Save OBU: Southern Baptists and the Fundamentalist Crisis

The Save OBU series Understanding Fundamentalism continues—today I examine the book series The Fundamentals (from which the term “fundamentalism” was coined in 1920) and the Southern Baptists’ response to the growing dissension within their convention.  As usual, here is an excerpt.

When discussing fundamentalism, much is often made of the “Five Fundamentals”—though which five doctrines actually counted as essential depended upon which group issued them.  The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1910 listed the first declaration of five essential doctrines—with no use of the word “fundamental,” referring to them as “essentials” [1].  Further, the doctrines were not binding to any member of the Presbyterian Church (in Baptist terminology, a creed); rather they were a general description of what Presbyterians at the time believed (in Baptist terminology, a confession).  Indeed, conservative Christians largely agreed with the five essentials (even despite the differences in each version), but their commitment to fundamentalism was by no means uniform.

It is more instructive to look at a series of twelve volumes published from 1910 to 1915 titled The Fundamentals, from which the term “fundamentalism” was coined in 1920. The series was designed as a defense of conservative Christianity and true science (as opposed to the false science of the Darwinists).  In an interesting historical aside, some of the authors such as George Frederick Wright and Scotsman James Orr allowed that certain elements of evolutionary theory were consistent with biblical revelation, so long as one understood that God was the source of all life [2].  Another contributor to the volumes, B. B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary—itself a source of fundamentalist theology and a battleground for the Presbyterian church after Warfield’s death in 1921—, quietly believed that a form of theistic evolution and Christianity were compatible.  Each of these writers tapped into the widespread view among conservative evangelicals that the days of creation in Genesis were not meant to be literal, twenty-four hour days.  These men held to the long-established evangelical belief that science and religion were but two sides of the same coin—each a component of God’s revelation to humankind.

Furthermore, notable Southern Baptist contributor to The Fundamentals J. J. Reeves—a professor at Southwestern Seminary—found in contemporary biblical criticism “a developing revelation” in “the application of the historical method” even as he attacked modernist scholars for undermining the authority of the Bible by starting from a perspective that did not preserve Christianity “in all its essential features” [3].  E. Y. Mullins, Southern Seminary president and later chair of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message Committee, emphasized the experiential and practical elements of Christian life, drawing from both moderate and conservative influences in American Christianity at the time [4].  All of these perspectives, later rejected by fundamentalists, were considered well within the boundaries of conservative Christian thought before its post-war radicalization and the emergence of fundamentalism.

Also, as usual, I urge you to click over and read the whole piece.

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