Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 1)

In the 2017 World War II movie, The Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill cries out in frustration, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Although these words are more than likely an artistic embellishment for cinema, they do fairly sum up Churchill’s frustration with the policies of Neville Chamberlain that sought to appease Adolph Hitler by ignoring his aggressions in Europe. Chamberlain truly believed that by signing the Munich Agreement and giving the Sudetenland to Germany along with Hitler’s promise not to continue invading other nations, that Europe would be saved. Chamberlain famously came home and declared that they he had achieved “peace for our time.” Chamberlain thought Hitler was a misunderstood man, when he was in fact the blood-thirsty tiger that would never be satisfied. Churchill understood this and knew that war was the only way to stop him.

The notion of appeasement is not only shared among politicians. Unfortunately, in a world that requires vigilance and sometimes engagement in theological battles, there are those who would seek appeasement and compromise for the sake of “peace in our time.” But as I hope to demonstrate with some examples from recent history, appeasement, and compromise in the face of theological liberalism are always the easier route, but they never achieve the promise they claim.

Setting the Stage: The Fundamentalist and Modernist Controversy

To be clear, we need to understand that prior to the mid-19th century, “evangelical” was synonymous with “fundamentalism.” All Christians who identified with the evangel, the gospel message of Christ, were “evangelicals.” Fundamentalism was a movement that derived its name from those evangelical Christians that sought unity across denominational lines but were committed to certain “fundamental” doctrines that have been accepted by historic Christianity. The number of these fundamentals varied at times, but they almost always included:

  1. The inerrancy of Scripture
  2. The virgin birth of Christ
  3. The substitutionary vicarious atonement of Christ
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ
  5. The reality of miracles
  6. The imminent and physical return of Christ

Fundamentalists stated that a person had to minimally ascribe to these core doctrines to be within the historic Christian Church because a denial of these doctrines often leads to a wholesale denial of the faith. Modernists (theological liberals), on the other hand, wanted to focus not on the content of belief, but rather the feeling or spirit of Christianity. By denying the need to subscribe to core doctrines of the faith, they could cover the fact that they denied many or all of them, while still insisting they were a part of the Christian church and represented Christianity.

Fundamentalism rejected this minimalistic and emotion drive religion as inadequate at best, and heretical at worst. Several courageous defenders rose up in obedience to Scripture’s call to purify the church:

  • 2 John 9–11 (ESV): “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
  • Galatians 1:8–9 (ESV): “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
  • 1 Timothy 6:20–21 (ESV): “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.”

By the middle of the 19th century, theological liberalism has already entered almost all mainline denominations. This was possible because liberal theologians subscribed to the biblical creeds of their denominations and institutions while at the same time teaching non-evangelical theology. Following German liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), modernists asserted that Christianity was not primarily about doctrine, but rather a “feeling, intuition and experience.”[1] As such, Schleiermacher set the stage for the setting aside of doctrine in favor of a Christianity that affirmed a faith based upon feelings and experiences.

Along with the growth of liberal Christianity came a desire to put aside doctrinal differences among different denominations to bring unity around an ecumenical spirit. This led to the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948, made up of “churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.”[2] That brief doctrinal statement was all that was required of those joining the WCC, and none were required to expand on what they meant by those words.

Often portrayed as ignorant, uneducated, backwards, anti-science, and anti-progressive by liberals, and “fighting fundamentalists,” uncharitable, ungracious, and divisive, by evangelicals, the fundamentalists stood their ground and called the church to put out of its churches, missions agencies, educational institutions, and para-church organizations all those that were unfaithful to Christ and His Word. But not everyone within evangelicalism agreed with them, thinking there was a better way—a middle way.

My next post will highlight two examples of this attempt to navigate a middle way.


[1] Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 5.

[2] Murray, 3

2 thoughts on “Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 2) | Always Reforming

  2. Pingback: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 3) | Always Reforming

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