The Idea of Fundamentalism

GDJT 2 (2023): 45–61
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The word fundamentalist is increasingly showing up as the mot juste for narrowness, inflexibility, obscurantism, and bad manners. For example, David French has referred to vocal conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention as “fundamentalist pirates.” Similarly, Tim Keller took a public swipe at “the actions of American fundamentalists,” but without specifying exactly which actions he had in mind or who had done them. Roger Olson regularly blogs against fundamentalism, and he recently added this statement to his oeuvre: “I simply don’t have enough respect for true fundamentalism to take it on. Whenever I have tried to wrap my mind around it, I find it to be so strange, so disappointing, so untheological, that I can’t contemplate writing a book against it.” [2]

Ironically, many on the Left would not distinguish Keller or French from fundamentalism, and some might not even distinguish Olson. Perhaps that is what fuels their ire. Many of the evangelicals whom I know are eager not to be thought of as fundamentalists.

Does a similar stereotyping occur in more academic discussions of fundamentalism? Since the publication of George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture in 1980, the background and history of American fundamentalism have become a topic of considerable academic analysis. Those of us who still call ourselves fundamentalists appreciate the attention, and we acknowledge our indebtedness not only to Marsden but also to such evangelical historians as Mark Noll, D. G. Hart, Nathan Hatch, and Joel Carpenter. Valuable as their contributions are, however, we fundamentalists often leave their writings feeling as if we have seen our reflection in a carnival-house mirror. The features are broadly recognizable, but at least some of the proportions seem wrong. Even in these publications, we fundamentalists feel as if we have been at least slightly stereotyped.[3]

A recent example comes from a recent issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, which includes an editorial by its president, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. The author opines that “the first generation of ETS members understood that they were not fundamentalists.” This was so because “the founders of the ETS rejected the fundamentalist idea of separationism,” instead favoring “cultural engagement.” Mohler alleges that, “Fundamentalists failed to engage the larger world of thought, thereby reducing the influence of conservative Christianity. The founders of the Society and other observers understood this theological failure to be endemic to fundamentalism.”[4]

In these remarks, Mohler seems to confuse fundamentalism with obscurantism and cultural disengagement—an old trope that needs to be laid to rest. The truth is that multiple founders of the ETS were fundamentalists. Of the first twelve ETS presidents, at least three (Charles Woodbridge, Allan MacRae, and R. Laird Harris) identified as fundamentalists. At the time of his presidency, MacRae was even working for Carl McIntire, the most visible and culturally-engaged fundamentalist of the era. Furthermore, many or most fundamentalist scholars still participate in ETS.

Why does this distortion occur? Not, I think, because of ill will. Part of the reason may be that outside observers of fundamentalism tend to perceive it in terms of its accouterments and unintended effects rather than its essence, much as if they defined a shovel as a device for producing blisters on the hand. Distortion is nearly inevitable whenever fundamentalism is treated primarily in terms of dispensationalism, premillennialism, common sense realism, populism, revivalism, or anti-intellectualism. Even granting that one can find fundamentalists who are characterized by each of these categories, and that such categories are useful for doing social and theological analyses of varieties within fundamentalism, none of them really gets to the point of fundamentalism. For example, there have always been fundamentalists who are not dispensationalists or obscurantists, and there are plenty of non-fundamentalists who are.

Another reason for distorted perceptions is that fundamentalism is not a single thing. It comes in several varieties, and each variety is represented by at least one movement or network. The term fundamentalism is not defined by any one of these movements or networks, or even by all of them together. Fundamentalism is not primarily a social phenomenon or a movement, but an idea. One is a fundamentalist if one holds the idea and attempts to practice this idea and its implications. In this essay, I wish to argue that fundamentalism was and is a great idea. It is furthermore an idea that is thoroughly in keeping with the best of Christian thought as mediated through the Reformation.

To begin with, fundamentalism has inherited the Reformation distinction between the invisible and the visible Church.[5] In mainstream Protestant ecclesiology, the invisible church is the communion of the saints and the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit unites to this body as many as place their trust in Christ as Savior, joining them organically to Christ and to one another. The invisible church, then, is the church of those who possess saving faith in Christ. It is called the invisible church because its essential, constituting elements are not available for public inspection. A person’s heart cannot be viewed for the presence of saving faith, nor can that person’s union with Christ be directly examined. In Protestant thought, the invisible church is the true church, the church to which biblical promises, prerogatives, and predicates apply. It alone is unequivocally one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[6]

If the invisible church is the body of those who possess true, saving faith in Jesus Christ, the visible church is the company of those who profess true faith. The visible church is the empirical church. Because profession does not necessarily equal possession, the visible church at its best only approximates the true (invisible) church. Biblical promises, prerogatives, and predicates apply to it only in a relative sense.[7]

Because we cannot infallibly judge who possesses true faith, we cannot say with certainty who is in the true, invisible church. A profession of faith, however, is an empirical thing. It can be heard and evaluated. The genius of Protestant ecclesiology is to recognize only those who profess faith in the true gospel as members of the visible church.[8]

When one professes faith, one claims to believe the gospel and to receive Jesus Christ as Savior. At first glance, it might appear that this profession ought to be evaluated purely on experiential grounds, perhaps by its fervency, but fervency alone does not speak to the content of one’s faith. People may experience a fervent trust in and devotion to the wrong things. Consequently, we must ask questions about content. For example, we might ask, When you claim to believe in Jesus, do you mean the Jesus of Arius or the Jesus of Athanasius?

Such questions are irrecusably doctrinal. They imply a second insight that fundamentalists have inherited from the Reformation. This insight is that the gospel, and therefore the Christian faith, includes a doctrinal component. This does not mean that fundamentalists reduce Christianity to doctrine alone—far from it. With historic Protestants, fundamentalists recognize that the Christian faith also includes both practical duties and ordinate affections. Fundamentalists know that orthopraxy and orthopathy stand alongside orthodoxy as essential elements of the Christian faith.[9] Still, even though fundamentalists see Christianity as more than doctrinal, they never see it as less.

This emphasis on doctrine does not imply that all doctrines are equally important. Most fundamentalists recognize multiple levels of importance between doctrines, but one level is especially significant for this discussion. All fundamentalists insist that certain doctrines are so important as to impinge upon the definition of Christianity. These doctrines are traditionally known as essential or fundamental doctrines.[10]

Fundamentalists did not invent the idea of fundamental doctrines. They inherited it. The distinction between fundamental (also called essential, capital, cardinal, or chief) doctrines (articles, heads) and non-fundamental doctrines is found in the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Arminian branches of Protestantism. This distinction was affirmed by the Reformers themselves, as well as by the Protestant thinkers who came after them.[11]

In classical Protestantism, the fundamentals are doctrines upon which the gospel itself depends. This definition does not mean that people need to have a clear and distinct knowledge of every fundamental before they can be converted. A. A. Hodge drew an important distinction: “A fundamental doctrine . . . is either one which every soul must apprehend more or less clearly in order to be saved, or one which, when known, is so clearly involved with those the knowledge and belief of which is essential to salvation, that the one cannot be rejected while the other is really believed.”[12] In both cases, the denial of a fundamental doctrine implies a denial of the gospel itself. According to traditional Protestantism, any person who denies a fundamental doctrine is implicitly denying the gospel.

Incidentally, the Reformers and the theologians who followed them resisted the demand to draw up an exhaustive list of fundamentals. This reluctance persisted as late as the Princeton theologians, who preferred to articulate tests for recognizing the fundamentals. The problem was (and is) that fundamental doctrines are usually recognized in the face of heresies, and new heresies focus attention upon doctrines not previously considered in depth. Nevertheless, Protestant theologians have been willing to draw up truncated lists of doctrines positively identified as fundamentals.[13]

Since the visible church is the body of those who profess faith in the gospel, then persons who deny the gospel must not be reckoned as part of the visible church. This is easy to see in the case of a Saracen or a Brahmin: they should not be recognized as Christians. Protestants also apply this principle to people who deny fundamental doctrines while naming the name of Christ. We are not entitled to judge the salvation of such individuals, since we cannot observe their hearts. Nevertheless, we are obligated to evaluate their professions of faith for their consistency with the gospel. We cannot say with certainty whether they are members of the invisible church, but we can know whether they ought to be reckoned in the company of the visible church.

In historic Protestantism, the fundamentals were especially important for distinguishing true churches of Jesus Christ from spurious ones. According to Calvin, doctrine is a sine qua non for the existence of Christianity. This observation played directly into his discussion of how to distinguish a true church from a counterfeit one.[14] The idea is not merely a Calvinistic one, however. Substantially the same argument shows up in the disputations of Arminius.[15]

Just as individuals who deny fundamental doctrines of the gospel cannot be reckoned as Christians, so organized congregations that deny fundamental doctrines of the gospel cannot rightly be regarded as true Christian churches. Luther put it this way: “Now the certain mark of the Christian congregation is the preaching of the Gospel in its purity. . . . [W]here the Gospel is not preached and the doctrines of men hold sway, there can be no Christians but only heathens, no matter how great their numbers or how saintly and good their lives.” Churches that do not preach the gospel in purity are engaging in “purely human affairs under cover of the name of a Christian congregation.”[16] For Luther, the test of a true church, like the test of a true Christian, was first of all doctrinal.

This consideration is especially important for those who believe that Christians are obligated to unite with a particular church. Most Protestant ecclesiologies stress that membership in a particular church is not optional.[17] Franz Pieper, a conservative Lutheran theologian, argued that the local church is a divine institution from which individual Christians have no authority to exempt themselves.[18] John Gerstner represented the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition when he wrote, “We must belong to a church if at all possible. That is our duty. We must therefore not separate from a church unless necessary. Not to join a church is a sin of omission; to separate unnecessarily from a church is a sin of commission.”[19] Expressing an Arminian point of view, John Miley dedicated an entire page of his Systematic Theology to listing reasons for thinking that church membership is a duty.[20] Protestants in general have taken church membership very seriously.

If church membership is obligatory, then the existence of spurious churches poses a special problem. By definition, those who become members of false churches are not members of true churches. Not to be a member of a true church, however, violates a Christian duty. This was the insight that J. Gresham Machen grasped when thinking about his own church (the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America), the councils of which he believed to be dominated by modernism. “Such a body is hardly what the Bible means by a church at all. The Bible commands Christian people to be members of a true church, even though it be an imperfect one. It represents the nurture provided by such a true church as a necessity, not a luxury, in the Christian life. There must therefore be a separation. . . .”[21] Bluntly, people who prefer membership in false churches to membership in true churches are guilty of grave disobedience.

Machen preferred to reform his church by purging the modernists from its leadership. If reformation proved impossible, however, he was quite prepared to provoke a separation. Accused of being schismatic, Machen replied that not every separation is a schism. “All Protestants have made themselves party to a separation from an existing church organization.” Therefore, some separations are not only permissible, but are “an inescapable and very solemn Christian duty.” Machen summarized: “Here, then, is the principle of the thing—it is schism to leave a church if that church is true to the Bible, but it is not schism if that church is not true to the Bible. In the latter case, far from its being schism to separate from the church in question, it is schism to remain in it, since to remain in it means to disobey the Word of God and to separate oneself from the true Church of Jesus Christ.”[22]

In these lines, Machen captured the core of the fundamentalist idea: the belief that Christian unity and fellowship are possible only with other Christians. This must be the case, because unity is a function of that which unites, and fellowship is a function of that which is held in common. Within the visible church, including organized churches, what must be held in common is the profession of the gospel, and the profession of the gospel can always be evaluated by the test of fundamental doctrines. To put it concisely, fundamentalists insist that it is always wrong for Christians to pretend that they can enjoy Christian unity and fellowship with people who deny fundamental doctrines, for such persons really deny the gospel itself.

In other words, what we are now discussing is separatism. Separatism is the differentia that defines fundamentalism. Whatever else they may disagree about, all fundamentalists affirm that no Christian fellowship or union is possible with those who deny the gospel by denying fundamental doctrines. This separatism does not arise (as has sometimes been suggested) from dispensationalism, but from a thoroughly Protestant way of looking at the visible church.

Of course, fundamentalists also argue that this is a biblical way of looking at the church. I am not trying to make the biblical case for separatism here, though I think that it is compelling. What I am trying to do is to show that the core idea of fundamentalism is a (and perhaps the only) consistent implementation of the historically Protestant way of viewing the church. Fundamentalists did not invent their categories. They inherited them. When Edward John Carnell accused Machen of “ideological thinking,” called him “cultic,” and accused him of betraying the Reformed view of the church, he did not take proper account of the Protestant consensus on the visible church. [23]

For fundamentalists, separatism works out in three ways. First, they insist upon purging from their churches and institutions all spokespersons who deny the gospel.[24] Second, they refuse Christian cooperation and fellowship with any person, institution or movement that supports the denial of the gospel.[25] Third, they refuse to grant recognition as Christians to, or engage in any activity that would imply Christian commonality with, teachers or other leaders who deny the gospel.

Most fundamentalists love the church of Jesus Christ. They value church unity and Christian fellowship. But they are convinced that those who truly love the Lord Jesus cannot extend Christian unity, fellowship, and cooperation to people who deny the gospel. To do so is something akin to ecclesiastical treason. In other words, fundamentalist thought is dominated by a churchly emphasis. Something is supposed to transpire between people who are in the church that cannot transpire between people who are outside of it. Fundamentalists believe it is wrong to pretend to do churchly things with people whose profession places them outside of the church.

From the day of its birth at Fuller Seminary, the New Evangelicalism explicitly rejected this understanding of separatism. After two decades of ecclesiastical conflict, the New Evangelicals succeeded in capturing the leadership of mainstream American evangelicalism. I do not wish to revisit that struggle here.[26] I suggest, however, that the rejection of separatism has ushered certain undesirable consequences into American evangelicalism.

First came a tendency to minimize doctrine as an essential element of the gospel, replacing it with religious experience. That is why Edward John Carnell could write, “I suffered a rude shock when, in the course of graduate studies, I discovered a few modernists who gave more convincing evidence of devotion to Christ . . . than some who were celebrated for their piety in fundamentalism. From experiences of this kind I was forced to conclude that a person may be a true Christian, and yet have a long way to go in the organization of his theological convictions.”[27] Carnell did admit that “modernism is a system which is contrary to the truth and should be resisted with every legitimate weapon,” but he also argued that many modernists “believe a lot more in their hearts than they will admit into their theology.”[28] Since these people give evidence of evangelical repentance, argued Carnell, they should not be denied Christian fellowship.

If Carnell only meant that some people receive truths in their hearts that they deny in their speculative systems, most fundamentalists would agree. But Carnell clearly meant more than that. What Carnell wanted to do was to extend some form of Christian recognition to religious leaders who were denying the gospel. For Carnell, fundamental doctrines did not play a defining role in the gospel or in Christian fellowship, at least in this instance.

Second, having minimized the role of doctrine in defining the gospel, evangelicals became uncertain about which doctrines qualified as fundamental. This was the core problem in the inerrancy debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Those debates were much more than just political skirmishes over the boundaries of evangelicalism. They were about the nature of biblical authority, and that problem is surely fundamental to the gospel. At the present moment, there is little consensus within American evangelicalism over just how much and what manner of biblical authority is fundamental to the gospel. This uncertainty also extends to other areas of fundamental doctrine. Is God’s exhaustive foreknowledge essential to the gospel? What about forensic justification through the imputed righteousness of Christ? American evangelicals as a bloc seem unable to answer these questions.

The foregoing tendencies have led to a third consequence that flows from the rejection of separatism. Given the present de-emphasis upon doctrine, evangelicals can no longer say exactly who they are. Attempts to define evangelicalism abound, and the lack of unanimity among those definitions is notable. I suggest that this confusion is unavoidable. By its very name, evangelicalism is supposed to be tied to an evangel. If the evangel cannot be defined (an irreducibly doctrinal exercise), then evangelicals are forced to define themselves by their relationship to they know not what. At best, they are reduced to some sort of historical/empirical definition.[29]

The problem, however, is even more acute than that. Not only have many evangelicals lost a sense of who they are, some of them are no longer even sure what a Christian is. Richard Mouw (former president of Fuller Seminary) betrays this uncertainty in a chapter on “Understanding Sister Helen’s Tears,” in which he wonders whether one of his now-deceased Romanist teachers, a woman of considerable devotion, should be recognized as a Christian.[30] Two observations are in order. First, none of us is qualified to judge whether Sister Helen is in heaven. Her faith and union with Christ (if they existed) were not available for public inspection—nobody’s is. Granted that Sister Helen displayed piety and virtue, these nevertheless remain ambiguous if not accompanied by a clear profession of the gospel.

Second, the system of doctrine to which Sister Helen was committed was one that could not lead her to heaven. The Roman Catholic Church has not made a secret of its understanding of salvation. The way of salvation (the gospel) is also clearly revealed in Scripture. When we compare the two, we should be able to say without hesitation that, understood on its own terms and applied with consistency, the Romanist system does not save.[31] The question is not (as Mouw seems to suggest) how we present the gospel or whether we appeal for a decision. The question is about the actual content of the gospel itself, of what the gospel is.[32]

The current attitude toward Romanism is only one illustration of the inability of evangelicals to decide who should be recognized as a Christian. This inability was manifested as early as Carnell’s speculation (noted above) that some modernists might be true Christians. Sometimes this inability can take startling forms. I was present at a Catholic-Evangelical dialogue in which an evangelical theologian distributed copies of the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. He then asked whether any of the Catholics in the meeting could really deny any of it. Given its vagueness, of course they could not.[33] At that point, the evangelical theologian explicitly invited the Roman Catholic Church to seek membership in the National Association of Evangelicals. The Catholic theologians were visibly uncomfortable with that kind of doctrinal imprecision. They knew that the core of both systems was at stake, and they were not willing to assume that the systems were compatible simply because of superficial similarities in wording. A second evangelical theologian introduced the distinction between imputed righteousness and imparted righteousness, and the conversation snapped into focus. “Ah, yes!” said one of the Romanist theologians. “We knew that was what you really meant. And that is what we do not accept!”

I appreciate the candor of that Romanist priest, but I wonder whether he was not mistaken about one thing. I wonder whether the first evangelical really did grasp the centrality of the notion that justification rests upon the imputed, alien righteousness of Christ. Indeed, I wonder how many of today’s evangelicals would be willing to distinguish a Christian from an anti-Christian system upon the basis of such a doctrine.

When you lose the ability to define the evangel, you lose the ability to define evangelicalism. More than that, you lose the ability to define Christianity. I do not wish to be impertinent, but I must ask: If we can no longer define Christianity, and if we no longer know what evangelicalism is, then how can we be sure that evangelicalism is still Christian?

What is the alternative? The first step is to recognize the centrality of the gospel to Christian faith. The second step is to remember the importance of fundamental doctrines in defining the gospel. The third step is to apply these fundamental doctrines as a sine qua non for the veracity of professions of the gospel. The fourth step is to refuse to pretend that anyone can enjoy Christian unity, fellowship, communion, or cooperation with people whose professions of faith deny the gospel and place them outside both the Christian faith and the visible church. Following these principles will not make you an ecclesiological innovator. It will simply place you in the mainstream of Protestant ecclesiology. Furthermore, and disconcerting as it may seem, it will also take you on your first giant step toward becoming a fundamentalist.[34]

[1] Kevin T. Bauder, PhD, DMin, is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, MN.

[2] David French, “Under Attack from Fundamentalist Pirates, Evangelical Baptists Refused to Give Up the Ship,” The Dispatch (June 20, 2021), accessed October 25, 2022, https://thedispatch.com/newsletter/frenchpress/under-attack-from-fundamentalist/; Timothy Keller, Twitter post (June 20, 2021), accessed October 25, 2022, https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/1407008683960188931; Roger Olson, “Why Not ‘Against Fundamentalism?’” Patheos (June 22, 2022), accessed November 8, 2022, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2022/06/why-not-against-fundamentalism/.

[3] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 3rd ed., New York: Oxford, 2022; Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); idem, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000); D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 1989); Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford, 1999).

[4] R. Albert Mohler, Jr. “Temptations of an Evangelical Theologian,” JETS 65, no. 1 (March 2022): 5–6. Mohler’s essay is a revision of his presidential address, delivered at the 2021 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Fort Worth, Texas. I was present for the address and heard Mohler offer multiple qualifications and conciliatory remarks that did not make it into the published essay.

[5] Landmark Baptists do not accept an invisible church. Though the number of Landmarkers is small, some of them do consider themselves to be fundamentalists. The Landmark rejection of the invisible church has also influenced a few non-Landmark Baptists. Only a minority of Baptist fundamentalists, however, and therefore only a fraction of all fundamentalists, agree with Landmarkers on this point. Overwhelmingly, fundamentalists affirm the invisible body of Christ as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

[6] To cite one example, the notion of an invisible church was a key to Charles Hodge’s ecclesiology. Hodge argued that the idea of an invisible church was an important aspect of evangelical, and not merely Reformed, ecclesiology. He called it the “evangelical” theory of the church (as opposed to the ritualist and the rationalistic theories). Charles Hodge, “Idea of the Church,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 25 (April 1853): 249–90; idem, “Theories of the Church,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 18 (January 1846): 137–58.

[7] For Hodge’s treatment of the visible church, see his essay, “Visibility of the Church,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 25 (October 1853): 670–85. Some Baptists do not distinguish the visible church from particular local congregations. Other Baptists, and most non-Baptist fundamentalists, do. While this difference is important for other reasons, it is not one that significantly alters the present argument.

[8] Many pedobaptists, of course, include the children of those who profess faith as members of the visible church. While important for a whole series of questions, this inclusion does not greatly alter the present discussion.

[9] For the distinction between doctrinal (theoretical) and practical fundamentals see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., tr. by George Musgrave Giger, ed. by James T. Denniston, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1992), 1.14.23. On the relationship between doctrine and the affections see Charles Hodge, “Address to the Students of the Theological Seminary,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 5:1 (1829): 92.

[10] On the importance of this distinction for fundamentalists see Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), 42. For a brief but suggestive presentation of a doctrinal calculus from someone who might not wish to identify with fundamentalism see Robert A. Peterson, “The Case for Traditionalism,” in Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 178–79. Peterson’s view on this matter approximates the understanding of mainstream fundamentalists. A more recent recognition of this distinction by a non-fundamentalist can be found in Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die on: The Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020). Fundamentalists have long defended a version of what Ortlund calls “theological triage,” the willingness to rank doctrines and practices according to multiple levels of importance.

[11] John Theodore Mueller, “A Survey of Luther’s Theology: Part I,” Bibliotheca Sacra 450 (April, 1956): 158; Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3rd ed., tr. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs (n.p.: 1875, 1889; Minneapolis: Augsburg, n.d.), 582–99; Martin I. Klauber, “Calvin on Fundamental Articles and Ecclesiastical Union,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (Fall 1992): 341–348; idem, Between Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism: Jean-Alphonse Turretin (1671–1737) and Enlightened Orthodoxy at the Academy of Geneva (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1994), passim; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. by Ford Lewis Battles, ed. by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.2.1; James Arminius, Works of James Arminius: The London Edition, 3 vols., tr. by James Nichols and William Nichols (vols. 1, 2, London: James Nichols for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1825, 1828; vol. 3, London: William Nichols for Thomas Baker, 1875, repr. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), 1:713–17; Turretin, Institutes, 1.14.1–27.

[12] Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1865; reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 475–76. This distinction is reflected in Turretin’s dictum that some of the essential doctrines must be believed “formally and publicly, as the special and proper objects of faith,” while others must be believed “only implicitly and virtually.” Some subjects, says Turretin, are fundamental in themselves, while the latter become fundamentals “only accidentally when they run into some fundamental topic.” Turretin, Institutes, 1.14.5–9.

[13] For an example of both reluctance and abbreviated listing, see Charles Hodge, “Principles of Church Union, and Reunion of Old and New School Presbyterians,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 37 (April 1865): 275; a similar list appears in Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Scribner, 1872–73; reprint Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 1:114. The problem of identifying and listing the fundamentals merits a separate discussion.

[14] Calvin, Institutes, 4.2.1–2.

[15] Arminius, Works, 1:417–18.

[16] Martin Luther, “The Right and Power of a Christian Congregation or Community to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proved from Scripture,” tr. by A. T. W. Steinhaeuser, in Works of Martin Luther, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1931), 4:75.

[17] Of course, there have always been a few Christians who have regarded local church membership as an adiaphoron. This attitude appears to have become rather influential in some circles of American evangelicalism during the Twentieth Century. While not completely absent from fundamentalism, it is much less influential there. Fundamentalists tend to be separatists precisely because they take local church participation seriously. In any case, we should recognize that those who denigrate the importance of church membership are the ones who have departed from historic Protestant ecclesiology.

[18] Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 4 vols. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 3:420–21.

[19] John H. Gerstner, “When Must a Person Leave a Church?” in Onward, Christian Soldiers: Protestants Affirm the Church, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999), 283–84.

[20] John Miley, Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (New York: Eaton and Mains; Cincinnati: Jennings and Pye, 1894), 2:388–89.

[21] J. Gresham Machen, “What Should Be Done by Christian People Who Are in a Modernist Church?” Presbyterian Guardian, 21 October 1935, 22.

[22] J. Gresham Machen, “Are We Schismatics?” Presbyterian Guardian, 20 April 1936, 22.

[23] See Edward John Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), 114–17. For a sustained evaluation of Carnell’s criticisms (as well as those offered by others) see my dissertation, “Communion of the Saints: Antecedents of J. Gresham Machen’s Separatism in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge and the Princeton Theologians” (Ph.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 2001). For a discussion of the biblical evidence, see the sources that I suggest for further reading in the final footnote to this essay.

[24] This principle does not necessarily mean that Christian organizations are always obligated to expel members who are wrestling with fundamental doctrines. There is a difference between a learner who is wrestling with doubts about fundamentals and a teacher who is denying them.

[25] There is an old question about when a Christian organization becomes apostate. That question is subordinate to my main argument. There is no use asking when an organization becomes apostate unless there is agreement that separation from such an organization is necessary, at whatever point it occurs.

[26] The story has been ably told by George M. Marsden in Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism, paperback edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). This book is widely used in fundamentalist institutions, largely because it confirms so much of what fundamentalists have said about the new evangelical agenda.

[27] Edward John Carnell, “How My Mind Has Changed,” in How My Mind Has Changed, ed. by Harold E. Fey (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1961):101–102.

[28] Edward John Carnell, “Christian Fellowship and the Unity of the Church,” in The Case for Biblical Theology, ed. by Ronald H. Nash (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 21–22.

[29] Perhaps the best-known sociological definition is the famed “Bebbington Quadrilateral” of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. See David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s through the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) 2–17.

[30] Richard Mouw, The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from their Fundamentalist Heritage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 105–114.

[31] Edward John Carnell’s analysis of Romanism was surprisingly similar to that which I present here. “If Christ is an authoritative revelation of the Father’s will, Catholicism is anti-Christ. That much is lucidly clear. The gospel according to Christ and the gospel according to Rome cannot, in a rational universe, simultaneously be true. Romanism will fail.” A Philosophy of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), 447–48.

[32] Mouw also tries to appeal to Charles Hodge for precedent in recognizing Roman Catholics as Christians. His selective citing of Hodge, however, does not give the full picture. Hodge viewed the Roman Catholic structure in a binary way: it both was and was not a true church (a part of the visible church) depending upon what one meant by a church. Viewed as the papacy, the Roman church was mystical Babylon and the synagogue of Satan. Only when viewed as a congregation of people could it be called a true church, since the people could sometimes sift the gospel from the official accretions that had been added to it. Romish teachers, he said, do affirm fatal error, and the Council of Trent actually codified fatal doctrines. These observations are set forth in and earlier work, “Is the Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church?” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 18 (April 1846): 323-30. In his mature Systematic Theology, Hodge clarified his understanding of Romanism as a doctrinal system. “The doctrine of the sacrificial character of the eucharist, is an integral part of the great system of error, which must stand or fall as a whole. Romanism is another gospel. It proposes a different method of salvation from that presented in the word of God. . . . This whole theory hangs together. If one assumption is false, the whole is false.” Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:135. Hodge’s ambivalence reflects that of Turretin, who insisted that Romanism has added antichristian doctrines to the Christian fundamentals that it affirms. Rome was not a true church, but some “remains of the church” existed in it, and God had not wholly left it. Turretin, Institutes, 1.14.21, 24; 18.10.11–15; 22–28; 32; 18.13.1–7; 18.14.24; 18.25.10; 19.25.3–7; 19.28.13–14.

[33] The NAE statement of faith includes the following articles. It can be located on the National Association of Evangelicals’ web site (accessed October 19, 2022) https://www.nae.org/statement-of-faith/.

1. We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

2. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

3. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.

4.We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.

5. We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

6. We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

7. We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

[34] A full-scale theological (as opposed to popular) treatment of ecclesiastical separation remains to be written. The following volumes do make significant contributions, and those who wish to pursue further study on the subject will find them useful. Gary G. Cohen, Biblical Separation Defended: A Biblical Critique of Ten New Evangelical Arguments (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1966); Fred Moritz, Be Ye Holy: The Call to Christian Separation (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994); Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church, 2nd ed. (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2008); Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998). The present essay is a revision of Kevin T. Bauder, “What’s That You Smell? A Response to Richard Mouw’s the Smell of Sawdust,” in Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail Evangelical Ecumenism and the Quest for Evangelical Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004) 45–56. See also Kevin T. Bauder, “Fundamentalism,” in Andrew David Naselli and Colin Hansen (eds.) Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 19–49.

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