Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fundamentalism

Recently my pastor forwarded a critique or a response to an article by Dr. Albert Mohler Jr.. The article was on the topic of the necessity for Christians to make distinctions in what doctrines are most important and need to be divided over and which ones do not. In order to understand my comments, I advise you to read his article.1 Also, I have copied the response/rebuttal/condemnation by David Cloud below:

"I have long said that the central problem of the Southern Baptist Convention is its commitment to New Evangelicalism, and this is evident from a recent article by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In "A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity" (Baptist Press, August 23, 2006), Mohler divides biblical truth into three categories: First-order, which are "those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith" (in this category Mohler lists only the incarnation, humanity and deity of Christ, the Trinity, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture); Second-order, which are things "that believing Christians may disagree on though this disagreement will create significant boundaries" (he gives the examples of the mode of baptism and women pastors); and Third-order, which "are doctrines on which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship" (here Mohler lists eschatology and "any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement"). While Mohler adds a caveat that "a structure of theological triage does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness," he blatantly contradicts this statement by lumping many biblical truths into a "third-order" category and claiming that these particular truths should not be divisive. Mohler says that liberalism's error is "the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist," while the error of fundamentalism "is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines." He says that this results in Christians being "wrongly and harmfully divided." This is the typical New Evangelical position, and while it might sound reasonable it is nowhere supported by Scripture. Though we recognize that not everything in the Bible has equal weight, all has some weight and the division of biblical truth into second or third classes after the fashion of modern evangelicalism is artificial and man-made. The Lord Jesus Christ instructed the churches to teach the believers "to observe ALL things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Mat. 28:20). There is not a hint in Christ's teaching that some of His doctrine can be placed into a "third-order" category. The apostle Paul instructed Timothy to keep the apostolic commandments "without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Tim. 6:14). This refers to the details of the New Testament faith and includes things such as church discipline, standards for pastors and deacons, restrictions to the woman's ministry, regulations pertaining to the exercise of spiritual gifts, separation from the world, separation from false teaching, and the interpretation of prophecy, all of which are clearly commanded in the apostolic epistles. Nowhere does Paul instruct his fellow preachers or the churches that a segment of biblical truth can be placed into a "third-order" category for the sake of unity. It is the Scripture itself that has made me a Fundamentalist and has led me to reject New Evangelicalism. Divisions created by a stand for biblical truth are not wrong."2

After reading both the response by David Cloud as well as the full article by Dr. Mohler and I feel as though there are a few things that I must say.

I believe that the response by David Cloud mischaracterizes Dr. Mohler’s article in a few places. First of all it is plain that Mr. Cloud sees the list of “first-order” things as only those doctrines that were initially cited (“incarnation, humanity and deity of Christ, the Trinity, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture”). However, Dr. Mohler makes it plain that these are not the only doctrines, rather they are representative of the first-order category of doctrines by saying, “doctrines such as the Trinity…” implying that there are other foundational (first-order) issues than the ones listed. Furthermore, Dr. Mohler concludes his comments on the importance of the first-order issues (and he expounds on the Christological issues too) by saying, “Those who deny these revealed truths are, by definition, not Christians.” Basically stated: First-order things are those doctrines on which any disagreement necessarily pushes one party or another outside of orthodoxy.

I also believe that Mr. Cloud’s comment citing a blatant contradiction by “lumping many biblical truths into a "third-order" category and claiming that these particular truths should not be divisive.” is not a fair representation of Dr. Mohler’s ideas either. If you read the article, the parameters for the division in “order” is this:

  1. First-order things must be divided over, because those who disagree on these issues are not Christians.

  2. Second-order things divide because there can be no compromise (see his appropriate example of Baptist and Presbyterian understanding of baptism). We would affirm (I hope) that gospel believing Presbyterian’s are Christians, but vigorously disagree about their stance on this issue.

  3. *Note the difference between the first and second order ideas – disagreeing on first order things means that we cannot have fellowship with Christ, and disagreeing on 2nd order things means that we cannot have fellowship with one another (in local congregational worship).
  4. Third-Order things are not minor, but they are more disputable. We must always seek to defend the Word of God for all that it is and all that it says, but there are some things that we can have differences of theological positions on (that are arrived at by study, prayer, and meditation), but not forsake fellowship.

I think that this idea that Dr. Mohler brings out is just a way of framing how we as Christians have always tried to adhere to Christ’s call for unity but still remain faithful to the specific and discriminating statements and proclamations of Holy Scripture. I think it pans out in our own church. Without naming specifics, there are disagreements over certain points of nuanced doctrine. We affirm the same doctrine, but through our own growing understanding of the scriptures, we would make stands at different points along the spectrum. These are disagreements, but we choose to not divide over these issues (think Divine Sovereignty vs. man’s free will). Simply by having these differences (however nuanced they may be, they’re still important), but choosing not to divide is the practical application of what Dr. Mohler was communicating.

Also, upon a little further investigation on this article and the response by David Cloud, I found that Mr. Cloud seems to be a proponent of KJV-Onlyism. He wrote an article describing why he feels that it is an important issue to debate and fight about.3 Now I do agree that this issue is worth debating, but my conclusions are very different from Mr. Cloud. Also, I do think that in the extreme case, some KJV-Onlyist proponents may be somewhat cultish (and I use that word carefully and purposeful). The reason I say that is this: if we put any translation of scripture on the same level or above the level of the original manuscripts written by the apostles and prophets and inspired by the Holy Spirit, we make a grave mistake. This uplifting of any translation is almost idolatrous because the focus is then on the translation and not on the meaning and truth contained in it. I am not one for watering down the gospel or the Word of God, but we must not be jingoistic and make the error of lifting up an English translation and make that the standard when we should be going back as close as we can get to the original.


1 A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

2 http://www.wayoflife.org/fbns/fridaynews/news/2006/fridaynews060901.html

3 Is The Bible Version Issue Worth Fighting Over? by David Cloud

3 comments:

Stu said...

I finally had time to read through these two articles. I agree with Eric that David Cloud failed to read well the spirit and letter of Dr. Mohler. The opening paragraphs set the stage of his article, Dr. Mohler states, "Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis."

Just as Ambassador sought to address the theological crisis related to the Divinci Code, so all Christians will face a crisis that demands immediate attention. It will do our church no good to deal with "modesty" when the threat from without is the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. We must always be diligent to know our culture and the attacks apparent to our faith. We must deal with each doctrinal crisis, as they arise, and prepare the saints for a defense of their faith on all fronts. This is not an either or proposition. We must deal with both simultaneously. We must teach the full counsel of God, at all times, and we must deal with the theological crisis. In some respects making "doctrine" an elective to our adults may not be the best alternative.

What worries me most about David Cloud is his form of Fundamentalism. He may be ignorant of Historic Fundamentalism, of which I would adhere to. Within Historic Fundamentalism resided infant baptizers and believer baptizers; a-millenialists and pre-millenialist. Historic Fundamentalism acknowledged the reality of doctrines that 1] unite us into the FAITH, 2] doctrines that determine our ecclesiastical practice, or eschatology, and 3] doctrines that remain matters of private interpretation [as long as they do not undermine the first two categories].

Unfortunately, David Cloud espouses a Fundamentalism that may be called Sectarian Fundamentalism. Unless the individual espouses exactly the same definitions and arguments of another, then that person is not a fundamentalist. Many churches, pastors, schools and mission agencies have adopted this form of fundamentalism. I only wish we could have a broader voice to call us away from Sectarian Fundamentalism back to Historic Fundamentalism.

EJ said...

I want to note that Stu made his comment before the last paragraph (regarding KJV-Onlyism) of my article was in place.

Kevin T. Bauder said...

BP News is the official press of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a recent “First‐Person” article (August 23, 2006), Albert Mohler issued “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” The article, which has been posted twice on Mohler’s own blog, reiterates an argument that he has repeated in several venues. It is an important argument, and Mohler expresses it thoughtfully.

Mohler’s thesis is that theological issues vary in importance, and that the level of importance affects the levels at which Christian fellowship is possible. Most important are “first‐order” doctrines. These teachings are the “most central and essential to the Christian faith.” They represent the “most fundamental truths of the Christian faith.” Indeed, “a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.” Among them, Mohler lists “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.”

Second‐order doctrines involve issues that create significant boundaries among believers, but that do not keep them from recognizing each other as Christians. Mohler believes that the debate between pedobaptists and credobaptists is an example, as are questions about the ordination of women. He notes, “Many of the most heated disagreements among serious believers take place at the second‐order level, for these issues frame our understanding of the church and its ordering by the Word of God.”

Third‐order doctrines are those over which Christians may disagree while remaining in
close fellowship. Mohler names the debate over the timing of events surrounding the Lord’s return as an example of a third‐order dispute. Differences over such doctrines should not prevent believers from accepting one another “without compromise,” even in local church membership.

These three categories provide Mohler with a neat taxonomy for questions of fellowship. Third‐order disagreements should never affect Christian fellowship or cooperation. Second‐order differences may block cooperation at some levels, but should not bar Christians from expressing mutual recognition. Differences over first‐order doctrines—well, Mohler does not express an opinion here.

He does insist that Christians should never take doctrine lightly. He argues, “We are
charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.” Mohler’s view could be summarized by saying that all doctrine is important, but some doctrines are more important than others.

Why is this remarkable?

For one thing, Mohler’s position approaches that of historic fundamentalism. The genius of fundamentalism is the recognition that all doctrines are not created equal. All are important, but all are not equally important. If all doctrines were equally important, there could be no fundamentalism. There could only be everythingism.

Historic fundamentalists have also insisted that degrees of doctrinal importance affect levels of fellowship. No Christian fellowship at all is possible with those who deny fundamental doctrines, for (as Mohler observes) the denial of a fundamental “represents nothing less than the eventual denial of Christianity itself.” Even among those who affirm the fundamentals, varying levels of doctrinal commonality will lead to varying degrees of cooperation and fellowship.

This principle was worked out historically in the American Council of Christian Churches, which could claim to speak for mainstream fundamentalists at least into the 1970s. From its founding in 1941, the ACCC has always repudiated any form of Christian fellowship or cooperation with those who deny the fundamentals. Nevertheless, it was able to bring together Baptists, Presbyterians, Bible churches, Methodists, and other traditions (such as the Tioga River Christian Conference). These various groups recognized one another as truly Christian, and they were able to unite in accomplishing the purposes of the ACCC, but only because the ACCC has studiously avoided all endeavors that would have required the compromise of “second‐order” (to use Mohler’s taxonomy) doctrines and practices, such as denominational distinctives. In the ACCC,
all three levels of Mohler’s doctrinal triage were functioning—and, incidentally, they still are.

Therefore, it comes as a considerable surprise to see Mohler asserting, “The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first‐order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first‐order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.” While this may be a description of some undamentalists (hyper‐fundamentalists would be a better label), it certainly does not characterize either the fundamentalist ideal or the mainstream organizations of the fundamentalist movement. On the contrary, prominent fundamentalist leaders have repeatedly insisted that all doctrines must not be treated as if they were fundamental. A good example is Rolland McCune’s article, “Doctrinal Non‐Issues in Historic Fundamentalism,” Detroit
Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Fall 1996): 171‐185.

If anything, historic fundamentalists have recognized a more complex doctrinal calculus and a more nuanced understanding of fellowship than even Mohler has requested. Mohler thinks that differences about eschatological timing should not affect Christian fellowship. Many fundamentalists (and, for that matter, many evangelicals) have recognized that these disagreements may entail real differences in the way that the Christian life is lived. Such differences do place a strain upon fellowship at some levels. When our understanding of the Bible differs, we must either limit our message or limit our fellowship, but only at whatever levels are affected by the difference.

To offer another example, Mohler is known for his Calvinism. While he does not say so, I suspect that he would classify limited atonement as a third‐order doctrine. I cannot imagine that he would refuse to be a church member with someone who did not share this view. Yet, Mohler’s Calvinism could find legitimate expression in Christian enterprises dedicated to exclusively Calvinistic concerns. Those enterprises would be less than church membership but more than simple, individual fellowship. If this is so, then a genuinely mature doctrinal triage will have to be even more subtle than Mohler himself has acknowledged.

Given the excellence of his argument, it is disappointing that Mohler does not say more
about the effects of first‐order disputes upon Christian fellowship. He does observe that first‐order denials represent “nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself,” but he does not say what we ought to do about people in Christian organizations who deny fundamental doctrines.

I suspect that Mohler cannot address this question. If he recognizes the deniers as fellow‐Christians with whom he ought to fellowship, then he has to explain how first‐order doctrines rate a separate and more advanced importance. On the other hand, if he really means what he says—if a denial of the fundamentals is a denial of Christianity—then he needs to explain why more is not being done to eradicate the deniers from the Southern Baptist Convention.

The position that Albert Mohler articulates is about four‐fifths of the way to fundamentalism. Of course, I’m a tad disappointed that he does not seem to have a more clear idea of what fundamentalism is. Still, the overall thrust of his argument is sound. He is furthering a conversation that greatly needs to be continued.

Source Article: "Albert Mohler on Doctrinal Triage:
A Response"
In the Nick of Time September 8, 2006 by Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary

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