On the "Fundamentalism" debate and the road to reformation

GEM 03:03:20d, as adj. 09:13

OVERVIEW: In recent years, evangelical Christianity in Jamaica has come under quite sharp attack by leading churchmen, including claims that the traditional/evangelical view of the Bible is intellectually bankrupt, that many evangelicals are extremists and potentially violent fanatics, that such believers are significantly responsible for the climate of crime and violence in Jamaica through the theological emphasis on individual salvation, that we have betrayed Jamaica's hopes for development (i.e. along the liberationist/socialist path) and that -- especially in the 1970s to 80s -- we have had suspicious links to the US Foreign Policy, Military and Intelligence establishments. In the following series of articles, these accusations are assessed and found to be materially wanting, overblown, inflammatory and highly misleading. A broader discussion of the underlying issue is briefly engaged: the ongoing evolution and growth of the church and its responsibilities and prospects for contributing to the Godly reformation of the nation.


1. "Fundamentalism" as a Smear-Word

2. The key issue: approaches to the Bible

3. The debate: "Fundamentalists and Modernists/Liberals           

4. Evangelicals and Reformation

5. The Gospel: the road to reformation

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“Fundamentalism” as a Smear-word

If Jamaica’s many teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and other professionals who are Evangelicals, Adventists, and Pentecostals – often dismissively called “fundamentalists” -- were to vanish “in the twinkling of an eye” our nation would at once collapse in chaos.

Nevertheless, columnist Peter Espeut has written that “a sensible person could not honestly continue with Fundamentalism” [Gleaner, Jan 29, 2003], and that he believes that “religious fundamentalism is an obstacle to solving several of Jamaica's social problems” [Jan. 13, 2001.]

In a similar vein, Rev. Rod Hewitt (NB: now Moderator of the United Church as of the 2003 Synod with a publicly declared intent to continue his "anti-fundamentalism" efforts) commented on the 9/11 tragedy as follows:

The human tragedy in USA has also served to bring into sharp focus the use of terror by religious fanatics/fundamentalists. Fundamentalism or fundamentalists are terms that are applicable to every extreme conservative in every religious system . . . . During the twentieth century in particular we have seen the rise of militant expression of these faiths by extreme conservatives who have sought to respond to what they identify as 'liberal' revisions that have weakened the fundamentals of their faith . . . They opt for a belligerent, militant and separatist posture in their public discourse that can easily employ violence to achieve their goals.  [Gleaner, Sept. 26, 2001, italics added.]

Clearly, “fundamentalism” is often used as an attack-word, one that is heavily loaded with quite serious accusations.  Rev. Hewitt has amplified some of these in a Jan. 1st 2003 article:

The USA and its local allies . . . sought to empower the younger churches that have been planted by missionaries from the USA conservative 'Bible Belt' region. [sic] The high number of new denominations that were incorporated in Jamaica during the 1980s speaks volume to this perspective.

Some of these younger churches . . .  were empowered . . . to counter the influence of liberation theology [NB: link to 1984 Vatical Encyclical added] with a traditional fundamentalist theology . . . .  many of the younger churches saw their fight/struggle with the older churches as saving the true church from 'a serious heresy/error' in which leaders were making too many concessions to the secular world and its godless ideology of socialism and the rationalising influences . . .  They unleashed the religious version of capitalism with its emphasis on rampant individualism, innovative worship and being prosperous at all cost.

The phenomenal rise in charismatic and newer forms of evangelical churches saw some church leaders functioning like TV stars . . . Salvation became totally privatised. Christ came to change individuals without similar emphasis being invested in salvation of the community.

Here, we see that the younger –- so-called “fundamentalist” –- churches in Jamaica are those that by and large appear on Rev. Devon Dick’s list of recently incorporated churches, especially those that view the Bible as the Word of God, which thus reveals His unlimited love, power, purity, knowledge and truth.

Many of these “younger churches” are also accused of betraying Jamaica by allying themselves to US political interests and associated Government agendas – perilously close to a charge of treason. They are further accused of blocking nation-building by emphasizing the individual rather than the community, and by accusing the leaders of the “older churches” of drifting into rationalistic heresy and socialist ideologies.

But, are these accusations fair?

First, given the large number of educated people of the highest integrity and discernment that are members of these “younger churches” Mr Espeut’s “ignoramus” claims simply fail the common sense test.  For, the required conspiracy to conceal the truth about the Bible if it were utterly self-contradictory would immediately fall apart due to multitudes of whistleblowers.

Similarly, while some church leaders have clearly uncritically embraced individualism, material prosperity and associated political agendas -- and have often been strongly rebuked by other local Evangelical leaders and international spokesmen such as Chuck Colson in his epochal 1992 book, The Body, for this -- there is a vast gulf between having conservative theological views and treasonously betraying Jamaica or being a violent fanatic.

Moreover, in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the Socialist Bloc of countries led by the former USSR disintegrated at the turn of the 1990’s.  It then became all too evident that in a high-tech world driven by innovation, sustainable economic development and the material upliftment of the masses are critically dependent on market-based economic mechanisms.  Thus, even officially Communist countries such as China and Cuba now emphasise the vital role of markets and innovative entrepreneurs in economic growth.

So, it is fair comment to call for an immediate toning down of over-heated, uncharitable rhetoric.

Then, Jamaica’s “older” and “younger” churches can sit down to productive dialogue and partnership on matters of Faith and praxis, as we seek to bring the blessings of the gospel to the wider community.



The key issue: approaches to the Bible

Last time, by making a brief survey of some recent commentary in the media, we highlighted the liberationist/evangelical divide in the church.  Since some of the rhetoric used is overheated, accusatory and unfair, we called for toning down the voltage so that we can engage in responsible dialogue.

However, the first challenge faced by any such dialogue will be contrasting attitudes to the Bible, and to how one best approaches understanding and putting it to work in our lives and communities.

For example, Deacon Espeut  most recently writes: “[b]y promoting simple-minded approaches to the Bible, fundamentalists avoid coming to grips with God's deep and challenging message of liberation” [Gleaner, Jan. 29, 2003], and that: “[f]undamentalists take everything literally - except where Jesus says: ‘This is my body’, and ‘This is the cup of my blood’.”  [Feb. 5th]

But surely, this example actually shows how Evangelicals etc. know that “poetic language, imagery, context and other relevant factors must be reckoned with before one can conclude as to what any text (biblical or otherwise) affirms or denies.”  [“Serious misrepresentations, Deacon Espeut,”  Gleaner, Feb 1 2003]

Mr Espeut also believes -- as the prime example of his claimed “thousands of contradictions” in the Bible – that the Gospel writers’ reports of Jesus’ resurrection are so contradictory that they “would be thrown out of court.” [Jan. 29]  However, this actually simply shows the key defects in his concept that biblical teachings are theologically true, but may at the same time be riddled with contradictions, historically inaccurate and scientifically false.

For, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in his epochal Mars Hill speech: “[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”  [Acts 17:30 – 31.]  Luke amplifies the thought: “After his suffering, [Jesus] showed himself to [the Apostles] and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.  He appeared to them over a period of forty days . . . eating with them.”  [Acts 1:3 – 4.]

Clearly, if the Gospel writers are so dubious as witnesses they would be thrown out of court, then it could hardly be properly said that Jesus showed himself physically alive after his death and burial by “many convincing proofs,” or that God has given proof to all men that he will one day judge the nations by raising Jesus from the dead!

But also, are the resurrection accounts as contradictory as the Deacon asserts?

Actually -- and as Rev. Chisholm has already pointed out [Love Herald, Feb 21 – 28, 2003, p. 22] -- no:

·          First, the reports do not really differ as to time of day. Once we realize that erchomai -- the Greek for go/come/return -- is used in all four Gospels for the early morning trip to the tomb, we easily see that a group of women came together from Bethany and Jerusalem, and set out for Jesus' tomb as the new day was dawning.  [Cf First Easter Timeline Article.]

·          From Luke 8:1 – 3 etc., this same support-group of women can be traced all the way back to Galilee.

·          In Matt 28:2, the Narrator uses “behold” to call the reader’s attention to an event that made the tomb GUARDS – not the women -- freeze in fear.  Had the women been present, they would surely have fled in terror, seeking reinforcements!

·          When the women entered the now open tomb, they were met by two initially seated angels, who stood up to address them. 

·          One of these angels acted as spokesman.  [Similarly, in John 20:1 – 2 “we” shows how a biblical Narrator sometimes spotlights one person when others are present.]

·          Mark 16:7 does NOT say the angel "told [the women] to tell no one," but instead "go, tell his disciples and Peter...."

·          Finally, Matthew 28:8 concurs with Mark 16:8 that the women first trembled with fear.  So, the accounts see a temporarily silent group of terrified women, who then took heart with rising joy and ran to tell the disciples the ever-good news of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

So, as the magisterial New Testament Scholar Dr. John Wenham aptly summarises:

Conclusions [of many contemporary theologians] are the result of a long process of critical study whereby the authority of parts of the gospel text has been eroded bit by bit till nothing dependable is left.  The end result is a downgrading of the canonical gospels which may ultimately put them in the category of Christian romances or merely on a level with the Gnostic gospels.  This means an abandonment of the belief that the gospel-writers were competent witnesses of the events they relate.  But to depart from this belief is to depart from historic Christianity into something quite other.  If, however, it can be shown at the point where the evangelists are thought to be most at sixes and sevens that their accounts can be reconciled in detail and without strain, it suggests that much of the modern critical structure is on the wrong lines, and indeed that the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ saw to it that the church had a trustworthy record of that tremendous happening.  [Easter Enigma, pp. 11 – 12.]

Perhaps, then, we can begin our dialogue on the road to reformation with a suitably high degree of respect for the Gospels and the other Christian Scriptures.


The Debate: “Fundamentalists” and Modernists/Liberals

Rev. Rod Hewitt, in a recent Gleaner article, claims:  

Fundamentalism or fundamentalists are terms that are applicable to every extreme conservative in every religious system . . . .  During the twentieth century in particular we have seen the rise of militant expression of these faiths by extreme conservatives who have sought to respond to what they identify as 'liberal' revisions that have weakened the fundamentals of their faith. The conservative apologists of these religions have sought to roll back the impact of the theories of evolution, rationalism and textual criticism that they claim seek to erode the divine authority and 'certainties' of their faiths. They opt for a belligerent, militant and separatist posture in their public discourse that can easily employ violence to achieve their goals.  [Gleaner, Sept. 26, 2001, italics added.]

Thus, he provides a liberal/liberationist perspective on the roots of the modernist/fundamentalist debate of the early twentieth century.   Tellingly, he rebukes those he views as “extreme conservatives” for rejecting “rationalism” – a philosophical view that exalts human reasoning and rejects revelation as a valid basis for true knowledge. 

Even more revealing is the sweeping, shocking claim in this article – one made only a few weeks after Islamist extremists murdered three thousand people in suicide attacks in the USA -- that “conservative apologists . . . opt for a belligerent, militant and separatist posture . . . that can easily employ violence to achieve their goals.”

The internationally respected Evangelical spokesman Chuck Colson provides a few balancing words.  For, in his 1992 book The Body (in which he spends the first three chapters exposing and correcting the shallow materialism and cultural irrelevance of all too many Evangelical Christians), we may read:

'Fundamentalism' is really akin to [C. S.] Lewis's 'mere Christianity' discussed earlier, or the rules of faith in the early church; it means adherence to the fundamental facts - in this case, the fundamental facts of Christianity. It is a term that was once a badge of honour, and we should reclaim it.

At the end of the nineteenth century, evolution and the new higher biblical criticism began to challenge biblical authority. This assault affected even great theological institutions such as Princeton Seminary, which, though once orthodox, began questioning fundamental doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and inerrancy of Scripture. Meanwhile, a lively social gospel was also surfacing. Strong in good intentions, it was weak in biblical doctrine and orthodoxy.

So a group of theologians, pastors and laypeople published a series of volumes titled "The Fundamentals". Published between 1910 and 1915, these booklets defined what had been the non-negotiables of the faith since the Apostles' Creed:

1.       the infallibility of Scripture

2.       the deity of Christ

3.       the Virgin Birth and miracles of Christ

4.       Christ's substitutionary death

5.       Christ's physical resurrection and eventual return.

These were then, as they are today, the backbone of orthodox Christianity. If a fundamentalist is a person who affirms these truths, then there are fundamentalists in every denomination - Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Brethren, Methodist, Episcopal [i.e. Anglican] .... Everyone who believes in the orthodox truths about Jesus Christ - in short, every Christian  - is a fundamentalist. And we should not shrink from the term nor allow the secular world to distort its meaning.  [pp. 185 – 6.]

Quite a contrast!

The two quotations also allow us to understand the roots of the divide that so clearly separates the two perspectives.  First, early twentieth century Christian thinkers had to reckon with the impact of evolutionary materialism (the atheistic philosophy often adopted by those who accept Darwin’s picture of the origin of life on earth).  Second, they had to assess the pros and cons of rationalistic Bible criticism based on the rejection of the idea that the Bible is the Word of the miracle-working Creator God. 

Depending on their estimation of the underlying atheistic and rationalist philosophies and associated scientific, historical and theological theories, Christians came down on opposite sides of the resulting controversy.  So, concerned about a rising tide of apostasy, serious Christian thinkers and leaders such as R. A Torrey, B. B. Warfield and Gresham Machen published a collection of pamphlets between 1910 and 1915. These were then collected as The Fundamentals , a book that shows how the early “Fundamentalists” raised many of the same questions that still lead many thoughtful Christians today to conclude that modernist/liberal theological thought is flawed at its very roots.   

Specific concerns raised include:

·          The Documentary Hypothesis, which used concepts of the alleged evolution of religious thought  (in the absence of God’s self-revelation – dismissed ahead of time, simply by assumption) to discredit the idea that Moses could have written the first five books of the Bible.

·          The underlying rejection of the biblical view that God acts supernaturally in creation, redemption, healing, prophecy and judgement, which owes more to debatable atheistic philosophies and associated skeptical assumptions than to established facts.

·          The late dating and undermining of the historical credibility of the Gospels and other New Testament books, for instance on the assumption that since real prophecy is impossible, Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple must have been written after 70 AD.

·          The danger they perceived, that the church as a whole would be subverted from its historic core beliefs and commitments under the impact of Darwinian theories and rationalistic biblical criticism.

However, the “Fundamentalists” lost the resulting power struggle in the 1920’s, and there was a parting of ways in the more established churches, on terms that as a rule were quite bitter.  The Scopes Monkey Trial and scathing reporting by journalists such as H. L. Mecken then cemented the popular view that “fundies” were crazy ignoramuses.  (This bitterness often has a lingering impact on both popular and even academic level discussion.)

But, as the twentieth century continued, there was a resurgence of serious conservative theology and vibrant Evangelical Faith from the 1940’s on.  This was especially seen through the impact of Billy Graham’s global evangelistic ministry, the rise of John Stott, Canon Michael Green and many other Evangelical thinkers, as well as the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Renewal.  Indeed, the immediate past Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, is not only a noted theologian, but also both an Evangelical and a Charismatic.

Moreover, this is a time when millions around the world have personally experienced God’s miraculous, life- and community- transforming power through the saving, healing and liberating impact of the gospel.  As a direct result, atheistic philosophies that deny the possibility of such miracles have much less impact now than they did a hundred years ago.  The New Testament’s world view is therefore far more credible today than it was for many educated people a hundred years ago. 

So, over the past thirty years the centre of gravity of the church in Jamaica has quite decisively shifted to the Evangelicals, Charismatics, Adventists and Pentecostals.   This is what Devon Dick’s now-famous list of newly registered churches highlights, and it is this trend that clearly worries the liberationist thinkers who have dominated theological thinking in the more traditional churches in Jamaica over the past several decades.

The material question, then, is how will these “younger churches” engage the responsibilities of reformation leadership that now flow from their emerging dominance of Jamaica’s religious landscape?

Part IV:

Evangelicals and Reformation

In his Nov. 26, 2002 column, “A Christian Boom,” the Jewish Islamic scholar Daniel Pipes begins:

Which of the world's largest faiths, Christianity or Islam, is experiencing the greater ideological reassertion and demographic surge?

"Islam" is surely nearly everyone's answer. As American Christians experiment with ever-milder versions of their faith, Muslims display a fervor for extreme interpretations of Islam. As Europe suffers the lowest population growth rates ever recorded, Muslim countries have some of the highest.

But, argues Philip Jenkins recently in the Atlantic Monthly, Islam is the wrong answer. He shows how Christianity is the religion currently undergoing the most basic rethinking and the largest increase in adherents. He makes a good case for its militancy most affecting the next century. 

Clearly, then, the battle for the soul of Christianity that has marked the modernist/”fundamentalist” controversy over the past hundred years is fraught with implications for the century ahead.  For, it is clear that we can make out the outlines of a three-cornered contest for global supremacy among three competing world-views:

(1) the still dominant Western secularism (including its step-children, liberal and liberation theologies),

(2) militant Islamism (as is advocated by Mr bin Laden) with a wider resurgence in Islam as a whole also, and

(3) what we may call the Southern Christian Reformation – for it is currently sweeping across Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

So, as we look at the current struggle between the West and Islamism, and as we also see how Islamists have been in violent conflict with Christians in places as diverse as Indonesia, Sudan and Nigeria, we can see that our region is a focal point of the emerging global worldviews contest.  (The ongoing effort of Dr Sultana Afroz, an Islamic historian based in UWI’s History Department, to propose an alternative, Islamic view of Jamaica’s historical roots further underscores the point.)

But, if the Evangelicals are emerging as the dominant stream of the Christian Faith in Jamaica, where will they take Christianity in Jamaica?

This brings the question of reformation to the fore.  In turn, that brings to focus the Northern Reformation of five hundred years ago, and its key theme: Sola Scriptura.  For, history records that in the barbarous Dark Ages the people were systematically kept from having the Bible in their own language.  But the sacrifices of martyrs such as Tyndale -- betrayed and burned at the stake in 1536 for the “crime” of translating the Bible into English -- unleashed the force of the gospel by putting the Bible and its message in the hands of the people.  This led to centuries of reformation and liberation, as ordinary people stood up for conscience, for freedom, and to end age-old social injustices: despotic tyranny; wars of conquest; colonialism and slavery; child labour; barbaric prison conditions; the oppression of women.

And that is exactly what we should expect, given the redemptive, positive, life-transforming focus of the gospel.  Therefore, let us take heart and move on from over-heated, polarised debates to the real ministry of the church: saving souls, transforming lives and reforming and blessing communities as we re-build our nation under God.



The Gospel: the Road to Reformation

Back in the early 1970’s, the old Caribbean Contact newspaper once had a Spanish-language cartoon, in which Cuban President Fidel Castro had a brief chat with a priest:

Fidel: “Christianity is liberation!”

Priest: “Yes, but of the soul.”

That cartoon retort is revealing.  For, the key point at issue is not whether the region needs to find a way to break through to true freedom while sustainably meeting the needs of this and future generations.  Rather, it is about what that “liberation” means, what it requires, and how it may best be achieved.

Here, the evangelical contention may be summed up in two key ideas.  First, as the Psalmist observes, “except the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.”  That is, godliness and commitment to righteousness are non-negotiables.

Second, evangelicals point out an often-repeated pattern in the church’s history: souls are saved, minds are renewed and lives are transformed through the gospel; then -- as revival spreads -- communities and institutions (which are abstract, soul-less entities) are reformed and transformed.  For instance, Caribbean Challenge, the largest circulation regional monthly magazine, has recorded hundreds of examples over the past forty years.

Perhaps the most striking recent example however, is the now famous story of Pastor Laszlo Tokes in Timisoara, Romania.  As for instance Chuck Colson reports in his The Body, on being made pastor of the town’s Hungarian Reformed church, his vibrant faith and courage revitalized worship and discipleship, leading to a mini revival. He then began to reach out across denominational lines.  The dreaded Securitate tried to clamp down, and his members, then the other townspeople began a candle-light vigil outside the church.  Violent attacks by the secret police ensued, but that only triggered the December 1989 revolution that set Romania free from the Communist yoke.

This story can be multiplied many times over: converted people who are supported through the discipling ministry of the church go on to lead transformed lives that benefit, bless and change society.  In the immortal words of the Apostle Paul:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully . . . "In your anger do not sin" . . . He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up . . .   [Eph. 4:22 – 29, NIV. Cf. 1 Thess 4:1 - 12, 2 Thess 3:10.]

Does this mean that Christians can afford to ignore the burning social, cultural, economic and political issues in the wider society?

No.  For, as the Apostle also writes:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  [Col. 1:15 – 20.]

Simply put: “all” means all.  So, if “all things” were created by and for Christ, who therefore came in love into this sin-blighted world to redeem it and reconcile to himself “all things,” then there literally can be no sphere of life that does not fall under his supremacy through the redemptive and reforming power of the gospel.  Specifically, that includes politics and government, as well as all the spheres of life: family, education, business, arts, entertainment, sports, culture . . .

In short, those who would isolate the gospel and godliness from the affairs of day to day life at once deny the Lordship of Christ, and fall into deepest heresy. 

Does that mean we should rush out and form a “Party of God” and impose righteousness by force, as once the Puritans tried in England? 

Obviously not.  But it does mean that we must think through how the gospel speaks into each facet of life and community, then develop our capacity to help our nation come to a godly democratic consensus about the way forward in this challenging new century.

Last but not least, it means we must labour with God to bring his blessings to Jamaica through Christ “[who] redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham  might come to the ethne [i.e. nations] through Christ Jesus.”  [Gal. 3:14a.]  

According to the Old Testament, that blessing includes many things currently in short supply -- especially solid family life, godly abundance in a bountiful land, an orderly and just society, deliverance from oppression, and Divine protection from enemies.

Let’s roll!


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