Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren't Fundamentalists.Al Truesdale, ed. Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8341-2793-7. 158 pages.

Dr. Vic Reasoner

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2012. Volume 30.
Date Posted Jan., 2013

The thesis of this book is that denominations in the Wesleyan tradition cannot adopt fundamentalism without forfeiting essential parts of what it means to be Wesleyan. However, in 1923 J. B. Chapman, then editor of the Nazarene Herald of Holiness wrote, "Of course, our sympathies are entirely with the Fundamentalists and we rejoice in their boldness for God and truth. . . . May God bless and prosper all who stand up for God and His Holy Book!" ["The Victories of the Fundamentalists," Herald of Holiness (7 Feb 1923) 2-3].

So what is fundamentalism? Islamic terrorists are labeled "fundamentalists." The stereotype of a fundamentalist is a wild-eyed fanatic with bad breath who rants, denouncing everything he does not understand.

But the term "fundamental" refers to basic, rudimentary, foundational, or cardinal principles. Any listing of primary Wesleyan doctrines could be referred to as "fundamental" Wesleyan doctrines. For example, A. M. Hills, Fundamental Christian Theology (1931) or Edwin Mouzon, Fundamentals of Methodism (1923) or Donald Haynes, On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals (2010).

Wesley wrote that the term fundamental was an ambiguous word and that there had been many warm disputes about the number of "fundamentals." Yet he referred to justification by faith as a "fundamental doctrine of the gospel." He adds the new birth as another fundamental and Christian perfection and Christlikeness as "the fundamentals of Christianity."

In their series on "Fundamental Theology," Paulist Press has a title Fidelity without Fundamentalism (2010). Therefore it is imperative that we define the term. J. Gresham Machen defined fundamentalism as "all those who definitely and polemically maintain a belief in supernatural Christianity as over against the Modernism of the present day."

The contributors of this book describe fundamentalism historically as a response to modernism and secular humanism. The term was coined in 1920 and derived from a series of booklets titled The Fundamentals. This series of booklets upheld

  • the inerrancy and verbal inspiration of Scripture
  • the Trinity
  • the virgin birth and incarnation of Christ
  • original sin
  • the atonement of Christ
  • the resurrection of Christ
  • spiritual rebirth
  • bodily resurrection and eternal salvation or damnation

These fundamentalists also attacked evolution and upheld a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation. They were hostile to modern critical attempts to force evolutionary theory onto the development of the Bible. So far I am in full agreement.

However, they are also described as holding that those with whom they disagree are not true Christians. Since tolerance is the chief, if not only virtue of our society, these fundamentalists are immediately suspect. But Wesley himself distinguished between true Christianity and nominal Christianity. The real offense of fundamentalism is not necessarily their bigotry, but their belief in absolutes. However, in fairness it must be acknowledged that some fundamentalists have made absolutes out of nonessentials. Today the conservative holiness movement is infected with a dogmatic spirit of fundamentalism.

There is an ecumenical defense of fundamental Christian orthodoxy, which was the spirit of The Fundamentals (1910-1915). But there is also a narrow, bigoted fundamentalist attitude which denounces everyone who does not agree with them on nonessentials. Dunning seems to recognize this ambiguity on pp. 63-64.

As early as 1916 J. B. Chapman, editor of the Herald of Holiness, wrestled with the term "fundamentalist." He stated that Nazarenes believed in the fundamentals and then proceeded to give his list of fundamental doctrines. However, if the question is raised whether Nazarenes are Fundamentalists, using the term as a proper noun, Chapman answered, "Yes, with reservations." While Chapman had reservations about certain Calvinistic tendencies among Fundamentalists, there was no reservation, however, concerning the inerrancy of Scripture.

In the September 1984 issue of The Fundamentalist Journal eternal security was advocated as a fundamental doctrine. But there was no such article in the original set of The Fundamentals. Thus, we are not contending for a term, but for fundamental Christian doctrine. Ironically, this happened to be the title of the first systematic theology written by a Nazarene.

According to Thomas Oord "fundamentalism" may refer to a "Christ vs. Culture" stance that emphasizes a premillennial notion that the saints will be raptured soon. Not all who contributed to the series of booklets entitled The Fundamentals, however, were premillennial. The thesis of Ernest Sandeen in The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970), is that the fundamentalist movement ought to be understood historically as a premillennial movement. Yet of the ninety articles contained in The Fundamentals only two deal specifically with the premillennial advent and both authors were considered moderate. Only about half of the American authors were premillennial. Timothy Weber has noted that the National Federation of the Fundamentalists of the Northern Baptists, organized in 1921, contained postmillennialists. Granted, the fundamentalist movement later embraced a premillennial eschatology and I would agree that the extreme form of premillennialism, known as dispensationalism, is incompatible with Wesleyan theology. I have dealt with this in my book, The Hope of the Gospel (1999).

There is also an attempt to link fundamentalism with Calvinism, but this is simply guilt by association. When Calvinism affirms Scriptural doctrine I will stand with them. Ironically, on p. 24 Cunningham says that fundamentalism has been articulated within a predominately Calvinist theological structure. But on p. 25 he says that Wesleyans are much more in line with Luther and Calvin than are fundamentalists. This much is certain, old-line Calvinism was certainly not premillennial.

Fundamentalism has also been linked to the King James only position. Originally this was a reaction by fundamentalists to the unwarranted deletion of the virgin birth in the Revised Standard Version's translation of Isaiah 7:14. More recently some extremists have taken ridiculous positions on this issue. In his defense of fundamentalism, Kevin Bauder calls this position hyper-fundamentalism. The essence of historical fundamentalism has been a defense of biblical authority, not a biblical translation.

I also recall going to hear a famous fundamentalist preacher. If you must know, it was Jack Hyles. I disagreed with most everything he said as well as the spirit in which he said it. And so again I am not contending for a label or a stereotype. I recognize it is not enough to merely accept certain propositions or to focus on an objective mental assent to truth. Fletcher argued against this in his Six Letters on the Spiritual Manifestation of the Son of God. Fletcher countered the views of Robert Sandeman and John Glas with a subjective appropriation of trust in Christ. In Six Letters, Fletcher commends an experimental knowledge of God rather than a mere intellectual assent to God. But those propositions or fundamentals are the basis of our faith.

1 John gives three marks of the new birth: there is the propositional mark regarding what we believe about Christ, there is the relational mark regarding who we love, and there is the behavioral mark that we keep the commandments of God.

Wesley declared, "My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot." He was a "man of one book." If you claim to have a better way, Wesley demanded, "Show me it is so by plain proof of Scripture." His sermons constantly appealed to the Scriptures - the law and the testimony. He described the Bible as the one, "the only standard of truth." "Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth." "'All Scripture is given by inspiration of God' (consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true)."

In an email from Thomas Oord to Andy Heer, Oord stated that he considered the Bible the primary resource among others. But he also held that the experience of a transformed life was the proof of the gospel, not logic or argumentation. And I would agree that a transformed life is the best argument for the gospel. But Oord went on to say that "the experience of transformation confirms the salvific purpose of the Bible." Here he is veering into the limited inerrancy view of Rob Staples that the Bible is only inerrant regarding matters of salvation. Oord continued, "And it addition to the other three legs of the quadrilateral illuminating and applying scriptural truth, they also play a key role in the evaluation and interpretive methods. And these roles, from most Wesleyan perspectives, levy against the belief that the Bible is inerrant in all ways."

Tradition, experience, and reason are the "three legs" which confirm scriptural authority. But Oord's conclusion that the Bible is not inerrant does not follow. Everything is not existential. There must be an absolute point of reference. Modern hermeneutics has, in some instances, placed so much emphasis on "reader-response" that they deny the Bible has anything to say to us propositionally.

Yet the contributors of this book assure me that words like "infallibility" and "inerrancy" do not represent well how we Wesleyans think about Scripture. However, in 1894 D. G. W. Ellis submitted an article to The Quarterly Review of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in which he advised ministers who reject the infallibility of God's Word to promptly resign. "Those who deny the inerrancy of the original writings of these sacred books admitted into the cannon of scripture must do so, I think, because they are not willing to believe in the supernatural."

Ellis went on to chastize T. H. Huxley, who called himself "Darwin's Bulldog," for rejecting Genesis 1. Ellis declared, "The account of the creation given in the first chapter of Genesis requires less credulity on the part of those that believe it than is necessary to the acceptance of the speculations of scientists."

It is significant that this article comes over twenty-five years before the term "fundamentalist" was coined. Ellis was defending historic Methodist doctrine, connecting plenary inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy, while rejecting evolutionary theory in the realm of science and biblical criticism.

Yet these modern "Wesleyans" claim it really does not matter if Moses wrote the Pentateuch or whether Isaiah wrote the entire book of Isaiah. Jesus Christ is the real truth of Scripture. Thus Dunning declared that although there may be minor errors in the biblical text, truth is God's saving purpose embodied in Christ (p. 66).

But if Jesus Christ believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch and that Isaiah wrote Isaiah, then the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ is under question.

There are thirteen passages in the Gospels where Jesus upholds the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (for example: Luke 16:31; Mark 10:5; John 5:46). Jesus also quoted from "both parts" of the book of Isaiah and attributed both parts of Isaiah. John 12:39-41and Mark 7:6-7 cited the first half and Luke 4:17-19 cites from the "second" Isaiah.

By the time I got to chapter 3, it appeared that the chief reason why Wesleyans cannot be fundamentalists is that fundamentalism rejects evolutionary theory. While the modern intelligent design movement is in the process of burying the remains of evolutionary theory, these philosophes are running to jump aboard the train just as it is grinding to a halt. They exemplify what Paul described in Romans 1:22.

The arguments are simplistic. They ask the question, while God certainly knew the processes of creation, what sense would it make to explain all that to people who had no scientific frame of reference in which to understand it? The answer is revelation. God is revealing truth to us that we would not otherwise know. While he accommodated his revelation to the limitations of our vocabulary and while it is quite possible that those human messengers who were used in the process of inspiration may not have fully understood the message, the truth is that what God spoke is the most accurate historical and scientific account of creation that we will ever have. The claim that the Old Testament picture of the universe is prescientific and therefore must be reinterpreted in the light of modern scientific theory makes biblical revelation inferior to modern scientific theory. Israel did not borrow this worldview from their surrounding neighbors. The distorted record of their surrounding neighbors is testimony to a universal revelation of God through nature and through inspiration that was eventually suppressed.

It is disappointing to see the contributors of this book trot out the old tired claim that the Hebrew word yom can mean an indeterminate period of time. Yom, the word for "day" can be used figuratively, but whenever it is qualified by a number, it always means a twenty-four hour period. Yom occurs 1704 times in the Old Testament and most of its uses refer to the normal cycle of daily earth time, unless the context compels otherwise.

In the Pentateuch, in 119 cases where yom is used with a numerical adjective, it always means a literal day. This is also true of 357 instances outside the Pentateuch. All 608 uses of the plural "days" are literal.

It is true that the sun was not created until the fourth day, but apparently the first three days were of the same length in anticipation of the first solar day. The phrase "evening and morning" occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament, always with reference to a 24-hour day. The fourth commandment is based on the presupposition that the six days are all 24 hour periods (see Exodus 20:11). While God is still resting, the point is that we have a Sabbath, one day in seven, which is based on his creative week.

If H. Orton Wiley claimed that the first three chapters of Genesis were poetic, then he was wrong. Milton S. Terry wrote, "Any satisfactory interpretation of Genesis must be preceded by a determination of the class of literature to which it belongs." And then he said, "every thorough Hebrew scholar knows that in all the Old Testament there is not a more simple, straightforward prose narrative than this first chapter of Genesis" [Hermeneutics (1883), 548].

While the theory of evolution has never been proven and while most Americans reject it, apparently we fundamentalists are an embarrassment to the "Wesleyan" philosophes. In their recent book The Anointed (2011) Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson, both professors at Eastern Nazarene University, joined forces with atheists to form the Darwin lobby. In so doing, they seek favor with mainstream academia and have betrayed their holiness heritage of separation from the world. See also their New York Times op-ed at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/opinion/the-evangelical-rejection-of-reason.html?_r=2&

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Oden, "The most maligned and mutilated and demeaned are believers who bear the unfair epithet of ‘fundamentalist,' like the Jews who wore the Star of David on their clothes in Nazi Germany"[Requiem, 135].

But evolution was the most damnable doctrine of the twentieth century, giving rise to both Nazism and communism. Until recently, I have never heard anyone try to make a case for the compatibility of Wesleyanism and evolution. You might as well try to convince me that God is in the process of becoming what he is not, that the Bible contains mistakes, that Adam and Eve were not historical persons, or that sexual orientation is not a spiritual issue. While these positions may describe the state of Nazarene theology, it certainly is not what Wesley taught. If that makes me a fundamentalist then I will wear the badge with honor.

It is misleading and dishonest to claim to represent Wesleyan theology and then create the kind of confusion this book fosters. Why not just be forthright and declare that this is Nazarene theology? If the subtitle of this book was "Why Nazarenes No Longer Want to be Identified as Fundamentalists," I would not have bothered to review it. But when they presume to speak for all Wesleyans, I plead with the philosophes who have hijacked the modern "Wesleyan" movement, either return to Wesley or discontinue using his name. His preaching brought revival. Your teaching is producing skepticism, uncertainty, and I fear will lead to apostasy. In his notes on Romans 10:17 Wesley said, "Faith, indeed, ordinarily cometh by hearing; even by hearing the word of God." If faith is based upon God's Word and the trustworthiness of that Word has been undermined, how then can we exercise faith for salvation? It seems to me that you are guarding the wrong door. It looks like we need a revival of Wesleyan fundamentalism.