I’ve just been re-reading Jim Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God, partly from nostalgia as well as from a desire to see how the concept of fundamentalism might have changed since 1958. “Nostalgia” because the book was lent to me by an older Christian when I took over the leadership of my school Christian Union back in 1968. I didn’t read it for about five years, but it did at least leave me with the rare privilege of knowing what the word “fundamentalism” originally meant. And that is simply affirmation of the five “fundamentals” of historic Christianity identified in a series of documents in the USA early in the 20th century, over against the current liberal theological claims: the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, the deity of Christ, his virgin birth and miracles, his penal death for our sins, and his physical resurrection and personal return. Not quite “bomb them into theocracy,” then.
Packer wrote against the background of Billy Graham’s first evangelistic “crusade” to Britain, which raised churchmen and other worthies into a lather against the whole (minority) Evangelical movement under the cry of “Fundamentalists!” What caught my attention this time round was his description of the word as nothing more than “a theological swear word” (p30). He accurately describes how a form of insult develops:
…as its derogatory flavour grows stronger, it is used more and more widely and loosely as a general term of abuse, till it has lost all value as a meaningful description of anything.
How close that is to Alvin Plantinga’s similar conclusion on “fundamentalism” as used nowadays:
The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.
Now, after half a century of abuse “fundamentalism” has escalated to include political Islamist bombers – and yet, you’ll note, it still applies handily in the evolution debate to those who accept those five historic doctrines, whether used by New Atheists or Evolutionary Creationists.
A sense of déjà vu began to encompass me throughout the whole book. Packer admits that Evangelicals have sometimes strayed into anti-intellectual attitudes and other faults, and so distances Evangelicalism from the word “Fundamentalist” as applied with some propriety to sections of the American Church (then, as now). But the accusations made then, and the misunderstandings perpetrated, against Evangelicals were precisely those arguments used in science-faith polemic now. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has changed in half a century.
To take some examples at random, on p60 he deals with both the claim that Jesus cited Old Testament authority, knowing it to be erroneous, to accommodate to the common people; and with the idea that Jesus’s kenotic assumption of humanity included falling “victim to the prejudices and errors of his own age.” I’ve seen such ideas pushed on BioLogos as if they were radical and postmodern. But actually they’re just liberal and limp. As Packer points out in relation to the joint divinity and humanness of Scripture, a distinction often used to assert the fallibility of the Bible, the denial that it can be fully both is based on a false doctrine of God (as, he says, all theological errors ultimately are):
For it assumes that God and man stand in such a relationship to each other that they cannot both be free agents in the same action. If a man acts freely (ie voluntarily and sponatenously) then God does not, and vice versa… But the affinities of this idea are with Deism, not Christian Theism.(p81)
All those UD discussions on free-will are simply missing the point that truly evangelical doctrine had sorted centuries ago! But even that key TE theme of kenosis as creation’s freedom from God’s “dictation” is old currency, arising from the same false dichotomy and mentioned in passing by Packer as the cause of the false view of Scripture mentioned above:
…the prevalence of this mistake should be ascribed to the insidious substitution of deistic for theistic ideas about God’s relationship to the world which has been, perhaps, the most damaging effect of modern science on theology.(p81)
That kind of deism informs much of what we see in TE discussion. Packer deals with many other such supposedly recent controversies. He distinguishes Scriptural inerrancy from contempt for scholarship and woodenly literalistic interpretation. Indeed, after discussing genre, he says that infallibility and inerrancy:
…are not hermeneutical concepts, and carry no implications as to the character or range of biblical teaching. Those matters can be settled only by honest and painstaking exegesis.(p98)
In other words, genuine genre considerations do not preclude a properly literal interpretation, though they will veto a literalistic one. In this connection he even draws attention to the old (much older than we think) chestnut of ANE cosmology, pointing out both that Bible writers may well have been considering theological, rather than physical, reality (anticipating John H Walton), and that modern readers may well not see what the ancients saw in such descriptions (anticipating me!):
…often the mental picture of the created order which their phraseology suggests to the twentieth century mind differs from that of modern science…” (p97, my italics)
I’ve said enough to show that what goes around, comes around. But the difference is that the arguments being made in 1958 against “fundamentalism” (aka evangelical doctrine) by liberal theologians are nowadays being made by those who call themselves Evangelicals. You may well ask how how the selfsame arguments used against Evangelical teaching then can now be used by Evangelical teachers, and you’d be right in thinking that someone has shifted their ground.
The short reply is that Evangelicals are now teaching straight, old-fashioned liberal theology, whilst denying being liberals and claiming to be at some kind of cutting edge of thought. Supposing them not to be aware that they are pursuing the work of the worst critics of historical Christianity half a century ago, can one offer a reason for the lack of conscious continuity with them?
Here’s my starter for 10: liberal theology actually contains the seeds of its own destruction. Once the Bible’s authority has gone, the life of the Spirit does not continue for long, and churches slowly decline. Liberal teaching may still rule the academy, but it doesn’t fill the pews. Whole denominations have withered after embracing it: I would challenge anyone to find an example of where one has grown.
It’s certainly true in this country that a majority of candidates for Protestant ordination now come from Evangelical churches of various stripes, because that’s where the life is, if not always the sound teaching of a man like Jim Packer. I suspect many coming through the colleges are simply not aware that the new and radical ideas they bravely embrace in the face of the conservative “establishment” were tried, and failed, last century. They will fail in just the same way this time round. It’s just a great pity that they’re so prominent in the science-faith discussion, because paradoxically, they keep it going by endorsing science’s false metaphysical ideology.