I was saddened, like many, to hear of the recent passing of Mike Yaconelli, founder of Youth Specialties and The Wittenberg Door (now simply called The Door) magazine. I never met Mike, but as a former youth minister, I have been impacted by his life and ministry.
I used to attend the Youth Specialties National Youth Worker Convention and half the fun of it was to see what Yaconelli would come up with this time. He was a loose cannon - he used to tell youth workers that if your church has never made a new rule in response to something you have done then you aren't doing your job very well. One of my favorite memories is the time he had Jerry Falwell speaking at the convention. This was during the Clinton administration, about the time that Falwell was selling all of those anti-Clinton videos, you know the ones detailing all the people he had caused to get dead. Yaconelli got an actor posing as Bill Clinton, to introduce Falwell. The guy was dead on for Clinton's southern drawl and he gave this long winded monologue about the ups and downs of his relationship with Jerry Falwell. The Clinton impersonator closed his introduction of Falwell by saying "Jerry, I know we've had our differences, but . . . I love ya man." Falwell then came out shaking his head and said "Bill, you're still not getting my Bud Light." Then Falwell said something to the effect of "only Mike Yaconelli could come up with something like this."
When he wasn't busy planning conferences, speaking to youth groups and leaders, dreaming up gags and skewering evangelical icons, he wrote some pretty provocative material in columns and in books. To my mind, one of his more provocative columns is his diatribe against Fundamentalism, which he calls A Monumental Waste of Time. In reading through this I couldn't help but be reminded of another, more famous critique of fundamentalism - the sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win," preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick at the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, on May 21, 1922.
Before addressing Yaconelli's article I want to address Fosdick's sermon and will then compare some of the issues they have raised. Before looking at both of them I want to describe some of my personal observations of fundamentalism.
It seems to me that fundamentalism can be talked about under three headings. The first heading would be doctrinal fundamentalism. This kind of fundamentalism is rigid adherence to a particular set of theological statements. The second kind of fundamentalism would be social, or behavioral fundamentalism. These are terms I use to describe those who couple their doctrinal convictions with certain behavioral expectations. For example, many early fundamentalists were deeply involved in the temperance movement. Some modern fundamentalists are known for behaviors and social issues which they are against. These may be issues like drinking, movies, women wearing pants or makeup (one man was asked if it is ok for a woman to wear makeup - he said it depends on her face), dancing, smoking or many others. Another way of expressing this type of fundamentalism is by quoting the wag who said "I don't drink, smoke, cuss, or chew, or run around with girls that do." The third kind of fundamentalism would be attitudinal fundamentalism. Such fundamentalism is characterized (and I think often caricatured) as being intolerant and condemning. These types of fundamentalists might be criticized for what appears to be a "holier-than-thou" attitude.
It seems to me that Fosdick is primarily speaking out against Type I fundamentalism - doctrinal fundamentalism. Yaconelli primarily speaks out against Type II fundamentalism. Both implicitly complain against Type III fundamentalism - attitudinal fundamentalism.
In his sermon, Fosdick's loudest screams are against the intolerance of fundamentalists (Type III). He pleads for a church that is Âinclusive enough to take in both liberals and conservatives without either trying to drive the other out.Â Fosdick distinguishes between conservatives and fundamentalists. In his mind the conservatives hold conservative theological opinions but are willing to live alongside of liberals. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, can't live with liberals, and this makes them the bad guys.
To demonstrate the intolerance of fundamentalists Fosdick concentrates on three key fundamentalist doctrines - the virgin birth, the inspiration of Scripture, and the second coming of Christ. He acknowledges that there are those who hold to the historical reality of the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture and the literal, bodily, second coming of Christ. He does not call these positions wrong in and of themselves, but says that there are other ways of looking at them (this reminds me of the modern evangelical propensity to say "that's just your interpretation" when confronted with Scriptural commands we don't like). He argues that to say someone was born of a virgin was a literary convention for describing a great man, and some think that such attribution is to be taken figuratively, not literally.
He accuses fundamentalists of believing in the manual dictation theory of inspiration where God speaks to the Biblical writers as if they were stenographers. He is error here - few conservatives or fundamentalists believe in the dictation theory of inspiration - most believe in organic inspiration, the idea that God made full use of the human personalities of the writers. But that is neither here nor there in this case - those who believe in organic inspiration believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, and it is this inerrancy view that Fosdick argues against. In response to this, he says that some believe in progressive revelation (conservatives and fundamentalists believe this also, but not in the way Fosdick proposes - conservatives and fundamentalists believe in progressive revelation that climaxed with the final revelation in Jesus Christ, which ushered in the closing of the canonical Scriptures). For Fosdick and liberals, progressive revelation continues on to this day, thus leading and enabling us to go beyond the Bible.
Finally, Fosdick takes issue with the fundamentalist view of a literal, bodily return of Christ. He acknowledges that many believe this, but that others believe that Scriptures that speak of such things are figurative ways of expressing hope for the victory and triumph of God.
These three doctrinal issues are representative, not exhaustive as Fosdick complains against those who demand adherence even to a certain theory of the atonement.
Fosdick, anliberalsls associated with him were answered in 1923 with the publication of the book Christianity and Liberalism, by J. Gresham Machen. In this brilliant book, Machen showed that Christianity is altogether doctrinairere religion. He pointed out that we do not see Jesus face to face as His disciples did. Our relationship with Him is not face to face, it is mediated through a message. The message of Jesus is found in the New Testament. To believe in Jesus and have a relationship with Him today is not to know Him face to face. That comes later. Today, we believe the message about Him and in so doing come to know Him. Which brings us to the crux of the matter. How do we know if we are believing in the correct Jesus? The only way we can know if the Jesus we believe in is the correct Jesus is to know that the message we believed in is the correct message. This is the substance of doctrine - if we do not understand the (doctrinal) message correctly, we can not be sure that we are believing in the true Christ.
In his book Machen showed that what the liberals were proposing was not a new form of Christianity altogether. In so doing, he showed the disingenousness of the positions of Fosdick and the like. Fosdick gutted Christianity of its substance and still dared to call the carcass Christianity. In some ways an infidel is better than a heretic. At least the infidel is honest enough to deny the faith outright. With the infidel one knows where the battle lines are drawn, he declares himself a wolf and doesn't care who knows. The heretic is the one who seeks to abandon the faith while remaining in the fold. This is the wolf who wears sheep's clothing, and who is far more dangerous because he roams within the sheep pen.
Even a great social liberal like H. L. Mencken could see through the opinions of Fosdick and his followers. In a memorable obituary of J. Gresham Machen he acknowledged that though he disagreed he had great admiration for his strength of conviction and for the consistency of his theological position. Mencken's disdain for Machen's position is seen in the following:
I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism.
Yet, Mencken found Machen's character and the strength of his arguments to be far better than liberal Christians and Machen's fellow fundamentalists.
Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart.
Mencken could see what many liberal Christians could not:
It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.
That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again--in Henrik Ibsen's phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed--but he was undoubtedly right.
Fosdick's diatribe against Type I fundamentalism falls woefully short - it substitutes a non-Christianity for Christianity and still has the nerve to call itself Christianity. As such, Fosdick does not carry the day in his diatribe against Type III (attitudinal) fundamentalism. It seems that Fosdick it is a great sin to for one to believe that if his position is right then an opposite position must be wrong. This is just fundamental, grade school logic - the law of non-contradiction - A cannot be A and non-A at the same time and in the same sense. Jesus can not be born of a virgin and born of a non-virgin, the Bible cannot be free from error and full of error, and Jesus cannot be coming back and not coming back. Certainly, there are many who usintemperatent language in arguing their position, and they should be warned. But, if Machen is correct, such truths are foundational to the Christian faith and to introduce them into the church is to introduce that which leads to the destruction of the faith. It is no more mean and intolerant ttoto bar theological error from the church than it is to bar one's children from playing hopscotch in the middle of the interstate.
Unfortunately, though Mencken and others believe that Machen dealt a death blow to liberalism, it seems that Fosdick's vision for the church has carried, or is carrying the day, at least in conservative evangelical circles. Fosdick and others viewed Christianity as a life to be lived, not a set of doctrines to be believed. There is a smidge of truth in that - correct belief, if it is correct, will lead to right living. But Fosdick divorced right living from right doctrine. He and the liberals of the day were mostly concerned with the social implications of following Jesus. For them it was not important if you believed in the substitutionary atonement of Christ, what was important was that you lived like Jesus lived. In fact, one of my seminary professors pointed out that the Christian classic, In His Steps, was a manual for classic liberalsm. In this book Christianity is all about imitating Jesus, not believing in him. Christianity is not portrayed as being about what Christ has done for you, as the Bible portrays, it is about what you must do for him.
As a pastor, many of the things I hear people say in the name of Christ sound much more like classical liberalism than biblical Christianity. Many are bored with doctrine. I have heard people say "I don't care about doctrine," or "why are you so wrapped up in theology?" What matters most is that you live like Jesus. Harry Emerson Fosdick couldn't have said it any better.
If Fosdick's criticisms of fundamentalism are off the mark, what of the criticisms of Yaconelli. In Yaconelli's short article, he seems more concerned with Type II (social or behavioral) fundamentalism. My favorite paragraph from this article is one that I think all fundamentalists should read and take to heart.
I can honestly say that after twenty-two years in the ministry, I have never met nor heard of anyone who said, "I was going to give my life to Christ until I saw you (pick one) a) dancing, b) smoking, c) drinking, d) coming out of a movie, e) swearing." I have had a number of fundamentalists suggest that my (pick one or all of the following) a) dancing, b) smoking, c) drinking, d) coming out of a movie, e) swearing was "causing them to stumble." That did bother me for awhile until I realized what they were saying was that my behavior bothered them. It made them upset. It wasn't, I discovered, causing them to question the validity of their faith.Itit was causing them to question the validity of mine.
That's good stuff. Stumbling in the Scriptures is something that weaker brothers do. In Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 we see examples of believers engaging in behavior that causes other believers to stumble. These passages show us several items of interest.
1. The behaviors in question were not evil in and of themselves.
2. The behaviors in question had sinful connotations to some.
3. Those to whom the behaviors had sinful connotations were denoted as weaker.
4. The behaviors in question had the potential to damage the faith of the weaker brothers.
5. Weaker brothers may have been tempted to engage in the same behaviors.
What Yaconelli is railing against is the fundamentalist tendency to play the "weaker brother" card. What he points out is that those who were accusing him of causing them to stumble would not have perceived themselves as weaker brothers. In fact, in their minds they were stronger than he was because of their convictions. Further, none of those who criticized him were in danger of losing their faith - as Yaconelli says - "they weren't questioning their own faith, they were questioning mine!" Furthermore, none of these fundamentalists would be tempted to engage in the same behavior.
Please be aware that I am leaving open for now the question of whether or not smoking, drinking, dancing, etc. are sinful in and of themselves. If they are sinful in and of themselves then one should cease them immediately, whether a weaker brother is present or not. However, when one plays the "weaker-stumbling-brother" card that is a tacit admission that the behavior in question is not sinful in and of itself, at least in the card player's mind. If it were, then they could point to clear Scripture declaring such behaviors sinful and the issue could be settled.
The problem that Yaconelli points out should be taken to heart by fundamentalists. Such Type II fundamentalism is often closely akin to Galatianism. In the book of Galatians Paul was dealing with a group of people who added extra-biblical commands to believers. In Galatians 6:13 Paul speaks of those who demand circumcision for believers:
For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh. (NIV)
The "circumcision party" could gain points in the religious community by pointing to the number of people whom they had talked into receiving circumcision. To get a believer to receive circumcision was the equivalent of a three-pointer for these guys - they scored. Some fundamentalists "score" when they get believers to adhere to their extra-biblical standards of behavior.
An athletic team is superior to other teams when it has superior athletes, scores more points and wins more games. Galatianizers and some fundamentalists often like the sense that their team is better than the other Christian teams in the league. They are more pure, they are tougher than these panty-waist Christians who don't have such rigid standards of behavior.
Such fundamentalists often fail to claim Romans 7 as their own experience. They accept it intellectually as a part of the Bible but they don't embrace it as their own experience. They say "what a wretched man you are (or "he is"), not "what a wretched man I am." They don't mourn over sin as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, they cry down thunder and lightning on sinners. If they were to mourn, they would mourn over the sins of others, not their own.
This is Type III fundamentalism at its worst. These fundamentalists would do well to pray and ask that God open their eyes to show them the Romans 7 in their own heart.
I think that Yaconelli is reacting against Type II fundamentalists that display a Type III attitude. Although he didn't say it in his article it is useful to point out that not all Type II fundamentalists have a Type III attitude. Furthermore, those who criticize fundamentalism, like Yaconelli and myself, should heed our own advice. One of the problems of Type III fundamentalism is its tendency to judge. Critics of fundamentalism like myself are guilty of judging the judgmentalists, thus falling into the pit we have dug.
Which brings me to a few concluding thoughts.
1. Type I fundamentalism is essential to the Christian faith. At its core, the Christian faith is a doctrinal religion. To abandon rigid adherence to certain tenets of the faith is to abandon the faith. Yes, I agree that not every tenet of the faith is as crucial as every other tenet of the faith. But to allow for differing opinions on such fundamental matters as the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the Substitutionary atonement and the Second Coming is to allow wolves in the sheep pen and will lead to the destruction of the faith.
2. Type II fundamentalism is dubious at best. The true weaker brother will need to avoid certain behaviors and others will need to avoid them for his sake. But, to use certain extra-biblical social and behavioral convictions as evidence of superiority is misguided at best, dangerous at worst.
3. Type III fundamentalism is a scourge and it is a scourge that is not limited to fundamentalists. Fundamentalists who feel superior to non-fundamentalists are guilty of this as are non-fundamentalists and ex-fundamentalists who feel superior to fundamentalists. We would all do well to heed the example of Jonathan Edwards in his "Resolution #8":
Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.
All who name the name of Christ must stand with those fundamentalists who stood (and continue to stand) against the doctrinal errors of Fosdick and those like him. Furthermore, we must stand with Yaconelli against fundamentalism that goes beyond the word of God. May we all stand with the apostle Paul, whose only boast was in the cross of Christ.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ - Galatians 6:14a (NIV)