Friday, May 12, 2006

A Call to Paleofundamentalism?

I have been meaning to read Robert Gundry’s Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian for some time now. Gundry’s book, written in 2002, is one of several on the market now that express some level of distress over the present state of evangelicalism. It is particularly interesting to see Gundry entry this fray, especially considering that he himself was expelled back in the 1980’s from the Evangelical Theological Society for promoting redaction criticism and other anti-inerrancy views in his commentary on Matthew.

Gundry’s book consists of three chapters. The first, Jesus the Word according to John, is an exegetical tour de force that highlights the word/verbal Christology presented in the Book of John. I found this section to be quite interesting as I had never noticed before how John emphasizes the “Word” theme throughout his gospel. The second chapter, The Sectarian, attempts to show that John was a separatist, especially in regard to the believer and the world. The last chapter, and the one with the most interesting title, represents Gundry’s application of his exegesis and purpose for his book. He calls it a Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelism, especially its Elites, in North America.

To see where he is going with this, I would like to quote Gundry’s conclusion and then make a few comments on it:

But the question is a serious one: Do our present circumstances call for John’s Word-Christology, for North American evangelicalism to take a sectarian turn, a return mutatis mutandis, to the fundamentalism of The Fundamentals and their authors at the very start of the twentieth century? Like that early fundamentalism and unlike the fundamentalism which evolved in the 20s-40s, this new old fundamentalism, comparable in its neopleoism to the new old commandment in 1 John 2:7-11; 3:11, would be culturally engaged with the world enough to be critical rather than so culturally secluded as to be mute, morally separate from the world but no spatially cloistered from it, and unashamedly expressive of historic Christian essentials but not quarrelsome over nonessentials. Such a renewed fundamentalism would take direction not only from fundamentalism at the very start of the twentieth century but also, and more importantly, from the paleofundamentalism of John the sectarian, whose Christology of the Word has Jesus come into the world (there is the engagement with it), sanctify himself (there is the separation from it), and exegete God (there is the message to it).

There is much here to commend and I appreciate his call to a Biblical separation from the world. I don’t know how culturally engaged we need to be or what he means by nonessentials, but overall I think it is a much needed message for today’s evangelicalism. His conclusion, though, also demonstrates a significant and common weakness in that these men who see the problems in evangelicalism will not, it appears, submit to the complete Biblical instruction in this area.

It is apparent that Gundry still views the emergence of New Evanglelicalism out of the “fundamentalism that evolved in the 20s-40s” as a good thing. In a footnote he specifically likens the “original neoevangelicals (Carl F. H. Henry, Edward J. Carnell, …)” to the original fundamentalists who wrote The Fundamentals. His call to paleofundamentalism seems to be nothing more than a call to a more careful New Evangelicalism. How is that an improvement?

I find it very interesting, though, that Gundry does seem to see the dangers of non-separation. Earlier he writes,

Penetration replaced separation. Evangelical biblical and theological scholars began holding their meetings in conjunction with those of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, both of these societies populated with heretics, non-Christians of other religious persuasion, agnostics, and outright atheists as well as with true Christian believers. And in droves evangelicals (including me) started joining these societies and participating in their activities. Would John approve? I do not know and maybe it does not matter whether or not he would; but noncanonically he is said to have fled from a public bath on perceiving that the heretic Cerinthus was there.

The result, he says, is that “the sense of embattlement with the world is rapidly evaporating among many evangelicals, especially evangelical elites….”

Well, of course, so why return to a reasoned new evangelicalism when that strategy produced the very problems that concern him?


At 11:46 AM, Blogger Frank Sansone said...

Good post, Andy.

I had not heard of this book, yet.

The part you are quoting leaves me with the same concerns that you seem to have - namely, what does he mean by his comments.

I do believe we need to be "culturally engaged" - if that means able to address the issues of today's culture from a Biblical perspective and point men to Christ. I don't believe we need to be "culturally engaged" - if that means to become enmeshed in our culture so that we can "dialogue" about it.

I also agree that non-essential is a weighted word. What is "non-essential"? If it is pettyness over style of sermon delivery or women being considered harlots because they wore red, then yes. Often times, however, non-essential is too easily a catch word for "anything that I am unwilling to take a stand on."

Thanks for posting this, Andy.

In Christ,

Pastor Frank Sansone

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Andy Efting said...

I think we are pretty much agreed concerning those terms. Unless you really know the person, it's hard to know what he means.


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