What's the Difference between a Modernist and a Fundamentalist?

For those with stomachs to read, a revealing discussion is going on over at the Gospel Coalition and at Mere Orthodoxy about the debate between Al Mohler and Jim Wallis over social justice. What is striking in the original post which summarizes the debate, and in reactions from people who would appear to be evangelical, is how many born-again Protestants refer to social justice with a straight face. One reason someone might say “social justice” with a raised eyebrow is that critics of the Enlightenment, like Alisdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice, Which Rationality, suggested long ago that ideas like justice are a lot more complicated and owe a lot more to social settings like Enlightened Europe than the are abstract truths that everyone knows for sure and can readily implement.

An additional wrinkle in this discussion is how some evangelicals bend and twist in order to attach works to faith, sanctification to justification, word to deed, in order to add social justice to the proclamation of the gospel. Not to sound like Glenn Beck, but social justice is not only threatening the United States, but it’s also doing a number on evangelical Protestantism (and so many thought born-again Protestants were conservative; have I got a book for them?)

So to add a little clarity (as our mid-western correspondent reminded me this morning), I bring to mind the views of the modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick and the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan on the task of the church (and the problem of doctrinal divisions) in alleviating social problems. Important to see is that both sides want a relevant faith and castigate denominational or theological differences. I don’t know how born-again infatuation with social justice will work out any differently for evangelicals than it did for their grandparents in mainline Protestantism. Another bad ending to a religious story.

Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (1922)

The second element which is needed if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs. If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation? You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?” So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should tithe mint and anise and cummin, and quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith. . . .

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

William Jennings Bryan, “Freedom of Religion and the Ku Klux Klan” (1924)

The world is coming out of the war, the bloodiest ever known. Thirty millions of human lives were lost, three hundred billions of property was destroyed, and the debts of the world are more than six times as greate as they were when the first fun was fired.

My friends, how are you going to stop war? . . . There is only one thing that can bring peace to the world, and that is the Prince of Peace. That is, my friends, the One who, when He came upon the earth, the angels said, “On earth, good will toward men. . . . Is it possible that now, when Jesus is more needed, I say the hope of the world — is it possible that at this time, in this great land, we are to have a religious discussion and a religious warfare? Are you going my friends, to start a blaze that may cause you innumerable lives, sacrificed on the altar of religious liberty? I cannot believe it.

(P.S. Bryan’s speech was to the Democratic National Convention and in response to a report that proposed to exclude the KKK. The double irony is that the Democratic Party was a place where Christian appeals prevailed, and that such a faith as Bryan’s “conservative Presbyterianism” could embrace white supremacists for the sake of a civil religion that sought to apply Christ to social problems. In which case, it’s another proof of the errors both religious and secular that follow when you mix faith and politics — you get social gospel.)


30 thoughts on “What's the Difference between a Modernist and a Fundamentalist?

  1. Wolterstorff (Justice:Rights and Wrongs, Princeton, 2008) assumes that we must be able to define “justice” in and of itself if we are even going to be able to understand the Scriptures. Instead of taking seriously the discontinuities of history (covenants), the neo-kuyperians continue to think of intrinsic and inherent “rights”. Their “justice” is abstract, universal, and therefore cannot have anything so specific as the life of Jesus Christ as its standard.

    As Daniel Bell observes, this view of justice reinforces the politics of modernity. “Jesus, the Jews, and the Politics of God’s Justice” (Ex Auditu, 2006): “the church is consigned to the role of cultural custodian of values rightly cordoned off from political practice, which finds its highest expression and guarantor in the nation-state”.


  2. I am one who does not want to blur the distinction of gospel and social justice, but I do believe there is a place for justice (not necessarily social justice) in the life of a Christian. The gospel empowers (as it atones) Christ’s command to “Follow me.” And I believe Christ disadvantaged himself to advantage us (from Walkte, “Proverbs”), and to follow him, empowered by the gospel, is to do the same in our lives. I daresay, a lack of justice in a Christian’s life is a marker for immaturity (though still ‘saved’) in faith, a immaturity in the love for our Lord and Savior, so to speak. So the question for reality, I believe, is, “Do you advantage others to the extent it disadvantage yourself?”


  3. Paul, how is disadvantaging your self for the advantage of others just? It’s loving. It’s forgiving. It’s merciful. But just? If we construe justice this way, then can’t faith elide into works?


  4. God is always just but not always merciful. God must be just in justifying the ungodly. The death of Christ for the elect makes it certain (not merely possible) that the elect will be given mercy. Socinians say that mercy is not mercy if it’s just, and that forgiveness is not forgiveness if Christ satisfied God’s justice for those forgiven.

    I have just recently noticed something in a text which raises some law-gospel questions. Not that texts don’t often do that for me! The text is I Timothy 1:8 “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully”…and then come the middle part about “not laid down for the just”, but then comes the part I had not attended to before–v11 “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

    I do not think this means that the good law is the gospel. I do not think it means that we are to live according to the gospel (though some such idea is present in Galatians). I think it has everything to do with using the law lawfully by NOT confusing law with gospel. Commands to Christians come in the context of the gospel, so that Christians understand that obedience to the commands is not the condition of blessing. Before we can properly use the commands, we first need to be assured of blessings given in Christ. We do not obey commands to get that assurance.

    The law of God for those who are not Christians will not be understand by these non-Christians in the context of the gospel. Non-Christians neither understand nor believe the gospel.

    But I would welcome your comments, even if you aren’t Lutheran…


  5. According to ex-liberal theologian Thomas Oden, not-a-much. In “After Modernity…What?” he makes the point that, to the extent that both are children of modernity, fundamentalists (and evangelicals) and liberals have much more alike than either would like to admit, that fundamentalism is actually extreme modernism. Quoth he:

    “Why are these five concerns more fundamental than others, such as divine providence, justification by grace through faith, or the Triune God? What is the ordering principal of selection? Where is the church, the Holy Spirit, sanctification, sin? All of this supports an ironic correlation…Modern fundamentalism is more akin to liberalism than either one of them would be willing to admit. So it is not surprising that fundamentalism was far less interested in the doctrinal significance of the Resurrection than the fact of the Resurrection. It did not defend the doctrinal meaning, or confessional import of the virgin birth, nearly so vigorously as the fact of the virgin birth.”


  6. No, I don’t see why faith would slip into works (this seems like a tangential comparison, please clarify), but yes, disadvantaging oneself for another is justice AND loving. Just because justice goes beyond quality (or distribution) and it is loving, well, you agree on this. Practically seeing it, when a person partakes or does acts of justice or social justice, isn’t that also an act of love? When you sacrifice your time to educate the uneducated, you disadvantage yourself the time for the advantage of those people. Isn’t that an act of social justice AND an act of love?


  7. Paul, you seem to use social justice in ways that most people would use “service” or “philanthropy” or “sacrifice.” Justice implies giving someone their due. In the case of a criminal, their due is punishment. In the case of a virtuous person, their due is praise. Grace is giving someone what they don’t deserve. Disadvantaging yourself is more like grace than justice.

    Why do you use the phrase social justice so broadly?


  8. Unless I missed it, I haven’t seen any comments about social justice being part of an ideology from the kingdom of man and not from the kingdom of God. If it is true that, as Julie Roys (who has been putting the heat on Wheaton College on this topic) puts it:

    “Marxism flows from a materialistic worldview that’s completely incongruous with biblical Christianity. And, unfortunately, much of what passes for “social justice” today is simply repackaged Marxism.”

    Then it would seem that this is yet another movement that would like to politicalize or redefine the church to suit the spirit of the age. Or have I missed the point about the encroachment of social justice ideology into the church and it’s desire to supplant traditional mercy ministries?


  9. P.S. I should add: Isn’t the social justice movement adding a new twist into the social gospel and thus adding to the confusion between the social gospel and the true gospel? And wanting to make mercy ministries primary rather than the gospel primary in the church and it’s relationship to the world? Or am I missing the point – yet again!?!


  10. Lily, I think it’s still too early to tell. Social justice evangelicals may be the religious version of OWS — what do these people want? I’m also confused about why they want it now since all things considered, historically speaking, our time is remarkably just.


  11. Good points, Dr. Hart. Perhaps, I am more skeptical? Or are you more generous?

    From my viewpoint, it looks like the culmination of the last 50 years of the integration of progressive liberalism’s ideology into the public school system. It seems to me that our youth have been indoctrinated, if not brainwashed, into their ideas of what is politically correct (eg: social justice, sexual freedom, self-esteem, and so forth). The OWS seems like a good example of the confusion caused by progressive liberalism’s strange ideas of what is just and right and good. It seems that they want all of the rights without the responsibilities, and seem to have an entitlement mindset.

    I would posit that there has been a shift of focus caused by the rise of this ideology. At least when we had a predominate civil religion, it was theistic. Now with the removal of a theistic center, it seems that we are seeing governmental rule and benevolence placed at the center. At least that seems to be the trajectory we are moving towards, IMO. If they get to the point of wanting to make it illegal for insurance companies to deny a claim based upon “an act of God” – it wouldn’t surprise me (one of the military branches recently removed teaching the just war theory based on the argument that it was theistic).

    I would like to question the idea that historically speaking “our time is remarkably just.” Are you speaking in a limited way in regards to the US or the West? Or globally? When I read the international news, I have difficulty seeing this and see it crumbling in the West. IMO, the OWS looks like nothing but a bunch of spoilt brats crying over wanting more candy and suffering from hangnails in the international context. We see the similar things happening in Britain. Please convince me I’m wrong. I hate what I think I see happening at home and abroad.


  12. P.S. I would also argue that this is yet another reason that the church needs to recognize the value of 2k theology. With 2k, I think it is much easier to begin to separate culture from the church. To see what is of the kingdom of man versus the kingdom of God. Is social justice merely another way culture twists a Christian concept and the church unthinkingly imbibes it and wants to integrate it into the church instead of correcting it?


  13. Lily, the public school system may be the breeding ground for ideological progressivism, but near as I can tell Christian day schooling is the laboratory of theological worldviewry. For my money, I’ll take my chances with the former.


  14. Zrim,

    Greatly appreciate your thoughts. I’m still wrestling with it. Aren’t the public schools imbibing in worldviews in their multiculturalism? It looks like the public school system is becoming or has become tyrannical in insisting in conformity to PC progressivism. In seeking emancipation from a traditional, conservative, civil religion (theism), it seems that they are unaware of how progressive liberalism puts us in danger of becoming slaves or dependents under a governmental domination. At least with a civil religion theism, there is the recognition that there is this “unknown” God who can be appealed to and who is the center of our ethics. Without a recognition of some god, can our ethics be moral? Will we end up in the misery of some kind of godless communism or socialism? The situation is confusing. I certainly have no answers. Only inklings of things in motion that do not seem to bode well for both society and the church militant.

    I don’t see the Evangelical Christian schools sifting out much culture, but often adopting a stance of baptizing culture into their “worldview” approach to understanding the world. When looking at what’s going on in Christian education and it’s attempts to prepare our youth, I don’t see why there is a relationship between the civil rights movement and the social justice movement. In the sense that civil rights was about man being made in the image of God without regard to the color of skin (and which similar things could be said on issues regarding age (eg: abortion or euthanasia)). Whereas social justice appears to be about redistributing material goods and promoting equality in material goods irregardless of mitigating factors like work ethic, experience, skill sets, personal habits, providence, and so forth. It seems completely at odds with the whole idea of mercy ministries for the poor, the afflicted, and so forth.


  15. Disregard the above post- it did not copy right and I could not fix it. Actually, I would like it deleted because it goes directly to my email. Too bad, it was a very interesting article.


  16. Lily, I suppose I am speaking as a father of covenant children here. And, frankly, I don’t see what would be more comforting than frustrating about employing a school system to help nurture mere theism or civil religion when my wife and I are doing our level best to instill a pretty specified Reformed orthodoxy. True enough, it has its problems in principle and practice which make it harder and harder to be its advocate, but after years of personal experience with public education in one way or another, I have yet to feel like a “slave or dependent under a governmental domination” or see how any of it realistically leads to that. Then again, maybe I’m the proverbial frog in a kettle

    But what gives me more pause is how Christian education fails to distinguish the categories of catechesis and curriculum, or how the category of curriculum is allowed to swallow up catechesis. At least, in my neck of the worldview woods this is what Christian education seems to mean. The upshot is an ignorance of the faith for the ironic sake of making it relevant to world-crafting. I also am bothered by how it seems to presume that education shares in the ordination of the home and church to craft souls. To my mind, homes make and churches redeem human beings, but schools merely shape minds. To think it does more than that seems to be a function of over-realizing the intellect or with confusing the mind and soul. Again, from my own experience, I actually think secular education, even with a history in worldview with some lingering effects, has come to understand this better than Christian education: the soul is the property of the home and church. This is the part where someone cites a horror story of governmental overreaching, and I get it, but that really isn’t how it goes in the daily grind—you know, where it really matters—of public education.


  17. This is the part where someone cites a horror story of governmental overreaching, and I get it, but that really isn’t how it goes in the daily grind—you know, where it really matters—of public education.

    It really depends on your school district. The lack of uniformity of public education in the US means that one experience is never the whole picture.


  18. True, Jeff, and that helps make my point–what happens and captures headlines in one district isn’t the norm everywhere else all the time. But my impression is that this is often how American Christians seem to think, which seems good for both buttressing worldview education and a fostering a false sense of security. To say nothing of the fact that things make headlines for reasons, which is to say that they are exceptions to rules. I mean, who wants to read a story about things working the way they should?


  19. Zrim, thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m sure you will do well with your children and they will grow up well in the faith.

    I think my wrestling with the situation is that I grew up prior to the introduction of progressive ideas into the public school system and the blue laws were still in effect. Things seemed pretty static until the blue laws were repealed.

    I didn’t notice any unusual changes in public education until a class project when my son was in high school. Even then, I only had a moderate awareness until the last 8 years or so. The changes with this last presidential administration’s heavy regulation of so many areas of private citizen’s lives and businesses is astounding for me – perhaps because there is such a great contrast between the years when I was a young to middle-aged adult and now (prior to the introduction of so much progressivism into public education and TBN type influences in the Christian arena and the explosion of the internet). Guess I’m just old and pining for simpler times!


  20. My concern about the notion of “social justice” is not really based on a political opinion about the justice of confiscating the wealth held by all those who have more money that I do. I am an alien, not a citizen of any nation-state, not a voter. My concern is that we don’t begin to define “justice” based on what we need. (But no, I don’t this means that all of us Calvinists should logically be capitalists).

    Salvation is by grace to the elect. But this salvation is by justice, not only to the Son, but also to justice the nature and character of the triune God. This is important, and it is something which I did not know when I was not yet converted, and not yet fearing God.

    We need to avoid a “nominalism” in which God is only sovereign and not to be measured by justice, as to His character or actions. God is both just and justifier of the ungodly.The death of Jesus Christ for the elect alone was not merely one way (among many) God could have saved the elect.

    See John Owen and Abraham Booth, Justice Essential to the Divine Character. Now I suppose that some (Lane Tipton) would say that Owen and Booth were “semi-Pelagians” who denied God’s sovereignty to have the option of saving by GRACE apart from Christ’s death.

    But God cannot and does not save elect sinners apart from the death of Jesus Christ for the elect alone.. Now that Christ has died, God cannot in justice NOT save all those for whom Christ died.

    The gospel is not about the infinity and sovereignty of Christ’s person (both divine and human that He is). The gospel is about God in history JUSTLY obtaining the blessings of salvation for the elect by means of, because of, Christ’s work.

    Justice counts So we need to be good stewards about the definition of “justice”.

    Counting is involved in God’s justice. 1. Christ’s death was offered only for the elect and will count only for the elect. 2. But the death did not count for the elect all at one time. it is imputed by God (not by the sinner, not by the church) to individuals one at a time, both before and after the death.

    The soundbite that “Abraham was saved 2000 years ago when I was” is more misleading than helpful. Christ obtained by His work of death the righteousness which God had imputed to Abraham years before He died.

    Christ by measure by justice by work obtained for the last ungodly elect sinner who will ever be justified that yet future verdict and declaration.

    There is a just connection between Christ’s death and justification. One thing I learned at conversion is that God is justified in justifying. Not only that God is sovereignly gracious. Our need of salvation does not make salvation our right. Our need of salvation does not make our salvation just.

    We learn that God is right, and we are wrong. God is right in saying that we deserve to die. God is right in the way that Christ dies to satisfy justice. We learn to take sides against ourselves in agreeing with God about this.


  21. “But what gives me more pause is how Christian education fails to distinguish the categories of catechesis and curriculum, or how the category of curriculum is allowed to swallow up catechesis. At least, in my neck of the worldview woods this is what Christian education seems to mean.”

    Zrim, I agree with most of what you say about “Christian” education vs. public shool education. But, to be fair, knowledge impartation does not take place in a vacuum. Which is to say, it can be really hard on a covenant child to deal with the negative socialization in many public schools. A child who will not jump into the slander-cliques, lust-cliques, etc., can feel pretty isolated. Maybe that’s just reality, but it can be pretty tough at an age with peer opinion seems so important.

    Maybe this is just to say glib answers from any perspective do not do this subject justice. I think you would agree with that.


  22. Lily, I wonder if you mean you came up pre-60s, because I think the case could be made that compulsory public education as we understand it is itself a product of progressive ideas, which means that progressive ideas didn’t just show up one day a generation or two ago. I’m highly nostalgic and all for simplicity as well. But I came up in the 80s, and when I hear folks say they can remember a simpler time that was invaded by progressivism I think it tends to simply mark their particular generation, namely the so-called cultural revolution of the 60s. (I’m not saying this is you, but somehow these same folks think Elvis was more innocent than Madonna, but they both descend from the ethos of rock and roll, which Bruce Springsteen said has always had the subtext of, “Take off your pants.” And he’s the Boss, so…)

    It’s a little like thinking the mega-church phenomenon of the 70s and 80s is new when really it’s the product of a revivalism with a long history that reaches back to when Whitefield first landed (and further, I think). Anti-mega churchers may reject Chrystal Lewis, but if they’re still happily singing Fanny Crosby then I don’t think they’ve really resisted doxological progressivism and seem to me to simply mark themselves generationally.


  23. Mike, I hear you, which is why we’re going with a charter-prep school next year. Still technically a public school, but they just purchased the Christian school facilities next door, so maybe we can apply for some of the tithes that our church takes up for Christian ed.? Sorry, I couldn’t resist the glib.


  24. Zrim, if I can bug you one more time, are you thinking of the Dutch Reformed model of Christian School when you write on the subject? I am used to the generic evangelical model, but don’t know if there is much difference beyond the disparity in median height.


  25. Mike, having experience with both I tend to have both in mind. I think you’re right, that while there may be distinctions there isn’t really much difference. But the PRC has raised the bar to formal legalistic levels recently in ways I’ve not seen in broad evangelicalism.


  26. Zrim – I grew up in the 60’s and married my high school sweetheart in early 70’s. We lived in a rural area with small towns that was dominated by a farming and ranching economy plus a strong presence of German ancestry (yeah Lutherans!). We were semi-insulated from the craziness of the sixties (too many earthy farmers and cowboys?) – the hippies were something you read about in Time magazine. Perhaps, like now, much that goes on in the coasts takes time to infiltrate or hit the heartland. I honestly miss the blue laws (the place was a ghost town on Sundays) and the slower pace. Machen had his act together in supporting the blue laws – bless his heart!

    You are so very right about the roots of progressivism and other things (eg: Azusa Street) going back to the early 20th century (at least that’s how I understand it). And, natch, about the history of revivalism. I think that is why we are the church militant. Each age has it’s own battles with garbage that wants to derail or lead the church astray.

    As for generations being marked – sigh… your time will come! Along with the grey hair, wrinkles, and other such marks of being a true elder. I hope I’m here to laugh when it’s your turn! 😉

    P.S. You might consider a Lutheran School for your kids – if there is one that has implemented the classical program of education. Unfortunately, they are few and far between (and the worst that could happen would be that they might become Lutherans? – yeah, luv that idea). ;P


  27. Lily, those Catholics also do the 3Rs pretty well, but something tells me I still wouldn’t get any denominational aid due to insufficient worldview.


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