IS FUNDAMENTALISM MERELY A BELIEF IN “THE FIVE FUNDAMENTALS”?

Updated July 13, 2006 (first published June 21, 1998) (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, fbns@wayoflife.org) –

Some have concocted a position that Fundamentalism historically was not separatistic but was merely a belief in “the five fundamentals.” That this is a serious perversion of history is clear from the following facts.

We must note at the outset of these considerations that Fundamentalism has never been a monolithic movement. It has taken many different forms. There have always been those who have worn the Fundamentalist label who have shied away from the heat of the battle, who have refused to obey the Word of God and separate from error. Describing Fundamentalism is a little like the ant describing the elephant. There are many aspects to Fundamentalism and describing the movement depends somewhat upon one’s perspective. Even so, to claim that Fundamentalism was NOT characterized by militancy for truth, to claim that fighting and separating have NOT been a significant aspect of historic Fundamentalism, is to fly in the face of history.

1. THAT HISTORIC FUNDAMENTALISM WAS MORE THAN THE AFFIRMATION OF “THE FIVE FUNDAMENTALS” IS ADMITTED BY ITS HISTORIANS.

George Marsden gives this overview: “By the 1930s, then it became painfully clear that reform from within could not prevent the spread of modernism in major northern denominations, MORE AND MORE FUNDAMENTALISTS BEGAN TO MAKE SEPARATION FROM AMERICA’S MAJOR DENOMINATIONS AN ARTICLE OF FAITH. Although most who supported fundamentalism in the 1920s still remained in their denominations, many Baptist dispensationalists and a few influential Presbyterians were demanding separatism” (Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, p. 7).

George Dollar, one of the few historians of the Fundamentalist movement to write from the standpoint of a genuine Fundamentalist, gives this definition: “Historic fundamentalism is the literal interpretation of all the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible and the militant exposure of all non-biblical affirmations and attitudes” (Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America, 1973).

Dollar divides Fundamentalism into three periods. From 1875-1900 conservative leaders raised the banner against Modernism within the denominations. From 1900-1935 these struggles resulted in men leaving their denominations to form separate churches and groups. “They were the architects of ecclesiastical separation.” From 1935-1983 the second generation Fundamentalists continued the battle from outside of the mainline denominations and also contended against the New Evangelical movement. It is plain that this historian, who gave a significant portion of his life to the examination of these matters, identifies historic Fundamentalism with earnest militancy and biblical separation.

David O. Beale, who also has written a history of Fundamentalism from a Fundamentalist perspective, gives this definition: “The essence of Fundamentalism ... is the unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures. ... The present study reveals that pre-1930 Fundamentalism was nonconformist, while post-1930 Fundamentalism has been separatist” (Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850, Bob Jones University Press, 1986, p. 5).

I offer one more illustration of the definition given to Fundamentalism by its historians. John Ashbrook has deep roots in the Fundamentalist movement. His father, William, was brought to trial by the Presbyterian denomination because of his stand against Modernism. After his separation from Presbyterianism, William Ashbrook established an independent Fundamentalist church. He wrote an incisive book on New Evangelicalism entitled Evangelicalism: The New Neutralism. The first edition of this work appeared in 1958. His son, John, after a period of toying with New Evangelicalism as a young man, became a solid Fundamentalist leader in his own right. His book New Neutralism II: Exposing the Gray of Compromise is, in this author’s opinion, one of the best books in print on this subject. In looking back over the Fundamentalist movement since the 1930s, John Ashbrook defines Fundamentalism in this way:

“Fundamentalism is the militant belief and proclamation of the basic doctrines of Christianity leading to a Scriptural separation from those who reject them” (Ashbrook, Axioms of Separation, nd., p. 10).

2. THAT HISTORIC FUNDAMENTALISM WAS MORE THAN THE AFFIRMATION OF “THE FIVE FUNDAMENTALS” IS PROVEN BY THE FACT OF NEW EVANGELICALISM.

If it were true that historical Fundamentalism was merely a stand for “the five fundamentals,” the New Evangelical movement of the 1940s would have made no sense, because New Evangelicalism has always held to “the five fundamentals.” In fact, Harold Ockenga, one of the fathers of New Evangelicalism, said that there at least several dozen fundamentals!

It was not a stand for “the five fundamentals” that New Evangelicals protested. The keynote of New Evangelicalism was the repudiation of the separatism and other militant aspects of old-line Fundamentalism, which proves that old-line Fundamentalism was characterized by these things.

In his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, Reforming Fundamentalism, historian George M. Marsden makes it plain that Fuller’s early leaders were consciously rejecting the negative aspects of old-line Fundamentalism.

It is clear to honest historians that Fundamentalism fifty years ago was characterized by MILITANCY, by a willingness to deal with the NEGATIVES, and by SEPARATION, and it was this fact that produced the New Evangelical reaction against Fundamentalism.

3. THAT HISTORIC FUNDAMENTALISM WAS MORE THAN THE AFFIRMATION OF “THE FIVE FUNDAMENTALS” IS ACKNOWLEDGED BY HISTORIC FUNDAMENTALIST ORGANIZATIONS AND PUBLICATIONS.

Consider The Fundamentalist, published by J. Frank Norris, an influential fundamental Baptist leader of Texas. Independent Baptist historian George Dollar describes Norris’s The Fundamentalist in this way:

“The Fundamentalist alarmed and alerted ... Reading the 1920-1930 back issues of The Fundamentalist, one can almost see the smoke and hear the battle cries of those times” (Dollar, The Fight for Fundamentalism, published by the author, 1983, p. 3).

Norris’s paper is representative of that entire generation of Fundamentalism in that it was a generation noted for its bold militancy for the truth.

Consider the following definition of Fundamentalism that was given by the World Congress of Fundamentalists, meeting in 1976 in Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland:

A Fundamentalist is a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ who--

1. Maintains an immovable allegiance to the inerrant, infallible, and verbally inspired Bible.
2. Believes that whatever the Bible says is so.
3. Judges all things by the Bible and is judged only by the Bible.
4. Affirms the foundational truths of the historic Christian Faith: The doctrine of the Trinity; the incarnation, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection and glorious ascension, and Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ; the new birth through regeneration by the Holy Spirit; the resurrection of the saints to life eternal; the resurrection of the ungodly to final judgment and eternal death; the fellowship of the saints, who are the body of Christ.
5. Practices fidelity to that Faith and endeavors to preach it to every creature.
6. Exposes and separates from all ecclesiastical denial of that Faith, compromise with error, and apostasy from the Truth.
7. Earnestly contends for the Faith once delivered.

The Congress summarized its definition in this way: “Fundamentalism is militant orthodoxy set on fire with soulwinning zeal.”

CONCLUSION

Those who deny the militancy and separation of historic Fundamentalism are trying to rewrite history. Instead of admitting that they have repudiated biblical Fundamentalism and have compromised the Word of God and adopted New Evangelicalism, these revisionists are trying to redefine Fundamentalism to fit their backslidden condition.

We close with the words of G. Archer Weniger, who showed the fallacy of the view that Fundamentalism is merely a concern for “the five fundamentals”--

“The five fundamentals have only to do with the Presbyterian aspect of the struggle with modernism. ... The bulk of Fundamentalism, especially the Baptists of every stripe who composed the majority by far, never accepted the five fundamentals alone. The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, founded in 1919, had at least a dozen main doctrines highlighted. The same was true of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship, which originated in 1920. A true Fundamentalist would under no circumstances restrict his doctrinal position to five fundamentals. Even Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, a New Evangelical theologian, listed at least several dozen doctrines essential to the Faith. The only advantage of reducing the Faith down to five is to make possible a wider inclusion of religionists, who might be way off in heresy on other specific doctrines. It is much easier to have large numbers of adherents with the lowest common denominator in doctrine” (G. Archer Weniger, quoted in Calvary Contender, April 15, 1994).

Let me also emphasize my own conviction that old-line Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism at their best were biblically deficient. I am a Fundamentalist as far as biblical dogmatism and militancy for the truth and separation from error go, but I am more than a Fundamentalist. The goal of my Christian life and ministry is not to be a good Fundamentalist but it is to be faithful to God’s Word in all matters. Following are two weaknesses that I have observed in Fundamentalism as a movement:

The first weakness is the transdenominational character that often characterizes Fundamentalism. I do not accept the philosophy that limits the basis of fellowship to a narrow list of “cardinal” doctrines, such as the infallibility of Scripture and the deity of Christ. While the Bible does indicate that some doctrines are more important than others, all teaching of the Bible is important and is to be taken seriously. Timothy was instructed not to allow any other doctrine than that which Paul had delivered to him (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:13, 20; 2 Tim. 2:2). Paul was concerned with the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). When the Bible instructs Christians to earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3), it does not specify only a narrow aspect of the faith. “The faith once delivered to the saints” refers to the whole body of New Testament truth delivered by the apostles. When God instructs preachers to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), no particular part of the Word is specified. He is to preach all of the Word of God. Obedience to these commands does not allow me to overlook denominational differences such as the mode of baptism, the manner of the Lord’s Supper, eternal security, the woman’s role in the ministry, or the interpretation of prophecy. If someone differs with me on such things I can accept him as a true Christian, because these are not issues of “damnable heresy” (2 Pet. 2:1); but I cannot have joint ministry with him, because I do not believe the Bible allows it.

A second weakness with Fundamentalism as a movement is its “universal church” mentality. It is common among evangelicals and a large number of fundamentalists to view “the church” as all professing Christians in all denominations and parachurch organizations. This is a great confusion that naturally produces an ecumenical mentality and that makes purification of the churches impossible. Harold J. Ockenga used the many divisions of Evangelicalism-Fundamentalism and the “shibboleth of having a pure church” as an excuse for New Evangelicalism’s non-separatist mentality (Ockenga, “From Fundamentalism, Through New Evangelicalism, to Evangelicalism,” Evangelical Roots, edited by Kenneth Kantzer, p. 42). This is dangerous and unscriptural thinking. God’s Word does call for a pure church (1 Cor. 5:6-8); yet it is the New Testament assembly that we are to purify, not any sort of universal church. To attempt to purify a “church” composed of parachurch and interdenominational structures is something the New Testament never envisions or requires. God has given His people clear instruction about discipline of sin and doctrinal purity, and those instructions are in the context of the assembly (i.e., 1 Corinthians 5). Regardless of what one believes about the New Testament definition of the church, in a practical sense church truth can be applied only to the assembly. It is obvious, at least to me, that God intends for men to be content with the assembly and not to busy themselves with parachurch and transdenominational institutions. (By the way, I also strongly reject every sort of Baptist Bride position. See the article “Are You a Baptist Brider?” at the Church section of the End Times Apostasy Database at the Way of Life web site -- http://www.wayoflife.org/fbns/areyou.htm.)