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.