Roger Olsen on Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Stephen)

In an insightful blog post, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger E. Olsen has pointed to an intriguing and yet disconcerting shift in the definition of evangelicalism.  Whereas Fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Dallas Theological Seminary would have at one time held themselves at a distance from neo-evangelicalism, by the 1980s they were claiming that title for themselves:

The general attitude of most post-fundamentalist evangelicals throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s was “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (a motto touted by the National Association of Evangelicals).

Then something changed.  I experienced it first hand.  While I was in seminary Harold Lindsell’s horrible book The Battle for the Bible fell like a bombshell on American evangelicalism.  The editor of Christianity Today declared quite unequivocally that a person could not be authentically evangelical while rejecting biblical inerrancy (as he defined it).  He named names and implied that evangelical institutions should purge themselves of non-inerrantists.

My seminary never had a doctrinal statement that included inerrancy.  Neither did or does the National Association of Evangelicals.  We were satisfied with “inspiration” and “authority.”  But Lindsell scared the grassroots of evangelicals and opened the door to an influx of fundamentalists who now wanted to be called “evangelical.”  (Sometime during the 1980s Jerry Falwell, among other self-proclaimed fundamentalists, began to call himself an evangelical and somehow managed to get the media to regard his as a leading spokesman for evangelicals.)

It seems to me that PERHAPS what held the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist evangelical movement together were two powerful forces: the NAE (founded in 1942 to be inclusive of many different “styles” of being evangelical) and the huge organizational influence of Billy Graham (who was disliked by fundamentalists for his inclusiveness).  Now, both are waning in influence.  How many contemporary evangelicals listen to the NAE?  Many know little about Billy Graham and his influence is minimal (although he is still considered an icon).

In the absence of any central, unifying force(s) evangelicalism is simply fragmenting.

I can vividly remember a faculty member at a Gordon College faculty forum remarking that the Fundamentalist/neo-evangelical battle is over because the Fundamentalists lost and, for the most part, disappeared.  What Roger Olsen has put his finger on, though, is that this is not in fact the case.  Instead, the majority of American Fundamentalists stealthily migrated into what had been the neo-evangelical coalition (with the shift from Billy Graham to Franklin Graham serving as an illustration of this change in belief and tone), using the same name but taking more extreme positions on issues like dispensationalism, abortion, and biblical inerrancy than had the neo-evangelicals of the 50s.

At the same time, the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention led to a situation in which one had to be a Calvinist and a biblical inerrantist to avoid suspicion within that denomination.  Soon after this, Southern Baptists became perhaps the dominant voice within evangelicalism, its center having shifted from places like Chicago and Minneapolis to places like Louisville and Orange County, in large part via the political influence of Colorado Springs.  With no “central, unifying force,” as Olsen calls it, the era of a sane evangelical center seems to have passed.

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Comments

  • James  On September 4, 2010 at 9:58 am

    “Instead, the majority of American Fundamentalists stealthily migrated into what had been the neo-evangelical coalition (with the shift from Billy Graham to Franklin Graham serving as an illustration of this change in belief and tone)”

    Excellent, excellent. I’d love someday to see a study of Billy v. Franklin Graham.

    • Stephen  On September 5, 2010 at 4:39 pm

      Well, I just happened to find a witty take on it here: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/3234/franklin_graham_forgets_that_%22god_has_no_grandchildren%22/

      Paradoxically, Franklin Graham’s family provides powerful evidence of the importance of conversion, even within evangelicalism. Very early in his career, Billy Graham (Franklin’s more famous father) made a decision to break with the starchy, separatist fundamentalism of his own childhood in favor of a broader, more capacious evangelicalism. The key to understanding Franklin Graham is to recognize that Billy Graham’s son made precisely the opposite conversion: Having been born into an evangelical household, Franklin elected to become a fundamentalist.

      God has no grandchildren.

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