The Fundamentalists, Holy Scripture and Apologetics: A Critique and Description from G.C. Berkouwer

Someone who would be considered a conservative thinking Dutch Reformed theologian from the actual Netherlands, G.C. Berkouwer, has some interesting things to say about Christian Fundamentlists and the way that they have engaged, or disengaged with a proper doctrine of Scripture. Because I think this needs to be heard I will quote GCB at length, and then offer my own reflection upon what he has written afterword. Here is Berkouwer at some length:

Upon closer scrutiny … fundamentalism proves to be far from a simple phenomenon. The use of the word “fundamentalistism” becomes unclear if it is intended to indicate the necessary preservation of the foundation that results, according to Scripture, in a blessing (I Cor. 3:10-12; Mt. 7:24ff). Such a use of the term implies that fundamentalism is no more than an echo berkouwerof the biblical testimony that speaks of the foundation that is laid (I Cor. 3:11), of the value of an anchor of the soul that is sure and steadfast (Heb. 6:19; II Pet. 1:10-21), and that speaks of faith as a substance which also expresses an inviolable certainty (Heb. 11:1 – “the assurance of things hoped for”). This foundation as such, therefore, cannot explain the nature of fundamentalism. To be sure, many expressions from the fundamentalist camp frequently give the impression that the acceptance of a fundamental truth and a certainty that cannot be subjectified are at stake, especially when its members gladly accept the name “fundamentalist” to set them apart from those who have fallen victim to the influence of subjectivism. This, however, terminates the discussion at the point where it actually should begin. Especially concerning the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the fundamentalists’ call to a simple and childlike acceptance of Scripture – no matter how seriously they mean this – is not unique to them, because in this respect they are not any different from many others who are equally convinced that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light upon our path. The issue is undoubtedly far more complicated, as is already evident from the many analyses of this phenomenon.

Ahlström described fundamentalism as “a fervent but poorly informed protest movement against extreme and militant liberalism.” Stonehouse mentions that fundamentalism evidences a lack of sound biblical knowledge and historical perspective and has “certain emphases and peculiarities” that make it impossible to identify it with orthodoxy. This and similar criticism is by no means intended to deny the good intentions of fundamentalism: no good cause is served by making it the butt of “professional gossip.” It would be incorrect to ignore its legitimate “wholeness of dedication” in the discussion. The person who concurs in the lamentation of Psalm 11:3 (“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”) cannot avoid trying to analyze fundamentalism’s apologetics, especially its view of Holy Scripture and its authority.

I believe I am judging no one unfairly when I say that fundamentalism, in its eagerness to maintain Holy Scripture’s divinity, does not fully realize the significance of Holy Scripture as a prophetic-apostolic, and consequently human, testimony. It is true that fundamentalists do not deny the human element in Scripture, but they allow their apologetics to be determined by the fear that emphasis on the human witness may threaten and overshadow Scripture’s divinity. From an historical and psychological point of view, this reactionary position is quite understandable in the light of much “humanizing” of Holy Scripture that has taken place. Yet that does not prevent other, more serious, problems from presenting themselves; for it is God’s way with and in Scripture that is at stake. Fundamentalism has hardly come to grips with the problem of whether attention for the human character of Holy Scripture might be of great importance for its correct understanding. Fundamentalists often give the impression that the point at issue is the acceptance or rejection of the vox Dei, of Scripture’s infallibility. They suggest, that, in spite of many divergences within fundamentalist circles in understanding Scripture, an a priori acceptance of Scripture’s infallibility precludes all dangers. Thus, they manifest great tolerance for all who maintain the fundamentalist view of Holy Scripture. They tend to relativize concrete obedience in understanding Scripture. The result is that their apologetic, which is meant to safeguard Scripture’s divine aspect, threatens in many respects to block the road to a correct understanding of Scripture, which is normative, by ignoring and neglecting its human aspect.[1]

This is an interesting critique and description of what Fundamentalism is and does. It is interesting to me, in particular, because many of the people who I know (in theological circles) would place someone like Berkouwer in the ‘fundamentalist’ camp simply because he is rather traditional and affirming of classical (i.e. pre-critical and confessional) understanding of Holy Scripture. But as is obvious, GCB has something more particular and geographic in mind, his focus of course is the North American Fundamentalist who came to the fore at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century[s].

What I wonder is if North American evangelicals have actually escaped this critique or if they only continue to reinforce it with doctrines like biblical inerrancy? I think Berkouwer would believe that evangelicals are only a new iteration of this old style Fundamentalism that he is describing from his vantage point. I wonder if neo-Evangelicals like Kevin Vanhoozer and his style and articulation of biblical inerrancy escapes Berkouwer’s critique or only enlivens it, but maybe in more sophisticated ways than originally conceived of by its original architects (in re. to biblical inerrancy)?

Another thing of note is how Fundamentalists build their whole edifice of Christianity upon rationalist arguments against their ‘Liberal’ counterparts. What Berkouwer rightly notices is that this type of reactionary movement and ‘intellectualist’ response (by the Fundamentalists) ends up doing exactly the opposite of what the Fundamentalists are hoping for; i.e. that is to ardently affirm the veracity and reliability and authority of Holy Scripture. What GCB implicitly is suggesting is that Fundamentalists argue with such vigor for Scripture’s inerrancy that that in and of itself becomes an end in itself with its own idiosyncratic hermeneutic in tow.

Personally I find Berkouwer’s analysis to be very accurate. I grew up in Fundamentalist Christianity in North America (as have so many others). This all rings so true to me, and unfortunately it continues to ring true for too many Christians out there. People are getting ripped off from the riches and heritage bequeathed to us by Christ as He has provided for that through the centuries of His church. Evangelicals who imbibe Fundamentalism (positively, or like the so called Progressive Christians, negatively) are malnourished, and as a result for all of their Bible knowledge and “sword drilling” they are ultimately missing the depth dimension of Holy Scripture in its realistic fullness, the reality: Jesus Christ.

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 21-3.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you, Bobby, my heart was strangely warmed by this post.

    I wonder whether Berkouwer would believe that Pentecostals reading the scriptures for divine phenomena continue the fundamentalist error, or perhaps that their retrieval of subjectivity could restore the neglected humanity of scripture?

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  2. Love his critique, and I think it still is eminently relevant today. The modern apologetics movement, which is steeped in Enlightenment thinking, undermines the truth they argue for.

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  3. Anthony,

    Yes, I think you are very right!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bowman,

    I wouldn’t think so in regard to Berkouwer and pentecostalism. In fact what I see in pentecostalism is an emphasis is more on mystical experience and not any meaningful understanding of a personalist move grounded in Christ.

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