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Evangelicals and the fundamentalist tendency

sydney-anglicanism-michael-jensenI recently wrote a review of Michael Jensen’s book, Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology (Wipf & Stock, 2012). The questions being asked of Sydney Anglicanism are good questions for any evangelical Christian, and the book prompted some further reflections for me. The nature of evangelicalism is something that Tamie and I have been exploring for several years now.

Jensen responds to the charge that Sydney Anglicans are fundamentalists in one of his early chapters. Part of his aim is to establish that ‘Bible-believing’ is not synonymous with ‘fundamentalist’.

He notes that fundamentalism is a real phenomenon, not simply a swear word. As he puts it, fundamentalism is ‘a kind of religious mentality that is most egregiously in evidence in a kind of epistemological double standard… that confidently asserts the objectivity and interest-free status of its own reasoning while at the same time decrying the prejudice and interest-laden nature of the reasoning of its opponents.’

My question goes something like this: how can we claim to hold Scripture as our final authority in a way that’s not fundamentalist?

On its own, to claim that Scripture is your final authority doesn’t make you a fundamentalist; it’s a mainstream Christian perspective, as Jensen says. However, Scripture is always interpreted, and ‘Scripture as final authority’ must always mean, at some level, ‘Scripture as we read it’. The thing is, it’s a treacherously small step from saying, ‘We’re Bible-believing Christians’ to saying, ‘We’re the true/only Bible-believing Christians.’ This is where we evangelicals face a recurring temptation: when we encounter others who also hold to the authority of Scripture, yet who differ from us, we’re inclined to claim this is because they do not truly recognise the authority of Scripture, and are disobedient. That’s where the fundamentalist tendency begins to show.

Jensen’s argument against fundamentalism is framed in response to Muriel Porter’s ‘extreme liberal’ attack on Sydney Anglicanism, and I’d say he effectively takes the wind out of her sails. Yet it seems to me, as an evangelical, that the barometer for fundamentalism is in how we respond to those closest to us. The most tangible proof that Sydney Anglicans are not fundamentalists lies in their response to those who also claim adherence to Scripture and yet arrive at differing beliefs and practices. To put it another way, if there is a fundamentalist tendency in Sydney Anglicanism, those most likely to get burnt are not liberal Christians but people much closer to home: other evangelicals, pentecostals, and mainstream Protestant Christians. Sydney Anglicanism is not fundamentalist only insofar as it is able to make peace with multiple varieties of Christianity, especially multiple expressions of evangelicalism.

‘The remedy for a potential fundamentalism,’ says Jensen, ‘is not anything other than reading Scripture again and again’. If indeed we are ‘always reforming’ (semper reformanda), we cannot presume that truth is constrained by our perception of it. But if this is the case, then it is not enough to guard our doctrine. We need to practice unity, without which doctrine is hollow. We need not only to re-read Scripture, but to read it alongside others.

The women in ministry issue is perhaps the most pertinent example here. It’s been a hot-button issue for a while, and it’s recently flared up again following the publication of a book by a Sydney Anglican, John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice: A case for women giving sermons. Towards the end of An Apology, Jensen defends the Sydney Anglican perspective on gender — but to really head off the charge of fundamentalism, I’d like to hear Sydney Anglicans reflect on how they might work together with evangelical Christians who think differently on this issue. This would be a great proving ground for the robustness of Sydney Anglican evangelicalism.

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. Arthur, you make a great point here. I was recently involved in a Facebook discussion regarding the removal of John Dickson as speaker at the Katoomba Women’s Convention (and its subsequent cancellation). What I find interesting is that some (and to be fair I have no idea of what percentage) of the Sydney Anglicans (and/or its exports) give a very high weight to the women in ministry issue – almost but probably not quite to the point where it has become a gospel issue in their mind. Those who interpret differently are either badly mistaken or even wilfully disobedient. The disputed passages are, to them, actually clear and simple, and to see them as problematic passages in itself is wrong-headed. I see this as an expression of the type of fundamentalism you describe.

  2. Arthur I don’t know that I would call this a review of Michael Jensen’s helpful book. BUT I found it the most helpful observation there has been -that I have read – on Sydney Anglicanism and the issue of how the epistemic framing of some in their thinking influences their “politics” both internally and externally. The manner in which you raised how Sydney Anglican’s epistemic framing of basically two texts of Scripture in their hermeneutic in discussing the role of women in ministry in the church is spot on.

    In the response of one of the faculty members of Moore College to John Dickson’s book I particularly was saddened. In his first engagement he never engaged the text of Dr Dickson’s book but used a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and critiqued Dr Dickson’s motivation for the book. I am unaware as to whether he ever carried out a follow up critiquing the actual content of the book.

    And the Katoomba Board mentioned above in my opinion created a catastrophe of its own making. They had the opportunity to educate the church on where our unity lies – in the person of Jesus Christ. What they did was show where unity is to be found for many Sydney Angicans and that is in interpretation of two texts of Scripture in Corinthians and Timothy.

    Power comes in many forms. One of the places I find its use most interesting is in how structures of exclusion within churches manifest where true unity is grounded. I find this particularly true when they are used not simply to ensure coherence of church doctrine and polity but also to be a strong polemic of where others outside the community are wrong.

    Sadly too often the Good News of the Kingdom has become replaced by the accusation of the other.

    In my opinion the possibility of this kind of power is most manifest in Geneva Push – a church planting movement very influenced by Sydney Anglicanism. It has 18 polemical points affirming what they don’t believe in – one of which is being polemicists. Perhaps what people moving toward fundamentalism should most fear is when they deny being the charicature of themselves.

    Thanks for your comments in this review – I think them most important.

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