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Are Evangelicals Necessarily Fundamentalists?

by David Gibb




It seems, at times, that for British evangelicals one of the worst things they feel they can be called is a ‘fundamentalist’. Alistair McGrath speaks with evident displeasure of the ‘uncritical and totally unmerited identification of ‘evangelicals’ with ‘fundamentalists’’. Others, such as John Stott and Jim Packer, whilst more restrained in their argumentation are also keen to distance themselves from the tag of ‘fundamentalist’. Bebbington comments, ‘Evangelicals ,including conservatives, have generally repudiated the term in Britain’. Yet despite the firmness of the rebuttal the accusation has reoccurred, most notably in James Barr’s ‘Fundamentalism’.

Despite these rebuttals and denials it will be argued in this essay that the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. The focus will be on British Evangelicalism, rather than American. The structure of the essay will be as follows. First the history and the distinctives of the two movements will be outlined briefly. Secondly, again briefly, the course of the debate in Britain since the war will be laid out. Thirdly at length the issues raised by the debate will be analyzed. This discussion will centre on the key issue of attitudes to the Bible within the two movements and how these are perceived from outside the movements.

We turn now to the history of the two movements. We will start with Evangelicalism in Britain. In David Bebbington’s historical analysis of evangelicalism in Britain he argues that although evangelicalism has roots in previous eras the term first came to be distinctively used of revival ministers of the eighteenth century.Whereas from that point in history there seems no clear continuous link back to the reformers, there are continuous links forward from there to the present day. He lists four distinctives in evangelical belief; the need for new birth, activism, the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the centrality of the Bible. Although he acknowledges different emphases at different times he traces these ideas through Wesley, Bishop Ryle and in the current century John Stott and Jim Packer.

Fundamentalism is undeniably an American movement. Packer charts its history as going back to 1909. A small set of 12 volumes devoted to an exposition and defenses of evangelical Christianity was produced by men such as James Orr, B.B. Warfield and R. Torrey. They were sent to over three million people involved in Christian ministry in the States. They expounded such doctrines as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the deity, virgin birth and miracles of Christ, the reality of sin. salvation by faith, through spiritual regeneration among others. Another key part of the writings was a defence of the these doctrines against attacks from all sides including higher criticism and ‘Romanism’ as well as the cults. The term ‘Fundamentalists’ was first coined by an Baptist editorial in 1920 to describe a group of evangelical delegates at the Northern Baptist Convention who sought to stand for the fundamentals as they saw it of the New Testament faith. Packer concludes, ‘The word was at once taken up by both sides as a title for the defenders of the historic Christian position...This is what the term originally meant, and this is what the large number of American evangelicals who still use it to describe their position mean by it today.’

From this brief analysis it would seem on the surface that there is a large correlation between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Indeed fundamentalism grew out of British evangelicalism’s close cousin American evangelicalism. From this analysis it seems odd that in the debates about fundamentalism and evangelicalism in this country since the war evangelicals have sought to distance themselves from fundamentalism. It will be instructive to follow the debates to see what the accusations were by those accusing evangelicals of being fundamentalists, and how evangelicals sought to defend themselves against the charge. We now turn to that debate.

The debate in Britain has had two flash points. First in the 1950s it initially surrounded a correspondence in The Times about the suitability of Billy Graham to lead a mission in an academic centre such as Cambridge. Canon H.K.Luce started the debate with a letter in which he wrote, ‘Is it not time that our religious leaders made it plain that while they respect, or even admire, Dr Graham’s sincerity and personal power, they cannot regard fundamentalism as likely to issue in anything but disillusionment and disaster for educated men and women in this twentieth-century world?’ The implication was clear. Graham’s form of Christianity was not intellectually credible and out of date. This debate was played out at a deeper level through the books of Gabriel Herbert and Jim Packer. The issue in The Times correspondence seems to have been that fundamentalism was intellectually suspect and backward and therefore should not be allowed to be proclaimed somewhere which was meant to the bastion of learning.

Herbert’s slant was slightly different. Fundamentalists were a menace to the church. They had a wrong doctrine of the Bible, namely inerrancy, and they were schismatic in their attitude to Christians of other traditions. It will be relevant to our discussion at this point to notice Herbert’s own view of the nature of Scripture. He writes,‘The real question is...How does the Word of God come to us in Holy Scripture, and how is this Word of God to be distinguished from the words of men?’ His views seems to be the Bible is God’s Word caught up in the word of men and in order to retrieve the Word of God ‘we are required to be at once humble and docile, and alert and critical’. We must be humble before God’s Spirit and critical to discern where God’s Word lies.

At this stage it will also be useful to record the defenses of arguably the two leading evangelicals of the time namely John Stott and Jim Packer. Whilst Stott records with favour the original use of ‘fundamentalism’ as a term describing people defending historic Biblical Christianity, (‘Now if this is fundamentalism, one hopes that every individual Christian is a fundamentalist’) he notes that it is no longer such a favourable term. ‘Since the 1920’s "fundamentalism" has become associated with certain extremes and extravagances, particularly in the United States.’ He lists three, ‘a total rejection of Biblical criticism’, both higher and lower, ‘excessively literal interpretation of the Bible’ and a mechanical view of the inspiration of Scripture.

Packer too repudiates the charge. The reasons he gives are as follows: First the term is now abusive, it is ‘a term or ecclesiastical abuse, a theological swear word’, secondly the fundamentalist movement in the States was outclassed intellectually and became an anti-intellectual movement and thirdly it is a new term for what Packer sees as historic Biblical Christianity, giving the impression that this form of Christianity is somehow a new movement rather than being two thousand years old.

The reason for recording these defenses is to show that although there is some overlap there is also some divergence as to why these two leading evangelicals do not like being tarnished with the label fundamentalist.

We must now move onto the 1970s and the publication of James Barr’s ‘Fundamentalism’. Hyleson-Smith summarises Barr’s view of the key features of fundamentalism as an emphasis on Scriptural inerrancy, a strong hostility to modern theology and critical methods and an attitude to non-evangelical Christians which implied they might not be Christian at all. It is interesting to note the similarity between the charges laid by Herbert in the 1950s and those laid by Barr in the 1970s. Indeed it might be argued that Barr’s second point might be subsumed under points one and three which would make their accusations identical. Once again there have been a number of responses to Barr’s book from within the evangelical camp. McGrath states three reasons why fundamentalism and evangelicalism should be not be equated, first like Stott he sees fundamentalism as ‘totally hostile to the notion of biblical criticism, in any form, and is committed to a literal interpretation of Scripture’, secondly fundamentalism is committed to a number of doctrines such as dispensationalism which evangelicals are not, and thirdly fundamentalism is blue collar reactionary counter culture. Another response worth noting for our discussion is that of Dick France which basically amounts to the view ‘we were like that, but we have changed and moved on’. Barr himself acknowledges there is some movement going on within the evangelical camp.

So it seems that evangelicalism has moved between the 1950s and 1970s and that although it might have been fairer to accuse evangelicalism of fundamentalism in the 1950s this charge is not longer valid. However whilst some such as France seem happy with the move it must be noted that not all are so happy with the shift. This dissent from the shift is most clearly seen in the split between the Churchman and ‘Anvil’ publications over, according to France, an article attacking inerrancy written by James Dunn. Another sign of the dissent is seen in the publication of the book ‘The Anglican Evangelical Crisis’ which included articles with such titles as ‘Currents of change; Trends within Anglican Evangelical Theology Today’ and ‘Whatever happened to the authority of Scripture?’

Before analyzing the implications of this apparent division in the ranks of evangelicals on our question, let us summarise the accusations and defenses used in the debate. The accusation of The Times correspondence and Herbert and Barr is that evangelicalism is fundamentalist because it is obscurant (especially according to Barr against liberal scholarship), it has a view of inerrancy of the Bible and it tends to unchurch those who disagree with it. The accusations are coherent and uniform. That is what Herber and Barr believe fundamentalism to be, that is what they believe, large sections of British evangelicalism to be.

It would seem fair to say that evangelicals at least in their initial repudiation of the charge have not focused on the issues set out by Herbert and Barr. To take the list set out by McGrath above, neither Herbert nor Barr accuse evangelicals of rejection of all Biblical criticism, indeed Barr suggests that textual criticism is a very useful weapon in their armoury. They do not accuse evangelicalism as a whole as having dispensationalist views, although Barr suggests, probably accurately that many evangelicals hold such views without being greatly challenged on them. They do not accuse British evangelicalism of being a blue collar counter culture reactionary group. These are not the issues. The issues are evangelical attitudes to the Bible and liberal critical method. It seems that when Barr and Herbert accuse British evangelicalism of being fundamentalist, they give that term a coherent definition, which whilst it may not include all features of the American historical movement, it is transparently close to it on this issue of attitude to the Bible. The British response seems to be to redefine fundamentalism from what Herbert and Barr clearly mean to some other features of fundamentalism and then point out that they are not fundamentalists. In that sense they have just sidestepped the accusation, rather than meeting it and refuting it. This may be why it keeps coming back. The question is ‘Is evangelicalism fundamentalist, as defined by Herbert and Barr?’ that is, does evangelicalism have a view of Scriptural inerrancy, a hostility to liberal scholarship and a tendency towards dechurching others? That is the issue.

At this stage a word needs to be said about inerrancy. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy found its most notorious and clearest expression in the work of the Princeton theologian B.B Warfield himself one of the contributors to the originals ‘Fundamentals’ series. He argues that the Bible was without any error in any matters about which it spoke, be it scientific, historical or matters of faith and doctrine.

Inerrancy in this form has not been universally accepted within evangelicalism both at the time of Warfield and after. Charles Hodge is famously quoted as suggesting that there might be a few specks of sandstone on the Marble Parthenon, but this in no way denied its inspiration or authority in all matters. James Orr, himself also one of the original contributors to the ‘Fundamentals’, also did hold to inerrancy. Again this seems to open up an escape route for evangelicals from the charge of fundamentalism. We are not inerrantists. However Barr makes a shrewd observation on this point. Speaking of Michael Green’s stated position of not being an inerrantist he says, ‘Inerrancy is their approach even if they allow very occassional theoretical exceptions’. In other words whilst evangelicals may claim not to be inerrantists in theory they are in practice, and the way they handle the Bible reflects an underlying belief in inerrancy even if they technically deny it. Thus Barr includes in his view of inerrancy those who may not technically hold the position but are ‘practical’ inerrantists.

We can now rephrase the question posed by Herbert and Barr in the light of Barr’s insight: ‘Are evangelicals practical inerrantists (even if technically they deny the doctrine), with a hostility to liberal scholarship and a tendency to dechurch non evangelical Christians?’ That is the question.

In seeking to answer this question we look at what evangelicals have believed historically. Bebbington comments that although there were disagreements about how inspiration worked and over the issue of inerrancy he can comment, ‘There was agreement among evangelicals of all generations that the Bible is inspired by God’. The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion held it was ‘the infallible truth’. He records a Methodist minister recalling an opponent accusing him of making ‘my Bible my God’. Certainly at this stage evangelicals seem close to ‘practical inerrantists’. J.C.Ryle writing at the end of nineteenth century seems to hold a similar view. ‘The first and leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth the only judge of controversy’(his italics). In case we miss the point he then turns his sights on any other authority including ‘the universal conscience of mankind’. There seems little doubt that Ryle was a ‘practical’ inerrantist. In the present century Stott in his defence against the charge of fundamentalism speaks of the ‘authority and reliability of the Bible’. That the words of the Bible ‘were spoken directly by God to and through men as to be described accurately as issuing from His mouth’. Packer makes similar points. He defends plenary inspiration and says that every word is the Word of God. As to his attitude to liberal scholarship, at points he is less than complimentary. What Herbert sees as being humble and critical in order to discern the Word of God in the word of men in the Bible, Packer describes as ‘two incompatible approaches to Christianity are striving to dominate its thinking: that of consistent faith, and that of consistent unbelief.’. What is critical to Herbert is ‘unbelief’ to Packer. Further Packer argues the subjectivist approach of men like Herbert ‘is just an expression of ...pride’. He sees it as a sign of inpenitence. Whilst he may not be unchurching Herbert, he is certainly not being complimentary about his scholarship.

In terms of attitudes towards Christians of other traditions the emphasis on the new birth meant that anyone who had not experienced it, whether they went to church or not was not saved. Certainly in this regard it would seem that among popular evangelicals of the eighteenth century that there was a tendency to unchurch non born again Christians. Bebbington records an advert for prayer which seems to reflect this attitude, ‘For a gentleman on the road to destruction who fancies he is saved.’ From Ryle’s writings a century later it seems that his attitude was the same. Under a section on the inward work of the Spirit he writes, ‘And we say that to tell men to take comfort in their baptism or Church-membership, when these all important graces (the inward work of the Spirit) are unknown, is not merely a mistake, but positive cruelty’. It is also clear that he did not see Roman Catholicism as an equally valid form of Christianity. Packer’s comments about Herbert’s form of Christianity are certainly not that complementary. He might not be unchurching people, but he certainly does not think that much of their view of Christianity.

From this brief historical survey of attitudes within the evangelical constituency it seems true to say that evangelicals have historically at least been fundamentalists at least in the sense meant by Herbert and Barr. The answer seems to be yes. They have broadly been ‘pracitical inerrantists’ in their attitude to scripture. They have been hostile towards liberal scholarship and they have shown a tendency to at least look down on other forms of Christianity.

Indeed Packer’s great defence partly in the light of Herbert’s attack, does not deny Herbert’s accusations at least in the area of attitude to Scripture. Indeed the defensive part of his work might be summarised, ‘You accuse us of being fundamentalist. Whilst we would not use that term, however this attitude to scripture which we have which you attack, is none other than the Bible’s own view of itself, and the view held all down church history.’ If fundamentalism is defined as Herbert wants it to be, namely as an attitude to the Bible and other forms of Christianity it seems that Packer is agreeing that that his position. Indeed he is saying he is proud of it.

Packer’s book ‘Fundamentalism and the Word of God’ was published in 1958, only forty years ago. Within evangelicalism it was an instant success selling 20,000 copies in the first year alone. McGrath comments that it was not only the bare statistics that told of its influence and acceptance within evangelicalism, ‘The result was a significant growth in self-confidence within evangelicalism at this point. Anecdote after anecdote confirms this. Although it is notoriously difficult to measure such subjective notions, the oral history of British evangelicalism at this time points to this book having caused a significant increase in the ‘feel-good’ factor within the movment’. The point is this, that a book which basically acknowledged that evangelicals were fundamentalists as Herbert had defined them, was extremely popular and well received within British evangelicalism only forty years ago.

Not only does the historical survey point to British evangelicalism holding fundamentalist positions, but it also shows that only forty years ago fundamentalism was extremely popular. What of today? We noted that one of the responses from within evangelicalism to Barr’s book was to say that evangelicalism has changed, it used to be fundamentalist but now it is not. France acknowledges that he used to move in fundamentalist circles, but that he has now found ‘an appropriate middle way, an evangelicalism which is neither ‘fundamentalist’ nor ‘liberal’.

However we also noted that there was some dissent from this ‘changing’ view. In this group it would seem that those views espoused by Ryle and Packer are still there. In Mark Thompson’s article in the ‘Anglican Evangelical Crisis’ he lays out what he sees as historic evangelicalism. In continuation with the historic line he strongly emphasises the inspiration and authority of the Bible. The emphasis on the need for regeneration and new birth is there. Melvin Tinker’s article on the ecclesiology in the same book suggests that a church is not a church if it is not rightly administering the sacraments and preaching the Word of God. Here are the tendencies to unchurch those who are not evangelical. As Barr and Herbert see it, this is classic fundamentalism. So it is clear that in the dissenting group, ‘fundamentalism’ is alive and well.

What about the other ‘moving’ group, The Keele/ Anvil evangelicals? Where do they stand? Have they, as France suggests, found a middle ground between fundamentalism and liberalism, or in moving away from fundamentalism have they too moved away from evangelicalism?

From the argument so far it would appear that there is no middle ground. For evangelicalism from Ryle to Packer to Thompson the Bible is the authoritative word of God, the final authority. The evangelical position is practical inerrancy. This by itself will lead to various negative assessments of liberal critical methods. To move away from that position is to move away from evangelicalism as well as fundamentalism. On this reading it seems that those who are ‘moving’ if they are moving away from fundamentalism are also from evangelicalism.

However there seem to be three possible ways that one might seek to manage to remain evangelical whilst losing the fundamentalist tag. We will explore these three turn. However in looking at these possible ‘escape routes’ we will only look at the key issue of attitudes to the Bible.

The first way is to exploit the fact that fundamentalism as defined by Barr is exclusively to do with methodology, whereas evangelicalism is also interested in the results of the methodology. First the relationship between evangelical methodology and evangelical doctrine. Evangelicalism has historically believed that the Bible is the authoritative word of God and that doctrine is the foundation of all theology. On the basis of this methodology, evangelicalism in line with the Reformers has built up a stable coherent body of doctrine about the Christian faith. To this doctrine the evangelical assents. For the evangelical the key issue in terms of salvation is assent to the key doctrines. Within in this framework it is possible to begin to move away from aspects of evangelical methodology, namely using the Bible and God’s authoritative Word as the source of all doctrine and belief. In that sense one is beginning to move away from an evangelical methodology. Whilst one is doing this for a while it might not make that much difference to what one believes. Whilst that is the case although the person’s methodology is not evangelical, they remain an evangelical, because they assent to that body of doctrine built up from the evangelical foundation in the Word of God. After a while if a person continues to shift away from evangelical methodology then the chances are they will as a result also move away from being an evangelical. An example would be the doctrine of the second coming. This is a key evangelical doctrine coming from the clear teaching of the New Testament. If ones methodology led one to suggest that the New Testament was wrong at that point, then one’s use of non evangelical methodology had finally led one outside of evangelicalism. However as is fairly obvious the boundaries in such a process are fairly hazy. It is clear that Barr, who once was an evangelical, has moved away from evangelical methodology and its doctrine. He is clearly outside evangelicalism. France’s response to Barr’s book is also instructive at this point. He feels he is moving away from Fundamentalism, and moving more happily in critical circles, whilst being aware he does not know where the boundaries are, and yet at the same time he feels he still maintains evangelical doctrine.In that sense to the extent where he uses liberal critical methods in his work (if he does) he is no longer using evangelical methodology. However to the extent that this different methodology is currently making little or no difference to his doctrinal position he is making, he remains an evangelical.

In that sense it is possible to move away to some extent from the evangelical view of scripture and accept some methodology implying that scripture is flawed and still be an evangelical. In that sense it is possible to move away from fundamentalism and still be an evangelical, but with the danger of moving further away and no longer being an evangelical.

The second way is that suggested at points by Barr, that evangelicals are not being true to their Bible. If they were they would move away from their fundamentalism. Barr’s argument is that the Bible does not give the idea that it is the inerrant authoritative Word of God. Evangelicals under the influence of Warfield have come up with this doctrine of inerrancy, which cannot be found in the Bible. It is perhaps one of the weaknesses of Barr’s book that he does not come up with a sustained attack on the evangelical view of the Bible. It is interesting to note that there are only five references in John Wenham’s book ‘Christ and the Bible’, which is probably the most influential defense of the evangelical position on scripture argued from Scripture itself. Certainly some of Packer’s work on Scripture is drawn from it. In that sense whilst Barr suggests that the evangelical approach to reading the Bible is wrong, he does not do a systematic critique of it. His basic tenant seems to be that the Bible contains many errors and inaccuracies. This is not surprising as it is the product of fallen men. In terms of revelation his attitude is heavily influenced by Schleiermacher, that within the Bible is found a reflection of the human experience of the divine, which must be brought out. Barr in that sense holds a similar view to Herbert’s.

Is Barr’s view compelling? Is he right in saying that his view of the Bible is more true to the Bible than evangelicals? The key plank in his argument is the errors in the Bible. Christians have been aware of these since the start of church history and come up with a number of solutions, admitting some errors, imprecision of reporting, textual difficulties, or at times just suspending judgement and waiting for further understanding, rather than immediately saying it must be an error. These approaches combined with the arguments of scripture’s self attestation to be the truthful inspired Word of God in all matters to which they relate seems to be a more consistent approach compared to Barr’s Schleiermacher inspired approach. Certainly down church history the ‘practical’ inerrantist view has been far more commonly held.

Although one might not want to go as far as Barr and Herbert, some have suggested that this ‘move’ is to do with a more sosphisticated hermeneutic, whilst still holding to the basic position of practical inerrancy. Some of this might be true. France lists a number of items which evangelicals might have believed in the past that can be open to question now such as the authorships of Hebrews, John and Matthew. In these cases a better reading of the Bible has changed the position.

However it would be naive to suggest that the only pressure to move was coming from the Bible itself. One of reasons why evangelicals have sought to shed the fundamentalist tag is because it is seen to be obscurantist, old fashioned and intellectually suspect. One of Packer’s motives for writing ‘Fundamentalism and the Word of God’ was to show the reasonableness of Christianity and that it is intellectually credible. It would seem that much of the response to Barr’s book comes from this desire to be respectable. France makes the point that since 1977 Evangelicals have sought (and gained) recognition as New Testament scholars. They have desired it. France also makes the telling aside that if one moves in critical scholarly circles then one becomes more tolerant of views that would not be acceptable to an evangelical not moving in those circles. These are strong forces working towards moving evangelical scholars away from evangelicalism that are not being driven by a better reading of Bible. Bray asks if France’s deliberations over the authorship of 2 Peter are being driven by arguments from the Bible or from the latest critical studies.

The third way is similar to the first, and it is effectively hiding your evangelical attitudes to scripture at points and at those points using critical methods such as those advocated by Barr. Barr is clear that the issue is inerrancy and attitudes to critical scholarship. That is what a fundamentalist is. The only way anyone can get away from that is by renouncing both these positions and allowing free reign to Barr’s critical methods. But the issue of ‘practical inerrancy’ at least is an evangelical presupposition coming from his understanding of the Bible. The only way he can lose Barr’s tag and remain evangelical is to hide his evangelical presuppositions and use the arguments of Biblical critical method. Then at that point he may be acceptable for Barr. However the moment he lets his understanding of the practical inerrancy of the Bible out, he will be tagged again as a Fundamentalist again.

I will now draw my conclusions. Are evangelicals necesssarily fundamentalists? As fundamentalist is described by Herbert and Barr the answer is yes. The issue is to do with the inspiration and authority and truthfulness of Scripture, whether one is a practical inerrantist or not. That view of Scripture is the bench mark of evangelical method, both in history and its understanding of the Bible. Therefore according to Barr evangelicals are fundamentalists. Many evangelicals have claimed to move in the last forty years so that they no longer deserve that tag. It may be possible for evangelicals to lose that tag by not being true to evangelical methodology whilst holding to evangelical doctrine that springs from that methodology. Or it may be possible to ‘hide’ one’s evangelical position and engage with the argument only on the grounds of Barr’s desired critical method. In both these scenarios whilst one remains evangelical, one is not acting in an evangelical way at that point. The moment an evangelical shows that his practical inerrantist position view of scripture is influencing his argument he will be tagged by Barr as a fundamentalist.

Are evangelicals necessarily fundamentalists? If they are true to their understanding of Scripture as being the authoritative word of God in all that it speaks on, then according to Barr and Herbert the answer will be yes.

David GibbAbout the Author

The Revd. David Gibb MA is Minister of Grace Church, Wanstead, a church plant in East London (UK).