At the end of December of 2000 I arrived in Albertville, France, with just enough French to identify myself and be courteous—bonjour, s’il vous plaît, et merci. I had enrolled for a twelve-month language course in an evangelical missionary language school about an hour and twenty minutes south of Geneva in the foothills of the French Alps. Those attending the school represented a wide variety of evangelicals from around the world, mostly Americans, although there were some from South Africa, Australia, Ukraine, Brazil, and England.
Some of the classes towards the end of the course were designed to encourage and indeed force us struggling French-speakers to use our newly acquired language. In those classes we were forbidden to speak English, and the professor, a very wise man, chose subjects that were theologically charged, emotive subjects like abortion, euthanasia, and the role of women in the church.
The choice of subjects had its desired effect, at least on me and on my American friend Jim. We threw in our two-cents worth in our very broken French. We became known for our persistent and dogmatic dependence on the text of Scripture and were mocked by some for it. In one particular debate, which will forever remain etched on my memory, a British lady was so irate at my insistence on Scripture that she broke into the forbidden English in a fit of rage having exhausted not only her patience but also her French vocabulary.
While I look back on that incident with a little humor, those were traumatic days for me. It was a time of real heart-searching. For the first time in my life I was receiving unsolicited exposure to broad evangelicalism—and it wasn’t at all pleasant! I discovered there the reality of what John MacArthur said a few years ago concerning his own ministry: “Never did I believe that I would spend most of my life trying to rescue the gospel from evangelicals.”
Many evenings I went back to my room in confusion, wondering whether I was right in being so persistent and dogmatic in upholding biblical verities. I asked myself, did I frame my arguments correctly, was I holding the truth in love, is there another way to do this, or why can’t I just sit and keep my mouth shut? I always came back to the same conclusion, as I said in class regularly: “It doesn’t matter what I say, but what does the Bible say? … If the Bible is offensive, then take it up with the Author.”
I have taken the time to relate that scene because I believe it is analogous to the broader fundamentalist struggle. It was intense and difficult at the time but, as I consider it now fifteen years on, I realize that I was simply being a fundamentalist. Furthermore, although my friend Jim probably would not have identified himself with that movement, and fundamentalists would not have accepted him as one of their own because of his associations, yet he also was being a fundamentalist—in the broader (and original) use of the term.
I will never forget what one of my fellow students said to me as I prepared to leave that language school at the end of 2001. After thanking me for taking my stand in the classes, he said, (I paraphrase) “I could not do that. I’m too afraid, but I agree with you and I admire your courage.”
If my experience in that French language school mirrors that of the fundamentalist, could my friend’s confession of fearfulness mirror that of many other conservative evangelicals? Theologically, he agreed with the fundamentalist, he admired the fundamentalist’s courage but was unwilling or afraid to stand up and be heard or even align himself publically with me, “the fundamentalist.” He had the convictions of a fundamentalist but lacked the courage needed to defend those convictions.
I learned there that while many evangelicals may mock the excesses of fundamentalism and distance themselves from the militancy—even a biblical militancy—they admire the courage and conviction of those who stand.
I learned that many evangelicals are like the timid boy cowering in the corner of the school playground—they are happy for someone else to do the fighting for them. If the other guys get a black-eye, then it’s all good. This is what R. C. Sproul, Jr., meant, essentially, when he spoke of “Our Fundamentalist Betters.”
I have learned also that while it has “become fashionable in evangelical circles to join in criticism of ‘Fundamentalism,’” as Iain Murray said, there are those who have left and who look back to their fundamentalist heritage with some respect and admiration. For whatever reason, they have left that heritage for broader influence, a warmer climate, a more peaceful existence, etc. Some, however, have wandered into confusion and compromise.
Others, while they no longer associate with fundamentalism, are ready to come to its defense, to recognize the biblical authority from which the fundamentalist gets his conviction and courage. Examples of commendation for fundamentalism by those who would not self-identify as fundamentalists are not at all hard to find.
On November 20, 1997, Moisés Silva, a well-known biblical scholar, delivered the presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society in Santa Clara, California. In that address Silva took Dr. James Barr to task for his 1977 book Fundamentalism, which is an all-out attack on the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. Silva, himself a graduate of Bob Jones University (1966) and, ironically, whose admiration of Barr’s linguistic abilities “knows no bounds,” reprimanded Barr for the anger and contempt so evident in the book and for “comments border
Dr. Robert L. Reymond, author of A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, studied at Bob Jones University and began his teaching career there in the 1960s. In a footnote in the first few pages of his systematic theology in which he deals with divine revelation, Reymond quotes the now famous words of a theological liberal, Kirsopp Lake, in defense of fundamentalism’s stand on the authority of Scripture:
It is a mistake often made by educated persons who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology to suppose that fundamentalism is a new and strange form of thought.… I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a fundamentalist on the basis of authority.
John Piper has an interesting history in fundamentalism. His father once served on the Bob Jones board of trustees and Piper himself has often defended fundamentalism. About ten years ago the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International (FBFI) made a resolution against John Piper for, among other things, not separating from the Baptist General Conference for its toleration of Open Theism. Piper had published against the heresy but that was not enough for the FBFI.
I am not about to endorse Piper’s entire ministry; we must admit that he has made some unfortunate choices in the past. However, on his Desiring God website, Piper has made some very clear statements in defense of fundamentalism, especially with regard to fundamentalists’ conviction, courage, and appeal to biblical authority:
What I want to say about Fundamentalism is that its great gift to the church is precisely the backbone to resist compromise and to make standing for truth and principle a means of love rather than an alternative to it. I am helped by the call for biblical separation, because almost no evangelicals even think about the doctrine.
So I thank God for fundamentalism, and I think that some of the whining about its ill effects would have to also be directed against the black-and-white bluntness of Jesus.
In an article titled “20 Reasons I Don’t Take Potshots At Fundamentalists” Piper outlines what he believes to be the positive side of fundamentalism. Some of the reasons are stamped with Piper quirkiness so I have picked out a few that relate to the subject at hand:
They believe that truth really matters.
They believe that the Bible is true, all of it.
They know that the Bible calls for some kind of separation from the world.
They have backbone and are not prone to compromise principle.
They put obedience to Jesus above the approval of man (even though they fall short, like others).
They believe in hell and are loving enough to warn people about it.
They resist trendiness.
They don’t think too much is gained by sounding hip.
Everybody to my left thinks I am one.
This, on all accounts, is the legacy of fundamentalism. The fundamentalist knows who he is; he has no identity crisis. He stands inflexibly on the authority of Scripture and does not equivocate for fear of offending or to curry favor. It was this belief in the absolute authority of Scripture that gave the fundamentalist the courage of his convictions. I know this from experience.
Say what you will about the fundamentalist—and I have made a few criticisms myself—the fundamentalist has stood his ground, maintained the orthodox faith and the centrality of the blood of the cross, and, as Iain Murray testifies, “Because they sought to be biblical, Fundamentalism retained gospel preaching and evangelistic urgency when it was disappearing from other churches.”
Fundamentalists have taken enough black eyes in the defense of the faith. It’s time for those cowering in the corners of evangelicalism to show us how we should contend for the faith differently or better. It’s time for the conservative evangelical to show himself brave in a “resurgent fundamentalism” and prove the power and authority of God’s Word to which he claims allegiance. For those evangelicals who have taken a few knocks for the faith in recent years, fundamentalists give you credit—at least some of us do.