Confessions of a Fundamentalist
by Aaron Dunlop
(North American customers please order through Solid Ground Christian Books)
From the Foreword by Kevin T. Bauder (Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis):—
“The following small book began as a series of essays about fundamentalism on Aaron’s blog. These essays were my first introduction to Aaron.
“Aaron didn’t set out to write a book. Friends from outside of the United States encouraged him to expand his original articles and to put them into print. He has been hesitant, and at one point even offered to bury the project if I advised him to. That I refuse to do.
“Why? Among other reasons, because Aaron is doing fundamentalism a service by publishing this book. We will be stronger with it than without it. Specifically, this volume will help us in four ways.
“First, in this book, Aaron reminds us of some of our highest ideals. While much of what he says is critical, he writes as a committed fundamentalist who wants to see all of us—himself included—live up to our best lights. He repeatedly brings us back to what ought to be our highest aspirations.
“Second, the book expresses a widely-held perspective on fundamentalism. Even if that perspective is mistaken at some points—and I think it is—it’s shared by many of Aaron’s generation. It shapes their vision of and commitment to fundamentalism. To attempt to suppress the expression of this perspective is both foolish and futile. To ignore or dismiss it is simply to wish away most of Aaron’s generation—a generation that fundamentalism needs.
“What the perspective of this book requires is thoughtful response, the kind of response that can be offered only after respectful and careful listening. So I encourage readers to listen to Aaron, not so that they can disagree or refute him, but so that they can grasp his genuine concerns and understand why they are so important to him. His concerns are the concerns of a generation, and understanding him will help us understand his peers.
“Third, this book will help older fundamentalist to know what they need to clarify. Its author has grown up within fundamentalism. He has been reared in fundamentalist churches and trained in fundamentalist schools. He pastors a fundamentalist congregation. If we think that his understanding of fundamentalist history, fundamentalist thinking or fundamentalist current events is skewed, we have no one to blame but ourselves. If we think he is wrong, then it is our responsibility to offer, or even re-offer, publicly-accessible explanations that are better than the ones he has been given.
“Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, a book like Aaron’s will help us to remember how accountable we are. As Christians—as fundamentalists—what we are doing is not gamesmanship, posturing or partisan politics. It is deadly serious. A million years from now we will look back on our mortal lives, and we will see how our conduct in this present world influenced eternal destinies, including our own. As we read this book, we may sometimes wonder whether we aren’t being held up to an unfair standard of judgement. Let us remember, however, that a day is swiftly approaching when we will face a Judge who knows our every deed and motive. I seriously doubt that his standard of judgement will be less strict than the one represented here.
“Fundamentalism has attracted its share of destructive critics. I do not believe that Aaron Dunlop is among them. Whatever wounds Aaron’s book inflicts will be the wounds of a friend. We should hear him out, carefully and thoroughly. When we reply, we should remember that we are conversing with someone who actually has our best interests at heart. Such a conversation is necessary, not only for Aaron and his generation, but for the future health of fundamentalism as a whole.”
From the Introduction:—
Fundamentalism is extremely complex. There are many sides to the movement, many conflicting identities within it, and it has manifested itself in many different forms since the prophetic conferences of the late 1800s. One writer has condensed fundamentalism into four distinct and successive forms: irenic (1893–1919), militant (1919–1940), divisive (1941–1960), and separatist fundamentalism (1960–present). Through all of these periods there have been those known as “moderates” who, while holding to the fundamentals of the faith, followed a different path than that which the movement took. Even within the movement there are those who were more moderate in their defence of the faith. Their counterparts became known as the “fighting fundamentalists.”
Most self-identifying fundamentalists today would describe themselves as “militant separatists.” These two biblical doctrines—militancy and separation—have become the ideology of the movement, without which fundamentalism would not exist.
The branch of fundamentalism that I know best, and in which I grew up, is identified more with the so-called “fighting fundamentalists.” I was born into a Free Presbyterian home—a pastor’s son—just twenty years after the formation of that denomination and six years after the Paisley-Jones connection was strengthened by Ian Paisley’s imprisonment. The relationship between Paisley and Bob Jones affected conservative Christianity in Northern Ireland more than any other outside influence. I attended a Free Presbyterian, private Christian school and later graduated from two Free Presbyterian institutions: the Whitefield College of the Bible (Northern Ireland) and Geneva Reformed Seminary (Greenville, South Carolina, U.S.A.). I am a Free Presbyterian and am deeply grateful for my heritage in the gospel.
However, as the fundamentalist writer Earnest Pickering has said, “Honest fundamentalists must admit that some of their number have been guilty of excesses and unscriptural behaviour. Some have walked in the flesh and not the Spirit. Some have insisted that everyone with whom they fellowship must cross every t and dot every i in the same way that they do.” Pickering is not the only fundamentalist to make this admission, as you will read in the following pages.
By all accounts, fundamentalism as a movement has made many and significant errors, and as a consequence has suffered serious decline over the past forty years. As I look back over my history in the Free Presbyterian Church and in the fundamentalist movement, on both sides of the Atlantic, I have to agree with Pickering and acknowledge these “excesses and unscriptural behaviour.” I have to recognise also that, in the absence of proper correctives and honest self-examination, many injured beleivers have defected from their fundamentalist roots. Many of my own generation who grew up in the 70s and 80s have joined the ongoing defection. Friends and colleagues now attend or minister in churches that would not self-identify as fundamentalist and have joined the ranks of what is more broadly considered conservative evangelicalism—for which they have been bitterly criticised.
Furthermore, a new generation is coming of age and they are finding that fundamentalism is just as unattractive as those of my generation found it to be. The defection continues. Sadly, many within fundamentalism have chosen to ignore these facts and to deny the trajectory of decline. Others, blinded by their own self-assured standards and methodologies, welcome these departures believing them to be purifying. Others are genuinely concerned but are unable to identify the problem or understand it’s complexities.
It is my contention that in “the struggle for a pure Church,” fundamentalism as a movement has put heavy burdens on people that are too heavy to bear—and for too long, stifled freedom of thought and expression, smothered liberty of conscience for the sake of denominational identity, and encouraged passive cooperation over solid biblical investigation. These ills have only deepened, as the years progress. It is time for serious reflection.
The fundamentalist, typically, does not ask diagnostic questions. Sadly, the problem is always with those who leave. Some of us, however, ask why? Bob Jones Jr. once said, “True fundamentalism demands that a man settle certain things with the Lord and with himself and keep those things always before him.” Unfortunately, many fundamentalists have taken this to the point where they believe it is wrong to question anything! In the minds of many, freedom of thought and expression is equated with rebellion, and the rebellious (those who question or leave) are shunned with the same ire as apostates. Practices, values, and certain peripheral matters have taken on the same status as the verities of the gospel and these also became “settled” matters, with the same prerequisite—nothing can be revisited.
I believe that we have a duty to reflect on who we are in relation to the body of Christ and to examine our path for the future generations. In the pages that follow, therefore, I examine some of the key values that have developed within parts of the fundamentalist movement. I do not question the fundamentalist idea, or the theological verities that the fundamentalist defends. I take issue with certain methodologies and excesses that have evolved within parts of the movement.
I have good reason to take issue with these, and I would hope that every honest, right thinking fundamentalist would do so also when he understands that they impinge on the message of the gospel—on the liberty and enjoyment of the gospel. I don’t write to condemn, but to correct. If my fundamentalist heritage has taught me anything it has taught me to stand boldly for the faith, not just to preach the gospel, but to protect it, and to raise my voice against anything that would corrupt “the simplicity that is in Christ” (see 2 Corinthians 11:3). Fundamentalism taught me to do this without fearing the face of men. This, by God’s grace, is why I write.
The book is divided into nine chapters and an appendix. Chapter one deals with the history of the movement and its evident purpose and success in preserving the truth. Chapter two is an appreciation of the “conviction and courage” that was evident among fundamentalists. In chapters three to seven I wrestle with some of the problems of the movement, including, shallow evangelism and a tendency to legalistic holiness (three); the unrelenting and harsh militancy that developed into infighting and contentions and factions within the movement (four); the indiscriminate separatism (five); and the failure (or inability) to deal with these issues (six).
In chapter seven, I address the “silent moderate majority” who have sat back and tolerated (perhaps promoted) the excesses. Chapter eight is an analysis of the current situation developing between fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism—the new conservative evangelical identify. In the last chapter, chapter nine, I present five suggestions for a way forward.
In the appendix I have tried to bring some balance in our understanding of the powerful personalities of fundamentalism. Three men, Ian Paisley (Northern Ireland), Carl McIntire (America) and T. T. Shields (Canada), represent the three countries where the fundamentalist movement existed. They were polarising individuals, either hated or loved. How can we understand these very complex men of God?