Evangelical Divisions (plus what’s the difference in an evangelical and fundamentalist?)

18 Oct

From a helpful review of current and developing divisions in evangelical theology by Dr. Gerald McDermott.  Here’s the excerpt explaining the differences in evangelical theology and fundamentalism:

Evangelical theology is often regarded, both by the media and much of the academy, as fundamentalism put into writing. But they are really two quite different ways of thinking, which can be identified in eight ways. This doesn’t mean that all the members of First Baptist will be fundamentalists, or that everyone at the local Evangelical Free church thinks like an evangelical rather than a fundamentalist. These are what sociologists call ideal types, which means that each is a clear set of beliefs that contrasts strongly with its opposite but that the differences are seen more clearly by looking at large groups over time rather than at one person or congregation at a given time. But these differences have emerged in theology and practice, in the following ways.

1. Interpretation of Scripture.

Fundamentalists tend to read Scripture more literalistically, while evangelical theologians look more carefully at genre and literary and historical context. Another way of saying this is that fundamentalists tend to assume that the meaning of Scripture is obvious from a single reading, while evangelicals want to talk about layers of meaning and might appeal to the medieval four-fold sense of scripture. For example, more fundamentalists will understand the first three chapters of Genesis to contain, among other things, scientific statements about beginnings, while evangelicals will focus more on the theological character of those stories–that the author/editor was more interested in showing that the earth has a Creator, for example, than precisely how the earth was created.

2. Culture. Fundamentalists question the value of human culture that is not created by Christians or related to the Bible, whereas evangelicals see God’s “common grace” working in and through all human culture. For evangelicals, Mozart may not have been an orthodox Christian and quite possibly was a moral failure as a human being, but his music is a priceless gift of God. Culture is tainted by sin, as are all other human productions, but it nevertheless can reflect God’s glory.

3. Social action. There was a time when fundamentalists considered efforts to help the poor to be a sign of liberal theology, because proponents of the social gospel during the modernist controversy of the 1920s were theological liberals. Until recently many fundamentalists limited their view of Christian social action to struggles for religious freedom and against abortion. Evangelicals have been more vocal in their declarations that the gospel also calls us to fight racism, sexism and poverty-and even more recently, depradation of the environment.

4. Separatism. For many decades in the last century fundamentalists preached that Christians should separate themselves from liberal Christians (which sometimes meant evangelicals) and even from conservatives who fellowshipped with liberals. This is why some fundamentalists refused to support Billy Graham–Graham asked for help from mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, and sent his converts back to these churches for further nurture. Evangelical theology puts more emphasis on engagement with culture while aiming to transform it, and working with other Christians toward common religious and social goals.

5. Dialogue with liberals. Fundamentalists have tended in the past to believe that liberal Christians (those who doubted Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the essential sinfulness of humanity, and the importance of blood atonement) were Christian in name only, that there was nothing to learn from them, and there was no use trying to talk to them once they refused to accept the fundamentalist version of the gospel. The evangelical approach has been to talk with those of more liberal persuasions in an effort to persuade and perhaps even learn. John Stott and Clark Pinnock both engaged in book-length dialogues with liberal theologians.

6. The ethos of Christian faith. Although most fundamentalists preach salvation by grace, they also tend to focus so much on rules and restrictions (do’s and don’ts) that their church members could get the impression that the heart of Christianity is a set of laws governing outward behavior. There is a similar danger in evangelical churches, but evangelical theology focuses more on the person and work of Christ, and personal engagement with that person and work, as the heart of the Christian faith.

7. Fissiparousness. Many evangelical groups have fractured and then broken again over what seems to later generations to have been minor issues. But the tendency seems worse among fundamentalists, for whom differences of doctrine, often on rather minor issues, are considered important enough to warrant starting a new congregation or even denomination. Because evangelical theology makes more of the distinction between essentials and non-essentials, evangelicals are more willing to remain in mainline Protestant churches and in evangelical churches whose members disagree on non-essentials. Nevertheless, evangelicals are more fissiparous than classical Protestants who cling more closely to their confessional traditions. Fundamentalists, in contrast, are not team players by temperament and think of themselves as individuals in a vast invisible church.

8. Support for Israel. Fundamentalists tend to see the modern state of Israel as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and say God’s blessing of America is contingent on its support for Israel. Evangelicals generally see the creation of Israel in 1948 as at least an indirect fulfillment of prophecy, lacking the complete fulfillment because there has not been the spiritual renewal which the prophets predicted. Evangelicals run the gamut in support for and opposition to Israeli policies. But while many other Christians see Israel as just another nation-state, and the new evangelical left has joined mainline critics questioning the legitimacy of modern Israel, most fundamentalists and evangelicals still think today’s Israel has continuing theological significance.

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