Monday, September 03, 2007

Fundamentalism and Evangelicals

Fundamentalism and Evangelicals, Harriet A Harris, Oxford Theological Monographs, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1998, pp.384, ISBN 0-19-826960-9

While liberals like Bishop Spong have tended to smear the 'Fundamentalist' label with convenient alacrity, evangelicals, such as John Stott, Derek Tidball and Alistair McGrath have, on the other hand, tended rather anxiously to define a straw-man fundamentalism. In view of these extremes it is useful to find a more judicious and careful examination of the relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicals. Harris rightly emphasises fundamentalism as a mentality or tendency rather than a coherent movement. She begins with a historical study of the roots of 1920's Fundamentalism that details the various strands of revivalism, holiness teaching and premillenariansism. The power base of this movement was largely located in conferences and Bible Institutes that had their ancestry in the Albury and Niagara prophetic conferences. The entire relevant history of the last century and a half on both sides of the Atlantic is sketched in well to include all the usual suspects.

The second chapter proceeds to James Barr's critique of fundamentalism. Harris maintains that Barr does not simply equate conservative evangelicalism with fundamentalism he rather prefers to view them as overlapping circles. Barr's analysis represents fundamentalism as a rather incoherent and undeveloped mentality with assorted doctrines but no clear theology. Philosophically, it adheres to an 18th century type of evidentialism while its pretensions to critical scholarship are belied by a determination to skew the evidence. Interestingly, however, Barr prophesies (in 1977) significant shifts for conservative evangelicals on a number of issues, he expected the charismatic/pentecostal movement to subvert their endemic rationalism.

Chapter 3 considers the philosophical roots that Barr refers to, namely Scottish Common-Sense philosophy, which was the dominant philosophy at Princeton Seminary during the nineteenth century. This tradition sought to oppose Humean scepticism with a robust Realism especially in relation to language. Harris gives sufficient space to a study of Thomas Reid's thought showing that although this foremost Common Sense Realist was a Moderate rather than Evangelical, evangelicals such as Robert Haldane, Louis Gaussen and Alexander Carson nevertheless borrowed arguments from him in order to defend the perspicuity of scripture. They asserted innerrancy with a vigorous inductive method that made their conclusion dependent upon 'evidences'. In America Common Sense principles undergirded the educational system from the time of Independence but it was largely James W Alexander and Charles Hodge who developed a 'scientific' theological method. Harris argues, however, that this reached an intense pitch in the thought of B.B. Warfield who often gave evidences a foundational rather than a supporting role. Warfield believed that textual criticism would vindicate and clarify the problem areas of Scripture. Scripture was therefore not so much self-authenticating as evidence-authenticated. Controversially, later evangelicals such as Daniel Fuller and Clark Pinnock have claimed to be following Warfield's principle of letting 'induction control from beginning to end' to its logical conclusion in developing a doctrine of limited inerrancy. In this sense even Creation Scientists are comparatively less fundamentalist (as Barr himself suggests) than those that revise their biblical interpretation to fit scientific opinion.

Chapter 5 enacts a dialogue between liberal and fundamentalist opinions of one another and between their respective views of Scripture. The tension of objectivist and subjectivist tendencies within the evangelical position are drawn forth rather well (although it should be recognised that this has always been a difficulty for liberals as well). Harris maintains that evangelical inductive apologetics bears little influence in individual testimonies and experiential factors are instead predominant.

Harris then devotes two chapters to Dutch Neo-Calvinism as represented in Abraham Kuyper's thought and influence. Kuyper's abiding influence is traced in following chapters. Cornelius Van Til's apologetic similarly discounted evidences and according to sources this was one of the main reasons for the 1937 schism at Westminster Seminary. Van Til follows Warfield a considerable distance on inerrancy and therefore, in Harris's opinion, limits the effectiveness of presuppostionalism as an alternative to rational empiricism. Harris finds Van Til's mix of British Idealist philosophy with Kuyperian ideas and Calvinist theology together with Warfieldian thinking rather strange. She also concludes that both presuppostionalism and evidentialism display circular reasoning departing from deductive premises.

In the last chapter evangelical engagement with phenomenological hermeneutics is considered.

In many ways Harris extends the critique applied by James Barr. One doesn't need to adopt Barr's theology to recognise the sharpness of some of his observations. In fact recent evangelicals such as David F. Wells have recognised the absence of theology in evangelicalism. What Barr emphasises is the opportunism or determined pragmatism of evangelicals which entails making use of the work of those not theologically or philosophically alligned for their own ends. One doesn't need to go back to Thomas Reid, the example of C.S. Lewis is appropriate enough. This magpie mentality believes in making evangelicalism 'electable', contemporary or relevant and it is this populist impulse which perhaps defines Protestant fundamentalism - anything is suitable so long as it works. This attitude goes back to 'The Fundamentals' themselves: Volume 2 concludes with 'Tributes to Christ and the Bible by Brainy Men not known as Active Christians'. In this sense Harris's volume is a useful assessment of the options and weaknesses facing evangelicals in the present time. It demonstrates the rootlessness experienced by evangelicalism in not adhering fully to Reformed theology.