My spiritual pilgrimage offers one microcosm of American evangelicalism’s basic story arc: from mainline pietism through fundamentalism to both neo-evangelicalism and confessional Protestantism. I was born into mainline pietism as a Methodist in rural Ohio. But when the denomination began sending pastors to our congregation who did not believe and preach the Bible, we shifted into the fundamentalist Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. There I was taught “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible” to the extent, as a teenage Bible quizzer, of memorizing thirteen entire books of the Bible—including some big ones like Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians.
My college was quasi-fundamentalist, yet it began to broaden my evangelical horizons. As a seminary student in Grand Rapids, I encountered Reformed theology. Although I initially remained in baptistic churches, I began to explore more liturgical traditions. After doing PhD work at one pan-evangelical institution, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I accepted a teaching position at another, Wheaton College, in which context I was tempted by Anglicanism but ended up Presbyterian. For the people I came from, Wheaton is both suspect and elite—controversial for its approach to the sciences, its association with Billy Graham, and its aspiration to engage the wider world with a big evangelical tent.
This pilgrimage has compressed the so-called long twentieth century into a middle-aged theologian’s life. So, I have long been motivated to study the tangled historical web that is American fundamentalism and evangelicalism via, for instance, multivolume syllabi obtained from the heyday of Grace Theological Seminary as well as a PhD seminar taught by John Woodbridge, who was a fountain of insider anecdotes.
Although my assigned question for this essay is theological—Do “fundamentals” have a necessary place in the future of evangelical theology, assuming that “evangelical” theology has a future?—I cannot fulfill this assignment as if the question lacks a history. Despite its author’s lack of technical expertise, each section of this essay will comment on evangelical history’s theological morals. On one hand, we will find necessary achievements of early fundamentalism that evangelical theology cannot and should not disown. Yet, on the other hand, we will face profound failures of subsequent fundamentalism, which evangelical theology also cannot disown but must overcome.
This theological question of fundamental doctrines confronts us in a challenging context. Today, “fundamentalist” is a term of derision; as Alvin Plantinga colorfully analyzes, it functionally means “any stupid [expletive] . . . to the right” of the speaker. Even in scholarly circles, “fundamentalism” no longer designates a specific Protestant movement but rather labels a subset of conservative adherents—in whatever religious tribe—who believe in the literal truth of their sacred texts enough to be a societal menace.
In recent years, pollsters and pundits essentially conflated “evangelicalism” with this type of fundamentalism, and many “evangelicals” cooperated with politicizing both terms. The ensuing variety of supposed evangelical beliefs hardly increases confidence in the concept of fundamental doctrines. Of course, these are generalizations that apply particularly to the American context, whereas evangelical theology is a complex global phenomenon (and, for that matter, historians newly recognize the reality of Black and British fundamentalists that complicates earlier narratives). It will be difficult but important not to overreact theologically, one way or the other, to the bad press.
For Protestants to answer this question about fundamental doctrines theologically requires discerning biblical principles, but also developing historical perspective and deploying contemporary prudence. As we shall see, biblical principles require evangelical theology to embrace the concept and identify the content of fundamental doctrines. As we do so, historical perspective and contemporary prudence are necessary to prevent the American cultural context from distorting that evangelical task. Scripture must set the “fundamental” parameters. By definition, though, it cannot speak directly into the vastly different milieu of divided churches twenty centuries later. Accordingly, the relevant biblical principles involve not only the form and content of (1) creedal confession, but also commitments to (2) ecumenical endeavor, (3) theological triage, and (4) lawful love as we identify (5) evangelical essentials.
The biblical foundation for embracing the concept and identifying the content of fundamental doctrines is creedal confession, reflected in both precept and example. We believe and therefore we speak (2 Cor. 4:13; cf. Ps. 116:10). Whoever ultimately denies Christ before human tribunals (whether literal or metaphorical) will find that Christ denies being united with them, but whoever confesses Christ will be guided by the Holy Spirit and vindicated at the final judgment (e.g., Matt. 10:32–33). This act of confession is deeply personal but also profoundly communal, originating in baptism. The primitive Christian confession of “Jesus is Lord” is enabled by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3) yet is publicly made with words that depend on churchly evangelism (Rom. 10:9–21). Jesus Christ is the foundation on which the church is built into a holy temple (1 Cor. 3:10–17), and the gospel’s matters of first importance center on his death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The importance of these confessional precepts is evident in numerous examples of warnings against false teachers. These warnings consistently identify heresy by its contradiction of sound teaching about the person and work of Christ.
Creedal confession involves personal participation in Christian worship, which enacts a public witness. “I believe” the gospel proclaimed by the church, in which I join the praise of the Triune God who has redeemed us. Coming to participate in the church’s public witness begins in baptism. Between that initial confession and the church’s eschatological vocation of declaring God’s glory (e.g., Ps. 96:3), we regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper, making visible the foundational unity we share by virtue of Christ’s saving death. The Lord’s Table is “fenced,” but not in terms of human worthiness outside of union with Christ. The table is “open” to all who have joined in the baptismal confession and whose penitent participation joins in proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:17–34).
Speaking of creedal confession may seem awkward or redundant, but in two ways it fosters conceptual clarity that encourages ecumenical endeavor. First, fundamental doctrines orient personal faith toward communal worship. While the adjective “creedal” emerges from credo—a personal act—the noun “confession” denotes public acknowledgment of these life-defining beliefs. This movement from personal faith to public confession places the identification of fundamental doctrines in a positive context: Christian worship reminds the church that these doctrines are not just a deposit to safeguard but ultimately a treasure to share.
Second, fundamental doctrines orient the church toward oneness in Christ. The plurality of Protestant confessions has its place this side of heaven. These confessions, however, particularize the historic creeds, which come as close as possible to being truly “ecumenical”—expressing what, in the famous words of Vincent of Lérins (d. 450), has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all.” If we would obediently “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” then our confessional acts need the regular creedal reminder that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3–6).
The initial fundamentalists were ecumenical in this sense—defending the core doctrines without which, they recognized, Christian faith would no longer be the same. They joined this project from a variety of backgrounds—even transatlantic locations—and denominational affiliations. They offered their defenses in a relatively calm, deliberate fashion. Of course, they undertook some polemics, but their arguments were rarely ad hominem and they typically engaged the best rather than the worst opposition. The doctrines they defended were at the heart of the ecumenical creeds and their Protestant identity: the full divinity, incarnation, virgin birth, and miracles of Christ; his atoning death and bodily resurrection; and the trustworthy authority of the Scriptures that taught them.
The act of confession and the pursuit of unity entail theological triage: identifying different levels of biblical doctrines to communicate and defend. Matters of first importance claim that operational status only when other matters are treated as secondary. Ephesians roots the unity of the Spirit in maintaining a bond of peace that emerges from the Trinitarian salvation we share. Often, New Testament exhortations to be “of the same mind” (e.g., Phil. 2:1–4) do not clarify the correct content to believe but challenge us to pursue Christ-likeness by loving others, even our opponents (e.g., Phil. 4:1–3).
Recent discussions of theological triage typically recognize three levels. In Theology and the Mirror of Scripture, Kevin Vanhoozer and I identify these levels with as much biblical texture as possible.
(1) Gospel-level disagreements put heresy at stake. Division is regrettably necessary at this level, even if scholars and pastors may be called to maintain discerning dialogue with opponents. As noted above, in Scripture such disagreements consistently focus on the person and work of Christ although, as noted below, they incorporate ethics in a particular way.
(2) Then ministry-level disagreements call for maintaining fellowship, despite differences that may require separate practices of Christian mission. The disagreement of Paul and Barnabas about whether to include John Mark on their missionary journey is a case in point (Acts 15:36–41). Their ministries could not be paralyzed by waiting to find agreement, but their walking apart did not entail any breach of eucharistic, evangelical communion.
(3) In congregation- and person-level disagreements, it should often be possible to maintain collaboration and fellowship by adopting Christlike forbearance. Such disagreements allow for mutual admonition, while leaving each person accountable to the Lord for what they approve (Rom. 14:1–15:7; 15:14). In such cases, institutional separation or refusal of fellowship would diminish the church’s public witness regarding the love that should distinguish Christ-followers (John 13:34–35).
Of course, the rub lies in distinguishing between the second and third levels, as well as discerning how they apply to doctrinal disagreements between Protestant Christians. The church’s history of postbiblical division makes it unlikely that the Bible could specify exactly which doctrines land at what level for modern institutions. New Testament epistles were wrestling to articulate christological orthodoxy as it applied to legions of practical concerns, not to address how views of baptism or the Lord’s return should affect thresholds for communion and collaboration. While this biblical framework therefore has limits, with the second and third levels focusing on divergent practices, it remains pertinent because doctrines and practices are profoundly interwoven. Disagreement about baptism may be more immediately and obviously “practical” than disagreement about the Lord’s return, but both deploy theological beliefs—as did the disagreements between Paul and Barnabas or the first-century adiaphora, the “disputable matters” of Romans 14.
To state the obvious, twentieth-century fundamentalism failed to remain an ecumenical endeavor focused on confronting heretical departures from the biblical gospel. At worst, it degenerated into paranoid and pugnacious cults of celebrity. At best, however, it retained a crucial basis for its own reform—the Bible’s foundational authority—while its institutional retrenchment enabled some ongoing evangelical collaboration. To give credit where credit is due, the fundamentalists taught me the Bible, which repeatedly celebrates Christian unity and calls for Christlike love to characterize his disciples. In so doing, fundamentalism fostered its own critique. An instructive example of first- and second-level doctrinal confusion would be its frequent identification of a pretribulation rapture with biblical orthodoxy, associating amillennialism with nonliteral interpretation and social-gospel optimism. Admittedly, it should be no more problematic for a dispensationalist seminary to place an eschatological view within its doctrinal statement than for a confessionally covenantal seminary to do so. But many fundamentalists went farther than that. An instructive example of second- and third-level confusion would be the lukewarm or even hostile American engagement with the Lausanne Covenant of 1974. Whatever the exact assessment of its call for integral mission, Lausanne’s global insights did not merit dismissal as a social gospel. Such reactions reflected and reinforced American fundamentalist myopia.
Thus the biblical principles undergirding an account of fundamental doctrines would be incomplete without another vital element: lawful love. In 1 John, the false teachers are not simply heralding christological heresy but also hindering Christian love. The Bible confronts both temptations as fundamental errors. Perhaps, actually, these errors are connected. Those who sow churchly division or stifle Christian affections may not grasp the extent of the mercy that God has shown them in Christ’s work. Lest “love” become a trite cipher for tolerance, however, the New Testament underscores its harmony with God’s law (e.g., Rom. 13:8–10). Speaking of the church’s “peace and unity” without its “purity” would mean minimalist absence of conflict—not the manifold oneness of biblical shalom.
In principle, the church’s peace, unity, and purity involve creaturely participation in and analogical reflection of God’s love and truth, which coinhere. In practice within our fallen world, of course, we encounter apparent tensions between these values. But we should neither assume that pursuing the church’s purity always excludes forbearing love nor attempt to maintain peace and unity apart from purity. This side of heaven, to be sure, not every debate about God’s law jeopardizes churchly purity enough to authorize division—as we can see from disagreements over the Torah’s ongoing application in the adiaphora of Romans 14. But divisions can manifest divine approval and disapproval (1 Cor. 11:19). Jude (see especially v. 4) apparently provides a case in which ethical deviation—promotion of sexual license—constitutes false teaching that undermines christological orthodoxy, functionally denying Jesus’s Lordship. The New Testament’s gospel-level boundary therefore concerns not only Christ’s person and work but also his ethical authority. It is possible to hinder Christian love or herald immoral living so severely as to become heretically incompatible with the confession that Jesus is Lord. Contemporary suggestions for grounding church unity in the affirmation of Nicene orthodoxy while ignoring disagreements over human sexuality may be naive about the degree to which these are mutually implicated. The church’s genuine peace and unity are interrelated with its purity.
Just so, however, fundamentalism and evangelicalism must grapple with their history of pugnacious Americans, whose injuries to the church’s peace and unity have not simply overrated its purity but have seriously harmed its genuine pursuit. As fundamentalists suffered serial defeats in mainline denominations during the early twentieth century, they retrenched with institutions that became relatively isolated, partly by design, from wider culture. This isolation reflected and intensified a sense of embattlement. In that context, unfortunately, debates about “secondary separation” from other believers who were not strict enough about interaction with liberals proliferated injuries from friendly fire. The ecumenical impulse of defending fundamental doctrines gave way to denying fellowship over tertiary matters. Worse still, American fundamentalists and many evangelical heirs became characterized by both rabid anti-Communism and (at best) indifference to racism, which moved them beyond the confusion of tertiary and fundamental doctrines. With due allowance for their complex circumstances, hindsight highlights that they frequently conflated secular political desires with fundamental doctrines. Hence, they failed to uphold, in practice if not in principle, the Bible’s fundamental teaching about the equal dignity of all God’s image-bearers and the spiritual oneness of Christ’s body. Loss of proportion about Communism exacerbated a lack of perspective about racism. This lack of Christian love did fundamental violence to God’s law and gospel witness, as Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism confronted long ago.
While too often complicit, evangelical leaders have also tried to confront such error—yet with mixed results. Donald Dayton was probably right to highlight social class as a neglected factor in mainstream evangelical histories. But championing grassroots pietism in contrast with Reformed elites may be a double-edged sword. Granting the elites’ overrated competence and influence, we might sympathize with Richard Mouw’s plea for “consulting the faithful.” But, as David Wells charged, popular evangelicalism often has “no place for truth.” Instead a syncretistic set of fundamental doctrines may be dominant—or just another “cultural toolkit” altogether (as Michael Emerson and Christian Smith documented with respect to race). American evangelicalism has made a grand attempt to foster “the priesthood of all believers” but without sufficient catechesis to fulfill it.
In the ensuing reflections about the evangelical future, I do not speak for everyone thus labeled or to everyone in defense of retaining the label. I attempt to reason with Protestant brothers and sisters about the biblical necessity of “confessional” Christianity and the related aspirations of properly “evangelical” theology by whatever name. Confessional Protestants should naturally recognize the biblical need for renewed catechesis. We should recognize, however, that biblical catechesis seeks not only to impart gospel doctrine but also to inculcate Christlike love. Thus, given the current state of our churches, we should acknowledge the need to learn from the critiques of nonconfessional pietists regarding our lack of conformity to biblical orthopraxy.
“Evangelical” is a label with a polyvalent history and a perplexing future. New factors have complicated our map drawing. The conservative Southern Baptist resurgence, institutions such as the Evangelical Theological Society, movements such as Christian schooling, and political pollsters’ data sets have added swaths of Christians to the ranks of so-called evangelicals who were previously labeled otherwise. Increasing evangelical overlap with forms of “Pentecostal” Christianity, in America and abroad, has also changed the landscape. Whatever the changing fortunes of the evangelical label, though, the preceding theological framework suggests that we cannot do without the reality it stands for. Even confessional Protestants with a primary identity in a particular tradition should feel a secondary impetus from creedal confession to pursue ecumenical endeavor and therefore to practice theological triage.
If such evangelical theology would both honor and improve its fundamentalist heritage, then it must maintain fundamental doctrines while manifesting its integral bond with lawful love. Thus the orthopraxy of the book of James confronts key failures of second-generation fundamentalism and calls contemporary evangelicals to fruitfulness in Christian love alongside our faithfulness to confessional orthodoxy.
First, unbiblical “fundamentalism” has failed to “consider it pure joy” when facing possible trials (James 1:2–4). Without lionizing persecution or placing cultural marginalization on the same level as physical martyrdom, it is vital to acknowledge the biblical expectation of suffering for the sake of mature Christian faith—whereas we have been tempted instead to confuse the blessings of American freedom with fundamental doctrine.
Second, unbiblical “fundamentalism” has failed to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Without minimizing God’s call to champion truth, it is vital to avoid shooting first and asking questions later—which became our characteristic posture even before the age of social media.
Third, unbiblical “fundamentalism” has failed to oppose favoritism and discrimination (James 2:1–13). Without faddishly criticizing our forebears, it is vital to address this sinful history. Our culture of celebrity preachers is not an invention of the internet. Even honorable leaders like Billy Graham have acknowledged mistakes in navigating the halls of power. And we have a shameful tendency toward both indifference about social injustice and even racial discrimination itself. As James confronts the church, unbiblical fundamentalists may simultaneously and ironically suffer class discrimination while perpetuating other forms of favoritism.
Fourth, unbiblical “fundamentalism” has failed to accomplish the good works of communal care that are consistent with biblical faith (James 2:14–26). Without embracing a “woke” gospel, it is vital to align our priorities with the biblical prophets (including James 5:1–6) and our mission with Jesus’s proclamation of God’s kingdom.
Fifth, unbiblical “fundamentalism” has failed to avoid the devilish “wisdom” that stokes churchly division (James 3–4). Without ignoring the need for doctrinal vigilance (e.g., Acts 20:28–31), it is vital to attain the humility that can tame our tongues. All too frequently, we praise God while attacking God’s image-bearers. Our leaders often use bully pulpits to enhance their churchly influence and worldly status. Failing truly to acknowledge God as lawgiver and judge, we thus violate the ninth commandment with slander left and right.
To be sure, the contemporary scene contains unbiblical “evangelicalism” that is so desperate to disown fundamentalism, it risks denying fundamental doctrine. Here, James gives no quarter in his critique of double-minded departures from faith (1:2–8), his commitment to truth given God’s immutable character (1:17–18), his celebration of God’s liberating law (1:22–25; 2:8–13), and his call for righteousness in light of divine judgment (e.g., 4:11–12). Orthopraxy and orthodoxy coinhere.
The future of evangelical theology certainly depends on embracing fundamental doctrines, rooted in creedal confession as a positive aspect of the Christian life and the church’s worship. From this impetus, baptized members of Christ’s body should pursue ecumenical endeavors and practice theological triage as we regularly proclaim our gospel unity in partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Alongside such evangelical orthodoxy, we must renew our commitment to the biblical orthopraxy of lawful love. Faithful testimony to the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) depends on it.
Daniel J. Treier (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, Illinois.
2. E.g., in Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston, eds., The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991).
3. Richard J. Mouw, Consulting the Faithful (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
4. David Wells, No Place for Truth: or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
5. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
6. For my definitional approach, see the aforementioned book with Kevin Vanhoozer, as well as my Introducing Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).