Posts Tagged ‘Fundamentalism’

Psalm 105

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

I got a comment last week that for multiple reasons didn’t qualify under this blog’s comment policy, so it won’t be seeing the light of day, but it included a warning to “touch not the Lord’s anointed.” I sometimes go years without hearing this and had almost forgotten that people appropriate a phrase from Psalm 105 this way. Let me first show you the Psalm, in the KJV because I like how it reads:

O give thanks unto the LORD; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the people. Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works. Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the LORD. Seek the LORD, and his strength: seek his face evermore. Remember his marvellous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth; O ye seed of Abraham his servant, ye children of Jacob his chosen. He is the LORD our God: his judgments are in all the earth. He hath remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations. Which covenant he made with Abraham, and his oath unto Isaac; And confirmed the same unto Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant: Saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan, the lot of your inheritance: When they were but a few men in number; yea, very few, and strangers in it. When they went from one nation to another, from one kingdom to another people; He suffered no man to do them wrong: yea, he reproved kings for their sakes; Saying, Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm. Moreover he called for a famine upon the land: he brake the whole staff of bread. He sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold for a servant: Whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron: Until the time that his word came: the word of the LORD tried him. The king sent and loosed him; even the ruler of the people, and let him go free. He made him lord of his house, and ruler of all his substance: To bind his princes at his pleasure; and teach his senators wisdom. Israel also came into Egypt; and Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham. And he increased his people greatly; and made them stronger than their enemies. He turned their heart to hate his people, to deal subtilly with his servants. He sent Moses his servant; and Aaron whom he had chosen. They shewed his signs among them, and wonders in the land of Ham. He sent darkness, and made it dark; and they rebelled not against his word. He turned their waters into blood, and slew their fish. Their land brought forth frogs in abundance, in the chambers of their kings. He spake, and there came divers sorts of flies, and lice in all their coasts. He gave them hail for rain, and flaming fire in their land. He smote their vines also and their fig trees; and brake the trees of their coasts. He spake, and the locusts came, and caterpillers, and that without number, And did eat up all the herbs in their land, and devoured the fruit of their ground. He smote also all the firstborn in their land, the chief of all their strength. He brought them forth also with silver and gold: and there was not one feeble person among their tribes. Egypt was glad when they departed: for the fear of them fell upon them. He spread a cloud for a covering; and fire to give light in the night. The people asked, and he brought quails, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven. He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river. For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham his servant. And he brought forth his people with joy, and his chosen with gladness: And gave them the lands of the heathen: and they inherited the labour of the people; That they might observe his statutes, and keep his laws. Praise ye the LORD.

Let me be gentle and reverential in handling the text here and point out that

  1. The form here is poetic; the main body of the text is meant to be sung.
  2. The audience is Jewish; it is addressed to people who are children of Abraham through Jacob.
  3. The body of the text is a description of historical events.
  4. The main theme is God’s specific provision for the nation of Israel, particularly through Joseph and Moses.

The anointed here in the bolded section are the ones wandering; they aren’t special people within the nation of Israel.

If someone wants to appropriate this text to their own benefit they need to deal with several issues first:

  1. Why and how the poetic form here should be taken literally
  2. Why the descriptive text should be considered prescriptive or proscriptive
  3. Why this text should deal with them at all; particularly, why they should be the wanderers protected by God against the pagan kings, and not say the other way around, and why a passage about Jewish national history has anything to do with them.

This isn’t even one of those “if your pastor thinks he’s Moses watch out for his Kadesh” warnings. Seriously: if your pastor wields this passage as a warning not to question him, especially regarding matters of money, please ask yourself why you’re there.

Also, it may be helpful to ask why Paul’s warning to the believers at Colossae against people who say “touch not” shouldn’t apply here. Just saying.



the long shadow of Deuteronomy 18:17-22

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the distinctives I grew up with dealt with the interpretation of Deuteronomy 18:18-22, which I’ll cite in the King James Version here:

18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. 19 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him. 20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak , or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die . 21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken ? 22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass , that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken , but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

This is a complicated passage, and I won’t attempt to put it completely in its historical context or parse out everything it means. I’ll just give the interpretation that had the greatest impact on me growing up: if a preacher says anything that isn’t true, he is a false prophet (or false teacher) and should be shunned.

This meant several things:

  1. If your preacher gets something wrong doctrinally you need to leave that church
  2. If your preacher says something that is factually wrong you need to leave that church
  3. If your preacher says something is going to happen and it doesn’t, you need to leave that church
  4. If you’re not willing to leave the church, you have to pretend/believe that your pastor is always right

The first three are just variants on what it means for something to be true, but they were at the root of our belief that everyone in our area who attended another church was going to Hell. If you add in our tendency toward separatism, especially separatism from those who continue fellowship with those from whom we have separated ourselves, and you have a complicated problem with a simple solution: we’re the True Church and everyone else isn’t.

We sort of backed into the fourth, because it had to be true by implication. If we were at the one true church, then our preacher could never be wrong; if he actually said something that was wrong we had to ignore the problem it presented us. We couldn’t leave our church because all the others were false.

Unfortunately this tended to put the preacher on a pedestal. As a result the pastorate attracted men who wanted to be on that pedestal and didn’t know how to get off. So we ended up with preachers who believed they couldn’t be wrong, brooked no dissent or discussion, and were incapable of learning anything that might lead them to admit they had previously been wrong.

This tendency to separate preachers into two categories: “true” and “false,” did not serve us well; it’s taken me years to learn to think differently.

fundamentalists and evangelism

One of the paradoxes of the fundamentalism I grew up with is that it is simultaneously separatist and evangelistic. This isn’t the case with all fundamentalist Christian groups: some are explicitly racist (Christian Identity), some are so separatist as to be cult-like (Exclusive Brethren), etc. In our group, of course, our evangelism was exclusively at the service of the local church, so we tended to do things focused on getting people to attend our church. We had a day a week where people (men, mostly) went out in pairs, knocking on doors, sometimes talking to them about Jesus but mostly inviting them to visit our church.

This is one of the jumping-off points between fundamentalist churches and evangelical churches that makes the two groups kind of difficult to unwind: because our brand of fundamentalists focus so much on the local church we tend to see numerical growth of our local church as being indicative of its spiritual health. Or, put bluntly, our church is big because our preacher is right, exclusive of other preachers. So when we encountered the kind of Church Growth methodology that was (and to a degree still is) so important to Elmer Towns and Jerry Falwell we didn’t realize how much of a mixed multitude of fundamentalists and evangelicals we saw at church. Whatever Jerry is, Elmer Towns is primarily a church growth expert; he’s written a bunch of books, some of them primarily pastoral, but the greatest plurality of them are on church grown methodology. Which is why if you go looking for Elmer Towns clips you’ll find interesting items like this:

which to my layman’s ears sounds like a discussion of technical detail of church growth rather than anything doctrinal. It’s also why Towns shows up in the history of both large evangelical churches and large fundamentalist churches, including places as solidly IFB as First Baptist, Hammond.

fundamentalism vs. evangelicalism 2

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we came out of a background that was a mixture of native fundamentalism and Bob Jones fundamentalism, and I think party for this reason we were never 100% in any one camp and willing in principle to leave should conditions warrant. When I started at Liberty it was still nominally fundamentalist, as far as any university can be fundamentalist, anyway, and the ministry still published The Fundamentalist Journal, about which more later.

Jerry never really broke up with the fundamentalists; he just sort of changed gradually over a period of several years. For this reason I don’t think he ever announced that he was no longer a fundamentalist, and so as far as I can find there’s really nothing written from Liberty’s perspective with a title like “Why We’re No Longer Fundamentalist” or whatever. Instead all I can find is stuff like this

  • Charles Woodbridge’s 1969 book The New Evangelicalism, published by Bob Jones University Press
  • William Ashbrook’s pamphlet The New Neutralism, published in various editions over many years
  • John Ashbrook’s revision The New Neutralism II, now probably in its final form and available on the Web

And while the younger Ashbrook at least mentions Jerry, his focus is Harold Ockenga, founder of Fuller Theological Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals, etc. and who was responsible for the coining of the term “Neo-Evangelicalism.” Ashbrook’s criticism of Ockenga et al was pretty much this:

In the late 1940’s Harold Ockenga, the architect of the New Evangelicalism launched the movement that rejected the Biblical doctrine of separation from apostasy and from the world and replaced it one of acceptance and infiltration.

There’s a lot to unpack in his description of the Neo-Evangelical movement, and only some of it has anything to do with us at Liberty, since we weren’t really the children of Ockenga and Fuller but were sort of going our own way. But it’s as good a place to start as any: Ashbrook makes separation (doctrinal and cultural, more or less) his distinctive, and accuses evangelicals of trying to find a middle path between fundamentalism and modernism. Ashbrook makes the argument that there’s really no middle ground, and attempting to find some sort of common ground with the outside world inevitably leads fundamentalists to modernism, rather than leading people from the outside world to the truth, or whatever. And whether he’s right or wrong, this sharp distinction casts a shadow over the question of whether there can ever be such a thing as a “fundamentalist university,” or whether fundamentalists can only have teaching colleges while modernists have universities. In other words, it’s an open question whether fundamentalists can ever discover anything new, or whether they can only accept and teach received information and leave the modernists to pursue the novel, whether it turns out to be right or wrong.

I think it’s a fair criticism that modernism necessarily abandons the true for the novel or fashionable, and roughly equally fair to criticize fundamentalism for never asking an open question. And these tensions shaped a lot of what was going on at Liberty (and may still be going on) as the school looks to define itself as it grows.

fundamentalist distinctives 3

I got to Liberty through a maze of fundamentalist Baptist churches; after my parents married we attended Thomas Road briefly, then a church pastored by Elbert Yeatts, who went to no college at all, then one pastored by a Tennessee Temple graduate, then one pastored by a Hyles-Anderson graduate. Along the way I ducked in and out of Bob Jones churches when visiting relatives. In our neck of the woods Bob Jones graduates more or less set the tone for fundamentalist Baptist churches, but graduates tended to preach sermons that varied only by flavor and not by kind.

The preachers we heard tended to preach mostly topical sermons, and the topics were chiefly the following:

  • The literal truth (meaning historicity) of the Bible
  • The importance of being born again
  • Hierarchical social order; particularly, the obedience of the church to the pastor, the family to the father, and in some typically indirect sense, of everyone to God.
  • Expectations of the Rapture, and to a lesser degree, interpretation of current events in a Hal Lindsey framework
  • Adherence to a behavior and demeanor code, including short hair for men, longish skirts for women, and avoidance of anything worldly; this typically meant no drinking, but we sort of finessed questions surrounding smoking.

As a latter-day “mere Christian” I tend to react badly when I find myself in a church where the pastor camps out on a distinctive (autonomy of the local church, predestination and election, musical instruments, what-have-you), but that’s a story for a later post.

I have to admit that even in the early Seventies Jerry Falwell was already breaking ranks with the fundamentalists somewhat. Where the fundamentalists tended to rest their sermons on their interpretation of the Bible and their own authority, Jerry had already started adding figures from Gallup and George Barna into his sermons, thereby blurring the line between the things we believed because they were directly stated in Scripture or were part of our interpretation of Scripture (“special revelation”) and things we believed because they came from some other authority or could be observed directly (“general revelation“).

Also, Jerry deviated from our fundamentalist preachers in one other important way: where fundamentalist preachers read the small size of their churches as evidence they were preaching difficult truth, and therefore were doing God’s will, Jerry took the fact that his ministry was growing quickly as evidence that he was doing God’s will. Jerry, strictly speaking, was outside the main stream of the Church Growth Movement, because he had his own in-house church growth expert (Elmer Towns) and navigated some of the challenges of building a megachurch in an idiosyncratic way.

speaking in soundbites 1

They were shrill and prudish, they loved bad music and guns and NASCAR, told corny jokes and spoke in soundbites, were unshakably loyal to exposed liars, and their children were going to bully our children into prayer — Gina Welch, In the Land of Believers

This is the quote that hooked me into Welch’s Thomas Road Baptist Church travelogue. It’s her description of her preconception of evangelical Christians generally, circa 2004. And she manages to find some of these folks during her three or four years at TRBC, particularly folks who carry guns where they don’t need them and folks who tell corny jokes. To be fair she admits to being moved by some of the music (and she even takes in a performance of the Living Christmas Tree), and by the time she leaves TRBC the Ergun Caner situation is still three years away, so I have to imagine that the exposed liar she’s referring to is former President George W. Bush. She doesn’t say.

What really hooked me in this quote is the part I’ve bolded above, because I think it explained so much about how I grew up understanding the world from a fundamentalist/evangelical perspective. We tended to view the world as being explainable in terms of phrases lifted from the King James Version of the Bible, typically short ones lifted out of their original textual context, not to mention their cultural context.

We tended to see complex problems through the lens of simple un-nuanced references, as if the Bible had all the answers, the answers were unambiguous, and we were not engaging in any kind of interpretation but just reporting objective facts. I think we did this because

  • We saw the Bible as a collection of independent segments of text, almost as if the verses had been compiled into the whole, rather than the whole being broken artificially into chapters and verses
  • Our pastors tended to “camp out” on a single phrase or a single verse for an entire sermon, reinforcing a meaning that might or might not be implicit in the text and that might or might not fit into a coherent understanding of Scripture as a whole
  • We tended to read the Bible over and over and memorize it a verse at a time, rehearsing the received meaning as we did, rather than attempting to discover any meaning in the text ourselves or attempting to match up what we read with any other view other than what we received from our preacher at our church.

We also tended to ignore the fact that the Bible, while it was written more or less by book (ignoring some of the books that have been broken into pieces and some of the composite authorship theories of higher criticism), the chapters and verses we use to index the Bible were not part of the original text, do not reflect authorial intent, etc.

Our sermons tended to be primarily topical and persuasive, rather than expository and exploratory. We weren’t looking for open-ended meanings.

We brought with us the expectations of poor people who, while not illiterate, had expectations of books generally that were more appropriate for a time when they were expensive and authoritative, rather than abundant and (for lack of a better word) helpful. Because the King James English was strange, we tended not to understand what it said, so we got in the habit of having what we heard from the pulpit be at odds with what we might understand from a plain reading of the text.

So I guess I would have to plead guilty to thinking and speaking in soundbites; it was (and to a degree still is) a part of the culture, and doing otherwise would have been almost unthinkable.

fundamentalist distinctives 2

Wikipedia has a better article and a better list of distinctives at the article Fundamentalist Christianity, and notes the intertwined history of Baptists and Presbyterians in the history of twentieth-century fundamentalism. The list of distinctives is a bit different, and notes the fracture of fundamentalism as a cultural force into various streams across different denominations. Here’s the list of distinctives as best I can make them out:

  • Inerrancy of the Scriptures
  • Historicity of the Virgin Birth of Jesus
  • Deity of Jesus Christ
  • Doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God’s grace through human faith
  • Historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Authenticity of miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, including healing, deliverance, and second coming
  • Rejection of the documentary hypothesis (the composite authorship of e.g. the Pentateuch)
  • Separatism
  • Dispensationalism
  • Separatism on the basis of doctrinal purity
  • Rejection of ecumenical efforts (including ecumenical political efforts)

The article describes a basic fundamentalist movement across various denominations as a reaction to higher criticism that then broke up more or less along denominational lines, into the following groups:

  • Neo-evangelicalism
  • Reformed confessionalism
  • Lutheran confessionalism
  • The Heritage movement
  • Paleo-orthodoxy
  • etc.

And notes (correctly) that Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga precipitated the fundamentalist-evangelical breakup.

After that the article gets a little strange; after having noted that fundamentalists shun ecumenical cooperation on many issues including political issues, it then tries to graft the Christian Right onto this basic root of fundamentalism. I think I would argue that this is not as true as it is presented to be in the article, but that Jerry Falwell left his fundamentalist roots when he started/joined the Christian Right, and while today many fundamentalists take their voting cues from Christian Right leaders, evangelicals are distinguished from fundamentalists by their level of political engagement, fascination with cultural and political issues, etc.

This is the first article I’ve seen that draws a straight line between the sort of Baptist (and Presbyterian) fundamentalism I’m accustomed to and the Reformed/Lutheran confessional movements and suggests a common source in a reaction to higher criticism. It explains a number of things, including why so much of the rhetoric I hear from more modern Reformed/Lutheran types (Michael Horton, Todd Wilken, R. C. Sproul, etc.) sound so familiar from my time in fundamentalism; all three or four groups are still to some degree fighting the same century-old battle against Modernism.

It may also explain why they all have such low opinions of evangelicals.