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?

Bruce Epperly

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.


Gary said…
Fundamentalists and "Progressives" are all committed to their beliefs. The difference is, they believe different things. They disagree on what is true and false, and agree on very little. The disagreements are so "fundamental" that, in my opinion, their religions are different. They both call themselves Christians, but I don't think the definition of "Christianity" is elastic enough to cover the range of beliefs. There really is such a thing as heresy.
David Mc said…
I'm fundamentally progressive. I have very simple-minded views of religion. Thanksgiving and openness to what creation might reveal through study and accidental observation. I'm also intrigued by concepts and feelings such as empathy and love.

To believe all the scriptures would be personal heresy. I'm an extremely poor liar, so I can never claim I do. I'm somewhat uncomfortable as it is.

Yeah, I'm a pretty poor excuse for a disciple to many. But I have faith in much of what Jesus was credited with as well as much of the biblical wisdom.
John said…

I was looking forward to this installment from Bruce, to see what he had to write and how you would respond. I was disappointed in both. I think that Bruce touched on what I would lift up in fundamentalists but only lightly.

What I respect in fundamentalists, such as you Gary, is the strength of your convictions, based on what you perceive as clear truths. The truths you and I perceive may be different, but your conviction I take as a model. It is important to know what we believe and that we are ready to articulate it, so that others can learn, and hopefully hear in our words truths that God has planted there. Without strength, we become silent.

I also take as constructive your explicit reliance on Scripture for your theological principles, and though we draw different lessons, I think the seriousness of our mutual regard for Scripture is important.

But mostly, I lift up the passion with which you engage your faith; you are not lukewarm where the Lord is involved. It is that passion I covet. I have passion, and I am learning from my fundamentalist friends to embrace and share my passion with enthusiasm and joy.

What disappointed me about your response Gary, is that you failed to lift up what you most value in your theological tradition. Why are you a fundamentalist - and don't tell me that it is because it is true; tell me why you cannot be a Presbyterian or a Methodist. Tell me what you are proud of, and what it is about your beliefs which helps get you through days and nights when meaning seems so hard to come by. Tell me how your faith tradition helps you survive when bad things happen to good people in your life, when bad things happen to you.

These are the things I want to know about fundamentalists.

Brian said…
My faith is in line with David's. My faith is intentionally very different from that of Gary's and John's. The word "intentionally" is extremely important in this case.

I'm cool with people who convince themselves that they are being faithful by attaching personal feelings to truth claims. BUT, I think they are mistaken. What makes me feel angry is when people claim that not convincing one's-self that attaching ego/personal emotion to truth claims makes one "luke warm". I think it makes one wise. Hey, that's just me. Knock yourself out comrades.

Below are two quotes that guide my journey with Jesus every day.

"Where we have strong emotions, we're liable to fool ourselves."
Carl Sagan

"Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions". (Zen Proverb)
David Mc said…
Just like you to quote an atheist pot-head Brian..;) I love Carl. He still lives through his science, art of presentation and tender heart.

"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."
Carl Sagan

Check out the first quote here (I don't want to offend anyone) http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/c/carl_sagan.html

Why do the good often die too young?
John said…

Hmm, I don't think I ever imagined that I would be lumped together with Gary. I don't quite know how to respond.

I wonder if because of my openness to Gary as a person you presume we share a theology? That's OK, I'll stand by Gary.

I think I'm flattered.

Brian said…

It's not an attack on either of you. (At least that's not the intention.) I'm just passionate about being dispassionate.....hehehe....irony.

You and Gary are very different theologically. In the context of this discussion, however, you were on the same page with him about passion. That's a good thing, not a bad thing. I just have a different perspective with passion.

For instance, Kendra Kreasy Dean (sp?) recently wrote something about the importance of parents role-modeling "radical" Christianity. I watch the news. I see the word "radical" and how it is used against Muslims. Let's not encourage such nonsense. I am confident that most non-religious people (the folks I mostly choose to hang out with) see "radical Christianity" and think about the idiot who's burning Korans on 9/11.

I ask myself, "what does this world need right now?". The answer is never more passion and radicalism. The answer, in my humbly correct opinion, is skepticism, critical thinking, and clearly communicating what we believe to be most accurate. Truly, this will end up being experienced as "being radical".

In other words, passion and radicalness are not helpful goals. Passion and radicalness may, however, blossom through the disciplined planting and caring for seeds of critical thinking with an eye for the poorest and most vulnerable of all of Creation.

I guess one could say, this issue has long been a bee in my bonnet.
Brian said…

I will step out on a limb. I don't believe any reader here will be offended by that quote. It has no vulgar language or violence.

So, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you, a zinger by the Mighty Prophet Carl Sagan:

"A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism."
Carl Sagan

It is at this point that I feel led by the Spirit to type this: lol
John said…

I see. But I disagree - passion is the source of much that is good (and much that is bad) and all that is really beautiful.

God is not dispassionate, and Jesus was not dispassionate, and we as disciples need not be dispassionate. I think you confuse criminality and delusion with passion and thus do a dis-service to the very blessed passions which God has infused into humanity.


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