Confessional Instincts: Fundamentalism Is Not Traditionalism

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Differences between traditionalists and fundamentalists were evident as early as the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1923…At the 1923 assembly, true to his form in national elections, the statesman [William Jennings Bryan] ran and lost as a candidate for moderator. Despite defeat, Bryan managed to bring two proposals to the floor. He won support for a resolution endorsing total abstinence from alcoholic beverages, but his motion to prohibit the teaching of evolution in Presbyterian schools yielded only a watered-down motion that instructed churches to withhold approval from institutions that taught a “materialistic evolutionary philosophy of life.” Machen, whose views on prohibition and evolution differed from Bryan’s, was not at all pleased by the populist’s efforts…

Although Bryan and Machen were perceived to be on the same side, their concerns were distinct. Many of Bryan’s efforts actually failed to win the support of Presbyterian traditionalists. Bryan, like fundamentalists more generally, believed America should be a Christian society and so worked to purge liberalism from the nation’s schools and churches. In contrast, Machen, like Presbyterian traditionalists, sought to preserve Presbyterian theology and church practice, and limited his efforts against liberalism to the ecclesiastical sphere. Although Bryan was not a premillennialist, his desire to preserve Christian civilization resembled popular fundamentalism in that he thought the institutional church was at best indifferent and at worst detrimental to spreading of the gospel. Bryan minimized doctrinal and denominational differences and conceived of Christianity as a sure means to improve society. Fundamentalist concerns about secularism in American society ran counter to the narrowly ecclesiastical and confessional aims of Presbyterian traditionalists. Rather than linking Machen to Bryan, a better parallel to Presbyterian traditionalism was the contemporaneous effort in Canada by Presbyterian conservatives who in 1925 refused to join the United Church of Canada and formed their own denomination to preserve Presbyterian faith and practice.


D.G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America


Or to make a popular TV analogy, fundamentalism is to traditionalism what jihad-watching neo-conservatism is to institutional-oriented paleo-conservatism. It is what Jack Bauer is to Jack McCoy. One wears the latest fashions and carries synthetic man-bag, the other a suit and a well-worn leather suitcase. One thinks pious Muslims are suspect and to be feared, the other that they make fantastic neighbors. One is a self-assured government agent who drinks Red-Bull before saving the world, the other a worldly-wise district attorney who absently takes Scotch in his office to celebrate a win he’s not sure makes him feel good. One has a father who owns a for-profit company, the other had an old man who was a beat cop of Irish-Catholic descent.  One is young, the other not-so-much.

Jack McCoy says things like, “You’ll thank me one day, Mike, for yanking your leash. I just wish someone had been there to yank mine,” and Jack Bauer says things like, “Dammit!”

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22 Responses to Confessional Instincts: Fundamentalism Is Not Traditionalism

  1. Timothy says:

    It seems like Bauer like the Fundies have no real reason for ‘going on,’ while McCoy presses on even in a corrupt judicial system because of the goodness of the system regardless of its adherents.

    The way you implicitly put it is striking – one is about immediate felt needs (societal transformation) and the latter is concerned with the eternal.

  2. Top class Zrim, top class.

  3. Zrim says:


    Those felt needs’ll get us every time.

  4. D G Hart says:

    Funny thing is that many contemporary Reformed Christians do not know Bryan but think they know, admire, and follow Machen. Yet, they are much more prone to Bryan’s understanding of the church and society than Machen’s. (Don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger.)

  5. riorancho says:

    Watched “Inherit the Wind” recently. Evangelicals are just plain “lousy” at engaging culture anyways. Even a fool when he remains quiet is considered wise. Maybe I’ll craft a sermon entitled “Shut up Already”

  6. riorancho says:

    By the way, rio rancho is me, Todd

  7. Zrim says:


    I have no idea what makes you think you’d get shot at in these parts. Unless you mean toasted. And by toasted I don’t mean roasted.


    If you crafted a sermon entitled “Shut Up Already,” be prepared for the abiding Bryannites to respond with “…Not Yet.”

  8. Timothy says:

    It is extremely difficult (and depressing) trying to relate THIS Machen to people who think they already know him and his confessionalism.

    What would you all say to those who think they can uphold both the high view of ecclesiology and yet battle societal darwinians and liberals?

  9. Zrim says:


    I might suggest something about choosing one’s battles. The premise that “societal darwinians and liberals” are more of a threat to the church than “societal premillinarians and fundamentalists” is still to co-opt the gospel. In other words, I’m highly skeptical of any claim to be able to defend both the gospel and any tradition of men against another tradition of men. It’s a bit like saying I can maintain my marriage and my girlfriend against my other girlfriend.

  10. D G Hart says:

    Timothy, Machen did fight both progressives in the culture wars and liberals in the church (funny how they were generally the same and belonged to the Republican Party). But Machen opposed progressives by siding with Thomas Jefferson, and opposed theological liberals with the Confession of Faith.

  11. sean says:

    You know I would say there was some hope in the contemporary modern scene if you saw this strong contrast between what the congregational boomers believed juxtaposed to what was emanating from the pulpit. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. By what I’ve heard from the guys, particularly out of covenant sem., it’s all about relevance, contextualization and not wanting to end up like the OPC. Great. I’m all for being opposed to being inbred but I’ve yet to put together how a mile wide and an inch deep is any sort of remedy. If I hear one more analogy of the wide funnel approach, I’m gonna hurt a brother.

  12. Zrim says:

    By what I’ve heard from the guys, particularly out of covenant sem., it’s all about relevance, contextualization and not wanting to end up like the OPC.

    Sort of makes it hard to maintain criticisms of the mega-evangelicals, etc. What it seems to mean is, “They can’t be relevant to felt needs because they’re them, but we can because we’re us.”

  13. Timothy says:

    Thanks for the thoughts on my question. One may then defend both conservatism in society and in the Church but on the basis of two differing reasons/principles. As long as these do not become blurred, it is a good secular calling to make society better and it is a holy calling to bring the church to confessional fidelity. Am I summarizing the view well-enough?

    Concerning the problem of contextualization: And yet, what I have found growing even in churches that are concerned with Doctrine over contextualization, is that some try to always purify and Reform without remaining Reformed. Is this not a new desire to be relevant in a more intellectual way?

    No longer is recasting covenant theology enough, but now we need to recast Calvin and soteriology outside of the classical formulations.

    Fidelity has become doctrinal purification instead of doing theology in confessional bounds. It is a pity that everyone seems to be using the same language but they mean entirely different things.

  14. sean says:

    Hard to see it any other way.

  15. Todd says:


    Mostly good, except conservativism within the church usually means contending for the faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures, conservatism in society is a political viewpoint that Scripture does not address or endorse.

  16. Timothy says:

    Thanks Todd, I did not mean to imply conservatism in society is endorsed by Scripture per se.

  17. Zrim says:


    Todd, of course, makes an important point.

    But, if I understand what you mean, I am also interested in your point about doctrine over contextualization. I think you’re quite onto something. There’s an impulse to merely meet the felt needs of the doctrinally (and denominationally) inclined. It’s the “doctrine of doctrine” syndrome. It’s fundamentalist in nature, not traditionalist. It breeds another sort of church- and denomination-hopping.

    After all, like the man once said, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone–not our doctrine. Man, it’s hard being Reformed the really old-fashioned way.

  18. Todd says:


    Got you, you were saying one can, not necessarily one should.

  19. Zrim says:

    Todd, not only can but may. Sorry, Ms. Phillips, a retired nun turned public school teacher, drilled that into my head in second grade.

  20. Todd says:

    My bad – I’ll try to right gooder

  21. Timothy says:

    Yes, thanks Todd and Zrim for that fine tuning.

    By your comment on Aristotle as the forerunner in relation to conservatism, do you mean seeing Christ as merely coming as an ethical philosopher rather than as Messiah to His people and John the Baptist as a Covenant prosecutor? Sorry, just trying to follow the metaphors.

    Zrim, yes. I have found in my denomination which sees its role as guardian of doctrine that there is an enhanced desire to be Biblical, even in a non-confessional context. And yet it seems, we then read those new found insights by some means into the confessions. At first it sounds like “loose” subscription and then its strict again.

    At least we are not those… *gasp* contextualizers. So, yes. It is a new set of felt needs being acquired and sought after – yet again, a picture of the inner fundamentalist.

    Thank goodness we are not saved by the strength and purity of our doctrine (or our sincerity to reach the lost). I am reminded of what St Peter said that the Righteous are scarcely saved. I think he meant it in this vein (not in any way maligning the definiteness of the atonement).

    Taxonomy and mental jungle-jims seem to be the lot of old schoolers.

  22. Timothy says:

    Sorry, maybe I am going crazy but I thought someone mentioned Aristotle and John the Baptist… it was pretty late when I responded.

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