Response to Bro. Johnson (pt. 1)

Don Johnson was gracious enough to respond to the most pressing questions from my article entitled “Questions for Dan Unruh, John Vaughn and the FBFI from a Confused Brother.” This is my overdue response to continue this important discussion.

What is a Fundamentalist?

It is clear this issue of “Convergents” is an important one for some in the FBFI. Johnson wrote, “In my view, someone who is convergent is not a fundamentalist. He once may have claimed to be a fundamentalist, but he has changed his views and really exhibits disdain for fundamentalism now, regardless if he continues to claim the label.”

This cannot be more clear, and I appreciate it. If you are a “Convergent,” then Johnson does not consider you to be a fundamentalist. It doesn’t matter if a man still claims the label and travels in fundamentalist circles; if he exhibits the marks of a “Convergent” then he is not a fundamentalist. He is claiming membership in a movement he doesn’t actually belong to.

This naturally leads us to ask, “What on earth is a fundamentalist, in this context?” This is really the crux of issue. Before we start mentioning movements and assessing claims to titles, we need to understand what we’re talking about. Let me offer my own definition:

Fundamentalism is a philosophy of ministry characterized by a militant apologetic defense and passionate, unashamed proclamation of the Christian faith from the Scriptures in the face of pagan unbelief, liberal theology and compromise.

This is a mouthful, so here is the bottom line:

  1. If you believe the Bible and actively seek to defend it against unbelievers, liberal skeptics and theological compromise, and
  2. if you believe the Bible and seek to passionately and unapologetically proclaim all of it to the world, and
  3. if all this motivates and shapes your entire approach to Christian ministry and everyday Christian life,
  4. then you are a “fundamentalist.”

People within the fundamentalist realm will immediately recognize this as a “big-tent” definition of the movement. I suspect this is a dividing line for some people. Please note I did not make mention of the so-called “fundamentals” of the faith. This list of fundamentals came out of the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference, and was later shortened to the infamous “five fundamentals” of the faith:

  1. The virgin birth of Christ
  2. The inerrancy of the Bible
  3. Substitutionary atonement of Christ
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ
  5. The authenticity of miracles

I don’t find this list particularly useful, because it creates an artificial hierarchy for Bible doctrines. For example, the Trinity is not even mentioned! Those who cling to “The List” as the defining document of the fundamentalist movement have actually got it backwards.

The fundamentalist “movement” grew out of the conflict with theological liberalism and apostasy in the mid to late 19th century. Bible believers were willing to stand and fight back against this liberalism and apostasy in Bible Colleges, Seminaries and local churches across America. During the course of this conflict, certain doctrines came to the forefront as particular “flash points.” The “list” arose out of this context, but it really reflects a basic fidelity to all of the Bible and a willingness to militantly defend the Scriptures and passionately and unapologetically proclaim what the Bible teaches.

This movement has always been interdenominational. Dr. Larry Oats provides this brief definition of the movement:[1]

Fundamentalism as a definable movement is the organization of primarily American Bible believers who between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century strongly opposed and resisted the progress of modernism within the major denominations of America and thus tried to keep those denominations orthodox.

From the middle of the twentieth century on, fundamentalism may be defined as those Bible believers who desire to maintain a purity of doctrine and personal life and stand in positional and doctrinal opposition to various forms of compromise.

Likewise, Dr. Fred Moritz has written:

 At its best fundamentalism is a ‘back to the Bible’ movement to proclaim and contend for the truth. Fundamentalism is therefore a theological and militant movement. It was interdenominational by definition. Fundamentalists also allowed each other latitude in the use of Bible versions and in their understanding of Calvinism and Arminianism.[2]

So, when we consider what Bro. Johnson has written, we need to understand where the other is coming from. Is a “fundamentalist” necessarily a Baptist, premillennial dispensationalist? I asked Bro. Johnson this question:

 Q: Do you believe in “big-tent” fundamentalism; that is, is this movement bigger than Baptists? If so, how do, how would these “big-tent” fundamentalists avoid being “Convergent” from your point of view.

This was his response:

Fundamentalism is a philosophy that transcends denominations. There are fundamentalists among the Presbyterians and among other groups, though the majority of fundamentalists today are probably Baptists. Convergence isn’t denominational, like the New Evangelicalism, it is a mood or philosophy that affects how the ministry is conducted, what issues and ideas are promoted, what actions are taken individually and through church ministries (assuming the convergent is in a leadership role in the church).

The most important way to avoid being convergent is to be committed to personal and ecclesiastical separation. That commitment will manifest itself in various ways, but the other marks I mention above will dissipate if that biblical commitment is made and applied consistently.

Bro. Johnson agrees fundamentalism is interdenominational. However, he zeroes in on a mood or philosophy which he believes is opposed to everything fundamentalism stands for. He believes this mood or philosophy is primarily characterized by ignoring the Bible’s commands for personal and ecclesiastical separation.

We appear to agree on what a “fundamentalist” is. It is an interdenominational movement which stands for Biblical truth against pagan unbelief and theological compromise. However, Bro. Johnson has also written that a “convergent” is not a fundamentalist. Therefore, we should expect his “marks of a convergent” to reflect some basic defection or capitulation to apostasy and/or theological compromise – the very thing the fundamentalist movement has always fought against.

If a Christian is not committed to personal separation from unholy influences, activities or associations, then he is in sin. If a local church does likewise, its leadership is in sin. It is certain that some men have left fundamentalism and “fled” to the broader evangelical sphere, jettisoning the doctrines of personal holiness and personal separation along the way. This is tragic, and it is wrong.

However, there are also other men who still identify themselves as fundamentalists, but who have made some common cause with the most conservative elements of right-wing evangelicalism. Larry Oats, a true authority on Baptist fundamentalism, has observed:

I suggest that a fifth stage [of the fundamentalist movement] is now present: the separation of conservative evangelicalism from the left wing of evangelicalism, along with the reunion of some elements of fundamentalism with the right-wing of evangelicalism.[3]

He is correct. Is this necessarily a “bad thing”? I suspect Bro. Johnson and many others agree that it is. It is unclear how, given his acknowledgement of a “big-tent” fundamentalism, the most conservative right-wing evangelicals should not simply be considered fundamentalists in philosophy and practice.

We will turn to that issue, and discuss Bro. Johnson’s “marks of a convergent,” in the next article.


[1] Larry Oats, “Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism,” unpublished class notes (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Seminary, n.d.).

[2] Fred Moritz, “Maranatha is Fundamentalist,” in Maranatha Baptist Theological Journal (MBTS 01:01), Spring 2011. 65.

[3] Larry Oats, The Church of the Fundamentalists (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Press, 2016), 68-69, fn. # 8.

17 thoughts on “Response to Bro. Johnson (pt. 1)

  1. Fair enough, but I have these quibbles:

    1. I wouldn’t define fundamentalism in opposition to unbelievers as mere unbelievers (“defend it against unbelievers”) but as professed believers. The way you word this seems to define it as opposition to those who don’t even claim to be Christian. Yet in fact, even liberal Christians are in some senses separate from this group. So you are at least unclear here.

    2. You seem to be missing a key points in Oats:

    “From the middle of the twentieth century on, fundamentalism may be defined as those Bible believers who desire to maintain a purity of doctrine and personal life and stand in positional and doctrinal opposition to various forms of compromise.”

    This can only refer to the split between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Someone who is an evangelical may well be separated (to some degree) from modernism, but he has also compromised himself with it in some way. (BG compromise is the favorite whipping boy.)

    When Dr. Oats says:

    “I suggest that a fifth stage [of the fundamentalist movement] is now present: the separation of conservative evangelicalism from the left wing of evangelicalism, along with the reunion of some elements of fundamentalism with the right-wing of evangelicalism.”

    This is the convergence, where “some elements of fundamentalism” are willing to drop their guard or cease to separate over evangelical compromise.

    By doing so, they are creating something new, which we are calling the Convergence. It is not the same as Fundamentalism.

    I’ll post the above on SI, probably that’s where discussion will take place.

    1. Don, you say, “I wouldn’t define fundamentalism in opposition to unbelievers as mere unbelievers (‘defend it against unbelievers’) but as professed believers.” I agree. This is a very important distinction.

  2. It all seems like negotiations on what degree or amount of disobedience will be allowed. In a church, none is allowed. Zero tolerance. If someone won’t turn from either false doctrine or practice, separation is to occur. This is all over the BIble, but ignored by evangelicals especially. Fundamentalists say “separate,” but they are reducing it to a shorter and shorter list. All of this is unbiblical.

    1. I think you are right that there are negotiations on what constitutes “disobedience.” I think everybody, to a greater or lesser extent, fails to apply separation appropriately. I’ve had an article on this subject percolating in my foggy brain for a while now, and I’ll write it soon. I’ll be referencing your book on the church.

  3. Tyler,

    I think it comes down to several points:
    1. We lack certainty in the truth for various reasons — preservation, interpretation, and then application — we are not sure we have the words, know what they mean, or how they apply, so how can we enforce them. None of this is biblical.
    2. Universal church — no schism in the body — attempting to bridge the gap between unity between all believers and separation from unbiblical doctrine and practice.
    3. Pragmatism — coalitions necessary for greater popularity, tied also to monetary success.
    4. Worldliness — we don’t like to look so narrow to the world.
    5. Pride — people want to be liked a quick way to be unliked is to divide over something.

  4. A few things:

    1. I’ve never heard anybody justify biblical disobedience because of an alleged lack of clarity about what the original words of the Bible are. I’m sure some people have, but I’ve never read it or seen it, personally. That is, I’ve never seen uncertainty about preservation of Scripture used as an excuse for disobedience.

    2. This is important. However, I think you usually see this issue more in parachurch ministries. I don’t know of any fundamentalist Baptist churches which do cooperative work with Presbyterians, for example (though my observations might not mean much!). My church (where I am not the Pastor) is across the street from a Bible Presbyterian Church (i.e. a denomination which Carl McIntyre helped begin). The pastor of my church and this one are good friends. They still don’t do cooperative ministry. I think this is generally the norm with fundamentalist Baptist churches (FBFI, GARC and probably IFCA). I think you see more deliberate minimization in the parachurch organization, because their goals are different.

    3. This can be an issue with everybody. I think it is terribly wrong.

    4. This, too. It is wrong.

    5. Maybe. For me, I don’t care if I am liked or not. For others, the desire to be “in the group” probably does stop separation which needs to take place. That, coupled with a desire to stay and try to “fix things.”

    I think one primary reason for this disagreement about what is worth separating over is because of this: different people have different areas of systematic theology which are most important to them, and they apply separation according to this grid. I think everybody, to greater or lesser extent, does this. I think we need to realize this. I also think, practically speaking, we should make a distinction between ecclesiastical separation (i.e. formal cooperation) and education. That is, I might like some things R.C. Sproul says about soteriology and recommend some of his resources from that arena to people in church, but also tell folks to stay far, far away from his ecclesiology.

    I could say more, but I must dash.

  5. Tyler,

    For #1, I hear rather regularly and then read too that doctrines are preserved to the extent that we can receive the gospel. What I’m talking about I see and hear all over the place. Even though not all of these people are reading him, Bart Ehrman speaks of the preservation issue as why he ejected, and i think he represents people on this. Every Islamic brings it up. If we can’t be sure we have the words, then how can we trust it, be certain enough, to obey it, all of it. It might be unspoken, because certain people have too much at stake to admit it. I hear it in conversations though.

    #2, this is understanding biblical separation. They do have them in each other’s pulplits, especially in conservative evangelicalism. MacArthur doesn’t separate over baptism, etc. I would have lunch with almost anybody. I would talk with a Presbyterian.

    #3-#5, I wouldn’t say these were you, including 5. I’m not saying any of them are you. I don’t know. I don’t think you would practice separation like I would. What is it?


    1. Not much time. I will say that perhaps a lot of this “convergence” doesn’t work its way out on a practical level in real life. That is, the internet has made it easier to hear and read stuff from R.C. Sproul, MacArthur, Mohler and also folks much further to the left like Andy Stanley or James MacDonald. So, you have Pastors listening to these men, but do you really have a lot of practical “fellowshipping?” I’m talking about among fundamentalists, not in squishy evangelicalism.

      I think this is an important distinction. You might read, listen to or perhaps even go to a conference to hear a conservative evangelical, but you may not ever have “fellowship.” That is, there is nothing to separate from. I have a book in my library by Bill Hybels on evangelism. I think it is a good book. Am I “fellowshipping” with Hybels? Not at all.

      Essentially, at one level, I’m not sure the concept of “separation” is applicable if I’ve never met the guy, never heard him speak, and he doesn’t even know I exist.

      Practically, at the local level where the rubber meets the road, I would be extremely hesitant about doing any cooperative work with a church which wasn’t a fundamental Baptist church. I’d stick with my own “tribe,” so to speak, for cooperative ministry – if this was even applicable.

      I know a Pastor of a GARBC church who is a graduate of an evangelical bible college. He doesn’t appear to have a concept of separation. He loves everybody and will work with anybody. Methodist, Pentecostal, United Methodist, it doesn’t matter. If they love Jesus, this is enough for him. Doctrine is minimized in favor of a vague center – “Jesus,” whatever that might mean to those involved! I strongly disagree with this. I think it is sinful, and sends a very wrong message to the congregation. It tells them doctrine isn’t important, that ecclesiology is pointless.

      I think you and I are probably closer than you think, except for my NET Bible and NA-28! Here is the bottom line; if the FBFI is worried about fundamentalists like the man I mentioned, then I get it. That isn’t fundamentalism; it’s mushy evangelicalism. If they’re worried about a guy like me, then I think they’re over-reaching. I’m just not sure who they’re talking about. Nobody really is, at this point.

      If it gets me any points with you, I have the TR set to open in Bibleworks parallel to the NA-28 and Byzantine Text! 🙂

  6. Tyler,

    You don’t have to answer right away, in days or in a week. I know you care. I don’t think going to a conference is fellowship, talking, having lunch, none of that fellowship. We’re on the same page as that.

    A lot of people have read, and I’m pretty sure you have, my account of why and how I left fundamentalism. In a sense, what is there to leave? What is it? It’s probably true it is an idea, but overall an unhelpful one, because it isn’t scriptural. I’ve said this, and not gotten an answer. Someone like Bauder and others want it. Don wants it. I think what they want is some kind of separation that falls short of everythingism. They are hard to figure out. I get the sense that they think one should separate over conservative worship, but not over whether we have all the words of the Bible. It’s a very arbitrary separation. Some things slide, others don’t, separate too much and you are factious, not enough and you’re indifferent. When? Can’t say. Don’t know. Still do it though. It seems that it ends up being just “get along with me,” because it has moved away from the Bible.

    I just want to talk about the Bible, what it says, means, how to do it. That’s an unsafe position, it seems.

  7. A few things:

    1. I think the idea of fundamentalism is worth fighting for. I want to distinguish between the first version of fundamentalism (i.e. my definition from the article, above) and the second version, which is primarily characterized and shaped by visceral opposition to evangelicalism. The concept that we ought to militantly defend all the Bible says against pagans, unbelievers, critics, and liberal and compromised theology, all while unashamedly proclaiming the Gospel to everybody is a good philosophy. It is a Biblical philosophy of ministry. I think we ought to fight for that idea, and particularly for that movement.

    2. Different people have different ideas about what “fundamentalism” is, and I think this kind of conversation often devolves into meaningless arguments about who has the most legitimate claim to a label or a title. This is unfortunate, and a waste of time. The most important concept for me is the philosophy of ministry I articulated in the first paragraph, and I believe those who seek to redefine this philosophy in their own image are wrong.

    3. Should I just “walk away” from the whole movement? I don’t think I really can, because I wouldn’t be “walking away.” What would change? I’d still go to a church from the fundamental Baptist realm. I’d still read blogs from that realm. I’d still have my ear to the ground to keep tabs on developments from within the movement. I’d still believe some fundamentalist schools are producing the best-trained preachers and leaders in American Christianity today. Take yourself, for example. You still haunt fundamentalist blogs. You still keep tabs on the movement. You link to fundamental Baptist churches on sidebar on your blog. It is the movement which you most closely identify with. All that has changed, practically speaking, is that you don’t call yourself a “fundamentalist.” For all intents and purposes, I consider you to be a fundamentalist, and so do many of your peers.

    I say all that to say that I agree the arguments over labels is silly and pointless. I don’t want to argue about titles or labels. I don’t “self-identify” as a fundamentalist to non-Christians. I could just “walk away,” but I’m not sure anything practical would change at all.

    1. If a fundamentalist is a militant for the truth, or something like that, an attitude so to speak, I’m one. I would tell people that, but I see it now as an interdenominational movement, where compromise is required to get along. When pyromaniacs was up and humming, I commented over there, but they treated me very badly, actually the same or worse than fundamentalists. They don’t deal with things according to the Bible there, especially someone who wants to talk about biblical separation. They are like dealing with liberals in that way, and I mean liberal literally. Of course, we’re talking about a blog comment section. This isn’t suffering for the faith. All the churches in the sidebar would consider themselves unaffiliated, not fundamentalists. Perhaps one of them uses “fundamental Baptist” in their description.

      I can appreciate someone being true to fundamentalism. If they’re being honest and sincere with the Bible, they’ve got to talk about separation.

    2. To jump back into this, you say above:
      “I think the idea of fundamentalism is worth fighting for. I want to distinguish between the first version of fundamentalism (i.e. my definition from the article, above) and the second version, which is primarily characterized and shaped by visceral opposition to evangelicalism.”

      I am waiting to see where you go with part 2, but on the “visceral opposition to evangelicalism,” I think that is a misreading of history. Evangelicalism had the visceral opposition to fundamentalism which created the current situation.

      Most fundamentalists would be fine with evangelicals “rejoining the ranks” as it were, but they would need to put down their swords and acknowledge the errors of their evangelical predecessors as part of the healing process. Yes, I know, fundamentalists have made a few errors along the way, but it is a two-way street.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

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