. In 1878 and following, for the next 50-60 years, you had a group who were largely united on what Christianity should look like, albeit with denominational distinctives.

    Today, you might get agreement on certain essential doctrines, but beyond that good luck in getting even a general consensus of how the church should behave,relate to the world, evangelize, disciple, you name it…

    I hate to be pessimistic, but I’m not holding out much hope for any kind of significant new movement.

    • YesNaSpanishTown

      I hate to be pessimistic, but I’m not holding out much hope for any kind of significant new movement.

      In this sense I do agree…It seems as though we may be in the last of the last days. If so, the Bible tells us that there will be a great falling away.

      But we are also told to occupy until Jesus returns. Perhaps by His long suffering unto salvation He is allowing one more era of hope. If I give in, and He tarries still, how will my grandchildren’s children (children’s children, etc.) know the Gospel unless a remnant, having done all, stands?

      From the evidence of church history we know that every era from which a revival or purified movement of the Gospel arises is born from a time of darkness.

      Luke 12:35-53
      Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching…

  • YesNaSpanishTown

    I’m in! Where do we sign up?

  • Simple Elder

    Isn’t it ironic that the apostles and prophets who spoke and wrote His holy and sufficient word commanded us to find unity in the church and not in movements?

    And yet we (who claim to believe them) relegate the doctrine of the church to a nonessential doctrine and exhort and encourage each other to find unity in theological movements and not in the church?

    And then we wonder and foment about how bad movements like Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism are.

    Brothers, the fault lies not with them but with us.

  • Good summary of the history, and it would be great to see such a revival, and I see a lot of similarity to what Spurgeon observed 150 years ago, in the same human nature of church-goers today. Yet at this point in our society I have to agree, that this time the overall society and even conservative Christianity is appallingly weak and biblically illiterate. So many factors involved, but the predominance of shallow teaching, and an entertainment-oriented society with so many people lacking the basic mental attention span and an entitlement attitude, play a big factor in what has been happening for decades now in the continuing decline and judgment of this country.

    But it’s very possible that other parts of the world, especially in Asia, will experience greater Christian growth, commitment and solid teaching over the next many decades. That is another pattern of history, the spread of Christianity across the globe. Some areas of the world were once great defenders of the faith, but it seems that after a period of time God finally says “enough” to places of increasing immorality, apostasy and toleration of error among believers — as what happened to those early churches in the book of Revelation.

  • Dave Dunbar

    Thank the Lord for the “old evangelicals”, men who stood for the fundamentals of the faith, as the “enlightened” world around them left the most holy faith.

    And thank the Lord for men like that today. We see it in a number of ways. T4G comes to mind, as does Dr. MacArthur’s love for and friendship with Dr. Sproul. It is happening in lesser-known ways as well. One is the growing community of committed evangelists. Just a few months ago, at Super Bowl Outreach (www.superbowloutreach.org), there were 105 men and 10 women from all over the country, who where Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformation Anglican, independent Bible churches (and others), who came together with a great love for Christ and His gospel. And Phil Johnson of GTY was kind enough to support each of us with a very meaningful gift!

    We can have our differences, and have polite (and hopefully edifying) conversations about secondary issues, but our unity on the core/central doctrines must MUST glue us together, because we proclaim the same gospel, and we may end up rotting in the same jails together, if the Lord allows such a thing to happen in our land.

    Indeed, may God help us to stand firm.

    • Simple Elder

      Dave – would church polity be one of those secondary issues?

  • Lou Martuneac

    Nathan:

    On balance I appreciate much of this article. Your overview of the history of the
    fundamentalist movement is both appreciated and accurate. It does,
    however, pose a number of questions. First, how can the current alliance
    of current covenant, amillennial evangelicals find historic association with
    those who were by your admission “dispensational” and by the common moniker
    used in their day, “Millennarians?”

    Second, is there an incipient danger to be addressed when evangelicals gather for common cause without working out issues related to personal separation? Your reference to the reality of the Fundamentalist / New-Evangelical split of the 40’s begs the question of a repeat division within the newly forming alliances of
    evangelicals like T4G, the Gospel Coalition and Desiring God based not upon
    doctrine, but upon principles of personal separation.

    Third, isn’t it true that the Niagara Coalition and the Northern Presbyterians both practiced a form of personal separation that seems to be either ignored, forgotten or at least undefined in the contemporary evangelical coalitions?

    Finally, isn’t it true that those who have called themselves “fundamentalists,” and have not veered doctrinally or in militancy, are the true progeny of historic
    fundamentalism? In other words, is it fair to try to take / co-opt the
    heritage from the children who have always stayed on the farm?

    Kind regards,

    LM

  • God’s timing is amazing…I just finished reading “In Pursuit of Purity” by David Beale. I’ve had it for ten years in my library, but for some reason I felt the need to read it a few weeks ago (I am a slow reader). I feel like you were reading my mind!

    I came to the same conclusion that you did…modernism and post-modernism are more similar than different after all! Here are my other thoughts:

    1. The truth is still worth fighting for.

    2.The natural bent of people and organizations is to stray from the truth. Labels mean nothing over time. After all…Jonathan Edwards was the third president of Princeton, the same Princeton that Gresham left because of liberalism!

    3. We can only leave a strong enough legacy in our generation that the next generation will want to follow.

  • Regulative

    Nathan,

    I appreciate the sentiments of this post. It does speak well of you. I, however, think that fundamentalism itself has been part of the problem, if not the problem, but not like evangelicals think. We do ourselves harm by ranking the five or six or seven highest doctrines. In the last days, perilous times will come, and none of the list are the arbitrary “fundamentals” in 2 Timothy. Jonathan Edwards didn’t write about the fundamentals after the first Great Awakening, but the religious affections. We shouldn’t diminish certain counsel of God by rating other higher, really for the sake of holding together coalitions. I believe this thinking is what causes the problem in the first place. It says that we’re uncertain about everything, so we’ve got to minimize it to a few or we won’t be able to get together. A lot more than five to seven should be indisputable. Sure, fight for those foundational doctrines, but let’s not name them as the fundamentals or whatever name someone wants to give them.

    Thanks for your time.

  • As a fundamental believer and teacher of the scriptural teachings of the bible (not what man has written but what God has written) I do not believe a person needs to belong to any one functional church or structural church. I was always taught that it is the people that made up a church anyway. The building is just the meeting place. Jesus said where 2 or more are gathered together in my name there am I also. That is a fundamental teaching of the bible. God appoints the ministers not men. Men need to have a lisence for a recognition God knows a persons heart so does not need a piece of paper to know what they are doing or thinking. He is the only one who can ordain them to minister His word. Any one can speak of his word and talk his word but only God can ordain those to teach his word. All the apostles were chosen by Christ himself. When the apostles tried to replace Judas they were admonished by Christ and told that He would do the replacing. And so he did.

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