A Good Enough Theology: Can We Learn from the Fundamentalists (Bruce Epperly)
Later this week a group of Christians will gather in Raleigh, NC to celebrate a Big Tent Theology. Alas, I can't be there, but Bruce Epperly has been laying out what for him is a "Good Enough Theology." To this point he has explored the Quaker, Pentecostal, and Evangelical contribution to the development of this "Good Enough Theology." In addressing the question of the fundamentalist contribution, he addresses their concern for sound doctrine and attending to scripture. In this piece, Bruce reminds us that we needn't be absolutists to be concerned about such things. I invite you to engage the question that Bruce has raised.
A Good Enough Theology:
Can We Learn From Fundamentalist Christians?
Can progressives learn anything from fundamentalists? Most of us progressives would answer in the “doubtful” category or with a strident “no.” We take pretty much opposite positions on homosexuality and marriage equality, science, politics, scripture, and the quest for certainty. Fundamentalists claim certainty; we live in a world of possibility and probability. Fundamentalists live in a world of absolutes; we live in a world of change and relativity. Yet, a good enough theology, a theology with stature, is open to truth and healing wherever they are found – in the sanctuary and the laboratory, in prayer and pharmaceuticals, in Christianity and other religious traditions, in ancient wisdom and emerging faith, in the old time religion and open-source faith. Still, while we are in a very different place theologically, there may be a couple things we can learn from the faith of fundamentalists.
First, a clarification: fundamentalists are not as fundamentalist as they think! Fundamentalists, in spite of their, affirmations to the contrary, actually do interpret the bible – they interpret it through the lens of infallibility. Fundamentalists, in spite of their protests, also pick and choose in their interpretations and their judgments about scriptural authority. Like liberals, they believe that not all scripture passages are created equal. For example, fundamentalists may enjoy a good Easter ham and fundamentalist women cut their hair. Fundamentalists often work hard to minimize the universalism of some of the apostle Paul’s affirmations, interpreting them to apply only to believers, rather than following a literal reading of the text. So, fundamentalists and progressives begin on common ground – they both interpret scripture and emphasize certain passages – from a particular perspective not necessarily reducible to what can be found in the words of scripture. We all have “theological locations” and it is important to be aware of them rather than absolutize them.
Still, fundamentalists take truth and doctrine seriously and invite progressives to do so as well. Fundamentalists are clear about the importance of “sound doctrine” in shaping the Christian life. If we relegate doctrine to a matter of indifference, our faith will suffer. Sadly, in their quest for a theological big tent, many moderate and progressive Christians have downplayed the importance of doctrine and theological reflection.
The fundamentalist reminds us that theological reflection is important, and in this we can learn from them. We don’t need to be absolutists to take doctrine seriously. We can even posit a variety of doctrinal possibilities as elements in a holistic theology, even if some traditional doctrines are a matter of theological indifference to us. With Whitehead, I believe that our deeply held convictions about reality shape our character. Good theology shapes who we are and what is important to us, behaviorally and politically.
Fundamentalists remind us of the importance of sharing our beliefs with boldness in the marketplace of ideas. While progressives may take issue with what they perceive to be their sense of certainty and their strident tone, progressives can learn from fundamentalists that sharing the faith matters. Being a Christian – or a certain kind of Christian – is not a matter of indifference; it may be a matter of life and death, of meaning and meaninglessness in this life and the next. Progressives can recognize that what we believe about God truly matters and that we need to make known in the marketplace of ideas our theological affirmations about grace, revelation, salvation, healing, and God. We can be passionate about sharing our faith and theological vision, without arrogance.
Perhaps we all need a good dose of wonder (see Psalm 8): in the context of a 100 billion galaxy universe, each galaxy with a billion stars and a fourteen billion year cosmic journey, we can proclaim “how great Thou art” and do our best to live humbly and lovingly.
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Hly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life . His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.
His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.