A Book Review of “The Church of the Fundamentalists”

The Church of the Fundamentalists is the recently published work by Dr. Larry Oats, a long-time professor at Maranatha Baptist University. While Dr. Oats’s PhD is in Systematic Theology (I believe this is his dissertation in published form), the work demonstrated a hybrid focus on both historical theology and systematic theology in the historical contexts. By way of introduction, the book surveys the history of the doctrine of ecclesiology and then the history of the fundamentalist and neo-evangelical movements. Then, the author proceeds to survey the ecclesiology of the fundamentalists and then the ecclesiology of the evangelicals. The work then concludes with a short section of Dr. Oats’s concluding remarks of the status of the fundamentalist and evangelical movements with special attention to theological method and the importance of developing a full theology of fellowship and separation.

Overall, the author’s presentation was thorough and comprehensive in its presentation of the historical matters concerning the doctrine of the church, the history of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early 1900s, and the fundamentalist and neo-evangelical movements as they started forming in the 1940s and beyond. While more space seemed to be devoted to history rather than explicit theological analysis, careful theological reflection is found throughout the historical studies and the author’s thesis is clearly demonstrated that theological reflection is usually missing from historical analysis of the fundamentalist and neo-evangelical movements. The author by his own admission focused on the key figures of both sides (e.g. Bob Jones Sr. & Jr., John R. Rice, and Carl McIntyre from the fundamentalists and Harold J. Ockenga, Edward John Carnell, and Carl F. H. Henry from the evangelicals) rather than covering every personality. He inserted brief overall historical sketches of several figures through his narratives of the history of the movements, a practice that sometimes broke the flow of thought a bit but it was still readable. The most helpful parts of his analysis were the theological reflection of ecclesiology and the careful identification of areas in which there was division within each movement amidst their agreements as well as the areas in which both sides were in some degree of basic agreement. Perhaps the height of the book was his concluding reflections, in which the author gives needful emphasis on theological method to the discussion. He concludes that the key issue is the tension between unity and purity in the local church and admits that both sides did not sufficiently develop or defend a theology of fellowship and separation. This conclusion is well worded and needs to be carefully considered by both sides, given the overemphasis, lack of balance, or even ignorance regarding the church by both fundamentalists and evangelicals in their historical expressions. The work is an excellent summary of an issue of great significance for local churches and is recommended for pastors and interested church members for their own enrichment and reflection.

To offer some personal reflections of my own, my own life has seemed to straddle the boundary between evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This work and Dr. Oats’s perspective was especially helpful to fill in the gaps in some of the history as I understood. The road ahead seems to be that both sides must endeavor to pursue a more developed theology of fellowship and separation as Dr. Oats describes it. The goal should be that both sides reach a more faithful, Biblical view on these issues. Perhaps as that happens there will be more opportunities for consensus about these issues. The climate of today with the increasing liberalizing of evangelicalism, increased scholarship from fundamentalism, and increasing persecution and attack on the “fundamentals of the faith” suggest that there is even more of a need for a united and pure front for true Christianity so that there be less division among people who believe each other to be true believers. Dr. Oats began this work by observing that “Conservative Christianity in North America was a fairly homogenous movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” I believe this is what is desirable today, albeit the concession that it may not be possible given the foretold apostasy in the last days (as fundamentalism has typically emphasized). Perhaps as the church in America enters a period of more possibility for persecution, the desirability of this kind of consensus will be even more important. For future reflection, the author has published a pair of journal articles on a Theology of Fellowship and a Theology of Separation. I have not read them yet, but I believe these will prove to be fruitful to read for further interaction. In conclusion, this work is highly recommended as providing a balanced historical and theological perspective of the doctrine of separation from a committed fundamentalist framework.

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