From Fundamentalism to Presbyterianism

The short story is that I grew up in movement Fundamentalism and became a confessional Presbyterian in the Presbyterian Church of America. Perhaps you might think that would require a tremendous change, almost like changing religions. Some days it did feel like that, but looking back, I can see more clearly the lines of continuity between where I was 5 years ago and where I am now.  Foremost, I came to believe that Presbyterian doctrine, contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith as received in my denomination, is true or at least better than any competitor out there. So, there were some doctrines, some cultural taboos, and some lifestyle issues that I left behind in my BJU dorm room. On the other hand, there were many things that stayed the same.

On the most charitable reading, fundamentalism aspires to believe and practice the whole of Scripture. (Note: I use little “f” to refer to the idea and a big “F” to refer to the movement.) Inherent in fundamentalism is a high view of Scripture. Also, fundamentalism clings tenaciously to the ideal of biblical purity, which is separation from all sin and error, and to service for God. Put briefly, I came to believe that these ideals are more truly found in confessional Presbyterianism than in the movement named Fundamentalism. I didn’t leave them when I left Fundamentalism; rather, I left Fundamentalism through following them.

A few things in particular became  apparent to me while I was in movement Fundamentalism:

1) It is not true that Fundamentalists practice separatism and others don’t.

2) It is true that there are differences among Christians about what constitutes error and how the church should handle it.

3) Fundamentalists tend to confuse rules and regulations with Christian living, and substitute conformity for holiness.

4) Historic confessionalism provides a guideline for handling error, as well as a platform for deep fellowship between institutions and for substantive theological engagement; “Biblicism” and autonomy do not.

Something that continually strikes me as amusing is that my “evangelical” denomination requires much stricter doctrinal conformity in many areas than did BJU, where I did my undergrad. In a single week at BJU in chapel, I might hear a speaker who was quite obviously anti-Calvinist, followed by one who was clearly a 4- or 5- pointer. I might hear a message on sanctification from a McQuilkin/Ryrie-esque Keswick perspective followed by one that sounded as if it were culled from John Owen. Tuesday speaker sounds like he just finished reading The Gospel According to Jesus, whereas Thursday is on a Zane Hodges kick. However, +90% of them agreed on the pre-trib rapture. In contrast, my denomination follows our confession in taking a very clear line on all those issues except eschatology, which it leaves rather open-ended. So, the point is, it’s not realistic to think that evangelicals allow all this latitude on doctrine whereas Fundamentalists follow in lock-step. Rather, Fundamentalists and confessional Presbyterians differ on where they allow doctrinal latitude. It is a difference concerning what constitutes serious error.

This recognition forced me into deep contemplation. It seemed that Fundamentalism had deemed as unimportant many of the doctrinal controversies that I found and still find quite crucial. On the other hand, Fundamentalism seemed (and still seems) preoccupied with a host of cultural minutiae, somewhat tangential to Christianity and often tenuously supported by Scripture. The legacy of revivalism birthed in Fundamentalism a truncated gospel and a fuzzy uncertainty as to what Christianity really is. Dispensationalism produced idiosyncratic understandings of the person and work of Christ, as well as of the nature of the Church and its involvement with the broader culture. It was evident to me that Fundamentalism offered little doctrinal clarity except in certain sub-sects where the doctrine was clear but, compared to historic Christianity, aberrant.

I also discovered that vast swaths of “evangelicalism” had been badly misunderstood by Fundamentalism. It’s not as if most of  people in any group are saying, “Oh, I know the guy next to me on the platform is spouting shameful heresy, but whatever, we’re best buds.” Within the broad realm of Christendom, there are genuine differences not only as to what constitutes error, but as to the relative seriousness of various errors. As mentioned above, I found that the PCA matched my own conceptions of theological triage better than did Fundamentalism.

Evangelicals, however, often appear latitudinarian to Fundamentalists because evangelicals, in general, are less insistent on total lifestyle conformity. In a somewhat ironic reversal of their doctrinal thinking, Fundamentalists can be quite insistent that in many aspects of lifestyle, there is “one right” way — one right way to dress for church, one right way to sing in church, one right way to listen to music, one right way to educate your children, one right way to evangelize the city, one right Bible version, one right Presidential candidate, etc. In other words, Fundamentalism makes up for a lack of doctrinal clarity with extraordinarily clear and thorough regulations for living. Of course, Fundamentalists differ among themselves, as do evangelicals. In general, though, Fundamentalists tend to live by “the list” composed by the most dominant institution in their lives (or to secretly rebel against “the list”), whereas confessional Presbyterians seem to do a better job of having  a robust theology and living out of it principially. There is a huge paradigm shift in that.

Really, though, I think that confessional Presbyterians handle separation better than Fundamentalists do. My own denomination, in the last 5 years or so, has waged a mostly successful warfare against a particular doctrinal aberration, the Federal Vision. This was done according to the stated procedure of our ecclesiastical courts, including a thorough review of evidence and the opportunity for the accused to defend themselves. How is this anything other than fundamentalism in the best possible sense? In fact, is this not much better than Fundamentalism, which has no method or mechanism for prosecuting error? In a collection of “independent, autonomous” churches and institutions that are not bound by any stated confession or principles of procedure, what method can there be other than influential back-room players leveraging opinion to get a substantial segment to shun another segment?

In conclusion, I believe that in my move to the PCA, I took with me the valuable elements of my Fundamentalist heritage, leaving the silliness behind. I still believe the Bible, but I find its doctrines to be more clearly and accurately expounded here in the PCA than in Fundamentalism. I still believe in holy, consecrated living, but I find the theology and atmosphere of the PCA more conducive to that end. I still believe in separation from error, but I have some different ideas about what constitutes error and serious error. In addition, I believe that a stated confession of faith and a system of ecclesiastical courts that keeps minutes provide a better opportunity for deep theological engagement and above-board dealings when disagreements arise. Everything good in Fundamentalism is better here in Presbyterianism.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 12:29 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My wife and I just joined a PCA church. We have found it to be extremely refreshing. We had a great fundamentalist baptist church up north, but it was a rose among thorns in fundamentalism. You are so right in everything you say in this post.

  2. Well put. Good Job!

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