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

Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 3)

In my last two blogposts (which can be found here and here), I walked the reader through the process of becoming familiar with the preaching text to the point where you should have a solid grasp upon what the preaching text says, although you still might not be sure how to preach it or organize the sermon.

The next step is to form the preaching proposition, sometimes called the “big idea.” That’s easier said than done, and a lot of well-meaning teachers assume that finding the proposition comes naturally. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you aren’t alone and I’ll try to help you here. Now, I need to say that if you haven’t first done all of the exegesis that I mentioned in my last two posts, then you won’t be able to do this, or you may come up with a preaching proposition, but it may not be the main idea of the text or accurately reflect the author’s meaning. Be the approved workman and don’t be ashamed that you preached a sermon that doesn’t reflect the meaning of your text.

Before we go down this road, some of you might be wondering, what is a proposition? In simplest terms, a proposition is a statement or assertion. So, a preaching proposition is a statement that you are making about your text that you are going to explain or prove. Some examples might be: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” or “We are no longer under the Mosaic Law, but under the Law of Christ.” A “plural noun” preaching proposition would include a plural noun, and is probably familiar for anyone that has heard a sermon. Some examples of these might be: “Three Reasons Why Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and “Four Proofs that We are Not Under the Mosaic Law.” As you might be able to see, these examples of plural noun propositions are different forms of the same statement made earlier, and the content of the explanation would be the same, although each sermon might be organized differently.

Forming the Preaching Proposition

I’m going to walk through several steps to reach a preaching proposition. These steps are heavily influenced by a chapter in Wayne McDill’s book 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. If you need more help, I’d recommend you pick up this book.

  1. Write out the main subject of the text you have studied in one word. For example, if you were preaching 1 Cor. 13, you might write down, “Love.” This I can be hard to do because it requires that you crystalize your thoughts from study down to this one idea. Don’t give yourself more words. Limit it to one word only. This will assure that you are certain about the main idea of the text.
  2. Next, find a word that clarifies and narrows your one word main idea. For our example, “love,” you need to narrow down this large subject. Does 1 Cor. 13 speak about romantic love, brotherly love, Jesus’ love, marital love? How about “Christian love?” That fits. Let’s move on.
  3. Write out a sentence that includes the two words you chose from steps one and two. We can consider this a sermon title, or maybe something you’d put on a church sign. Make this a single sentence or phrase only. How about, “What Christian love looks like?” Sounds good.
  4. In this step you will need to expand your sentence again, using the same two key words (for our example, “love” and “Christian”). This time, you will write a sentence that includes what I’ll call “Bible dress.” This refers to the human author, his audience, and the scenario that is taking place in the context. Make sure it is only one sentence again. For our example, we might write about 1 Cor. 13: “Paul is concerned that the Corinthians are failing to show Christian love to each other and so he teaches them what this looks like.” Notice how we have the writer, audience, and even a little about the context (failing to show…”). This could of course be expanded to refer to the greater argument of chapters 12-14, and we could mention the place of spiritual gifts involved. But hold back the need to include so many details because we are only trying to get a crystalized summary for now–the details will come out as we unpack our proposition in the sermon.
  5. Now we are going to do a little trimming. We need to figure out what we want to leave in the last sentence because it is universally true, and what we want to remove because it is contextually true, but doesn’t fit our context. This new sentence will be stripped of the Bible dress (context, specifics, etc.) so that it becomes a universally true statement for today. For our example, it might look something like this: “God is concerned when the Church fails to show Christian love and He shows us what it should look like.” Notice that I replaced “Paul” with “God” because God is also the Author, and I replaced “Corinthians” with “Church” because the Scriptures written to the Corinthian church were also written to be applied to the whole church. Is this new sentence universally true and unbound by time and context? I’d say, yes! Let’s move ahead.
  6. Now, we are going to change our sentence into a questions: “God is concerned when the Church fails to show Christian love and He shows us what it should look like” becomes “What happens when the Church fails to show Christian love, and what should it look like?” We turn this into a question to test our propositional statement. Can we find the answer in our text? If not, we have made a mistake somewhere and need to go back and see where we went off track. If we can find the answers to our question in our text, we got it right. Make sure you choose the right words to form the question: Who, what, where, when, why, or how?
  7. Next, we will look for those answers in the text by choosing an appropriate plural noun–if we asked “Why?” we might find “reasons” in our passage. Maybe we will find steps, examples, reasons, examples, ways, proofs, thoughts, questions, prayers, solutions, etc. For our 1 Corinthians 13 passage, we might choose “Ways:” “Ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and what it should look like.” Another possibility might be, “Ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and Ways we can love like Christ would.” When we find these “ways” in our text, this makes up our outline and gives us the number of “ways.” We might find Four ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and Five ways we can love like Christ.” Each “Way” would be a sermon point, and with each point we would prove our propositional statement and explain the text before us. At this point, we might even see that we have two sermons here and would break it into two sections to be presented at two different times.

Why are we doing all this? I want you to understand a couple of things that are important. First, take your time to craft these sentences–refining your word choices so that you have clarity and an economy of words. But it is also important to know that this is a process, and so you don’t need to worry too much about each sentence being perfect. If you need to, go back and adjust if something doesn’t quite fit. Secondly, the reason for this process is to make sure that the preaching proposition is firmly based upon the text and its meaning. We are sticking with the heart of the text (the subject and its modifier) and building upon it, instead of what many preachers do–start with a sermon idea and find a text to make it say what they want.

Although this process does take a lot of time and effort, the results are satisfying and assure you that you are basing your conclusions on the text of the Word. take your time and learn to develop the skills needed to do it right, and over time it will become easier and you will move much faster through the steps. Of course, when we have the propositional statement we aren’t done. We still need to come up with an introduction, conclusion, illustrations, applications and transitional statements. But the meat of the sermon is now outlined and we are well on our way to preaching a biblically centered expositional sermon. Congratulations!

Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 2)

enIn my last post (you can read it here:https://always-reforming.com/2021/10/25/help-for-new-expositors-how-to-find-the-main-idea-for-preaching-part-1/ ), I walked through my method for becoming more familiar with the biblical text through the process of reading, translating, and diagramming. Although at this point much progress has been made, there is still more work to do before we can confidently say we know the main idea of the text. Up to this point the study has been with the Bible alone–no commentaries should have been used thus far. This is important because we want to hear from God what His word says to us without the contamination of outside voices. Although we will need to fight against our own personal ideas and presuppositions being imposed upon the meaning of the text, this would be much more difficult if we had the input of others at this early stage. Now that we have listened to the Word with dependence upon the Holy Spirit, we are now ready to begin answering some of the observation questions we have developed in our reading and translation.

The next step we need to take is to tentatively identify the main theme of the passage. This may be changed as we continue studying, but we should have a good idea of a major theme that has risen to the top of our understanding from our studying at this point. Write this down and set it aside.

Next, choose several commentaries that will speak to the text you have chosen to study. If you need help knowing how to choose a commentary and the differences between some commentaries and others, read my post on how to select a commentary, and just as important, when to use them. You can find that post here: https://always-reforming.com/2021/02/08/how-to-use-bible-commentaries-more-effectively/ Now, take out that list of observations and questions that you gathered from reading through your Bible 25 times, and with your commentaries handy, go looking for the answers to the questions and curiosities that you found. Background commentaries will help with the cultural issues you observed, exegetical and critical commentaries will help with linguistic issues that popped up when you translated or read various translations. Try to avoid reading expositional commentaries at this point because they might tempt you to short-cut the process of self-study by giving you the answers too easily. In these types of commentaries, usually built off of sermons, you would find an outline, illustrations, and even application. Plagiarism is still a sin, and is especially grievous in a minister of the Word.

Hopefully as you read the commentaries you had several conclusions confirmed from your own study. It is a special satisfaction that comes when you read the same things you found in your study in the pages of commentaries. It helps you realize that you too can study the Scriptures for yourself! If you find that you had unique ideas or were in disagreement with all or most of the commentaries regarding the main ideas or interpretation of the text, you might want to go back and re-study the passage again. It is possible that you got it right and everyone else got it wrong–possible, but highly improbable. Commentaries act as a check on our study to make sure that we aren’t far off in our conclusions. If you are certain you got it right, make sure that you have strong reasons that are defendable by the text of the Scriptures. God has given to the church many excellent Bible teachers (Eph. 4:11), and we shouldn’t ignore the wisdom given by the Spirit without very good reasons.

After your review of commentaries, you should be ready to put together a textual or exegetical outline. What is a textual or exegetical outline? It is an outline that follows the contours, storyline, or argument of the author. Sometimes this is done through textual markers seen in the original languages or grammar. Sometimes it is suggested by the flow of a narrative and the changing of scenes. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to accurately hit the high points of the text. Don’t try to alliterate or be fancy–just get the main ideas down. This outline should reflect the totality of the text you have studied. At this point, you may begin to see how you will break up a longer passage to be preached in larger chunks as multiple sermons.

Next, looking at the main theme you wrote down earlier, and your textual outline. What would you say is the doctrinal theme? In other words, what main theological idea rises to the top of this passage? Try to be brief and accurate–“love” is too generic, but “the love of God for the Church” would be more accurate. Think of this as a label for a box that your whole sermon text will fit into. If some of the text doesn’t fit this theological theme, then you need to adjust it and make sure it covers the whole text.

When you have come to the doctrinal or theological theme, ask yourself how well you know this doctrine. Perhaps it is one that you have studied well and in depth and you know what the whole of Scripture teaches about it. Wonderful! You can move on. But if you are lacking in your understanding, it would be best to take a look at a good systematic theology (or two) and read up on the subject. It might be that the doctrine is found in a few places that you will need to review, like our above subject “the love of God for the Church.” There you should look up the “love of God” under the attributes of God, and under “the love of Christ.” You probably would also want to look up this love under the subject of “the Church.” Additionally, you might want to check and see how God’s love for the Church is different from his love for other entities like Israel, unbelievers, and “the world.” Once you have armed yourself with what the whole Bible teaches on your doctrinal subject, you can be assured that you will not say something about your passage that is untrue in another passage you might have been ignorant about. That’s always embarrassing.

Now we are ready to consider forming the preaching proposition or main idea of the sermon. That will need to wait for the next post.

Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 1)

Whether you call it the “main idea,” “big idea,” “propositional statement,” or something else, we are going to be looking at how to make sure you preach the main idea of a section of Scripture so that you are not preaching about an ancillary idea or worse, force your own idea upon the passage. In this post I will be walking through a process I have developed for myself. To help myself with this, I have made a worksheet. In a previous post, I shared it on this blog. You can see it and download it here: https://always-reforming.com/2014/07/24/a-simplified-sermon-preparation-checklist/

The first thing that you need to make sure you do is to be as familiar as you can be about the portion of text you are preaching from. Make sure you have included the whole pericope (pəˈrikəpē), which is the whole unit of thought—in other words, don’t choose only a few verses within a section, or half a narrative section. The pericope will be at least a full paragraph, but might be more. Don’t worry if there is too much to preach at one time. You will be able to break the section into smaller preaching units later, but for now, you need to study the whole section together as one unit. If you are able to read Greek or Hebrew, those texts will also help you see the major units of the text.

To familiarize yourself with your text, you need to begin by reading it over and over again. I’d suggest you do this in your preferred English translation for preaching. Read it over at least 25 times. As you read through, take notes about what you see, questions you have that will need to be answered, and other observations about the text. Don’t stop to do research at this point, but rather set aside these questions and observations for your study later. When you are finished reading the text repeatedly, you should almost have it memorized—or at least be very familiar with it. Why 25 times and not more or less? Although this is only my suggestion, I think that 25 times will yield more in observations and the flow of the textual outline than less readings will. More reading will be helpful, but with limited sermon preparation time and diminished return for your time investment, reading more times is a luxury many cannot afford.

After having read the chosen text over and over you need to read it in multiple English translations. Bible software makes this easy to do. Read it in the most common translations and paraphrases available—ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, CSB, HCSB, The Message, TNIV, etc. You only need to read each of them once, but note the places where there are significant changes or disagreement. This might clue you in to translational issues or manuscript variants that you will discover later.

The next step will not be possible for everyone. If you can, translate the passage from the original languages. If you do not know Greek or Hebrew, you can use aids and software, but please understand that this is not the same as knowing the languages—recognize that tools are helpful but they are not the same as knowing the language. I have seen some students of the Word who do not know the original languages say wrong things, even embarrassing things, while giving the impression to their congregation that they know more than they do. Since most pastors are not linguistic scholars (even those who do know Hebrew and Greek), we need a strong dose of humility in this area and to know our own limitations.

While you translate your passage, note key words, repeated words, word plays, hapax legomenon (words that occur only once in the Bible), inclusio (a type of textual “envelope”), chiastic structures, and other linguistic markers that your text might have. These are the hidden gems of the text that expositors are blessed to see firsthand. Some of these we may expose to our congregation because they are helpful to them to understand the passage, while others we may not include in our sermon but will enjoy their richness and depth for ourselves.

Next, diagram your text either from the original language or in your preferred English translation. The practice of sentence diagramming will help you to see subordinate clauses and phrases, controlling verbs, and other grammatical clues to the structure and the intended emphases of the biblical writer. By doing this, you will make sure that you are not emphasizing a minor idea when the author is emphasizing something else. If you don’t know how to diagram a text, I would highly recommend you learn how to do so. A book like Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology can help and give examples. For further help, Lee Kantenwein’s book Diagrammatically Analysis is also a good place to look. Both are available to purchase from places like Amazon.com

If you have done all of the above so far, you will have deeply immersed yourself into the passage and will have becoming aware of the theme(s) of the passage you are intending to preach—textually, and theologically. You aren’t there yet and this exegetical data isn’t yet a sermon ready to preach, but you are well on your way.

My next post will pick up from here and move on to the next few steps that will help us on our way to finding the main idea of a passage before we put together our sermon and proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.”

The Long Term Benefits of Planting Acorns Today

As I talk to pastors and missionaries in many contexts, there is a topic that seems to be a repeated refrain that I hear often. It has to do with the shortage of men to take the place of retiring pastors, teachers, missionaries, and ministry leadership roles. It has been clear for many years that there is a growing need for Christian leaders serving in ministry. Today, the swelling need for leaders has grown into a tsunami of massive proportions.

So, whose responsibility is to to provide these new leaders? Does the responsibility lay upon the denominational leaders, seminaries, Bible colleges, and missions agencies? Although there are many who believe this, the biblical answer is a resounding “No.” Leaders for the church may be trained and equipped for the church and mission field within these parachurch organizations, but the duty of identification, discipleship, mentoring, and at least initial training is the responsibility of the local church itself.

The fact that the local church is supposed to be identifying, discipline, mentoring, and training up the next generations of leaders and in many places have failed to do so is the reason that we are in a leadership crisis in the church today. My purpose isn’t to pass the buck, but to put the responsibility firmly where it belongs.

In Acts 13:2-3, Luke records, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” The sending of these first two missionaries was done through the local church in Antioch and not through a missions agency. Agencies have their place in aiding the church, but it is the Spirit that calls apart missionaries, and it is the church that sends them.

In Ephesians 4:11-12, we see that the Spirit has given pastors and teachers, among others, to the church for the edification and training of the church. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…

This work of preparation by these gifted leaders was done in house, and would have led to the identification of young leaders that would be mentored within the church. An important example of this would be Paul’s identification of Timothy and the church’s agreement in Timothy’s calling: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14).

And when Timothy is instructed about his own duties as a pastor in the church, he was strongly reminded by Paul, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

There can be no denying that the New Testament clearly teaches that leaders within the church are to be produced by the local church. So, why isn’t this happening? There are probably many reasons that would be given by some pastors who fail to do this—no time, feeling of inadequacy, fear of being replaced by their disciples, fear of discouraging disciples from ministry, and not knowing where to start. But none of these are valid in disobeying the clear admonition of Scripture.

Where do we go from here? That brings me to the title of this post, “The Long Term Benefit of Planting Acorns Today.” The mighty oak tree is moderate in the speed at which it grows, growing about 12-18 inches per year (30-46 cm) to a height of about 60 feet tall (18.28 meters). Compare this to pine, which can grow to 2 feet (61 cm) in a year.

Sometimes we fail to plan for the distant future, only looking up from our labors as our time of departure draws near. And what happens when we have not discipled men whom we can entrust the gospel, who will be able to teach others also? We will find that we have endangered our local church because the resource it so desperately needs in a leader cannot be easily found. Focused labor is admirable, but discipline leaders for the future is to be a part of our labors.

Growing accords into mighty oaks takes time. The future of many local churches has been jeopardized by short-sited pastors who figured they would simply call the local seminary and order a shiny new pastor to take their place when they retire. But many of these pipelines are empty or the hands-off approach of local churches have produced a generation of young pastors who have little or no loyalty to the local church. What do we do?

The answer from Scripture is the same. We plant the acorns. We may not live to see them fully develop, but we must plant the seeds from which the future church will benefit. If we do not, we will not only be unfaithful to the Scriptures in fulfilling our duty, but we will leave the church poorer than when it was handed to us.