One of the most significant phenomena of the modern church world is the increasing predominance of fundamentalism. We often see fundamentalist churches growing rapidly while those churches which hold to the truly Reformed faith are often declining or struggling to maintain an existence. Furthermore we often see many who have, been historically Reformed leave the Reformed Churches for such fundamentalistic churches. In our area many who have left the Reformed churches have so swelled the numbers of one such fundamentalistic church in particular that it now has plans for the construction of a new building capable of holding 1500 people. Also we more and more see many Reformed churches forsaking their heritage to take on a more fundamentalistic character. Does fundamentalism pose a challenge to our Protestant Reformed Churches?
Before we answer that question let us briefly outline what is meant by fundamentalism. The adjective fundamentalist is usually used to describe those who hold to the fundamental or basic truths of the scripture such as the infallibility of the scriptures, the truth of creation, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the atonement of Christ, salvation through faith in Christ alone, the resurrection of the dead, life everlasting, and the literal, personal return of Christ on the clouds of heaven. In this sense we surely would classify ourselves as fundamentalists, except that we would add to the list of fundamental truths many more truths, such as the truth of sovereign predestination, the truths of the five points of Calvinism, and the truth of the covenant. Nor would we criticize those churches that are fundamentalist churches for holding to these fundamental truths of scripture; in fact, in this regard these churches put to shame many churches who go under the name Reformed while denying these fundamental truths of scripture.
There is more to what is usually known as. fundamentalism than this, however, and it is especially to this broader conception of fundamentalism. that we wish to address ourselves in this article. We can best explain what fundamentalism is by describing some of the major characteristics of it. Most characteristic of fundamentalism is a disregard for the creeds and confessions of the church. They espouse the statement that no creeds are necessary for we have Christ and the scriptures and these are sufficient. Maintaining such creeds only brings about division in the churches, they say, and obstructs the free interpretation of the scriptures.
Related to this there is among fundamentalists a de-emphasis or even a disregard for the doctrines of scripture. The doctrines of scripture are perhaps something that belong to the theologians but they are of no significance or importance for the ordinary believer in this day to day life as a Christian. Doctrines for the most part are irrelevant. Furthermore, a persistent emphasis on doctrine only brings about division in the church that is not at all necessary. Many even make a mockery of doctrinal controversy in the church as being mere foolish wrangling.
The third characteristic of fundamentalism is the superficial way in which it interprets scripture. This is the result first of all of coming to the scriptures without a doctrinal basis or framework. The fundamentalist places great emphasis on learning isolated texts of scripture, but puts forth little if any effort to come to understand the scriptures as a whole, or even to understand one doctrine of scripture thoroughly. Often the fundamentalist takes texts completely out of the context of scripture in which they are found, in order to use such a text to support a particular notion he may have. One of the most classic examples of this kind of interpretation is the passage in Revelation 3:20, when this is interpreted as though Jesus is standing at the door of the heart of the sinner, knocking because He desires entrance. Furthermore, the fundamentalist is usually individualistic in his interpretation of scripture. That is, he cares not very much what others have said about a certain passage of scripture nor about the history of the understanding of scripture on a certain subject. The all important thing to him is, what does this text mean for me now. Related to this, he is often subjectivistic in his interpretation of scripture. More important than what the text of scripture really means and what all of the concepts mean in the text is the subjective question “what does it mean for me?” If you think this is too harsh a criticism, you need only to pick up one of the vast majority of books on the market today that are supposed to be used as study aids of scripture and you will find exactly that question over and over. The result of this method of interpretation is that there can be a host of different meanings given to a particular passage of scripture, with all of them being considered equally valid. The standard of what is right is merely what one happens to understand as the meaning of the text.
Characteristic of fundamentalism is also the great emphasis on the New Testament and the lack of emphasis on the Old Testament. The Old Testament is regarded as being, for the most part, for the nation of the Jews and no longer applicable to our present dispensation. In fundamentalist circles we therefore rarely find preaching on the Old Testament, or if there is such preaching it is reduced to a mere moral lesson or Sunday School story. There is very little understanding, if any, of the fact that the Old Testament in all of its pages also contains the gospel of Christ Jesus.
Another characteristic of fundamentalism is the lack of emphasis on or appreciation for the doctrine of the church as taught in scripture. Usually fundamentalist churches are undenominational churches because the whole question of denominations is considered unimportant. The various denominations are considered merely as different spokes of a wheel that lead to the same hub. Which church one belongs to therefore is not considered of great moment, as long as one holds to the so-called fundamental truths of scripture. The whole notion of a church institute is not considered very important anyway. Much of the life of the Christian has nothing to do with the church as an institute. Also with respect to the doctrine of the church the fundamentalist is individualistic. He is a church for the most part by himself, or perhaps with two or three more of his fellow Christians. He does not need the rest of the church as institute and does not believe that the body of Christ and all its members exists in such a church. He does not feel a responsibility or obligation to a specific church institute, nor does he feel at all that he is corporately responsible for that which is taught at such a church.
Related to this characteristic is of course the de-emphasis on the special office in the church, and also for the preaching of the Word as the central means of grace. Much more important than the authoritative preaching of the Word of God from Sabbath to Sabbath are various Bible studies and fellowships that one is a member of and which one seeks as the source of his spiritual growth.
Finally, characteristic of fundamentalism is the great emphasis on evangelism. The chief calling of every individual is to be a preacher of the gospel. There is little regard for the ordained office in the church; almost anyone can be such a preacher of the gospel. The emphasis in this evangelism is to bring about as many conversions, or so-called decisions for Christ, as possible. To be sure, we do not criticize evangelism as such; there is surely a great urgency of the church to be engaged in evangelism. However, the emphasis is often so exclusively on evangelism that there is little regard for the equally urgent necessity for the Christian to grow daily in the faith and the knowledge of the scriptures, and that this growth is accomplished through growth in understanding the doctrines of the scriptures.
Let us now contrast this fundamentalism briefly with the relevant aspects of our Reformed faith or the Reformed heritage that we possess by the grace of God. We are a confessional church. We hold to the historic creeds of the Reformed churches, the three forms of unity: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, the Belgic Confession. These creeds are diligently taught to us. The Heidelberg Catechism is preached from Sunday to Sunday in our churches, and this preaching involves centrally the exposition of the Catechism. Our children are required to learn the Heidelberg Catechism in catechism classes. Our creeds are further emphasized when from time to time they are explained in our Standard Bearer, as Prof. Decker is presently doing for us. Further, in our interpretation and understanding of scripture there is continual reference made to our confessions.
Secondly there is in our midst a great emphasis on doctrine. We have much doctrine in our preaching. Our young people study Reformed doctrine in Catechism classes. Much labor in the seminary of our churches is spent in the maintenance and development of doctrine. Our magazines and other publications place great emphasis on doctrine. There is much controversy between us and other denominations and theologians on questions of doctrine. This doctrinal controversy is engaged in not only by the theologians and ministers of our churches but also by the laymen. We insist very strongly on the great importance of maintaining sound and pure doctrine.
In the interpretation of scripture great labors are spent by our ministers in carefully exegeting the scripture. Our ministers work within a doctrinal framework whenever they come to the scriptures. By the grace of God our ministers have been taught to exegete and expound the scriptures as few if any have been taught. In our interpretation of scripture we stress the importance of understanding the scriptures as a whole and of developing a complete understanding of the doctrines of scripture. In our understanding of scripture and the doctrines of scripture we cherish very highly what we call the Reformed heritage that has been passed down to us. By that we mean that we believe that the Holy Spirit, according to the promise of Jesus Christ, leads and guides the church into all truth through history. The result of this work of the Spirit is that the church through history possesses more and more an understanding of the riches of the doctrines of scripture. And each generation benefits from the understanding of the previous generation and so we develop in our understanding of scripture. It is therefore of great importance that, when we study the doctrines of scripture, we take into account the rich heritage of the faith that is handed down to us. When we exegete scripture we have been taught to labor diligently with each of the concepts in a text; and the standard of what the true interpretation of a passage of scripture is must be found in scripture itself.
We have in our churches much Old Testament preaching. The Old Testament is considered as important as the New Testament and as truly containing the gospel of salvation. Through the heritage of the Reformed Faith delivered unto us we have an understanding of and appreciation for the unfolding and realization of God’s covenant, as this is so important in the understanding of the Old Testament.
We place a great emphasis on the doctrine of the church. We believe that the earthly and institutional manifestation of the church is of great importance for the life of the child of God. We insist that there is in history a church that is the closest manifestation of the true church here on earth and that it is the calling of the child of God to join himself with that church. To leave such a church is a very grave and serious matter. We consider it of great importance to maintain the doctrinal purity of this church, and we believe that this is the corporate responsibility of every member of the church. We consider the maintenance of doctrinal purity to be a matter of such great importance that we are willing to be excluded from many associations, even of Reformed churches, because of our insistence on doctrinal purity. We have insisted on the importance of doctrinal purity even when it often means that we stand alone as a separate and small denomination.
Furthermore, we believe that the institute church is the spiritual mother of the saints of God here on earth. The preaching of the Word is considered of central importance as the chief means of grace, and the life of the institute church stands at the very center of our lives as Christians in the world.
With respect to the question of evangelism, we consider evangelistic work to be of great importance but surely secondary to the daily spiritual nurture of the church of Christ that is already gathered. We believe that the church is not merely an aggregate of individuals but an organic whole of the body of Christ, chosen in Him from before the foundations of the world. Furthermore, we believe that the church of God according to the gracious covenant of God is gathered centrally in the line of continued generations. Therefore we consider it of primary importance that the children of the covenant are first of all instructed in the doctrines of the Word of God and nurtured in the fear and love of the Lord. For this reason we place much emphasis on catechism classes and Christian Day Schools.
In a world in which we daily come into contact with so many other Christians and with so many different churches and find ourselves often so entirely unique, we always have to evaluate the validity of the Reformed heritage. Why do we place so much emphasis on the Reformed heritage and the various things that we mentioned? Why do we maintain so steadfastly the urgency of sound doctrine in the church? Does the child of God in the world really need to be concerned so much with doctrine? Could we not better busy ourselves with more important matters than with doctrinal controversy? Perhaps even more important, do we have a real appreciation for our Reformed heritage? Do we see the urgent need of maintaining it? Are we knowledgeable about that heritage and do we love and cherish it in our hearts and souls? Can we and do we give a living testimony of the Reformed heritage in our confession and life? How must we give such a testimony in an age of diminishing knowledge of the Word of God and lack of understanding of and appreciation for the Reformed Faith? It is only when we answer questions such as these that we can properly meet the challenge of fundamentalism in our day. In our next article we shall try to answer some of these questions.