Creeds and fundamentalists: nourishing or poisoning the church?

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, a 4-part series has just wrapped up on Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of the Faith. In a summary of the book, “RJS” outlines this former liberal’s not-surprising attitude toward the development of creeds in Christian history. Essentially, for Cox, the Council of Nicea marked the end of true Jesus-religion and the beginning of heirarchical, coercive religion.

While I understand the issue here and agree that the institutionalization of the church was unfortunate in some respects, I think Cox, and many others, miss the point of the creeds.

RJS writes that Cox extends his critique of creedal Christianity into the 20th and 21st century by having a go at that tired old whipping post, “the fundamentalists.” If you want a vivid example of this from within the evangelical fold, check out Roger Olson’s acid rendering of that movement in his Story of Theology. Although Olson captures much that is correct about the movement, I think his critique, and Cox’s less-informed critique, is overdone and in some senses downright wrong. It assumes that fundamentalism is about nothing more than mental assent to propositional formulae. I just don’t buy that.

Thus I responded with a couple of comments on the review of Cox’s book. You’ll find them here, in the comments section, #25 and #27. I’d be interested to hear your perspectives: feel free to weigh in, either there or here.

2 responses to “Creeds and fundamentalists: nourishing or poisoning the church?

  1. The following then ensued:

    November 11, 2009 11:44 AM


    Excellent point – and I think the key consideration that Cox in his educated liberalism misses. This is why I have hope for the future – and hope that we can work through the shortcomings of an evangelical (even “fundamentalist”) approach and retain a robust Christian faith.

    The core issue is not so much belief and creed as God and the nature of God and Jesus – and the Spirit. This is along the lines of tomorrows post that wraps up the series on Cox’s book.

    Chris Armstrong
    November 11, 2009 1:49 PM

    Thanks RJS. And by the way, I would defend the creeds, and to some degree even the Reformation Confessions, on the same grounds. These documents were the work of pastors. They were certainly abused when absolutized. But the things they protected were precious, and had everything to do with the living, personal God portrayed in Scripture and our relationship with that living, personal God.

    I suspect folks like Leron Shults have been reading the 20th-century modernization of theology (that is, in this context, NOT “liberalization” of theology, but the fundamentalists’ tendencies toward rationalization, propositional-ization) back into the orthodoxy of yore, assuming that creeds and confessions were to the folks who used them nothing but intellectual formulae and/or bludgeons with which to beat their political enemies.

    That they got used in both of those ways I don’t deny. But we have to be careful of what we lose when we fight the modernization of theology. One of the reasons I love Dorothy L. Sayers is that despite the fact that she once confided she had never had a religious experience, and could be saved, if at all, no other way than through her mind, she grasped the wonder and drama of the Incarnation (read her essay “The Dogma Is the Drama”) and the importance of encountering Christ in his full humanity AND divinity (read or hear her radio plays, The Man Born To Be King). She was a puzzle-lover, a pattern-lover, who gloried in the rationality AS WELL AS the person-ality of God.

    By the bye, though I love the work of Robert Webber, I am disturbed by his tendency to make this same move of over-reaction against fundamentalist “propositionalism.” Heavens, that battle is now, by and large, over! Let’s not let our constructive theologizing be hamstrung by bitterness over what we hate about fundamentalism.

  2. To be explicit, this was my response, as posted on Jesus Creed:

    I share the concern expressed here that assent to propositions has replaced faith-as-trust at various points in church history. I even share the assessment that this was a problem within the fundamentalist movement, though I stop well short of seeing it as the one, single, animating principle of that movement.

    If you check out the “five fundamentals” that emerged from early 20th-century American Presbyterianism and was commonly adopted by the early fundamentalists, you’ll see something interesting. Here’s the list:

    * Inerrancy of the Scriptures
    * The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14)
    * The doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God’s grace and through human faith (Hebrews 9)
    * The bodily resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28)
    * The authenticity of Christ’s miracles (or, alternatively, his pre-millennial second coming)[4]

    Although the first point, inerrancy, could certainly lead to a “propositionalist” approach to faith, by which the other four could certainly become merely notional statements of What Must Be Believed To Be A True Christian, note the personal dimension of the other four:

    Jesus as a person was not just human but also divine

    Out of his great love for humanity, the human-divine person Jesus died for sinners, atoning for their sins

    Death could not hold the person Jesus, in the grave. He rose again bodily, walked with his disciples and others, ate fish sandwiches with them, and told them that although he was leaving to be with his Father in heaven, he would never truly leave them. He would send the Holy Spirit to continue to teach, guide, and comfort them.

    The person Jesus, out of his great love for individual people, reached out, touched them, and healed them, in a miraculous way.

    That same person Jesus will return to inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth.

    Why did the fundamentalists affirm these “fundamentals”? I would argue, to protect from the secularizers of their age precious truths about the person of Jesus Christ and his relationship with individual believers and his church.

    Did the fundamentalists tend to use modernist language in defending those precious truths? Sure they did.

    Did arguments between fundamentalists and modernists descend into squabbles about words and formulas? Sure they did.

    Did fundamentalists honestly believe they were saved by the raw application of belief to dried-out, empty formulae–forms of words?

    Highly unlikely. Evangelicalism was *all about* fleeing from the reduction of faith to mere forms of words (e.g. in rote repetition of liturgy) and into a real saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

    However off-track the fundamentalists got (and they got off-track: no church movement has NOT), the beating heart of the movement was always the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the wondrous possibility he opens up, of reconciliation and relationship with God.

    Let’s not forget this.

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