By Nate Labadorf
I suppose this post starts with a simple admission: I didn’t intend my original post and my follow up post to cause the stir it did. The original intention of the post was to explain to my average of 20 readers why I have changed political/theological views over the past year. I thought that my sudden (and not so generous, apologies) rants about Christians and COVID19 on Facebook deserved some explanation. Since politics and religious beliefs often run together, both were discussed. I tied it all up together by saying that I can’t be a fundamentalist anymore. Thus, what I intended to be a short explanation of why I don’t feel comfortable with the political right, by accident turned out to be my admission that I can’t be part of the theological right. This does not mean I’m giving up orthodoxy, or that I am giving up on all rightwing issues. In the grand scheme of things, I am still largely conservative both in my politics and theology.
After a 10x increase of traffic to my website, I suddenly found myself in many conversations that I didn’t think was going to happen. There was a lot left unsaid in the previous posts. And on these points, I was roundly and rightly criticized. Further, my focus on politics seemed to indicate that I was leaving purely because of politics. This is not the case. However, politics have and do play a key role in American evangelicalism and especially its subbranch of fundamentalism. Therefore, they are worth mentioning in the grand scheme of things. There are two books that I think are helpful to get a picture on this both written by Mark Noll: Civil War as a Theological Crisis and God and Race in American Politics.
Back to my purpose. Here are some complaints to add some depth to my exit from fundamentalism: Pharisaism and Anti-Intellectualism.
At this point, I can prophesy that hands of protest are going up everywhere. “Pharisaism? Are you calling fundamentalists Pharisees? We are not Pharisees! We don’t believe in salvation by works. We don’t believe in sanctification by works.” Let me give you a word of advice I learned in construction: breath.
By saying that I believe that fundamentalism is Pharisaical is not to imply that everyone believe the persona that I will detail here. Nor do I imply that everyone in fundamentalism is insincere or power hungry hypocrites. In fact, quite the opposite. Most people that I know in fundamentalism are quite sincere and passionate about God. Why then do I call it Pharisaical? They fall into three traps which the Pharisees personified: emphasizing looking spiritual (i.e., testimoney), elevating rules to the level of Scripture, and exacting justice over mercy.
If you’ve grown up in a fundamentalist world, you were constantly taught to hold up testimony of Christ to the world. This is good. We are to let our lights shine before men. But fundamentalists (unnecessary disclaimer here: at least in my experience) took that idea in a not so good direction. Usually, “being a good testimony” involved letting people know that you don’t listen to “bad” music, praying before meals in restaurants, sharing the Gospel in most conversations with unbelievers, and things like that. I’m not saying that any of these things are necessarily wrong. But these, again from what I remember, where taught to me as things I must do to “let my light shine before men.” However, these types of actions really fell prey to “practicing your righteousness before men.” The emphasis wasn’t on loving people, but on showing how righteous you were. Now, is this what they intended? Did they actively teach this? No. However, it was implicitly taught to me and my friends. This is an oversimplification again. Sigh, how I wish I could detail everything. But I need to move on.
Rules = Scripture
Here, another round of protests comes: “We don’t make rules equivalent to Scripture. We are trying to live out our faith. We have carefully thought through and believe these are the rules that God wants people to live by.” Living out one’s faith is necessary for the Christian life. Commands are a part of the New Testament Church every bit as law was part of the Old Testament nation. But do fundamentalists merely believe they are doing the best they can to follow God, but are willing to let others believe what they will? No. I know that no one would every say that the rules are on par with Scripture. But in actions, they make them that way.
Alcoholic drinks, for example, are forbidden among fundamentalists. This, they say, is a clear teaching of Scripture that all Christians should follow. The truth is, it is not a clear teaching (I’m of the opinion to let each man be persuaded in his conscience). However, fundamentalists do not stop there. This issue (along with music, worship style, dress, and other things) becomes a test of faith and spirituality. If anyone engages in these things, fundamentalists are trained to doubt the man’s spirituality: “That wine-bibber is a bit of a lesser Christian. He obviously doesn’t care about spiritual things. He needs to get his heart right.” Churches are chosen based off of these things. Church that adopt a contemporary style are said to be “going the way of the world.” These churches are consequently rejected.
What happens next is that the fundamentalist either rebukes the person and then separates from that person. (Again, not all fundamentalists do this. But it is happens a lot more than people think). These rules, then, become the test of faith. They become on par with the orthodox positions of the Trinity, virgin birth, justification by grace, and the like. It is too hard for me to accept this. And for this reason, I cannot call myself a fundamentalist.
Is this a overly simplistic presentation? Yes. But it should suffice for my point. I also don’t feel like arguing over alcohol in the comments. But if you want to, we can.
Justice over Mercy
Perhaps my greatest complaint is the exaction of justice without mercy. Rules are life to many (again not all) fundamentalists. This comes across in ideas like “Well, if I bend the rules for you, I must bend them for everyone. The law is the law. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Or it comes across in the long lists of rules with associated demerits. Or it comes across in punishment of violators even though they have turned themselves in, repented, asked forgiveness, and honestly want to do better. Again, lest I toss everyone in a barrel, pour in gas, and toss a match in: not every single person in fundamentalism is this way. I have received mercy from fundamentalists. My point is that I was taught that the exact execution of the law is what is required by God. No one should be left off the hook. No one should escape punishment. Note: This has to do with man-made rules regarding the Christian life. Soteriology is not under discussion here.
I will say that this has been changing in recent year among fundamentalists. There has been a growing recognition that they have tried to legislate too much. Yet, I find for many fundamentalists that there is an unease about it. Pardoning violators is like touching the forbidden fruit. “Surely, we must punish them in some way.” I just point to this verse: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned” (Lk 6:36-37). Pardoning repentant people is the godly thing to do.
Is this yet again another over simplification of fundamentalism? Perhaps. But this is how I think about it. The Pharisees were intent on obeying and exacting punishment by the strict letter of the law. So too fundamentalism.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” This quip is from Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (I guess I read a lot of Mark Noll. He’s just such a good author). He does not have anything better to say about fundamentalists. I both agree and disagree with him.
Why I Disagree with Noll
The basic premise is that evangelicals (and fundamentalists) do not value or pursue scholarship. By scholarship, I believe he means that evangelicals do not produce much research in critical/historical examinations of the Scriptures. For example, not many evangelicals trod the path of source criticism which tries to figure out how the Scripture was put together. Instead they follow other paths like theology, homiletics, and pastoral ministry.
I think Noll misses a something here. Devotion to these other disciplines does not mean a lack of an “evangelical mind.” Nor does it mean that evangelicals are a bunch of ignorant pastors thumping their Bibles. It does mean that evangelicals are interested in other things. Besides, one can hardly blame them. Secular (critical) schools have a habit of denying degrees to those who actually believe the Bible. Usually, if an evangelical goes to a secular school, he ends up studying something like linguistics or Jewish studies in order to pass his/her dissertation.
Why I Agree with Noll
The sad reality is that evangelicals and especially fundamentalists have built a culture that turns people away from higher education of the Scriptures. There is a residual fear (totally unfounded in my opinion) that the more one knows the Scripture technically, the less one knows God personally. There is less faith involved because we have plumbed the depths of the Infinite.
Where does this idea come from? I’m not sure exactly. I think it the evangelical idea that all that there is to Scripture is a simple reading of Scripture: “The Bible says it. And I believe it.” Or “Why go to seminary? The Spirit teaches me all things.” This approach overly simplifies the issue. Read the book The Civil War as Theological Crisis mentioned above to see how this idea played out in the founding of America.
We are told that people who go to seminary come out as cold, logicians who are arrogant and proud. Seminary does have these people who graduate (I consider myself especially prone to this). But one need not look at seminary graduates for pride and arrogance. There is plenty of that in the pew. Further, most of the greatest scholars of the church were also passionate about God: Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther to name a few. It isn’t the seminary or the education that produces coldness. It is the heart of a man. I’ve more about this on my site: Academics Do not Kill Faith and Devotion through Academics.
Another reason for this is that, especially in fundamental seminaries, we are taught that unbelieving scholars don’t have anything to offer us believers. We are taught that all their works are simply conspiracy theories and liberal propaganda. We are given lists of scholars to memorize so that we can identify the bad scholars from the good ones. We are taught that they are just not worth reading or understanding. In my opinion, this is an unfair and way oversimplification of the field. People are a mixed bag and should be understood accordingly.
Also, We are taught that the noetic effects of sin inhibit the unbeliever from understanding the Bible. In fact, they do not have any real knowledge except that which is borrowed from our worldview. So, if the only thing of value which they have to offer is that which we already know, why study them? This idea makes a ton of assumptions. It assumes that we already have complete knowledge. It assumes that God cannot reveal to unbelieving minds truth. It assumes that everyone besides us are stupid and without understanding.
I don’t deny the noetic effects of sin. And certainly, there is a blindness and refusal to believe God among most critical scholars. But it does not follow that they know nothing about Scriptures or that they cannot exegete. The opposite is true. In my field of Hebrew Bible studies, I have found a tremendous amount of information that is very useful. More so than many evangelical works. I personally enjoy source criticism: the concepts, the debates, and the sometimes the down right fights. It has helped me understand how to interpret the OT law a lot more accurately. Indirectly, source criticism has helped me apply the law to my life.
Let us come back to fundamentalism. From the founding of fundamentalism to the modern day, this anti-academic stance has been part of the course. After testing the academic waters, I cannot say that it is true or even helpful. In fact, it produces in many fundamentalists a willful ignorance and simplistic denial of contrary opinions. I don’t think everyone should be an academic. But I do think this anti-academic mentality needs to be eradicated.
What do I say at the end of this long-winded, some what rambling discussion? These are my thoughts. These are some of my reasons for leaving fundamentalism. I hope I made it clear that I do not believe everyone in fundamentalism is this way. There are many exceptions to what I have said. I also can say that I have been reasonably well treated in the fundamentalist camps. I have a good education which will prepare me for my doctoral work.
So, I hope I’m not a fundamentalist trasher. I disagree, passionately at times, but I don’t mean to brand them all heretics and consign them to hell. I really appreciate my friends and teachers who are still in the camp and I do not wish to cut anyone off. I’m planning to go out to lunch with a some of you once I know my new work schedule. Anyway, thanks for reading this post. I’m sure I’ll say more later.