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The Modernism of (Some) Religious Conservatism

It is sometimes pointed out that Islamic fundamentalism is a modernist phenomenon. I think it must be true of all religious fundamentalism.

Over the weekend, I got into a brief Twitter exchange with a pastor of a nondenominational “Bible church” (as if all churches aren’t Bible churches) in Texas who said that I am not a Christian, because Orthodox and Catholics are not Christian. I pointed out to him that Christianity did not begin with the Reformation, but then decided to block the guy on Twitter, because the last thing I wanted to do was get into an exchange with a guy like that.

An hour later, I was standing in our Orthodox vespers service, thinking about that guy and smiling. There we were, praying in a church that can trace itself in an unbroken line back to the apostles. We chanted Psalms and read passages aloud from the Old Testament. We sang hymns commemorating the Council of Nicaea [1] (325), and its victory over the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus. As in every vespers service, we sang the hymn “O Joyful Light,” which is the oldest surviving hymn from antiquity, having been composed in the late third or early fourth century; tradition says it was written by a bishop on his way to martyrdom. He didn’t write it for a praise band.

And I thought about all the Christians of the Middle East being exiled and martyred today for their faith in Jesus Christ. These Christians are almost entirely Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic, or members of one of the Nestorian churches. Whatever their communion, their ancestors were worshiping Jesus Christ as God when the ancestors of nearly all of us northern Europeans were praying to pagan gods.

And yet, to this fundamentalist Protestant in Texas, these people are not Christian.

It’s such a risible position to hold that one can only smile at it. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly understand the reality of theological conflict, and actually admire people of whatever church who don’t elide real division for the sake of comity. Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox all have serious theological conflicts among us, conflicts that cannot be easily resolved, if they can be resolved at all. It’s important to acknowledge that fact.

But to hold a position that says, either explicitly or by implication, that Christianity cannot be said to have existed prior to the Reformation — or, as I have heard it said, to hold a theory that the real church somehow went underground after Constantine’s conversion, and only emerged at the Reformation — is bizarre. Many of the things modern Fundamentalists object to about Catholicism (and presumably Orthodoxy) were well established in the Church before Constantine’s conversion. For example, the early church had bishops and priests, and the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch [2], who died a martyr in the year 107, had been appointed bishop by Peter himself.

For that matter, how does Mr. Bible Church think the Bible came into being? From the Church! [3] There were no Protestants at any of those early church councils that defined dogmas and created the canon of Scripture, which was set firmly by the fifth century. Christians like him are heavily dependent on everything that came before them. Whatever else it is, that guy’s position is radically unconservative.

Don’t misunderstand: though I reject the Reformation, I recognize that there are good, and good faith, arguments to be made for why the radical ecclesiological development that the Reformation represents was God’s doing. But if I understand this correctly — and I may not, so I invite your correction — the Fundamentalists go even further than the leading Reformers, denying that there was any church at all from the Constantinian era until the Reformation. I looked up this pastor’s church, and judging from their statement of beliefs, they are classical Fundamentalists — but claim no affiliation with any historic Christian confession. The first thing on their Statement of Beliefs is that the Bible is the inerrant and final word of God, and it contains everything that man needs to be saved. Okay, but that is not what the early church believed, and could not possibly be, because they did not have a canon of Scriptures for centuries … and Scripture did not canonize itself. By whose authority was Scripture canonized?

Well, anyway, I have no interest in engaging in theological disputation here, and won’t. What prompts this post is my curiosity about this question: Does laying hold to a position so extreme and so ungrounded in history leave people like Mr. Bible Church vulnerable in other ways to the forces of modernity, which deny the authority of the past? That is, does the nature of their conservatism leave Christian fundamentalists particularly vulnerable to the cultural forces that are tearing Christianity apart in the West?

This reminds me of firebrand political conservatives who seem to think conservatism began with Ronald Reagan, and that before his appearance among us, there was a vast void between the age of the Founding Fathers, and Reagan’s coming. Their historical ignorance denies them deeper philosophical resources that they could rightly draw on to defend their position against contemporary challenges. All true conservatives — as opposed to ideologues — lay hold to continuity with the past, and the democracy of the dead.

Christians who refuse, even denigrate, the Church’s deep theological roots in history, strike me as holding a conservatism that is a hard outer shell. What happens when the experience of living in modernity, with its valorization of radical autonomy, erodes or pierces the armor? With their creedless, non-denominational, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to Christianity, they are sitting ducks. They deny themselves the wisdom and profundity of tradition, which would give them deep roots. Ironically, their approach to ecclesiology is itself part of modernity, the very thing they oppose so fiercely. Christian fundamentalism, especially in its nondenominational variety, is parasitic on older, more ancient forms of Christianity, in ways that its adherents don’t appreciate.

It’s like political conservatives who don’t grasp that conservatism is a far broader and deeper thing than Reaganism and post-Reaganism. Given Reagan’s celebration of the free market, they don’t know what to say when questions are raised about the market’s role in undermining traditions that conservatism has historically stood for upholding. So they double down on dogmatism and ideology, which, as time goes on, persuades or attracts fewer and fewer people.

This is going to happen to fundamentalist Christianity, I think. It is an unstable thing, and far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time than its believers think. We can all look at liberal Protestantism and liberal Catholicism, and see how they are withering. Fundamentalism looks strong by contrast. I think this is deceptive.

And yet, it must be conceded that all that tradition, and all that doctrinal depth and comprehensiveness, is not producing Catholics who believe in what their own church teaches, as opposed to Fundamentalists and Evangelicals (which are not the same thing). This may be the same with Orthodox Christians too, but we are so few in the US that I honestly don’t know what things look like outside of my own individual experience. Poll numbers routinely show, though, little evidence that magisterial Catholicism has formed the worldviews and consciences of the Catholic laity, such that their views are distinctively different from the general populace. The Fundamentalists lack a lot of the things that liturgical Christians like me have, but we lack something they have: zeal.

112 Comments (Open | Close)

112 Comments To "The Modernism of (Some) Religious Conservatism"

#1 Comment By Matt in AK On May 26, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

This thread shows one of the problems with using the term “conservative” for a religious denomination based on political leanings, or even morality. These folks are the heirs of “the Radical Reformation” and it shows. We share traditional morality, and a high view of the authority of scripture with them, but they are not conservative in doctrine, praxis, or basic inclination.
-Matt in AK

#2 Comment By Stephen Gould On May 26, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

From the outside, all these discussions about who is a Christian are entertaining but odd. I find it convenient to view the monotheist religions as though I were a cladist. Judaism splits into “true” Judaism and Samaritanism (but the latter is still a part of Judaism, which means that “Judaism” is paraphyletic). The Christian clade then includes every single last branch of Christianity, whether members of that branch acknowledge it or no. But although Christianity is monophyletic, most clades within Christianity seem to regard it as at best paraphyletic – Mormonism is to an outsider clearly a Christian church, but to a non-Mormon Christian, almost certainly not.

FWIW Islam is a later clade coming off the Judaism main line, but with some meme transfer from the Christian clade.

Simple 🙂

#3 Comment By Robert On May 26, 2015 @ 8:35 pm

There might be a few articles by Rod Dreher in TAC which I have missed out on reading over the years (these articles would all be in the “View From Your Table” rubric, more especially its Orthodixie subdivision) but of those which I have read, and there have been plenty, I cannot recall any that are better than this, or that have made me more radically rethink my own theological premises.

In this essay we have, I suspect, a permanent game-changer. (P.S. I am a Catholic non-American who, nevertheless, has visited the U.S.A. many times over the last quarter-century.)

#4 Comment By Thymoleontas On May 26, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

I disagree with but in principle understand “sola scriptura”. What I cannot fathom is “sola scriptura et nullus crux” fundamentalism.

Is it not scriptural to say “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”? Anyway…

Indeed, fundamentalist protestantism is “modernist” in its radical iconoclasm, its worship of the authority of the individual, its thirst for immediacy and impatience with mediation, and its fragmentation of doctrine from life, the intelligible from the sensible, and faith from hope and love.

#5 Comment By Jon Corbett On May 26, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

I think you are correct. A lot of times, particularly in American Church history, Fundamentalism is seen as a reaction against modernists (thinking of the Old Princetonians leaving Princeton for example -or- in reaction against a progressive social welfare gospel). But the reality is, Fundamentalism couches it’s categories of thought and theological hermeneutic in very modernistic terms — which in one way accounts for extreme skeptism toward tradition, as well as other things such as an over literalistic reading of the Bible and Biblical prophecies. Interestingly, when I was in Seminary, at a top notch Evengelical Seminary, I ran across an audio tape of a lecture given in the 60’s titled “Fundamentalism is Modernism.” It was given by Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri. Schaeffer was a missionary to Europe who was 2nd generation off the Old Princetonian movement (he had been a student of Van Til, but had rejected some of Van Til’s thought). I wish I had listened to the tape, but the audio quality was too poor for my level of patience.

#6 Comment By Sarah Slater On May 27, 2015 @ 12:15 am

I think one of the strengths of evangelicalism is the ability to assimilate biblical truths from a variety of sources within Christianity.

Contrary to what many of the people on this comment thread seem to believe, all evangelicals do not unilaterally reject everything that happened in the church between Constantine and the Reformation. Our ecclesiology is not retroactive in the same way that the RCC’s ecclesiology is. It is probably more accurate to say that the Western Catholic Church experienced a split into what we now know as Roman Catholicism and the Protestant movement; RCC will of course deny that the Protestant movement was formed out of the same stuff as their church and many Protestants will probably deny that they have anything in common with the Roman Catholic Church. But they are really sisters.

Anyway. The evangelical tradition can rightfully claim any and every piece of scriptural truth as valid and legitimate because our belief in the priesthood of all believers does not necessarily exclude Roman Catholic priests or monks from that priesthood! Although we would also argue that it is overwhelmingly likely that not every priest or bishop or even every pope has been a believer. That’s really a side note, though.

The point is, our belief is usually that there are Christians and saints within every tradition, including our own. This allows evangelicalism to stretch to accommodate Chesterton and Brother Lawrence and Macarius and Irenaeus as well as people after the reformation. Most thoughtful evangelicals have, for instance, drawn upon the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body when making arguments. Liberation theology and Catholic Social Teaching has provided many evangelicals engaged in international development with a Christian theological framework for their work. And so on.

We’re not picky. We don’t make distinctions in the same way as the RCC and the EO churches. I may think you are wrong on part of your theology but I’m not shy about learning from other parts of your doctrine. We read your works. It’s less likely that you read ours.

#7 Comment By Jesse Nigro On May 27, 2015 @ 2:35 am

Mr. Dreher,

I’m sorry that you had a run-in with a silly fundamentalist non-denom who thought you aren’t a Christian. Sadly I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with silly fundamentalist Eastern Orthodox clergy and layfolk who don’t think my baptism (or that of any Protestant) is valid. Or that any sacraments outside of the recognized Eastern Churches are valid. I’m sure you’re not one of these fundamentalists, most of my Eastern friends aren’t either, but that is certainly a live option in your communion. That is, where Rome has rightly recognized that salvation exists outside of it’s own communion, many of our Eastern buddies are still quite pre-Vatical II on that point. It’s probably more prevalent than you think. This recognizing of “the Church” beyond one’s ecclesial borders was actually pretty consistent amongst the non-radical Reformers. Men who saw themselves as Reformed-Catholics and certainly inheritors of Nicea (also generally not anti-Constantinian btw).

You may have a point that the more sectarian forms of “free-church” Christianity will slowly begin to fade, it doesn’t seem to have much staying power by way of tradition or affiliation. I think your mention of zeal is important too. Reflecting on my own move from Evangelical churches into Anglicanism and the “mainline Protestant” world of American Christianity, “zeal” is actually something that I miss. It seems to me that people will go to Church every Sunday, or twice a year, or on high holy days, or simply when there’s a bazaar, out of a sense of duty. Or because it’s what they’ve always done, or their family has done, or because they like beer and keno. Or simply because they’re Irish, Italian, German, Serbian, Greek, etc…you get the picture. But when I went to Evangelical churches growing up, it was because my parents really believed in everything that was being taught, however little solid teaching they might have been getting. Nobody, and no cultural expectation was forcing them. I think a lot of Evangelicals are like that. They do it because they believe. It’s voluntary, rather than an inherited inertia. Obviously you meet passionate believers in mainline Protestant, and Roman, and Eastern churches too, but more often than not I find that these are former Evangelicals (like yourself). Which leads me to believe there is a certain “charism” in Evangelicalism which is valuable to the Church as a whole.



#8 Comment By Artie On May 27, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

“The Fundamentalists lack a lot of the things that liturgical Christians like me have, but we lack something they have: zeal.”

The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

#9 Comment By heartright On May 27, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

Turmarion says:
May 25, 2015 at 1:56 pm

heartright, you consistently espouse an ethic that would be appropriate for the Borg. Fortunately, God appears to value our free will to the extent that he let us use it to crucify Him. He wants children, not puppets or Borg.
Then you don’t apreciate the difference between the Borg and Gaia.
I might as well let Asimov explain it, as Trevize chooses Gaia while calling it the Borg. (Yes,of course I am mixing metaphores.)

1. Even if Trevize were right, objective conditions mandated it as the only option.
The choice between Unification and Annihilation.
2. But as it happens, Trevize is wrong,and your individuality remains.

Democratic centralism does not make you a leninist: the Swiss practised it some 700 years earlier even in the context of a confederation. What is decided by all will be upheld by all – once the vote is taken, everyone is obliged to uphold the outcome.

#10 Comment By Jeff Mayhugh On May 27, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

I agree with much of what Mr. Dreher says, but I will point out that large parts of Orthodoxy do not consider even Catholics to be Christians. They call for Pope Francis to submit to valid baptism and consider Catholic sacraments to be null and void.

[NFR: You’re probably right. I do not agree with them. But everybody knows that knotheads abound in Orthodoxy, as well as in every other church. — RD]

#11 Comment By JonF On May 28, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

Re: I will point out that large parts of Orthodoxy do not consider even Catholics to be Christians.

I have encountered Orthodox (online, not in real life) who name the Catholic Church as heretical, but never any who said Catholics (as individuals) are not Christian. Orthodox Christian are not to make such calls: we lack the knowledge to do so. We can judge doctrine, but we cannot judge souls. “We know where the Church is; we do not know where it is not.”

#12 Comment By JonF On May 28, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

Re: Sadly I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with silly fundamentalist Eastern Orthodox clergy and layfolk who don’t think my baptism (or that of any Protestant) is valid.

They are flirting with heresy themselves: ancient councils decreed that a trinitarian baptism should never be rejected, or be an occasion for “rebaptism”. Rather strongly critical words were used of those who did practice baptism.
(As a baptized Catholic I was received by chrismation and profession of faith, which is the normative practice.)