Saturday, April 6, 2013

Anti-Intellectualism and Fundamentalism

The rise of liberalism in mainstream American Christianity in the early twentieth century caused a number of reactions. One of them was called “fundamentalism.” While there were several ideas behind fundamentalism (several of them good), one was inherently destructive. It was the attitude of anti-intellectualism.
Anti-intellectualism, as it pertains to Christianity, is the idea that “all you need is God,” and “let the Holy Spirit guide you,” etc. These phrases are not inherently bad or necessarily untrue, but they lack rigor and nuance. In fact, when one investigates the philosophy behind these phrases and anti-intellectualism, one sees that the idea of “we don’t need no fancy book learnin” is pervasive. They perceived the liberalism (quite correctly) as stemming from the colleges and seminaries. However, their solution was to reject the institution altogether.
This rejection of intellectualism and scholarly circles had disastrous results for the next few generations. First, while the founders of the movement knew how to exegete properly the Scriptures and form a coherent theological worldview, increasing numbers of their descendants did not. Second, the members of this movement were wholly or mostly unaware of work done prior to their own movement. Third, this led to entirely new (and in some cases heretical) beliefs, many of which were completely avoidable.
After 30 or 40 years of this, something interesting happened. The fundamentalist movement started the Bible College movement. The purpose was to train pastors and ministers (just like seminary) in fundamentalist doctrine (unlike seminary). However, the people who were starting and running these often (originally) had little-to-no formal training, or had already been steeped in these odd teachings. These Bible colleges were still anti-intellectual, but only in the establishment sense. That is, they were still against the seminaries. However, they espoused their own form of intellectualism. This is pseudo-intellectualism.
Pseudo-intellectualism is characterized by individuals forming their own codified doctrines and teachings, without any outside sources (or at least, without any sources outside of the fundamentalist movement). These people awarded degrees, taught courses, and conferred upon each other the title of “honorary doctorate.” Instead of interacting with current scholarship, they often taught popular-level criticisms of the original problems of liberalism. Essentially, they presented weak-to-middling unoriginal critiques of outdated issues. All the while, they were concerned to pretend they were in the midst of true scholarship by calling everyone doctor, which bolstered their own internal credibility. After all, if a doctor is teaching this stuff, it must be good, right?
What’s the point of all of this? Several Bible colleges are now returning to true scholarship, and they are finding they can do it while avoiding theological liberalism (like J. Gresham Machen). While we may not be able to avoid jettisoning some beliefs we acquired in the anti-intellectual and pseudo-intellectual stages, we nonetheless can be top-notch scholars while remaining conservative. The lie we should never have accepted was that the best scholarship belongs to the liberals. “But wait!” one may cry, “Won’t this lead to compromise?” It is true that whenever a large group of people is freed to follow their conscience, some will take it too far. But I would much rather see a large group of people engaging in relevant scholarship in a conservative way, with a few errant people, than see an overwhelming, monolithic throng ignorant of God’s truth.


  1. Randy why do you think this anti-intellectualism started? In response to Darwin perhaps?

    1. Hi Larry. Perhaps Darwin informed part of it, yes. I think it was primarily in response to the theological liberalism of the early 20th century. It came from academic German theologians into the universities, colleges, and seminaries. Throwing the baby out with the bath water, they ignored warnings of men like J. Gresham Machen that abandoning academia will mean surrendering the ultimate formation of culture to the liberals. But yeah; that's how I think it started in our circles at least.


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