We Always Need “New” Fundamentals

Back in the early 20th century, in response to a ruinous drift away from the historic Christian faith, there was a widespread movement in American Christianity to return to a serious and careful exposition of what they termed the “Five Fundamentals” of the Christian faith:

  1. The inspiration and infallibility of the Bible
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
  3. Substitutionary atonement through Christ’s death on the cross
  4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ
  5. The historicity of Jesus’ miracles

Of course these are not the Five Most Important Truths of Christianity for all time, as though we had a prioritized list that fell from heaven or something. These five truths were foundational elements of Christianity that were under attack at that historical moment. At other times, such a list might have included the deity of Christ (in A.D. 325), or the full deity and humanity of Christ (451), or justification by faith (1517), or the necessity for individual new birth (1741), or the reality of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry (1906).

The point is, the fundamental elements of the Faith remain perennially the same, but the battleground shifts. The same old temptations come back, all tarted up in the latest fashions. The new attacks, having been developed downstream from past battles for orthodoxy, are necessarily framed in a way that–at least at first glance–passes all the older litmus tests.

Take, for example, the battle about biblical inerrancy. As major institutions (and their collections of big donors) took up positions on the right side of the fight over biblical inspiration, they found no shortage of folks willing to agree. However, a bunch of these professor types–having signed a doctrinal statement that clearly stated the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit– went on to say (where the donors couldn’t hear them, but the students could) that of course inspiration didn’t mean the Bible had no errors in it. In practice, that meant you could ignore the bits you didn’t like, which was the same temptation all over again. So when we started insisting on inerrancy as well as inspiration, we were providing a clarification rendered necessary by the ingenuity of heretics. The basic error (“Yeah, hath God said…?”) was a few minutes older than the Fall; it was just dressed up in new words. The word-jugglers, of course, affected a wounded stance and asked us why we would needlessly divide the Body of Christ by adding some new doctrinal shibboleth that was unprecedented in the history of the Church. The proper response to their pearl-clutching, or course, is a hearty horselaugh and a boot to the backside.

The enemy is crafty. When he has exhausted one attack on the vital core of the Christian faith, he tries another. And another. And another. There are always seemingly well-taught people who reject all the old heresies and compromises but swallow the new ones whole. These are the same folks Jesus derided for laying wreaths on the tombs of the dead prophets while persecuting the living ones. They have failed to learn the lessons of the past because they understand the old heresies as bad ideas, and not as temptations.

The liquor ad always has a picture of the girl dancing at a party on Friday night, never a picture of the same girl passed out in a gutter on Saturday morning. Temptations always look good at the time, and bad in hindsight. The old heresies were tempting at the time–and we need to learn to see how the temptation worked at the time–but usually don’t look all that appealing today. The new attacks look very tempting now, because they are temptations geared to this historical moment.

And so one of the pastor’s tasks is to continually articulate the unchanging fundamentals of the Christian faith in a way that cuts against the current set of temptations. There is an ever-present danger of being ready to win the battles of the past, but woefully unprepared for the temptations of the present. So while I happily affirm and defend the Creed of Nicea, the Definition of Chalcedon, the five solas of the Reformation, the five fundamentals of the early 20th century, and so on–if I stop there, I am not doing my job.

The need of the hour is to articulate the unchanging Christian faith in a way that cuts against today’s temptations. In this series, I will lay out a modest proposal: five fundamentals to do just that.

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