Tag Archives: fundamentalism

Bishop Spong, the Fundamentalist

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.
Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.

In our last post, we looked at how fundamentalism is actually a modernist phenomenon, and not its opposite.  As I have continued to read through Billy Abraham’s excellent The Logic of Renewal, he makes these relationships even more explicit.  It’s not only that fundamentalism is representative of modernity, but that the most thorough-going modernists can also be fundamentalists.  Case in point is Bishop John Shelby Spong, the infamous Episcopal bishop (now retired) known for questioning virtually every distinctive Christian belief and yet – somehow – remaining a bishop.  Abraham explains:

“Converted within the boundaries of modern fundamentalism, he has never really recovered from the thinness of its doctrines or the narrowness of its structures. The marks of the former Fundamentalism in his preaching and teaching are obvious.  There is the same sense of alienation from tradition, the same angry self-assurance, the same hunger for intellectual and scholarly recognition, the same boundless evangelistic energy for the cause, the same pretentious self-importance, the same note of apocalyptic urgency, and the same faith in simple, sure-fire arguments that will shoot down the opposition in flames.”

Having spent many years among conservative fundamentalists, I find it pretty easy to recognize that streak among progressive fundies as well.  As Abraham so aptly names, the same tone, methodology, and simplistic world-view is found in the left-wing fundamentalism of Spong as it is in the right-wing fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalism, in other words, is not a matter of the left or the right.  It’s a quintessentially modern habit, found in any faith or faith leader co-opted by its norms and modes of discourse.

Where do you see fundamentalism – right and left-wing – in the church today?

 

Source: William Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 40.

Fundamentalism as Modernity

Richard Rohr has helped me to be wary of focusing too much on what I dislike or despise.  He argues, as we’ve said before, that what we fight against too long or too hard often becomes determinative for us.  We become what we hate, if we aren’t careful.

An excellent illustration of this is the fundamentalist/modernist split in the early 20th century (a fight still being waged, though pseudonymously).  The crux of that divide is often cast as “modernists who embrace Enlightenment, rationality, science, etc.” and “fundamentalists who reject all of the above.”  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Both fundamentalists and modernists drink deeply from the waters of modernity.  William (Billy) Abraham from Perkins Theological Seminary describes it thus:

“The fundamentalists clearly see the elemental problem of the church as intellectual and theological. More precisely, they are betting the future on a very particular epistemology of theology. The solution offered, however, is wildly off base. For one, the whole attempt to secure the kind of formally approved foundations required is precisely the heart of the whole Enlightenment project. Hence, contemporary fundamentalists are throughougly modern creatures committed to the same intellectual aspirations as their secular enemies.  If the Enlightenment has caused so much trouble, it would be odd in the extreme to argue that we could get beyond it by accepting its basic premises and modes of operation. Second, as I have argued at length elsewhere, the Fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture is deeply flawed. The crucial weakness is that it has historically depended on a doctrine of divine dictation or on a latent confusing of divine inspiration with divine speaking and related speech acts of God.  Thirdly, and most importantly, the move to include the inerrancy of Scripture as the linchpin in a new creed for the church involves not only a radical departure from the actual canonical decisions of the church as made in the great ecumenical councils but also a profound reorientation of the inner structure of the church’s intellectual heritage and vision. It involves a shift from soteriology to epistemology.”

Read through the lens of intellectual history and philosophy, it thus becomes clear that the fundamentalist/ modernist spat, however vicious, is a civil war.  They are neighbors, not opposites.  it is a war of brother versus brother over whose mode of epistemological certainty is better.  This is why Christians who try to “prove” dogmas such as the resurrection false, via the means of scientific discourse, or prove it valid though Biblical or historical inquiry, are essentially doing the same thing.  They have both made the (mistaken, if well-meaning) choice to try to prove Christian doctrine rather than celebrate, confess, pray, or teach it.

As Abraham so insightfully points out, the decision to privilege epistemology over soteriology or some other aspect of Christian truth is not a neutral one.  In pursuing this, both do damage not only to the visible church, but to Christian doctrine, witness, and unity.

Where do you see evidence of this capitulation to modernity – in either its modernist or fundamentalist forms – in the church today?
Source: William J. Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 20.

We’re All Theologians: A Response to Donald Miller

https://pastormack.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/dfe49-gk_theology_shirt.jpg

I count myself a fan of Donald Miller. I am particularly evangelical about Blue Like Jazz. I think the church needs his voice: a Christian able to laugh at Christianity, who is non-ideological, and yet deeply committed to Jesus. But he lost me in a recent column which concluded:

“Let me ask you this: Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and pseudo-scholars fighting about doctrine?

Is it worth it that you are divided against other denominations because scholars picked up their ball and stomped off the playground? If you are tired, then be the church. I’m not kidding; you don’t know everything, but you know enough. Be the church and be united. Let the academics go to an island and fight about the things that matter to them, and we will be united based on the things that matter to us.”

His basic premise: the church is led by scholars, and would be better off led by plumbers.

In some ways, this is patently false. Most church leadership, as I have experienced it, is held by people who have shown themselves to be effective leaders. Often times, these folks are not the most scholarly, but (hopefully) the most effective.

This is also indicative of something I thought Miller would have rejected from his fundamentalist background: anti-intellectualism. Granted, his is a more friendly, postmodern form, but at least here he seems to have an anti-scholarly bent with which fundamentalists of the early 20th century would be sympathetic.

In another sense, he is correct: “professional” church people and new Christians, clergy and laity, both have roles to play in church leadership. In fact, one of the most important, and oft neglected roles of the scholar-pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”  (Eph. 4:12) These saints would include plumbers and lawyers and housewives and grandfathers.

Donald Miller may not care much for fights about doctrine, but there will be doctrine regardless of whether or not it is discussed or named as such. This is one of the fundamental lies of the “non-denominational” church movement: there’s no such thing as untraditioned (Miller might prefer un-storied) Christianity. It never has been “just the Bible and God’s people” and never will be. The fact that most Christians don’t know the megachurch they are attending is functionally baptist (most practice believer’s baptism and local church autonomy), and these churches can get away with the claim, is evidence not of too much scholarship but of too little.

All Christians are theologians. In the Christian East, there’s an old saying: “the one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is one who prays.” Not all Christians are professional scholars (thanks be to God), but we are called both to think through and practice the faith. To pit these against each other is a false dichotomy, for they are mutually reinforcing.

So study theology. There is a good case to be made that even atheists should study theology; how much more should God’s people! Dig into the doctrine. Don’t accept just whatever your pastor or parents or “Christian” bookstore claim. Dig deep. Think. Pray. Wrestle.

Every Christian is a theologian; the question is, are we good theologians?

A friendly P.S.:

My own UMC denomination was not formed by an “academic” over doctrine, but over practice. Wesley began an evangelical order within the Anglican Church to reach those that were not being reached, through methods that were being successful in other parts of the Body of Christ. Was he doctrinal? You bet. But this fed his missional drive to all the people that the Anglicans seemed content to leave in the dust. This story brought to you by…scholars. 🙂

 

P.P.S.:

The Miller article is not as new as I initially thought. My bad! But better late than never.