Was Canada a theocratic state, scarcely different from the Ayatollah’s Iran, until 2005?
That does not sound like a description of the Canada of ten years ago as I remember it, nor can I think of anyone who was alive and living in Canada back then who does remember it that way. There are those, however, who appear to be suggesting that such was the case.
That was the year that Parliament, led by the Liberal government of Paul Martin, passed the Civil Marriage Act that made “marriages” available to same-sex couples across Canada. This had more or less been accomplished by the courts on a province-by-province basis in the year or two preceding the bill which standardized it. It was, of course, a controversial move - both on the part of the courts and Parliament – and remains so to this day. Many who opposed this change being made would like to see it reversed today. Progressives who supported the change have been known to describe the position of their opponents as theocratic.
Now think about that for a second. If it is theocratic to take the position that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, that it was wrong to re-define it otherwise, and that it ought to be changed back, then this means that our country was a theocracy for most of its history, up until about ten years ago. Similarly, if it is theocratic to say that abortion is murder and ought to be against the law, then our country was theocratic until 1988, especially prior to 1969.
Canada, of course, was not a theocracy prior to these changes, nor has she ever been a theocracy. A theocracy is a form of government in which a deity is the acknowledged head of state, the priests are the ruling class, and laws of religion are also the law of the land. Canada’s head of state is Queen Elizabeth II and neither we nor Great Britain have ever regarded her or her predecessors as a divine being in the way the Japanese used to think of their emperors or the Roman Empire her Caesars. Clergy may run for public office in Canada, have often done so and have often been successful, but nobody holds public office here by right of being a priest. The law of the land consists of the Constitution of Canada, the Common Law, and laws enacted by Parliament. Since we are not now and never have been a theocracy it is therefore not theocratic to oppose the sweeping changes to the traditional moral, social, and cultural order of Canada of the last half century and to seek to undo those changes.
Another accusation, similar to that of theocracy, that is frequently levelled at those who remain loyal to the old, traditional social, moral, and cultural norms is that of Puritanism. This charge often comes from the left wing of conservatism, from those who would consider themselves to be “progressive conservatives” and who, knowing a little bit about the history of English conservatism know that the Puritans were the radical enemies of the Tories or conservatives in the seventeenth century. What this accusation really means, therefore, is that those who oppose changes such as liberalized abortion laws and the redefinition of marriage and are therefore thought of and think of themselves as “social conservatives” are not true to conservative tradition and principles.
What this fails to take into proper consideration is the nature of the conflict between the Tories and the Puritans. It was hardly the case that the Puritans wanted a Christian society based upon the teachings of the Bible whereas the Tories were defending a secular order in which Church and State were kept rigorously separate. The Tories fought on behalf of European Christendom’s traditional alliance of throne and altar – or at least the modern English variation of this alliance that had come out of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement of the sixteenth century. That is about as far from secularism as you can get!
The English Reformation had begun with an Act of Parliament that declared the king to be the highest earthly authority over the Church in England which was, of course, the same thing as declaring that the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, had no authority over the English Church. This ultimately had the effect of breaking the communion between Canterbury and Rome, and the Church in England became the Church of England. The Elizabethan Settlement at the end of the sixteenth century was the official answer to both Roman Catholics who sought to put the English Church back under papal authority – and had briefly succeeded in the reign of Mary I – and strict Calvinists who wanted a more thorough Reformation that would strip the English Church of every last vestige of Catholicism. The Settlement declared mandatory attendance at the services of the Church of England, which Church was given a moderate Calvinist confession in the Thirty-Nine Articles, and which would conduct its services in the English vernacular, but which would retain its Catholic hierarchy and structure and as much of its rituals, ceremonies, and traditions as were consistent with its Protestant confession. The Calvinists who wished for a more thorough Reformation were the Puritans.
One thing the Church of England retained from the pre-Reformation tradition was the traditional Christian understanding that in the here and now we are living in exile from Paradise and will not be restored to Paradise until the Second Coming of Christ brings history to an end. In the here and now the taint of Original Sin will always be with us, and so, to meet human needs that arise out of Sin, God has appointed the civil government and the Church to two distinct and limited roles. To meet our need for protection from the violence of Sin in others, the civil government has been appointed to the task of passing and enforcing laws against evil acts like murder and theft. To meet our need for confession and forgiveness of Sin in ourselves, the Church has been appointed to proclaim in Word and Sacrament the forgiveness of God given to us in the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this traditional understanding it was recognized that these were limited roles and that neither of these institutions had either the ability or the responsibility to do what only Christ Himself will do at His Second Coming – restore Paradise.
The Puritans rejected this sensible and traditional way of looking at things. Their doctrine taught them to look upon the king and the priestly hierarchy of the Church as tyrants colluding together in the oppression of the people and to consider themselves to be God’s chosen, godly, few, called upon either to separate from the irredeemable corruption of Church and State or to wage war against it and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. They rejected the tradition of understanding and teaching the Scriptures that had developed from the Church Fathers to the Reformation as being a construction of the conspiracy between king and priest and substituted for it a demagogic method of interpreting the Scriptures in which every condemnation of the enemies of God was applied to the king and priest while every promise to God’s holy elect was applied to themselves.
This doctrine was a tree that bore much fruit, none of it good. The Puritans became politically seditious, going to war with the king and committing regicide in the 1640s, and later leading the republican revolution in the American colonies in the 1760s. They rejected the tradition of Christian liberty that had been built on the foundation laid by St. Paul in his epistles, in which Christians were free do whatever was not explicitly condemned as a sin in Scriptures and thus had liberty in matters of food and drink. It is place they recreated the ethical system of the Pharisees, placing excessive emphasis upon Sabbath keeping, and railing against games, dancing and other “amusements” which no Scripture condemns either explicitly or by general principle, while justifying, for the sake of the merchant trader class from whom they drew their numbers, the grasping rapacity which is both explicitly and repeatedly condemned in Scriptures. Hand-in-glove with the Puritans’ Pharisaism in morality went their Philistinism in art and culture. They objected strenuously to music and drama and when in power they closed the theatres, got rid of the art collection of King Charles I, and removed organs, tapestries, artwork, and everything of beauty that they thought detracted from their perverse ideal of “simplicity” in the churches.
In Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker defended the Church of England and the Elizabethan Settlement from Puritan attacks. Puritanism reduced to the idea that whatever in the tradition of Christendom could not be shown to be commanded by the Bible must be eradicated and forbidden. Hooker argued instead, for the principle that everything in the tradition of Christendom that could not be shown to be forbidden by the Bible, ought to be permitted to be retained. While the Puritans condemned the king and the priests as being “tyrants”, their own system had far less room for freedom. Hooker wisely saw that tradition and freedom stood and fell together, along with the civil and ecclesiastical order. This insight became the keystone of the Tory position in their fight against Puritanism.
The Tories fought on behalf of tradition and freedom and the civil and ecclesiastical order. The Puritans fought to overthrow the civil and ecclesiastical order and regarded tradition as the enemy of freedom. So where is the spirit of Puritanism to be found today? Among those who continue to affirm the traditional social and moral standards that until very recently were recognized as being those of our own culture and society, who were raised themselves under those standards and who wish for their own children and grandchildren to be raised under the same standards? Or among the progressives who rail against tradition as the enemy of liberty, who have turned the public schools into indoctrination centres to re-educate children in case they have been taught the traditional social and moral standards by their parents and churches, who try to use the human rights tribunals to silence all dissent from their revolution, and who have radically changed the nature of one of the most basic of social institutions from what it has been from time immemorial to make it conform to a rigid doctrine of egalitarianism?
How often have we heard the statement “you cannot legislate morality”? Have you ever stopped to think just how foolish this statement is? If it were said instead that “you cannot make people good by passing legislation” there would be nothing wrong with this. The familiar saying, however, is understood to mean that there is something out there called morality which is forbidden territory for legislators.
The problem with that is that legislation is merely a fancy term for the government passing laws. Laws are merely rules that the government enforces. Like all rules, they place limits upon people’s choices. They tell you that you are not supposed to do this or that – kill your fellow man, steal his possessions, burn down his house, etc. – and they prescribe penalties for you if you ignore the law and go ahead and make those choices anyway.
Why do we have laws? This is a question that can be answered either generally or on a law-by-law basis. If we answer generally, we say that we have laws because they are necessary for the good of the community or the society as a whole. If we answer on a law-by-law basis, we look at what the law prohibits and show how it is something that is harmful, wrong, and evil to a degree that justifies the law. The law that says that you cannot kill your fellow man except in certain very specific circumstances, such as to prevent him from killing you first, is there because murder is just this sort of evil.
Note that both answers require the language of morality for their expression. Morality is human behaviour conceived of in terms of good and evil, right and wrong (the related term ethics refers to systematic thought about morality). Laws in general exist for the good of the society. Specific laws are passed against specific evils. Laws are all about good and evil.
In other words, far from it being the case that morality is something the law cannot or ought not to touch, morality is by definition the only thing that the law concerns itself. It is not true that you cannot legislate morality. It is rather the case that morality is the only thing that can be legislated.
What those who say “you cannot legislate morality” are usually really trying to say is that “you ought not to legislate a specific type of morality, i.e., religious morality”. In other words, the all important question for such people is the question of “who says” that certain behaviour is right or wrong. If a certain type of behaviour is determined to be wrong by the democratically arrived at consensus of the secular society (more likely, in reality, by some out-of-touch group of Ivory Tower liberals) then they are okay with laws being passed against it. If the prophets and Apostles in the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Church Fathers, and the moral theology of the Church for two thousand years says that a certain type of behaviour is wrong, then they object to laws being passed against it on the grounds that such laws would be “theocratic”.
This reflects a certain type of thinking that is based upon progressive and positivist assumptions about the history of human thought. In this type of thinking religion, theology, and metaphysics are seen as primitive forms of thought that are vastly inferior to those of the modern reason and science which have superseded and surpassed them. Religion and theology come from a dark past, according to people who think this way, in which they were the tools of oppressive rulers for controlling their people. Reason and science, they think, by contrast, are the tools of the emancipated individual. Therefore the true morality and ethics, from this point of view, must be that about which a consensus is arrived at voluntarily by these modern emancipated individuals guided by the light of their experience (or, more likely, whatever their progressive professor tells them to think). If religious codes of morality have any place at all it is in the private conscience of the individual.
This sort of thinking is, of course, utter nonsense. If there are any rules of behaviour about which anything coming even approximately close to a universal consensus, agreed to by all peoples in all place and all times, exists, it is those basic rules which are enshrined in the moral codes of religion – in, for example, the Decalogue’s “thou shalt not kill”, “thou shalt not steal”, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”, etc. Far from arriving at a superior morality, the Twentieth Century bears record of how modern, emancipated man, justified himself as he committed evils on an unprecedented scale.
That religion teaches that a certain kind of behaviour is wrong is not a valid argument for the law to stay out of it. Religion teaches that murder is wrong, only a fool would therefore argue that there must be no law against murder lest we succumb to the threat of theocracy. There is no difference in kind between the law that forbids you or I from murdering our fellow man and a law which forbids a woman from having an abortion. Indeed, the best and only argument against the latter law would be that it ought to be rendered redundant by the law against murder.
Legislation, by its very nature and definition, is all about morality. It is the government attempting to limit our personal choices, by forbidding that which is wrong, for the good of the whole society. Now, if morality is the only thing that can be legislated, it does not follow that all morality ought to be legislated. In other words, we can recognize that one kind of behaviour is right and another is wrong without insisting that the government and the law has to have a say about it. If we wish to live in a free society, and the English speaking world has traditionally placed a very high premium upon freedom, rather than a tyrannical or totalitarian society, then we will prefer that the law limit itself to prohibiting those evils about which it is absolutely necessary that there be a law. This is a principle that has long been recognized in orthodox moral theology, being identified, for example, in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. (1)
A far better principle, about what the law can and cannot do, than the foolish “you cannot legislate morality” is the principle that the law can only govern outward behaviour and not the heart. This is another way of saying that you cannot make a person good by passing laws. That is not what they are there for. You can pass a law that says that a man cannot poke his neighbour’s eye out, and, hopefully, this law will reduce the evil of blindness due to eye-poking. A law that tried to prevent a person from even thinking about poking their neighbour in the eye, on the other hand, would be silly and inane.
It is telling that the progressives, who accuse social conservatives of theocratic motives for wanting to undo the legalization of abortion and for wanting to return to what until very recently was the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, are the ones who love to recite the absurd saying that we have here debunked about not being able to legislate morality, yet they themselves are loud and shrill in their support for anti-discrimination, “human rights” and “hate” legislation. A law against abortion does not tell a woman how to think or feel – it tells her she cannot kill her unborn child. Laws against “hate” exist for no purpose other than to tell people what to think and feel.
Conservatives are fortunate to have enemies who are always trying to help them out. The foes of the conservative – liberals, socialists, bleeding hearts, leftists, do-gooders, and everybody else who falls under the general umbrella of “progressives” – are always trying to tell us who we are and what our role is. Or rather, they are always trying to tell us who we are not and what our role is not. The “true conservative”, they tell us, is never a reactionary. There are those within the conservative camp who would echo this sentiment, particularly those on the left wing of conservatism, but I think this is a mistake, not only because by doing so we are allowing our opponents to define us and thus giving them an advantage over us, but because what they are telling us simply does not hold up to scrutiny.
Indeed, the only way the claim that the true conservative is never a reactionary would make sense would be if we accepted the definitions of conservative and reactionary which state that the former is the person trying to preserve the present status quo and the latter is the person trying to restore the status quo ante. If we accept these definitions, then, of course, a conservative and reactionary could never be the same person for their purposes are at odds with each other. These definitions, however, are notoriously woefully inadequate.
It is not that difficult to see what the Left gains by insisting upon this claim. Progressives see themselves as being the advocates of socially beneficial change. They grudgingly acknowledge a legitimate role for the conservative as the voice of caution, to argue the con-side against their changes as they propose them, but who, once they change has been made, is supposed to accept it as being written in stone and never attempt to reverse it. If the conservative accepts this limitation on his role then all the progressive has to do is obtain enough support at any given time to make a particular change and then he need never worry about defending that change from conservative attack ever again but can indeed, rally the conservatives to defend his changes against the reactionaries who would seek to undo them. It also boosts confidence in the progressive vision of history in which every change introduced by a progressive is seen as a positive step, moving history along in a linear fashion, towards a future, better, and more just society.
For the conservative to accept the role assigned to him by the progressives, however, would be to reject some of the most basic principles of conservatism. This is one of the reasons why I prefer the older term Tory. The newer label, conservative, has connotations of caution, risk-avoidance, and resistance to change, all of which are good enough in themselves but none of which, singularly or taken together, make much of an argument against the progressive definition of the role of the conservative. The same can hardly be said of the term Tory which from the seventeenth century has been the party of church and state, standing for apostolic authority in the former and the rights and prerogatives of the monarch in the latter. There is no way that this can be reduced to a mere defence of whatever the status quo happens to be at the present movement.
Indeed, the history of the Tories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries very much gives the lie to the claim that a conservative – or a Tory at any rate – can never be a reactionary.
The antecedents of the Tories in the late seventeenth century were the Royalists or Cavaliers who fought for King Charles I in the English Civil War in the 1640s. They lost, the king was arrested, charged with treason in a mock trial conducted in a Parliament from which all of his supporters had been removed by the force of arms by the triumphant New Model Army of the Puritans, then murdered and martyred. After a mercifully short interregnum in which, under the evil dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans cancelled Christmas and Easter, stripped the churches of everything that was visually or audibly aesthetically pleasing, closed the theatres, forbade harmless amusements on the Lord’s Day, and basically went out of their way to make everybody gloomy and miserable, Charles II was restored to his father’s throne and the Church of England with its bishops, King James Bible, and a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer that would become the standard edition was brought back, in what was the most spectacular and successful act of reaction in the history of the world – the English Restoration.
Then, when the Tories lost the battle against the Whigs in 1688, and James II was ousted from the throne by Parliament and replaced by his son-in-law and daughter, those Tories who remained loyal to the House of Stuart, including the non-juror bishops of the Church of England, became the reactionary Jacobites who tried unsuccessfully to restore James and later his son Charles to the throne. While the case can certainly be made that the Jacobites acted unwisely it can also be argued that they were the most true to the principles of the Tory Party. Such later High Tories as Dr. Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century and Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth, while loyal to the kings of the Hanoverian succession, nevertheless looked back on the Jacobites with sympathy and romanticism.
At any rate, within the space of a single century (the last Jacobite rising was in 1745, less than one hundred years after the death of King Charles I) the Tories had sought to restore two different status quo ante’s, and whatever we may think of the Jacobite cause and movement, the first of these, the Restoration, is certainly an argument in favour of reaction.
The folly of the idea that the Tory or conservative is allowed to oppose progressive changes as they are put forward but must accept and defend them once they are made is quite easily demonstrated. If followed to the letter this would mean that we could never attempt to correct a change that has proven to be a mistake. It is no good saying “you cannot turn the clock back”. Not only is this a bad metaphor – the statement is not even literally true – it is a deadly one. To use another metaphor – a more apt one – when you have swerved off a road and are heading towards a cliff it is suicidal to shrug your shoulders, say “what’s done its done” and keeping heading in the same direction.
Perhaps the most bizarre argument I have ever encountered against the idea that a conservative could take the reactionary position was based upon the fact that conservatives are not traditionally opposed to all change but accept change that is in accordance with the rule of law and which is done “little and little”. This, however, is actually an argument against the declaration that conservative and reactionary are mutually exclusive because that declaration is based entirely upon the idea that the conservative must support the present status quo against all changes.
Yes, the conservative accepts certain kinds of change. His position is not that all change is bad – just that the onus of proof lies upon the person who proposes an innovation. The changes he accepts are lawful, accomplished slowly, and on a small-scale. More importantly, however, for a conservative to accept change it must be change that is consistent with and better yet a means of continuity. Furthermore, a conservative can accept changes of a sort that no progressive ever accepts – changes that acknowledge that a progressive innovation has been a mistake and go back to a way that was time-honoured, tested, and true. It is precisely because a conservative can accept this kind of change that he can be a reactionary.
Indeed, Tory principles demand that the conservative be a reactionary in certain situations. The Tory regards society as an organic whole that includes past and future generations as well. He does not accept simple, unmixed, democracy, whether as a constitutional form, or the idea that the majority at any present moment should rule. The voices of past and future generations must be heard as well and since the future generations cannot yet speak the past generations must be their voice against the present generation whose primary concern is always its own interest in the here and now. Therefore if some demagogue or some persistent group of activists is able at a given moment to obtain enough support in the legislative body or even the general public to make a change that goes against the wisdom of the ages embodied in the voices of the past generations passed down to us in tradition, the Tory has the duty to work to undo this change – to take on the role of the reactionary.
Throughout the history of the Christian Church several labels – including “Christian” itself – were initially coined as terms of opprobrium by the enemies of those labelled but were later appropriated by the labelled and worn as badges of honour until eventually their original negative sense was forgotten. Sometimes this pattern is reversed, however, and one notable example of this is the term “fundamentalist”. This word was coined by Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Northern Baptist newspaper The Watchman-Examiner in 1920, as a self-descriptive label for Christians who “still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals.” The term caught on among Protestants, especially in denominations that were descended from the English Calvinist non-conformist groups and among those that had arisen out of or been heavily influenced by the evangelical revival movement of the preceding two centuries.
Today the term is still in use but its meaning has changed. There are still Protestant groups who self-identify as fundamentalist. For these groups the term still has the same meaning it had in the 1920’s and ‘30’s but with the added concept of ecclesiastical separation from those who reject the fundamentals. There is some overlap with the groups who identify as “evangelical”, but self-identifying fundamentalists would regard most of these (whom they would call “new evangelical” or “neo-evangelical”) as compromising because they are less separatist and more willing to accommodate liberalism. Those who would identify themselves as evangelical rather than fundamentalist often use the term fundamentalist to mean those who hold to theological concepts like dispensationalism and its accompanying pre-millenial eschatology and neo-Puritan ethics (don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, etc.) although none of these things is technically part of the meaning of fundamentalism for those who identify as fundamentalists. Outside of evangelicalism, other Christian theologians often have hazier ideas as to what fundamentalists actually believe. I read a Roman Catholic apologist once who said that fundamentalism was basically Calvinist. In fact, the majority of fundamentalists are probably better described as Arminian, except perhaps on the issue of eternal security. The most Calvinist of theologians, strict 5 point Reformed types, usually don’t like to think of themselves as fundamentalists because they identify fundamentalism with dispensationalism which is at odds with their own covenant theology.
Far more common than any of these meanings, however, for most people today, the term fundamentalist has come to have the meaning which progressive academics, clergy, and commentators have attached to it, namely that of “religious extremist”. Thus terrorists waging jihad against the West are now called “Islamic terrorists” and the followers of Rabbi Kahane are now “Jewish fundamentalists”.
It is fundamentalism in the original sense of the term which we will be considering here and its relationship with theological orthodoxy. When Curtis Laws coined the term the phase “the fundamentals” was already being widely discussed. Ten years previously the Bible Institute of Los Angeles had begun to print a series of pamphlets under the title The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. It ran to twelve volumes by the time it was done five years later (it was later re-issued in a four volume hardbound edition) and consisted of essays by learned men from various denominations including Presbyterian (James Orr, B. B. Warfield, A. T. Pierson, Charles R. Erdman), Anglican (Dyson Hague, W. H. Griffith Thomas, J. C. Ryle), Baptist (A. C. Dixon, E. Y. Mullins), Plymouth Brethren (Algernon Pollack) and Methodist (Arno C. Gaebelein), mostly Americans but with some Canadian and British contributors. The contributors were clergy, for the most part, often clergy who did double duty as academic professors as well. The pamphlets argued in defence of the authority and truth of the Holy Bible as the Word of God and for historical Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, His Incarnation and Virgin Birth, the Atonement and Resurrection, Justification by Faith and the Second Coming against various modern ideas and movements. The same year that these pamphlets, edited by R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon began to be published, five doctrines were identified as essential to the faith at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA. The five doctrines were 1) the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, 2) the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, 3) the substitutionary atonement, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ and 5) that Christ’s miracles as recorded in Scripture were historic and genuine. These were very similar to a five point statement made at the Niagara Bible Conference in 1895, an abridged version of their earlier fourteen point statement of 1878. In the five points of 1895 the deity of Christ was the second point, the virgin birth and substitutionary atonement were the third and fourth points, and the fifth point included both the bodily resurrection and the second coming. These two statements gave birth to the idea of the “Five Points of Fundamentalism” and to perpetual confusion as to the formulation of those five points.
The publication of The Fundamentals, the statements by the Niagara Bible Conference and the Presbyterian General Assembly, and the entire fundamentalist movement in general arose in response to a specific problem – the growth of unbelief, formulated as doctrine, in the Protestant denominations. This formulated unbelief was known as modernism or (theological) liberalism. Either term is apt because it was a product of the Modern Age and the predominant ideology of that Age which is liberalism. The Modern Age was an Age of rebellion against tradition and authority, which liberalism regarded as shackles that robbed people of their freedom and blinders that kept from them the light of reason and science. Needless to say, this type of thinking, which had gradually grown up in the academic world as Renaissance humanism, the rationalism of the “Age of Reason”, and the “Enlightenment” took the university further and further away from its medieval, theocentric, Christian roots, eventually produced the attitude that C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield dubbed “chronological snobbery”, i.e., the attitude that says “its well enough for people of past ages, who didn’t know any better, to believe in things like miracles and the virgin birth, but people like me in this enlightened, modern, age in which we live cannot be expected to believe such things”. When this attitude is held by a clergyman or theological professor it takes the form of theological liberalism, which regards the virgin birth of Jesus Christ as a story His disciples later made up (or borrowed from pagan mythology) and says the same thing about His deity or uses the term “divinity” instead of deity, meaning by such a term a concept like “the spark of divinity that is in all of us”, borrowed from the early Gnostic heretics. The Apostles said that Jesus rose from the dead, the liberals taught, because they could feel Him living on inside themselves the way you or I might continue to still feel the presence of a loved one who has passed away. The essential message of Christianity, modernism taught, was that we should love all people and treat them fairly and justly, reading modern egalitarianism into the concepts of “fairness” and “justice”, and all that stuff about the Son of God, coming down from heaven, being born of a virgin, dying for our sins, and rising triumphant over sin and death, was just window dressing. All of that was unnecessary anyway, liberalism taught, because the whole concept of “sin” comes from an outdated and barbaric understanding of morality that we have outgrown in modern times.
With garbage like this coming to be taught from the pulpit there was a clear need for something like fundamentalism to reaffirm and fight for the truths that Christians had historically and traditionally believed which the modernists or liberals were denying.
The fundamentalists believed they were contending for sound or orthodox doctrine against heresy and unbelief. There are those who would say that this is ironic because fundamentalism did not itself represent what has historically and traditionally been considered orthodoxy within Christianity. There are a number of different reasons given for this charge. One would be that the denominations most heavily represented in fundamentalism are those that arose out of the English Dissenting or Non-Conformist Movements and their counterparts in continental Europe, i.e., the churches traditionally considered the Radical or left wing of the Protestant Reformation. Another would be that the Bible Conference movement which produced the first formulation of what became the Five Points of Fundamentalism was a platform for the dispensationalist version of pre-millennialism.
These arguments, when coming from the traditionally orthodox in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran Churches, have much truth to them which we will consider shortly. Sometimes, however, you will find these arguments on the lips of those who are less interested in defending traditional orthodoxy than in bashing fundamentalism from a position of clear and obvious sympathy for either theological liberalism or the opponents of fundamentalism (and evangelicalism) in the present culture war. It is difficult to credit such people with good faith and the appropriate response is to say that traditional Christian orthodoxy is more than fundamentalism not less than fundamentalism. Or, to put it another way, when traditional Christian orthodoxy approaches and criticizes fundamentalism it is from the direction opposite to that of theological, political and cultural liberalism.
Each of the five points of fundamentalism, whichever formulation is used, is affirmed by traditional Christian orthodoxy. The deity, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and second coming of Christ are affirmed in the Creeds of the early, undivided, Church, which are the classical statements of traditional orthodox faith. If traditional orthodoxy is to be distinguished from fundamentalism on these points, it is that traditional orthodoxy prefers a more precise, as well as more aesthetically pleasing, formulation of these doctrines. Rather than say “I believe…in the deity of Jesus Christ”, for example, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed declares the orthodox belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; Through whom all things were made”. Whereas liberalism denies the doctrines affirmed as fundamental by fundamentalism, or affirms them nominally but in such a way as to deny them in actuality by stripping them of their substance, traditional orthodoxy expresses them in a fuller, more complete, way.
Liberalism regards fundamentalism as clinging to outdated ideas, to superstitious beliefs about virgins giving birth and the dead rising, that we, so much wiser than our forebears, know better than to believe today. If traditional orthodoxy finds fault with fundamentalism it is for a completely different set of reasons.
Traditional orthodoxy might fault fundamentalism, for example, for being too reductionist. The ecumenical Creeds are the classical formulation of orthodoxy and there is a lot more in each of these than is in the five points of fundamentalism. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds have a Trinitarian structure, with one section for each of the Three Persons, and the first section of the Athanasian Creed spells out the doctrine of the Trinity at length. The Holy Trinity is not listed as one of the points of fundamentalism, nor do they mention the Father and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that fundamentalists did not believe in the Holy Trinity, on the contrary, they were and are Trinitarians, but it does mean that the orthodox Creeds are a more complete statement of the “fundamentals” of Christianity than the five points of fundamentalism.
It is the first of the five points, however, which is the most contentious, both for liberals and the traditionally orthodox, but for different reasons. Liberals ridicule the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture because they don’t believe the Bible to be the Word of God and think it to be chock full of historical and scientific errors, superstitions that sophisticated, rational, educated, modern people know better than to believe in these days, and fanciful myths and legends, no different from those of other primitive peoples and probably ripped off from them. This point of view is not shared by the traditionally orthodox.
Where traditional orthodoxy has a problem with the first point of fundamentalism is in the fact that it is placed first, before anything is said about Christ. This, to the traditionally orthodox, says that fundamentalism takes the Bible as its starting point and tries to demonstrate Christ from the Bible. This, in the orthodox point of view, is a mistake because Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God, is the full and perfect revelation of God to man. He is to be our starting point. It is because Christ taught that the Scriptures are the authoritative Word of God that we are to accept them as such. Our theology, in other words, is supposed to be Christocentric rather than Bibliocentric.
This does not mean that traditional orthodoxy rejects the inerrancy of Scripture. Inerrancy, it is true, is a term of recent usage and is not, therefore, part of the traditional language used by the Christian Church in speaking of the Scriptures. The concept the word represents, however, is clearly implicit in the orthodox view of the Bible. The Church did not claim, from the time of Christ and His Apostles, in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, East and West, down to modern times, that the Bible was a set of merely human writings that could be right or wrong in what it teaches. No, the Church, following Christ’s own example, taught throughout the ages that the Bible is the written Word of God, that the person hearing the words of Scripture is hearing God speak through His prophets and apostles. The traditional orthodox view is that the Bible is the written Word of God, not a merely human book as liberalism teaches, or something that becomes the Word of God when we experience God through it as neo-orthodoxy (actually a form of liberalism rather than of orthodoxy) taught. In this it agrees with fundamentalism and inerrancy is implicit in this view because if the Bible is the written Word of God, if its words are a communication from God to man, then to say that the Bible is in error in what it asserts or teaches is to say that God is in error.
To understand what the doctrine of inerrancy means and does not mean requires a great deal of common sense, a commodity which is sadly in short supply in our day and age. It means only that the Bible is inerrant in what it asserts and teaches. It does not mean that because a sentence is found in the Bible it must therefore be taken as true in every possible sense without reference to its context,. Joshua 2:4-5 includes the words “There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were: And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.” These words were not true, they were a lie told by Rahab to the men of the king of Jericho to protect Joshua’s spies. The words are in the Bible, but Biblical inerrancy does not mean that they are true, because the Bible does not assert that they are true but rather tells us that they are a lie.
Nor does Biblical inerrancy mean that the Bible must measure up to modern, man made, standards of technical precision. Here is an example of what I mean. The Bible frequently refers to the sun as rising in the east and setting in the West. On a couple of occasions it refers to God performing miracles in which the sun either stops in its movement across the sky or even moves backwards. Modern science tells us that the phenomenon (appearance) of the sun moving across the sky from the east to the west is actually caused by the motion of the earth as it rotates on its axis. Therefore, a technically precise way of saying “the sun rose” would be to say “the rotation of the earth on its axis caused the sun to become visible on the eastern horizon”. This does not mean that the Bible is in error in referring to the sun rising. The Bible is God’s verbal communication to man. If God is going to communicate to men verbally He must speak the language men use and the language which men use is phenomenal language and not the language of technical precision. The language of technical precision is not a measuring stick to which the language of phenomenon is to be held up and judged to be “right” or “wrong”. Only pedantic fools of the type of whom the character of Sheldon Cooper on television’s “The Big Bang Theory” is a hilarious caricature would insist otherwise.
Unfortunately it is not just arrogant atheists, humanists, and materialists who are such pedantic fools. Fundamentalists have often outdone them by coming up with bizarre interpretations of the phenomenal language of the Bible – such as the reference to the firmament and the waters above it in the creation account – in order to make the claim that it is a technically precise account of what the world was like at creation (but is no longer). This is unnecessary for the reasons given in the preceding paragraph and by doing so the fundamentalists have done exactly what they accuse theistic evolutionists of doing, i.e., reading the text in a way that nobody prior to Darwin would ever have dreamed of doing.
This brings us to one final difference between orthodoxy and fundamentalism which we will consider. Orthodoxy and fundamentalism both teach that the Holy Bible is the Word of God and as such is authoritative and true in all it asserts and teaches. Fundamentalism, however, insists that the Bible be interpreted as literally as possible. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, insists that the Bible be interpreted as traditionally as possible. Sometimes the traditional interpretation of the Bible is a literal interpretation. The other points of fundamentalism are good examples of this. Traditional orthodoxy does not allow for an understanding of the deity of Jesus Christ that is any less than that He was fully God come in the flesh as true man. It does not allow for crossed fingers when affirming belief that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. It does not allow for the idea that Jesus rose from the dead “in the sense” that His disciples felt Him living on in their hearts. Orthodoxy is more than fundamentalism, not less, and saying truthfully that the orthodox way of interpreting the Scriptures is traditional rather than literal does not lend support to such attempts to hide sheer unbelief behind the guise of faith.
The difference between the literal and the traditional way, the fundamentalist and the orthodox, ways of interpreting the Scriptures is this. The fundamentalist, literal, approach accepts modern, rationalist, and individualist presuppositions. It sees the indwelling of the Holy Spirit spoken of in the New Testament as referring primarily or even exclusively to the individual believer. It therefore sees the Holy Spirit’s ministry of guidance and truth (John 16:13) in the same way. Unlike the modern charismatics, who have a similar individualistic view of the matter but who emphasize an experiential relationship, fundamentalists insist that there is a rational formula, method, or technique for arriving at the proper interpretation of Scriptures, which is the literal method. Ironically, the fundamentalist view violates a literal understanding of I Peter 1:20.
Orthodoxy is not so individualistic. The orthodox view does not reject that the Holy Spirit comes upon and indwells believers individually. The rite of confirmation would make very little sense otherwise. In orthodoxy, however, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit refers primarily to the Church as the collective Body of Christ and it is that collective body that is the primary recipient of the ministry of guidance into truth.
This does not mean that the correct interpretation of the Scriptures is what the authorities of the Church at any given particular time say it is. This was the arrogant position taken by the corrupt ecclesiastical officials whose abuse of their position by using a bad theology of salvation developed in the late Middle Ages to prey upon people’s fear of hell and purgatory to extort money from them prompted the response of the Protestant Reformers whose assertion of the supremacy of Scriptural authority, in the unfortunate terminology of Sola Scriptura, eventually led to the fundamentalist position. The Church as the collective Body of Christ, includes not just believers alive today (the Church Militant), but past generations who have passed into the presence of Christ (the Church Triumphant) as well. If the Church as the collective whole of the Body of Christ is the recipient of Christ’s promise that the Spirit of Truth would guide us into all truth then these past generations must be included as well. What this means is that for the Church today to be led into truth and not slide into error it must listen carefully to how past generations of Christians have understood the Scriptures.
There is no formula for doing this. The idea that everything can be reduced to a formula or technique is the great heresy of the Modern Age in philosophy, science and politics as well as in theology and religion. There are principles to guide us, however, one of these being the classical canon found in the Commonitory of St. Vincent of Lerins, which is that we should hold to “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” These are not absolute terms, otherwise we would be looking for an extremely low, lowest common denominator, but it means that we should listen to what has been persistently taught, throughout the whole Church and not just in one branch, arm, sect, or locality, from the earliest times. To do so, will not lead us anywhere close to modernism, liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, or any of the various other forms of latter day unbelief, but will give us a fuller understanding of the truth than that which is found in fundamentalism.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca