Thursday, March 16, 2006

Fundamentalist versus Liberal

In light of the recent posts by Ben Myers and Chris Tilling I thought I'd add my own thoughts.

Preliminary Remarks

1. Most persons who use the term "fundamentalist" pejoratively are simply ignorant of the historical circumstances surrounding the origins of fundamentalism as a theological movement in North America in the early 20th century. Many are also ill informed about the historical, theological and cultural differences between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism - the two cannot be equated.

2. The terms "fundamentalist" and "liberal" are often used these days as an opprobrium but they have also become relative terms, i.e. a fundamentalist is someone more conservative than me and a liberal is someone less conservative than me. (I've been called both!) To make things worse, Old Liberalism was a package and you could easily discover an Old Liberal based on certain questions, e.g. virgin birth, inerrancy, resurrection, atonement, etc. But today there are a number of theologians who don't quite fit the bill, e.g. Rowan Williams. William's has an orthodox view of the resurrection (as far as I can tell), but his views of sexuality are as liberal as Hillary Clinton speaking at an ACLU convention. In sum, other than being an insult, the terms fundamentalist and liberal don't really mean much anymore.

3. The Fundamentalis vesus Liberal controversy was really a symptom of Christianity wrestling with the challenges posed by modernity. There were two reactions to modernity: "run for the hills and hide your daughters" (Fundamentalists) or "wine me and dine me" (Liberals). As we enter into a Postmodern period the liberal versus fundametnalist controversy is no longer the defining issue for Western Christianity.

See further:
- Carl F. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947)
- George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980)

Why I'm not a Fundamentalist

1. Fundamentalists major on the minors, and make minor issues tests for faith and orthodoxy (e.g. alchol, Bible translations, etc).

2. Fundamentalists fail to distinguish between what is Christian and what is the cultural Christianity that they were nurtured on.

3. Fundamentalists fail to distinguishy between areas of conviction and areas of command, and treat areas of conscience as a test of orthodoxy.

4. Fundamentalists have a view of Scripture that is docetic in that Scripture is divine but it is not human - no human processes (e.g. the Synoptic problem) are compatible with divine authorship.

5. Fundamentalists preach the authority of the text but practice the authority of the community.

6. Fundamentalists fails to appreciate the different genres of the Bible or comprehend the role of presuppositions in influencing our reading of Scripture.

7. Fundamentalists believe in theological cloning rather than theological learning.

8. Fundamentalists fail to be the salt of the earth as they are concerned almost exclusively with the minutia of doctrinal purity and correctness.

9. Fundamentalists have a lopsided soteriology as they think of salvation as purely the salvation of souls for heaven rather than the liberation of persons from sin, sickness, subjugation, and death. They aim for decisions rather than making disciples.

10. Fundamentalists fail to recognize the true marks of the Church and allow for a diversity of voices within the body of Christ.

11. Fundamentalists are more excited about what they are against, than what they are for.

12. Fundamentalists regard the Spirit as a theological entity, but not as a presence that manifests itself in worship or loving community.

Why I'm Not a Liberal

1. Liberals mimic culture to the point that they simply imitate the contemporary values of the day and wrap them up in some Christian wrapping paper. The world looks on and says, "Thanks for affirming all of my values but you can keep the wrapping paper".

2. Liberals minor on the majors - sin, atonement, and resurrection.

3. Liberals have a view of Scripture that is Arrian - it is human but not divine.

4. Liberals take Scripture to be illustrative but not necessarily prescriptive and normative for faith and praxis.

5. Liberals deny the transforming power of the gospel to liberate persons from every form of sin.

6. Liberals minimize the unique revelation of God in Christ and deny the eschatological finality of Jesus Christ.

7. The Gospel of Liberalism was what Karl Rahner warned us of: A God without wrath takes men without sin to a kingdom without judgment.

8. Liberals de-historize and de-apocalypticize the message of the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles.

9. Liberals preach pluralism but do not tolerate anyone who fails to embrace their pluralistic ethos.

10. Liberals believe the Spirit is a Spirit of unity but not a Spirit of truth.

11. Liberals think that the only heresy is to believe in heresy.

12. Liberals think that the church is about programs and structures, when it is about creating gospel-proclaiming, Spirit-drive, Christ-centred, God-focused redemptive communities.

23 comments:

Danny Zacharias said...

What an excellent articulation. Thanks very much Dr.Bird.

Danny

A. B. Caneday said...

Nicely done, Michael!

Alan S. Bandy said...

Very well said!

Chris Tilling said...

Nice list and I loved what you said.
Just one question:
At the start you maintain that we shouldn't too casualy think in terms of liberal/Fundie, i.e. that it can be historically naive, perjorative and bound to the modernist agenda. However, and now the question: how, then, can it be consistent to go ahead and support exactly this liberal/Fundie division in the section that follows (why I'm not a lib/Fundie)?

Michael F. Bird said...

Chris, good point! I noticed the irony half-way through writing. I would advocate that the terms are used more in the sense of deviant labelling these days, and that they are more elastic than they used to be. However, it is still possible to identify libs and fundies even if the badges that they wear are not as easy to identify as they used to be.

Chris Tilling said...

However, it is still possible to identify libs and fundies even if the badges that they wear are not as easy to identify as they used to be.

Yea, I totally agree. And I can also relate to what you said about being called both a Fundie and a Liberal!

mr. c said...

Outstanding article. I really enjoyed the "Why I'm not..." section.

Michael Barber said...

It's great when you're attacked as both a fundamentalist and a liberal. As Jesus warns, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you" (Luke 6:26).

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Michael,

Very well said. Now I would like to hear why you are or are not neo-orthodox. In other words why it isn't just fundamentalists that think propositional revelation matters. I noticed that you are a card carrying member of the Evangelical TC Blog so do you find yourself in disagreement with the musings of Ben Myers on the doctrine of scripture and the doctrine of the Word? Are you in league with Carl F. Henry or Emil Brunner on this subject?

It has been a long time since I read Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, but over the last four decades I have watched neo-orthodoxy take over North American Evangelicalism. I was nearly swept into it myself in the late 70s but I had a spiritual crisis which found me outside of the church altogether for over a decade.

I am not and have never been either a fundamentalist or a liberal. I left the North American manifestation of the evangelical subculture nearly 30 years ago and now find the it so horrifying to behold that it would be impossible to participate in it.

So I would add evangelical (North American) to your list of what I am not. Some time perhaps I could work up a list of reasons. But I can assure you that it isn't the same subculture that goes by that name in the UK or Europe.

thanks for your post, good topic.

clay

Celucien joseph said...

Michael,

You're a man of deep conviction. You know exactly what you believe and stand for.

Great piece!

Ted Gossard said...

Good stuff! Thanks Michael.

Jim Hamilton said...

Well put! Linking to this now. . .

Jim

Scot McKnight said...

Mike,

Now for something interesting:

Are you emerging or not?

Mathew Sims said...

You mentioned that fundamentalism cannot be equated with evangelicalism, but I would disagree and J.I Packer noted that historical fundamentalism is really the same as historical evangelicalism.

I agree with a lot of your assesments, but you are painting with a broad brush. You are attacking one certain segment of fundamentalism.

I do think the labels themselves are useless. As many have noted, I have also been accused of being liberal for ridiculous things or fundamental b/c of other aspects, so the terms are subjectively applied now.

God bless you! Great Overview.

In Christ~Mathew S.

Larry said...

Certainly a distorted view of fundamentalism at the very least. As someone pointed out, you are rejecting a narrow part of fundamentalism that many fundamentalists reject. I think you have also mischaracterized the issues and created false dichotomies with some of them.

For instance to call teh fundamentalist view of Scripture a docetic view is a gross misunderstanding that no professor should make. I don't know any fundamentalist who denies the human aspect of scriptural authorship.

You inexplicably create a dichotomy between salt of the earth and doctrinal purity. Fundamentalists practice both.

Problems could be pointed out in every one of your twelve reasons why you are not a fundamentalist. Perhaps at the root of your reasons should have been listed a 13th: You don't understand the genius of fundamentalism because you are focused on a loud mouthed distortion of fundamentalism.

I certainly hope you aren't teaching your students these things in this simplistic manner.

the fundamentalist said...

Don't let my name misguide you. :)

I think he's got points on both sides of the issue. I opted for the name "the fundamentalist" because of the "fundamentals" of Christianity. Fundamentalism in it's truest sense is really conservative Christianity. Here are the 5 "fundamentals" if you will:

(1)Inerrancy of the Scriptures
(2)The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus
(3)The doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God's grace and human faith
(4)The bodily resurrection of Jesus
(5)The authenticity of Christ's miracles

A fundamentalist is one who beleives in fundamentals. Unfortunately the label comes with a lot of baggage, as the article noted.

There's a lot of name calling in American Christianity today, and I think it's really rooted in arrogance. The seeker movement takes pride in their relevancy. The emergent movement takes pride in their deconstructionalism. The fundamentalist movement takes pride in there ultra-orthodox Christianity. The liberal movement takes pride in their rationalism. The charismatic movement takes pride in its expressionate worship. I'm not saying that everyone who is of one of these persuasions is arrogant, but I listen the various proponents, and it sounds like a bickering match. The article just proves my point all the more.

Rather than focusing on that, I think we should focus on what matters most, and that is what Jesus says matters most: Loving God and loving others.

Ryan DeBarr said...

Michael Bird said,

Most persons who use the term "fundamentalist" pejoratively are simply ignorant of the historical circumstances surrounding the origins of fundamentalism as a theological movement in North America in the early 20th century.

Then you went on to stereotype Fundamentalists according to their current state. I do not think that the Fundamentalists of the 1920's would really fit your paradigm. Certainly if you read The Fundamentals then you'll find the authors talking about the benefits of higher text criticism, and other things that are strictly verboten to Fundamentalists today.

So what do we do with the term, "Fundamentalism"? Do we maintain the historical usage or do we let it describe the way things are now?

I'm just asking. I don't have the answer.

David said...

"The Fundamentalis vesus Liberal controversy was really a symptom of Christianity wrestling with the challenges posed by modernity."

I'd have to agree. At what point does all our wrestling actually help in the evangelistic efforts? I am especially concerned about the wrestling that happens amongst believers. I do my own fair share of wrestling, but to what greater good? I wrestle a lot with that as well.

the fundamentalist said...

I think fundamentalism gets bad press because of guys who call themselves fundamentalist (like Fred Phelps) and promote doctrines of hate rather than authentic Christianity. Some of the most genuine Christians I know consider themselves fundamentalist. My call is for us to stop hate-mongering one another, but be of one-mind in love. I think this is what Scripture is getting at. Doctrine is important, but it's not something we should hate anyone over.

Michelle said...

Larry said, "For instance to call teh fundamentalist view of Scripture a docetic view is a gross misunderstanding that no professor should make. I don't know any fundamentalist who denies the human aspect of scriptural authorship. "

I must be missing something. Inerrancy of scripture means that there can be no human aspect to scriptural authorship - or, that whatever human aspect there is is irrelevant or at best, not significant. Sounds docetic to me.

I do appreciate the list, as well as the preamble suggesting that the labels are less useful these days. Interestingly enough, like those who suggest that your characterizations of fundamentalists are a bit extreme, as a liberal, your characterizations of liberals as kind of extreme too. Like #1, for instance. I think many liberals, like myself, find modern culture problematic on many counts, particularly pertaining to materialism. And many liberals would resoundly deny an Arian approach to scripture.

janinsanfran said...

I found myself in substantial agreement with your description of both Liberals and Fundamentalists. That might seem a little surprising since I am a gay, leftist Episcopalian in San Francisco.

Either you are on to something or words have really lost their meaning?

Larry said...

To return to an old conversation if anyone is still reading ...

Michelle said, I must be missing something. Inerrancy of scripture means that there can be no human aspect to scriptural authorship - or, that whatever human aspect there is is irrelevant or at best, not significant. Sounds docetic to me.

You are misunderstanding what inerrancy means. Inerrancy means that Scripture itself is inerrant. It has nothing to do with the divine or human processes by which it came into existence.

Historically, the doctrine of inspiration among orthodox Christianity (and therefore fundamentalists and evangelicals) is that in inspiration, God superintended the writing of Scripture, not dictated it. It accepts that human personality and historical context dictate the particular form and genre of Scripture. It also maintains that whatever was written under inspiration is without error.

I think your post Michelle, probably without intending to, backs up my original objection that there is a gross misunderstanding of what fundamentalism was and is.

It is not "one version only" or "Fred Phelps."

Faithful Progressive said...

Nice piece, but one quibble.

5. Liberals deny the transforming power of the gospel to liberate persons from every form of sin.???

Oh really-that's news to me and to many "liberal" Christians and theologians. Exactly when and how do I do that without being aware of it?

FP