A Prelude to Conservatism

There are many things to beat up about Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism today is like the goofy, unemployed and overweight 47 year-old who used to be the captain of the rugby/football team in his high school days. When he was popular and powerful, he had his way, and no one dared cross him. Now that his powers are fading and looking pathetic, just about everyone walks by and gives him a slap on the back of his bald head.

I could add my fair share of slaps, and probably have, more than I’m happy to admit. Some of the silliness, goofiness and outrageous behaviour is almost irresistible to lampoon (and I confess, I haven’t resisted that well). I could probably write pages about how so much in Fundamentalism taught me how not to do ministry, or treat people, or worship, and so on.

Nevertheless, I’m going to buck the trend here, and suggest some of the things about Fundamentalism which actually served to prepare me to embrace some of the ideals of conservatism. I’m not seeking to read back into my past what I know now, or romanticise a movement with its fair share of dirty laundry. I just want to be honest, and thankful, about some things which Fundamentalism supplied, which I’m not sure Evangelicalism would have done, at least in terms of the manifestations of these movements in South Africa. So here goes.

Fundamentalism taught me caution toward culture. Yes, there were silly taboos, and irrational bans, and the like. But from my earliest days, I understood that Christians are not to approach the cultural phenomena of this world uncritically. Music, television, dress, and other cultural matters were not meaning-neutral. Many of the evangelical Christians I meet in S.A. have almost no category for parsing culture for meaning, or being guarded about what they expose their imaginations to. Certainly, it created some philistinism in me as well. Granted, I had to go elsewhere to learn a love for culture. I needed to go elsewhere to read sensible arguments around music and modesty and the like. But I’m not sure if the Examined Life would have even made sense to me from within the milieu of Evangelicalism in S.A. Maybe I haven’t met enough people to be representative, but most folks who grew up in South African Evangelicalism are frankly aghast if you even bring up the questions. (“Haven’t you read Romans 14, brother?!”)

Fundamentalism introduced me to the case for separatism. Once again, it was often a movement-based, politically-motivated, personality-dominated separation, but it at least showed me that separation is a biblical command, and that its application includes professing brethren. South African Evangelicalism is some of the blandest Billy Grahamish stuff you can find, and the separatist mindset is hardly known, except in fringe groups and cults. I’d need to go beyond Fundamentalism as I found it here to understand the basis for and proper application of the doctrine, but no one I met outside of Baptist Fundamentalism here was even making a case for it.

Fundamentalism gave me a theological dogmatism. Now, there were enough Fundamentalists I met whose dogmatism was wrong-headed, immature, and sometimes, thuggish. However, when I first emerged from my Fundamentalist cloister and began speaking to the broader evangelicalism in S.A., my dogmatism was frankly shocking to many. I don’t think it was because my approach was belligerent or pugnacious, but rather because South African Evangelicalism has a hegemony of soft-pedalling the truth, and avoiding clear definition. My dogmatism had to be re-shaped and hammered into submission to sound exegesis and extended argumentation. I had to learn to hold truths with the certainty they merited. However, Fundamentalism at least taught me that an inerrant, infallible Scripture calls for definitive proclamations of truth.

There were probably other things as well. There were certainly loads of negative lessons. I bring these up because some of the things that make up a real conservative Christianity, like defending the gospel, believing and teaching the whole counsel of God, and parsing all things for meaning were at least given to me in seed-form in Fundamentalism, and I’m not sure I would have received them elsewhere. Perhaps folks in conservative churches that were not self-consciously Fundamentalist learnt the same things. I can only relate my own experience. Perhaps I might say that in my case, Fundamentalism wasn’t sufficient, but it was necessary. I accept the providence of God in using Fundamentalism positively and negatively to prepare me for a conservative Christianity that retains certain fundamentalist ideals, while trying to jettison the baggage of the Movement.


10 Responses to “A Prelude to Conservatism”

  1. ds. Marc sr. Says:

    Thanks for your honesty and clarity. I was raised in early years among “Conservative Evangelical” Southern Baptist Churches and then as an older teenager entered the circles of USA Bible Church and Baptist Fundamentalists. I can fully identify-with and support fully your comments. 1. Caution toward culture, 2. the case for separatism, and 3. a theological dogmatism. Thanks, once again, for being right on target!

    I might, being much older than you, be able to add a few additional “lessons” that I have learned from my Fundamentalist ‘mentors.’
    4. The practical moral dangers related to ecclesiastical compromise.
    5. The importance of adding the sufficiency of Scripture to the concepts of Verbal, Plenary, Inspiration of Scripture.
    6. The vital addition of “literal” to the listing of a Historical-Grammatical Interpretation of Scripture. (also the vital nature of interpreting Scripture on the basis of understanding the context of the surrounding passage/s)
    7. The essential role of Dispensationalism and the truth of an imminent Pre-Tribulational Rapture of the Saints as a core concept of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ teachings and hope.
    8. The imperative of Christ’s Pre-millennial return to a regathered and redeemed Israel, to judge the unbelieving nations, and to vindicate Israel’s faithful Remnant and Prophets.
    9. To faithful teach salvation by Grace alone through faith alone as part and parcel of the New Covenant promises and message.

    Still learning…
    Dr. Marc S. Blackwell, Sr., Cape Town

  2. JS Allen Says:

    Great post. I definitely don’t want to raise my children fundamentalist, but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Fundamentalism gave me some good things, regardless of the bad things. Passing on the good without the bad is the challenging thing. Same as it ever was, I guess.

  3. David Says:

    That’s right, and there’s a place to acknowledge that. And I don’t mean to suggest that these things are unique to fundamentalism, only to say that in my case, groups outside of self-identified Fundamentalists didn’t seem to point in those specific directions.

    Dr. Marc,
    Those distinctives are certainly true of many Fundamentalists. My point was more to deal with attitudes or distinctives that seemed absent in “non-fundamental’ groups. For my part, I have found in S.A. a fair number of premillennial (even pretribulationalist) dispensationalists who held to a literal hermeneutic who were outside of self-identified fundamentalism. Certainly your 30+ years of experience here has given you far more on-the-ground experience than I, so I’d defer to you if you said that the South African context made dispensationalism almost synonymous with Fundamentalism. Interestingly, Dr. Bauder’s lastest post deals with this very matter: http://www.centralseminary.edu/resources/nick-of-time/resources/nick-of-time/220-now-about-those-differences-pt-4

  4. ds. Marc sr. Says:

    I have enjoyed this discussion. The value of it, of course, is if we all are for one or another reason encouraged to remain faithful to the Lord – though this does not necessarily mean that we will remain in a “status quo” mindset that leads us to “blind loyalties” and incapable of learning.

    Your three points were well stated and were to the point and on the mark, My added thoughts were not meant to confuse the issues but rather to say, for me, Fundamentalism or at least the form of fundamentalism that I encountered added those perspective to my life and my thinking. In fact, most of that was based in my American roots.

    Since 1974 my experience in South Africa matches yours and I too have found many outside of a “fundamentalist mindset” arriving at many good Biblical viewpoints that were similar to portions and parts of Fundamentalist thought. The fact is that American Fundamentalism had very little impact here before the 1970s and 80s.

    South Africa’s own Dispensational Fundamentalism like that of Spurgeon College graduate Pastor Ernest Baker of Cape Town had a great influence but it’s effect was most forgotten by WW2. Conservatism has enough problems to face today but they are different in so many ways. I appreciate your commitment to face today’s problems with God’s Word, alone – while maintain due respect for your past.

  5. David Says:

    For sure. I didn’t think you confused the discussion at all, and I agree that our loyalty needs to be to the Lord, not to a movement.

    Not many know of the pedigree of premillennial Baptists that were here before the 40s.

  6. Mark Penrith Says:

    Um, I’m not sure I understand your definition of Fundamentalism. What is Fundamentalism and how do you distinguish yourself from it?

    As always, thought provoking.

  7. David Says:


    That’s an involved question, with a long answer. I’ll generalise and abbreviate, no doubt to almost everyone’s discomfort.
    “Classic Fundamentalism” would be the evangelical movement that responded to the liberalising tendencies of late 19th and early 20th century liberalism. Probably best represented in someone like J. Gresham Machen.
    Later Fundamentalism reacted to the neo-evangelicalism of men like Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga and Carl Henry in the 40s and 50s. Essentially one branch of American evangelicalism adopted an inclusivist attitude towards liberals, the other responded with separatism.
    Through many twists and turns, American Fundamentalism became a more self-conscious movement in the 70s and 80s, distinguishing itself from evangelicalism (which was now splintering into wacko evangelicals, soft evangelicals and conservative evangelicals). Unfortunately, during this time, American Fundamentalism became a lot more characterised by quirks and eccentricities.
    So to use an example you’d be familiar with: John MacArthur is a fundamentalist in a doctrinal sense. In the sense of his alignments and associations, he would not self-identify with Fundamentalism represented by colleges like Bob Jones University or Centra Baptist Seminary.
    Fundamentalism in South Africa, in this ‘movement’ sense, only came to SA in the form of missionaries from agencies like BIMI, ABWE and so forth. Many of them imported their quirks and eccentricities. I was born again in a church planted by a BIMI missionary (who thankfully, was not a stereotype weirdo).
    Of course I identify with historic Christianity. I don’t think that quite makes you a fundamentalist. I imagine myself as a fundamentalist in the Machen sense, defending the gospel, and separating from indifferentists. In reality, I can never completely divorce myself from the movement, in the sense that it shaped some of my views. This was the point of my post. However, I try to distance myself from the things which Fundamentalism as a movement has picked up as its traditions, where i see them as unbiblical or unhelpful.

  8. Mark Penrith Says:

    Now that I can buy into. I like the John MacArthur/Billy Graham example.

    I guess my interest is perked because I’d tag myself as being a Fundamentalist, but as in the, “response to the liberal movement sense of the word.” I’d be far more wary of the tag Evangelical because how broad a swathe cling to it.

    Tags are helpful as far we accurately define them. That said, they become increasingly tarnished over time as the principals and precepts of the initial movement are attached to the personalities and histrocies [sic] associated with them. Take Calvinism for instance; the average debate centres on the man and the historic events around his life rather than the doctrines and theology itself.

    What I’m driving to is: My name’s Mark, and I’m a


  9. David Says:

    Well, the thing is this: holding to the fundamentals as you list them on your blog doesn’t make you a fundamentalist, it makes you a Christian. If you believe any less than that, you’re not a Christian in any biblical sense of the term. To hold to the gospel is to be a Christian. Certainly any doctrine essential to the gospel is fundamental to Christianity, hence the term. But holding to those doctrines doesn’t make you a fundamentalist.
    What makes you a fundamentalist in the modern sense is what you are willing to do about those fundamentals. J. Gresham Machen spoke of people who professed the fundamentals themselves, but extended Christian fellowship to those who did not. He called such people indifferentists. A real-life example of this would come much later in Billy Graham’s New York crusade. Graham would profess the fundamentals himself, Graham had liberals on the platform with him. He claims to believe the gospel , but extends Christian fellowship to those who do not believe the gospel. This would make him an indifferentist, in Machen’s book. Machen would have been a fundamentalist, but he eschewed the term, because of the negative connotations it was already garnering early in the 20th. Both Graham and Machen would have agreed with the fundamentals as you list them on your blog. But almost no one would recognise Graham as a fundamentalist,
    What makes you a fundamentalist in the modern sense is not if you believe the fundamentals, but what you do about indifferentism.

  10. Web Pulse – June 22, 2010 | Religious Affections Ministries Says:

    […] Conservative Christianity – A Prelude to Conservatism- Very true. Conservatism is at least a form of Fundamentalism. It is more, but not […]

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