December 18, 2017

Scholarship, Separation, and ETS (5)

Part Five: The Quandary of Fundamentalists in an Evangelical Organization

Wally Morris

[One] ♦ [Two] ♦ [Three] ♦ [Four] ♦ [Five] ♦ [Six]

Fundamentalist, Evangelical, or Both?

Are Fundamentalists also Evangelicals, or are Fundamentalists different from Evangelicals? Is membership in ETS making some type of statement of identification with Evangelicals since the name of the organization is Evangelical Theological Society? The reason I mention these questions is that I wonder if membership in ETS somehow weakens Fundamentalist identification.

Why do I say that? Because Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are both theologically identified. What distinguishes Evangelicals and Fundamentalists from Catholics, liberal and neo-orthodox groups, and the cults is theology. The distinction is more than the specific teachings concerning the gospel itself. The distinction involves the entire Word of God, not just the truths of the gospel. Our theological beliefs are the basis for who we are and how we live. Unity is a function of what unites. For example, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible and in sola scriptura. Other religious groups do not. Separation is a function of what divides. One of the major characteristics which distinguishes Evangelicals and Fundamentalists from each other is the degree or amount of ecclesiastical separation each group believes and practices. Those who are familiar with the beginning of “New Evangelicalism” know that rejection of ecclesiastical separation was the major characteristic of its founding principles.

Therefore, does membership in an organization such as ETS weaken, even if only subtly, the separatist characteristic of Fundamentalism? Does membership in ETS imply change or shift in some of the theological characteristics of Fundamentalism? I believe that the answer to these questions is “Yes”.

Fundamentalists are part of the larger Evangelical “movement” that has characterized Bible believing Christians for many centuries. But Fundamentalists are also the modern equivalent of those historic believers who refused to participate in the compromised religious systems of the past and who left those systems, i.e. separation, because application of Biblical principles required them to. Those Puritans who were also separatists would be an example. Association in theological scholarly societies implies some degree of agreement and willingness to be associated together.

Joining non-theological professional societies is different than joining theological professional societies such as the ETS. The reason is the principle of separation from unbelief. Theological association is different from other associations because of the religious and spiritual nature of the association.[1] The spiritual nature of ETS is evident in the devotionals at ETS meetings and at those times when ETS members participate in group worship.

Some believe that if Fundamentalists do not join the professional theological associations then Fundamentalists will be marginalized and unrecognized in the academic sphere. But do Fundamentalists have to join theological associations in order to achieve academic recognition or professional standing?[2] Besides, are these recognitions really that important?

The ETS struggles with these issues because many in the ETS struggle not only with understanding inerrancy but also struggle with and resist the Biblical principle of separation. Because the origin of modern Evangelicalism is based on rejecting separation, the ETS probably will not apply separation to violations of its Doctrinal Basis unless the violation is so egregious as to leave them without any other option. The more conservative Evangelicals do accept some aspects of Biblical separation, but the vast majority of Evangelicals do not. And therein is the problem of Fundamentalists and the ETS. Fundamentalists believe in separation, most Evangelicals do not.[3] To belong to a Society in which the majority of its members do not accept separation creates a tension which those Fundamentalists who belong to ETS will have to resolve eventually, either by leaving the ETS or by changing their own beliefs about separation. Fundamentalist members of ETS cannot belong to ETS and restrict themselves to their specific academic interests because eventually controversial theological issues will not allow them to do so. Issues of great importance such as open theism and inerrancy force Fundamentalists to involve themselves in their resolution. To “sit on the sidelines” while others fight the theological battles for the integrity of the ETS seems to deny the definition of Fundamentalist.

Although study and research into Biblical inerrancy is always helpful, I find it amazing and sad that Evangelicals are still debating inerrancy. Perhaps one reason for this continuing debate among Evangelicals is the vague meaning of the word “Evangelical”. Because the meaning is so broad, then logically the ETS will have a broad range of beliefs among its members. ETS will spend years debating exactly what inerrancy is and isn’t. (For example, see the March 2014 issue of JETS.) From this debate will come some valuable articles and books on the topic, but during this time I wonder what the Fundamentalists who belong to ETS will be doing. Will they be insisting that those who deny the historicity of parts of the Bible be subjected to the ETS process of discipline and removal from membership? Or will the Fundamentalists wait for someone else to take action or even tolerate such views in ETS in the name of scholarship? Who decides what or who is “scholarly”? How concerned should Fundamentalists be about what others think about our scholarship, particularly to those who do not believe the Bible?

Fundamentalists who belong to ETS are attracted by the personal interaction among well-known scholarly believers, listening to and giving specialized lectures, the “networking” among professors, and, of course, the discounted books. These are a powerful attraction and motivation. Additionally, the desire to participate in the “scholarly conversation” and not appear to be the anti-intellectual Fundamentalists which so many in Evangelicalism perceive Fundamentalists to be is part of the background influence[4] (see Al Mohler’s speech to the ETS concerning inerrancy, Classic Inerrancy is Necessary for Evangelical Integrity, where he refers to the “intellectual disaster and separationism of Fundamentalism”).[5]

Just as the issue of music will not go away, the issue of separation will not go away. As much as some Fundamentalists wish to establish warmer relationships with conservative Evangelicals, doing so raises questions which must be asked and answered. Do Fundamentalists believe that the deviant theological positions which ETS tolerates are simply a matter of theological interpretation or opinion, or do these deviant theological positions go to the heart of inerrancy? If denying the historicity of certain passages in the Bible is legitimate theological opinion, do Fundamentalists who belong to ETS agree with allowing these opinions as legitimate positions for inerrantists? If so, then are those who say they are Fundamentalists really Fundamentalists? If they do not believe these positions are legitimate, then why do they belong to an organization which tolerates it, and why do they not attempt to use the constitution and by-laws of the ETS to confront these errant beliefs? Surely the Fundamentalists in the ETS have as much right to raise issues as any other member of the ETS.

Pastor Morris is pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Huntington, IN and can be reached at ">. The church blogsite is He has also published A Time To Die: A Biblical Look At End-Of-Life Issues by Ambassador International.

  1. Darrell Bock admits that ETS is partly a spiritual association: “ETS is a spiritual and academic fellowship of debate, dialogue, growth and study.” Purpose-Directed Theology, 112 (See footnote 4 in article two, under the History and Purpose of ETS). []
  2. One longtime member of the ETS who is now semi-retired told me that he does not recommend that Fundamentalists join the ETS because the ETS is exhibiting what he calls the “2nd Law Of Ecclesiastical Thermodynamics” where the ETS is drifting away from inerrancy. []
  3. Many conservative Evangelicals will acknowledge separation from “worldliness”, but resist ecclesiastical separation and separation from persistently disobedient believers. []
  4. For a helpful discussion of the temptation to want to become part of a “group”, see Andrew Cameron’s chapter “Inner Circles and True Inclusion” in The Trials Of Theology (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2010): 75-93. []
  5. For the record, I grew up in the Southern Baptist Convention and left the SBC in the late 70s, frustrated that pastors whom I respected refused to acknowledge any problems with liberal theology infecting any SBC institution. Although I appreciate the conservative resurgence in the SBC and admire the tenacity and hard work which many have done, the Biblical principle of separation from unbelief was not followed (2 Cor 6:14-18). Instead, over a period of more than 20 years, the conservatives slowly regained control of the major SBC institutions, by influencing many liberals to leave the SBC or, in some cases, just waited for the liberals to retire (which allowed them to continue teaching). During this time, the children and grandchildren of those involved in the conservative resurgence were being influenced by the liberal theology and attitudes prevalent in the Convention. Yet the SBC is still not free from liberal influence and the questions of music, alcoholic beverages, clothing styles, homosexuality and other issues are far from settled. I believe that eventually those who are not conservative will regain control of the SBC, especially as the generation which spearheaded the conservative resurgence goes to be with the Lord and a new, younger generation assumes influence. Although impressive, the conservative resurgence will fail. []

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