Give me that Old Time Religion…

preachercrosspicThe little church that reared me belonged to a group that called itself Fundamentalist. I grew up thinking that fundamentalists were marked by what they didn’t do: no dancing, drinking, movies, playing cards, rock ‘n roll, or hip attire. Later, a movement arose called Evangelicalism, with the same core THEOLOGICAL beliefs, but a more accommodating stance toward CULTURE.  I was happy, because I could be an old-fashioned fundamentalist in my theology and still enjoy a good movie.

Since the 1980’s, “fundamentalist” has taken on a sinister meaning: a heavily armed, hard-line lunatic ready to start a war over his/her beliefs. I reject that sort of fundamentalism as sinful, unbiblical, and against God. You couldn’t find a violent bone if you tried among the kind of fundamentalists that reared me.

“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal [not physical, not tangible, not a weapon you can buy in a store] but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ,” 2 Corinthians 10:4, 5, NKJV.

As a theological system, old-time fundamentalism, and later evangelicalism, were right on. We just have to come up with new labels for these historic Christian truth-packages.

amishToday, even evangelicalism is being redefined. Various movements, like the emerging church (with its tendency toward universalism), Open Theism (which suggests that God doesn’t know the future), and old-fashioned  liberalism (racing toward pluralism), are each trying to reform evangelicalism, and attempting to claim the mantle of historic Christianity.

We’re like toddlers at a theological smorgasbord– too short of stature to see the big picture,  too greedy for anything sweet,  and too untrained to discern true nutrition from junk food.

We have sincere, sacrificial, great-hearted pastors and authors who are woefully untrained in theology, leading the church in directions the church shouldn’t go.

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” Hebrews 5:12, NKJV.

Every generation needs to LOVINGLY, but FIRMLY rearticulate what is theologically good and what is theologically bad for the church. Where do we draw the lines on our theological playing field? What is in bounds? What is out of bounds?

I believe our church leaders from the 1920’s drew the line perfectly when they identified five non-negotiables, or fundamentals, of the faith.  These define what came to be called fundamentalist theology, and later evangelical theology.

Five core truths have defined Christianity for generations:

1. The inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible
2. The deity of Christ and His virgin birth
3. The substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death
4. The literal resurrection of Christ from the dead
5. The literal return of Christ

These fundamentals are like fences around a five-sided yard. Within the yard, there’s plenty of room for debate on plenty of major theological issues. Just stay in the yard.

biblemanEach generation has to reaffirm the old truths of historic Christianity. The language may change, but the underlying truths must remain the same. Over the coming few posts, I’m going to review these 5 fundamentals… and I think, in our day, we need to add one more doctrine to the list. I hope you have a chance to stop by again a few times this week.

I’m glad I was reared with a theological foundation. I’ve never moved from it. My faith has an anchor that has stood the test of time. Does yours? Were you taught these fundamentals? Do you still believe them?

9 thoughts on “Give me that Old Time Religion…

  1. Some thoughts from a young quasi-post-modern-evangelical-but-ecumenical-leaning-trouble-maker:

    5. The literal return of Christ:
    Yep. New Heaven. New Earth. Resurrection of the dead. Defeat of Evil. Good (end) times.

    4. The literal resurrection of Christ from the dead:
    Well yeah! Matter matters! The incarnation is stunted if it only applies to crucifixion and not resurrection.

    3. The substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death:
    I think this should definitely be included as a non-negotiable, but not to the exclusion of other communications of the mystery of our atonement. Bill, can you point me to earlier posts or write a new one about why this particular atonement theory is so central for evangelicals and not the others? I think of Christus Victor, for example, which was big among the patristics, but seems to be all but lost now.

    I just don’t get the emphasis on substitutionary over and above the others. But I’m willing to listen.

    2. The deity of Christ and His virgin birth:
    Hey, don’t forget the Trinity, which is theologically necessary for the Incarnation to make sense. They reciprocally support one another as mysteries (in the proper, theological sense). Plus, the Trinity is just so COOL!

    1. The inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible:
    Okay, so this one I have always chosen to affirm, but I have trouble with how it gets played out amongst evangelicals and fundies. When I affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, I’m saying that I believe it is wholly and thoroughly True. But the question that plagues my philosophical mind is “How is the Bible True?” I really believe these affirmations about that book are true, but sort of fuzzily. I’m not exactly sure what I mean when I say that the Bible is inspire and inerrant.

    Contextless proof-texting, thoughtless literalism, and legalistic rule-making all are going to result in hermeneutic problems that make the Bible seem absurd, useless, and even evil. I’m not down with that.

    I’m interested in narrativity as a model for truth-telling which is richer than mindless literalism, if less systematically precise. But that, of course, implies that I think of the Bible as full of myths (i.e. not true). Which is not at all what I mean. Ugh…it gets complicated at this point, so maybe I’ll just let that lay there….fuzzily.

    • Hey, I love young quasi-post-modern-evangelical-but-ecumenical-leaning-trouble-makers… so thanks for the comment.

      1) you tipped my hand… because the one “fundamental” I would add for our day and age is indeed the TRINITY, a non-negotiable that’s been negotiated into oblivion, unfortunately.

      3) (why be linear)… “Proof texting” has become an easy accusation to make whenever anyone cites Scripture for anything we don’t like. There is a legitimate way to compare Scripture w/Scripture (what has been called “the analogy of Scripture” in times past). If all Scripture comes from the mind of God, we can expect it to cohere, and we can cite Scriptures to make our points.

      delta) Various theories of the atonement, including Christus Victor, all contain some truth. What the fundamentals attempt to define is a sine qua non… without substitionary atonement, we have no salvation and no Christianity.

      first) Scripture is inerrant and inspired and true in such a way that it becomes our authority for truth.


  2. Thankyou for all you’ve done to teach these truths to us through the years….actually, I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m looking forward to the future posts.

  3. Yeah for fundamentalism! Never quite understood why the name has gotten such bad hits until you put it into words – Thanks!!

    I’m a fundamentalist and an evangelicalist too! I love the picture of five fences with a yard in the middle, all within the boundaries necessary for salvation and growth. Great pix, Dr. G! I also agree with the idea the Trinity has been negotiated into oblivion – especially the Holy Spirit because we just can’t seem to agree on Who He is and what He does and how He does it. Oh silly mankind!!

    Can’t wait to read the rest of the story…..!

  4. Bill…

    This is GREAT material. Keep it coming.

    I like the emphasis on “literal” (in two of the five points, above), because the approach to the Bible should be based on the normal and plain reading of the Scripture in its historical context, i.e., “dreams and visions can literally be dreams and visions with literal references.”

    As regards the substitutionary atonement, you will remember that Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” — i.e., he was the second Adam. In 1 Cor 15:45 (and Rom 5), Paul relates that we are born under the first Adam (which is why we are in spiritual death or separation from God). You must, therefore, be “born again” under the second Adam. The only way that you can be “born again” is to accept the righteousness of Jesus Christ, who took your sins in his own body on the cross. You believe this, and God will account this to you as complete righteousness.

    Look at it this way. If there was NO substitutionary atonement — e.g., Jesus strictly died on the Christ as a gesture of piety — then we could not be removed from the spiritual death and condemnation (we inherit) from the first Adam. We are stuck. It is only through the removal of this bondage under the first Adam that we are “born again” in the second Adam, who is the substitute. If you do not believe that your sins were removed by Christ (substitutionary atonement), then you you will not be able to appropriate/receive the righteousness of Christ that comes by faith. Thus the emphasis in the “fundamental principle” of the substitutionary atonement.


    • I suppose my concern with the emphasis on substitutionary atonement as THE sin qua non of atonement is not so much the one you state above (if not substitutionary atonement, then merely an act of piety or non-violence) but rather the de facto exclusion of other ways of making sense of atonement with different emphases.

      What do I mean? The account you express (and Bill alludes to in his reply to my first comment) is primarily concerned with how the atoning act (crucifixion and resurrection together) is related to me/us. But in an atonement theory like the Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) account, you have a cosmological narrative of the atoning act, in which salvation is not just about me getting into Heaven, but that is about the Kingship of Christ over the whole of creation and its redemption thereunder.

      Now, are these mutually exclusive or even contradictory accounts? Oh, certainly not! Exactly the opposite; I find they nest together and interlock in a beautiful way. But, I will venture, overemphasizing substitutionary atonement belies an important tendency among evangelicals/fundamentalists: reductionism. The Christus Victor account contains the substitutionary atonement of human being, but it also includes God’s charitable comportment towards the whole of creation. “For God so loved the world…”

      So, though I think that substitutionary atonement is probably the irreducible center of atonement theory, it finds its meaning and possibility in a rich and complex milieu of cosmological atonement and redemption. If Christ isn’t the King, why would he be such a potent substitute for us?

      I’ll hold off until Bill writes on atonement per se before I lay out how I’d like to see us discuss the invariants of sin and redemption. Here’s a hint: its going to involve that Lonergan guy I talk about sometimes.

      • Thanks for the head’s up on atonement day!

        I love Christus Victor as a theory of the atonement. The reason that substitutionary atonement became central to fundamentalists was that it was attacked by liberalism. A weak view of sin + a tilt toward universalism = a denial of substitutionary atonement. The emphasis is HISTORICALLY NECESSARY as a corrective to liberalism of the early 1900’s. It remains equally necessary today as a corrective to emergent non-theology, pluralism, and all the other -isms that would deny sin, the fall, consequent condemnation, and the need of a Savior/salvation FROM SIN.

        The narrative is equally as grand either way, wouldn’t you agree?

  5. Jonathan…

    There is no doubt that Christ’s death literally had cosmic ramifications, i.e., there are numerous instances in the epistles about the “cleansing” of the heavens for example. What throws us off is the priority of the cross as the substitute for all fallen mankind. That was the priority. The cosmic results or other nuances of the same are secondary. In other words, the purpose of the sacrifice of Christ was to redeem mankind. I hope that helps.


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