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

The Danger of Cutting Off Our Doctrinal Roots

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:1–2 (ESV)

Set in a backdrop where the church in Corinth was filled with many Christians who had a strong taste for ear-pleasing speakers, Paul addresses his intentional plan to not be seeker sensitive in his preaching. The words “lofty speech” and “wisdom” (ESV) both reference the exalted form of rhetoric that the preferred speakers used in their addresses to the church.

When Paul came, however, he did not speak in this way. Paul isn’t embracing crude speech or speech that is intentionally dumbed down in order to sound less educated. Many seeker sensitive preachers do that today, and they are in the same vein as those that Paul is speaking against.

Paul’s comments instead are meant to point out to the Corinthian church that the focus of the message that Paul preached was not primarily focused upon the listener, but rather was focused upon the message. In saying this, Paul does not dismiss the need to be clear and doctrinal. What he is saying, though, is that the particular tastes and preferences of the listeners is not of primary importance, but rather getting the right message was of the highest importance.

This attitude toward communicating the gospel wasn’t something that Paul stumbled upon when he came into the city. In verse 2, Paul clearly says that he decided what his message would focus on instead. The Greek word ekrina comes from the root word krino and this root means to judge. Paul has selected, or set out as separate the way one chooses among many choices, his methodology. What did he decide? That of all the subjects, focal points, and sidebars that he could potentially run after, he would stay firmly planted upon the subject of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion.

Of course a simple reading of the Pauline Epistles shows that Paul didn’t only write or teach about the gospel. His range was deep and broad. But in Paul’s process of thinking through what the church needed, the gospel was his home base and starting point. Whereas the false teachers in Corinth had little concern for the ABC’s of the Christian faith, Paul built his theological superstructure upon these critical truths.

When we leave the fundamentals of the faith and become enamored by other ideas or doctrines where we leave the cross behind, we can not only expect that we will soon be lost in the weeds, but we will also find that we have lost our power. The gospel is the deep root from which all our preaching, teaching, discipleship, and faith come from. To cut ourselves off from this root is a fatal flaw. Paul wouldn’t mask it with big words and ideas. He put out his message in words and ideas that were plain and simple. And that was his plan.

Placing our Hope in God Alone

“The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
and by its great might it cannot rescue.” Ps 33:16-17

A few years ago I had the opportunity to walk through the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, OH. Moving from one hangar to the next I saw the evolution of aircraft from the Wright brother’s first plane to the modern surveillance drones of today.

It isn’t hard to be in a place like that and not have an overwhelming sense of patriotism as I see the military defense weapons and aircraft that our nation has used in the defense of our country and many other countries all around the world. Seeing these beautiful machines and their sheer size made me feel a little sorry for anyone that stood against them in a battle.

It makes me think about how Pharaoh felt about his horses and chariots, and the king of Babylon about his weapons of war. The same can be said about the Medo-Persians, Greeks, and Romans at different parts of world history. Whether the weapons are spears, swords, arrows, or chariots, tanks, and airplanes, our hearts can become fooled into thinking that it is the weapon and strategies that win the war. Sometimes we think we can simply outnumber the enemy with more soldiers, more money, more missiles, and more technologies. This is heady stuff and it can divert the attention of a nation away from their inherent weakness and need for God.

In Psalm 33, the unnamed psalmist recognized this prideful blindspot and seeks to refocus the attention of the worshippers of Yahweh. The king, he writes, is not saved by his army-no matter how great. A read through the Chronicles and any history book will give credence to this reality. Kings are overthrown, betrayed, killed in battle, poisoned, and even killed by their own sons in a grab of power. King David himself survived an attempted coup by his own son. Some rulers are better than others, but no ruler can exist without God’s help. The Lord puts the man on the throne or behind the desk, but it is God alone who keeps him there, and it is God who removes him.

The psalmist also recognized that the same is true about those warriors that seem unbeatable in battle. We laud those warriors that fight valiantly and bring to our nation victory over the enemy. Stories are told of campaigns where all hope was lost and then the hero emerged and snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. But even the greatest hero among our warriors should not be hoped upon more than our God. Do not forget men like the mighty Goliath who boasted in his mighty size and ability to defeat Israel, even defying the Lord with mockery. That warrior’s great strength could not deliver him when a boy with a sling brought him to his death on the battlefield.

The warhorse was a great advantage to any ancient kingdom that sought to be a military powerhouse. The war horse was large, brave, and strong. He could charge into a mob of warriors with courage and bowl over those in his path, allowing his rider to swing his longsword or thrust his spear into the melee while remaining out of reach by the foot soldier. Any army that had a cavalry was an almost unstoppable force. Almost.

Knowing the confidence that men put in warhorses, he commanded that the kings of Israel were not to amass large numbers of them knowing that it would easily allow the king to seek confidence in his cavalry and not place his trust in the Lord. In modern weaponry, confidence is placed in ships, drones, fighter jets, missiles, and many other weapons that can unleash “shock and awe” in our enemies.

The writer of Psalm 33:16-17 should be heard. Anything we place our confidence in outside of God can and will fail. It is inevitable. As a matter of fact, it is worse than failure. These things that we place above our trust in God are an affront to Him, and they will not only fail but they will also be brought low as they have become a challenge to God for supremacy in our hearts. He will not allow anything else in His place.

The Rage Against Truth

These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”” (Acts 19:25–28, ESV)

As Paul proclaimed the gospel in Ephesus, the effects trickled down, affecting the very livelihood of those involved in the idol-makers guild. The testimony of Paul is clear, even when spoken from the lips of the pagan silversmith Demetrius–“gods made with hands are not gods.”

As he gathered the guildsmen to refute this challenge to their trades, Demetrius could have sought to put together a powerful rebuttal against Paul’s accusation. He could have challenged Paul to a debate, or showed where Paul’s reasoning went off track. He could have pointed out inconsistencies that he saw in Paul’s arguments against the practice of Diana worship, but he did none of these things.

Instead, Demetrius did what so many others do when they cannot refute the truth of the gospel–they resort to emotional appeals that focus on rage and victimhood. The best response that these tradesmen could come up with was to whip themselves up into a frenzied mob and shout “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” for about two hours (Eph 19:34). After all, they reasoned, everyone knows this is true! Why answer questions, and why reason or have a civil conversation? Raging anger, shouting, and mob violence were all they could come up with.

I wish I could say that society has become more “civilized” in its response to contrary ideas and viewpoints, particularly about religion–but it hasn’t. Emotional responses completely devoid of reason, civil conversation, and informed information are harder to find than ever.

As a Christian, I do not claim to know all the answers, but I am more than willing to sit down and talk to someone about what I believe the Bible and Christian faith teaches, and if they are truly sincere, I would invite a discussion of their challenges to my faith. Since I believe that the Christian Scriptures are utterly consistent with the laws of reason and logic, I am encouraged and even compelled to sit with those who might want to discuss the most important matters in life.

When people resort to mockery, ad hominem attacks, filthy language, and an unwillingness to honestly look at the evidence, there is little hope that a genuine conversation can occur. Christianity is not against reason and genuine dialogue with those who have questions, but instead invites it. After all, I serve a God who is willing to reason with sinners who are sincerely looking for truth: ““Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18, ESV)

Dear Christian, I would invite you as well to, “…in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV)

Sowing Seeds of the Flesh (part 3)

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7–8, ESV)

Paul took seriously the destructive nature of sin in the life of those that claimed to be believers. Although he knew the sting of those who were trying to do good works to gain favor with God, he also knew that the Christian life is one which will produce the fruit of the Spirit in the life of those that are redeemed.

Having described these both, Paul addressed those that were self-deceived. I wrote about this in my first two posts which you can read here: Sowing Seeds of the Flesh (part 1) and Sowing Seeds of the Flesh (part 2). Today, I want to point out what Paul says regarding those that sow seeds of the flesh.

If you sow to the flesh you will reap death.(v. 8a)

Paul is referring to the section in chapter 5 and the works of the flesh. He is saying that if you sow these types of activities and attitudes, then you should not be surprised to reap the fruit of these things, which he calls “corruption.” Here is what Paul wrote:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19–21, ESV, emphasis mine)

This word “corruption” in Galatians 6:8 is a very graphic word. It is used to describe something that is rotting, putrid, decaying. Since Paul is speaking of the flesh here, he is painting a picture of a rotting corpse.

Is this not what Jesus said in Matt 16:24-26? Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me (v. 24). If you look at the works of the flesh, whether in Galatians 5, or elsewhere, it becomes clear that they are centered around “me.” They are self-centered. Here Jesus calls us to the opposite, even to the point of giving up our own physical life for Christ, if called to do so.

And then he says in Matthew 16:25-26 what Paul restates in Gaatiansl 6. He says that there is no profit in gaining everything to bring comfort and safety and pleasure to this flesh, this body, while losing your eternal souls!

The flesh is rotting away, brothers and sisters! If we feed this rotting corpse with what it lusts after, we will not gain anything at all. We will be sowing seeds of destruction for our eternal souls. Christ is calling us to more. He is calling us to a life of self-denial. I don’t me monkish living. That is death. I mean denial of the things that bring spiritual death. Those works of the flesh that may appeal to our sin-nature, but in the end work like rat poison to our souls!

Conclusion

There is the story told of a town where there were two mines. One was very prosperous and the other one was not. As such, the prosperous mine paid its workers better than the other. A miner thought he would try something. He worked all week for the less prosperous mine, and at the end of the week, on payday, he went to the prosperous mine to receive his wages. The manager asked him if he worked at the other mine, and he said he did. Then he told him that he needed to go there to collect his wages. But the miner said that the prosperous mine paid better wages and he wanted to be paid their wages instead of the meager wages of the poorer mine.

The manager said that he must gather his pay from the mine he worked. It is not possible to receive pay from one when you work at another.

My friends, the wages of sin is death. The wages of sin is death. How can some be so deceived to think that we can sin and collect the wages of heaven? How can that be?

Work for the Master. His wages are good. Do not sow to the flesh and you will not receive the payment of rotting flesh as your reward.

And if you have planted a lot of seeds of your own destruction, know this. Christ came to swallow up death for you, to take away the wages you earned and to give you His wages, to give you the fruit of His perfect, righteous life. 

Christ died as the payment for your sins so that the fruit of your sin–what you deserve–would not come about. Instead, with Christ as your Savior, you will reap the fruit of righteousness. Won’t you give your life to him today?