Is Fundamentalism Necessarily Premillennial?

It is has been argued in other places that Christian Fundamentalism is necessarily premillennial, and even dispensational in its eschatology. For instance, the entire point of Ernest R. Sandeen’s book, The Roots of Fundamentalism (Rev ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978) is that Fundamentalism grew out of the Bible conference movement and was inherently premillennial and primarily dispensational. Some within the movement are arguing to make eschatological agreement an area of credential for Fundamentalism.

Is Sandeen’s thesis correct? Is a necessary corollary of being a Fundamentalist to be a premillennialist and even a dispensationalist? Is this historically accurate? In fact, it has been argued elsewhere that this thesis is rather reductionist (see John Fea, “Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward A Historical Definition,” Trinity Journal 15 [Fall 1994]). There are a number of notable examples of those historically within the Fundamentalist ranks who were not premillennial or dispensational and their credentials as a Fundamentalist were never questioned (the following information is drawn from Rolland D. McCune, “Doctrinal Non-Issues in Historic Premillennialism,”Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 [Fall 1996]: 171-185).

First, two prominent Fundamentalists were amillennial. T. T. Shields, the controversial pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church and President of Toronto Baptist Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, Canada was a devout amillennialist. He served as President of the Baptist Bible Union and again his credentials as a Fundamentalist were never held in question. Near the end of his life he embraced premillennialism but continued to adamantly oppose dispensationalism. The second was J. Gresham Machen, founding President of Westminster Theological Seminary. He has been viewed as the theological giant of Fundamentalism even though he disliked the label Fundamentalist (Daryl G. Hart, biographer of Machen though notes, “Machen himself did not like the term fundamentalism because it suggested ‘some strange new sect.’ Yet when forced to choose between fundamentalism and modernism, he admitted he was a fundamentalist ‘of the most pronounced type’” (Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994], p. 63). Machen was never questioned as to his Fundamentalist credentials even though he was an amillennialist..

A third and final example is that of John R. Rice. Rice, the editor of the influential, Sword of the Lord, was both a pretribulationalist and a premillennialist but was not a dispensationalist. Again, his credentials were not questioned as to his belonging in the Fundamentalist movement.

While it is true that Fundamentalism has been predominantly premillennial and dispensational, it has not been completely that way. There have been those within the movement who have taken different eschatological positions. They have always been embraced as being true fellows who “do battle royal for the fundamentals.” Should we now make premillennialism and/or dispensationalism a hallmark of Fundamentalism? Must one embrace these eschatological positions to continue to fight the good fight of the faith in defense of the Fundamentals? I cannot see this as a good idea for three reasons.

First, it has not been historically true of the movement. The movement has embraced those of differing eschatological positions as still being within the stream of Fundamentalism.

Second, most major eschatological positions can embrace the Fundamental eschatological truth that Jesus Christ is coming again in bodily form and the wicked will be judged and the righteous will be blessed. Why should I separate from my amillennial brother over his eschatology when in the important Fundamental truth we agree?

Third, eschatology is perhaps the most speculative area of theology. Should we be separating from those who differ with us over the exact nature and timing of the Second Coming of Christ when this is perhaps the most difficult area of theology to dogmatic? If we embrace the Fundamental truth of the bodily return of the Lord Jesus Christ, that should be sufficient.

I would suggest to everyone that they watch the 2006 graduation message from Geneva Reformed Seminary given by Dr. Kevin Bauder, President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, MN (perhaps one of the greatest theological minds in Fundamentalism today). He provides the best explanation for not restricting Fundamentalism to eschatological agreement.

Finally, let me quote from Dr. McCune’s very wise statement here: “It would appear to be unwise to cast fundamentalism into an exclusive mold of dispensational premillennialism. Distinctions and convictions on eschatology can and must be maintained individually and institutionally, but they have not been definitive rubrics for fundamentalism as a movement” (“Doctrinal Non-Issues,” pp. 179-180).

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4 Responses to Is Fundamentalism Necessarily Premillennial?

  1. Nathan Finn says:

    Allen,

    I think you have to look at fundamentalism “in stages” on this question. Sandeen is too simplistic, though obviously premillenialism was a major part of the early fundamentalist coalition. By the second generation (ca. 1940-1980), almost all well-known fundamentalists were premillenial, if not dispensational. I think it is only in recent years (post-1980) that *some* fundamentalists have become open to the possibility that other eschatalogical positions are viable options. But I still think a great majority are dispensational premillenial, despite the noble efforts of Bauder and others to try and broaden that tent.

    So I guess I would answer you question with a “no,” though I do think it is fair to say that a majority of fundamentalists themselves would answer with a “yes.”

    NAF

  2. Allen R. Mickle, Jr. says:

    Nathan,

    I don’t disagree with anything you have written. Perhaps I have done the same thing as Sandeen and over-simplified things. I do not deny that the majority of Fundamentalists would claim that premillennialism if not dispensationalism is a necessary hallmark of the movement. I agree also that the movement is not static but is fluid as it moves throughout the years. There has been change and adjustment. I apologize for being over-simplistic.

    At the very least today, the Free Presbyterians are recognized as being Fundamentalists and they are amillennial. So hopefully, improvement is being made (especially through the work of Bauder).

    Thanks though Nathan for the correction of my own over-simplification.

    Allen

  3. Ian says:

    Good post.
    What would you say are the hallmarks of fundamentalism then? And how would they differ from other conservative, even Reformed, movements in evangelicalism?

  4. Allen R. Mickle, Jr. says:

    Ian,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. I think the two major distinctives are militancy for the fundamentals of the faith and separation from apostasy and toleration of apostasy. I think that conservative evangelicalism is decent at the first (although there is growing toleration over disagreement on the fundamentals of the faith in evangelicalism) and it is a mixed bag on the second. Reformed evangelicals do better (in their opposition to those of the non-reformed persuasion), yet I think there is some toleration over those who are willing to link up with those who embrace apostasy.

    There is definitely some overlap but there are some practical differences. But I think the ultra-bizzare Fundamentalism of much of the US today has gone too far from their historic moorings. The major difference is that true Fundamentalism should be synonymous with conservative evangelicalism but often times it is not.

    That probably was way too nebulous to even qualify as an answer but it is late for me! I’ll respond in a more detailed way to any other questions you have Ian.

    Allen

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