January 19, 2018

Why Are Most Fundamentalists Dispensationalists? (2)

David Saxon

(Part Two — Part One appears here)

A Deeper Reason?

All of the reasons just given, however, seem to cry out for some deeper reason. Why did the heirs of the Niagara Bible Conference turn primarily to dispensationalism in the early twentieth century at a time when they were combating liberalism in the denominations and American culture? Why did the Scofield Reference Bible become so popular among these Fundamentalists? Why do dispensationalists find Fundamentalist separatism more appealing than do Reformed Christians, by-and-large?

As a Fundamentalist and a dispensationalist, answering this question is tricky for me because my commitment to each has contributed to my adherence to the other. It would be easy for me to overstate their congruence. Clearly, there is nothing in either label that necessitates that one adopt the other label, as previously noted. Nevertheless, it may be that central tendencies in both make their convergence reasonable and not unexpected.

Dispensationalism has often been accused of having a basic pessimism about contemporary culture. Premillennialism, in general, and dispensationalism, in particular, argue that Christ’s reign will be realized on this earth only during a future ideal kingdom. Believers should invest in earthly cultures with the constant mindset that the return of Christ is imminent and that this earth will experience devastating judgments during the Tribulation period. Such a perspective does not necessitate total disengagement; indeed, most dispensationalists believe they can impact their culture in various ways to the glory of God. Nevertheless, they stand in marked contrast to most Reformed Christians, Lutherans, and Catholics in their attitudes regarding cultural involvement.

When Modernism/theological liberalism began to sweep through the American denominations in the late nineteenth century, the Modernists believed they were advancing modernity. That is, they sought to wed their theological thinking with the reigning paradigms of modern culture. When Matthews, Fosdick, and other liberals slandered the conservatives, their favorite charge was that the old orthodoxy was out of touch with the times, backward- looking, and irrelevant.[1] In rejecting naturalistic evolution, materialism, pragmatism, and other philosophies that appeared to be gaining the ascendancy in the West in the early twentieth century, Fundamentalists appeared to secular and liberal observers to be opponents of modernity. Indeed, many Fundamentalists perceived themselves to be the guardians of earlier, simpler times, as is evidenced by their strong preaching against various social sins. This opposition of Fundamentalists to the perils of modernity correlated quite well with a dispensational eschatology that held little hope for the rescue of modern culture.

What is, perhaps, most surprising is that dispensational Fundamentalists joined hands for a while with nondispensational Fundamentalists in the 1920s to fight a great culture war against evolution and theological Modernism. Historian George Marsden highlights in Fundamentalism and American Culture the basic incongruity of the kind of cultural engagement carried on by the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, for instance, and the dispensationalism of most of the leaders of the WCFA.[2] Once these battles were lost, the Reformed and other nondispensational combatants went their own way, and the dispensationalists were left to ponder a more effective way of reflecting their theological commitments. Fundamentalist separatism and focus on evangelism and local church ministry thrived thereafter in a dispensational context. Graham, FTS, NEA, and New Evangelicalism When the New Evangelicalism emerged in the 1950s under the leadership of Billy Graham, Fuller Theological Seminary, and the National Association of Evangelicals, parallel trends began to become apparent. The New Evangelicals desired more tolerance and openness to varying eschatological positions and were embarrassed by what they deemed extreme dispensationalism. Second, they desired more cultural and academic impact; they eschewed the isolationism of their Fundamentalist brethren. Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) explicitly linked premillennarian “despair over the present world order” with Fundamentalist loss of “social passion.”[3] In other words, he feared that Fundamentalists were retreating into an exclusively evangelistic mindset because of their eschatological commitments and abandoning their prophetic voice relative to the great social issues of the day. Hence he offered his famous advice:

Contemporary evangelicalism needs (1) to reawaken to the relevance of its redemptive message to the global predicament; (2) to stress the great evangelical agreements in a common world front; (3) to discard elements of its message which cut the nerve of world compassion as contradictory to the inherent genius of Christianity; (4) to restudy eschatological convictions for a proper perspective which will not unnecessarily dissipate evangelical strength in controversy over secondary positions, in a day when the significance of the primary insistences is international.[4]

This quote foreshadows the gradual trek of large segments of the Evangelical world away from dispensationalism that has occurred over the intervening sixty years. During this time, Fundamentalists have been ever more marginalized in a culture sinking into secularism. Not surprisingly, then, Fundamentalists have retained or embraced the dispensationalism many Evangelicals have been jettisoning.

Speaking quite broadly, Eevangelicalism has sought to transform or, at least, to infiltrate culture, an effort far more conducive to less dispensational theologies. Social consciousness flourishes when the kingdom is viewed as having primary reference to the present. See, for instance, Russell D. Moore, The Kingdom of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), who argues for a progressive dispensational view of the kingdom and then affirms that “the church cannot address only personal ‘spiritual’ matters, but instead witnesses to the whole counsel of God and to the justice of the Kingdom, through the internal discipline of the Body and through the external witness to the state and the societal structures” (167).)) Fundamentalism has been far more discriminating in its critique of culture, separating from any aspect of modernity (such as evolution or feminism) that appears to stand in opposition to the authority of God’s Word. Such separatism flourishes when the kingdom is viewed as primarily future. Fundamentalists are not trying to build a kingdom now; hence, they need not blur lines of distinction either ethically or ecclesiastically. Again, dispensationalism is a hermeneutic that serves the Fundamentalist community admirably.

Perhaps such reasoning at least partly explains why the majority of Fundamentalists today are also dispensationalists. It also may help explain another modern trend. When young Fundamentalists follow after progressive dispensationalism, new covenant theology, or traditional Reformed theology because of the social implications of these theologies, they usually abandon Fundamentalism in the process.

It is this author’s hope that Fundamentalists will strive to explore the proper balance between cultural engagement and the specific task of world evangelism while maintaining a strong allegiance to the blessed hope of Christ’s imminent return and to the normal interpretation of Biblical prophecy while remaining committed dispensationalists.

A professor of church history, writer, and speaker, Dr. Dave Saxon has taught in Christian colleges for over twenty years. He and his wife, Jamie, have four children.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. For instance, Fosdick’s predecessor Cornelius Woelfkin scornfully wrote, “The whole world-view has changed since the Bible was written, and we cannot make the modern and the ancient world-views correspond. . . . Our conservatism threatens to become the winding sheet of death. . . . If men prefer to become octogenarian before their time and sink into religious lotus eaters and dream dreams of the past, let them at least grant to youth their heritage and permit them to see visions, new visions, and follow the Lord who goes before them” (Religion: Thirteen Sermons [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1928], 42, 50, 51). []
  2. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 128. []
  3. Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), 29. []
  4. Ibid., 57. []

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