This is the fifth article in the series, “Faith Seeking Understanding”
Many people have the perception that those in the TR camp are driven by rabid fundamentalism and tradition, or are swept up in an emotional frenzy. This perception is largely due to James White, who frequently pushes this argument as often as he talks about the TR. “The TR is bad because of fundamentalism!” Before we get into the article, let’s remember what Bart Ehrman has to say about James White.
“James White is that kind of fundamentalist who gets under my skin. To be fair, he would probably not call himself a fundamentalist. Then again, in my experience, very few fundamentalists *do* call themselves fundamentalists. Usually a “fundamentalist” is that guy who is far to the right of *you* — wherever you are! Someone on the blog can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe White does hold to the absolute inerrancy of the Bible. If so, given what else I know about him, I’d call him a fundamentalist.”
It appears this is just another case of James White borrowing arguments from Bart Ehrman, but it should be helpful to actually look at this claim and try to understand it.
The Fundamentalist Boogie Man
The term “Fundamentalist” has certain connotations that come from a 20th century movement within broader evangelicalism. In the 20th century, the term “Fundamentalist” was associated with a movement that read the Bible “literally” and were dispensational and somewhat separatist. Fundamentalism was a response to the increasingly liberal evangelical church with a large dash of Scofield and Hal Lindsey thrown on top. In today’s world, the term fundamentalist as it existed in the 20th century has become somewhat of an irrelevant title, perhaps due to the shift in the Overton window, failed second coming predictions, or something else entirely. In any case, the term “Fundamentalist” could mean a wide range of things, as we see clearly from Bart Ehrman’s definition.
If you want to understand those in the TR camp better, it is helpful to recognize that being a “fundamentalist” or a “traditionalist” isn’t exactly a bad thing, depending on how you define it. According to Ehrman, simply being a Christian who believes the Bible is the Word of God makes one a fundie. I myself have a strong tradition founded in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Does that make me a traditionalist? Does simply having a tradition make one a traditionalist? I’ll take that title any day over somebody who is convinced he has no tradition. So why exactly does White believe this argument to be so damning to those in the TR camp? Well, it seems that it polls well among his audience, despite the fact that most people in White’s camp would just as easily be called a “Fundamentalist”, depending on who is doing the analysis.
The reason this has been one of White’s go to arguments over the years is because of the negative sentiments that people feel when they hear these terms. Typically, nobody wants to be referred to as a “Fundamentalist” or a “Traditionalist” or an “Emotionalist”. So the weight of the argument is actually an appeal to the emotions of his audience. We don’t really use those terms to describe one group of beliefs anymore in 21st century Christianity, so White can appropriate them for his purpose and craft it into one the platforms of his textual position. “The other guys are fundies taken up by emotion, whereas we are sensible and scientific!”
Yet, anybody who has taken a survey of the available scholarship knows that modern textual scholarship is far from scientific, and it is quite often the textual scholars who wind up losing their head and demanding that TR pastors be defrocked or disciplined by their Presbytery. I can name three prominent scholars who have done this in the last year to a TR advocate. In any case, those in the critical text camp should really take a moment and evaluate the absurd reality in which everybody that holds to a TR position is just taken up by effeminate sentiments or dogmatic fundamentalism. As I’ve pointed out in previous articles in this series, if you actually take modern textual scholars seriously, there really is no need to have some sort of fundamentalist blindfold to see that the critical text position isn’t exactly the strongest theological position on Scripture.
Ironically, it is those in the critical text camp who seem to be more driven by blind fundamentals when it comes to the text. They openly admit that there is no complete Bible, agreeing with the intelligentsia, while simultaneously holding onto historical orthodox theological statements regarding the nature of Scripture. When challenged on their doctrinal inconsistencies, they tend to double down and reinterpret history, like one would if they were blindly defending a tradition. If you get the chance, observe how a typical exchange between a CT and TR advocate goes. One side ends up throwing a fit and it’s typically not the TR advocate. It’s almost impossible to get through a critical text presentation without hearing some diatribe about how the papist Erasmus was an ignoramus or how the text of the Reformation was actually the Latin Vulgate.
All that said, the point is that any argument claiming that those in the TR camp are just blind fundamentalists can easily be turned around on those in the CT camp. They have their traditions and fundamentals, and so do TR advocates. At the end of the argument, calling somebody a fundie isn’t a case for or against either position. Pointing out somebody’s emotions is irrelevant to the merits of a theological position, and often times is simply the result of making an argument in bad faith. Slamming somebody for having a tradition isn’t the worst possible critique in 2020, and again, isn’t an argument for or against the CT or TR.
It may be true that TR advocates are “traditionalists”, but the important thing to investigate is whether or not the tradition is Biblical. The title traditionalist could actually be a badge of honor in our evangelical church, because as we have seen, the modern church looks more like the world than it does the body of Christ. A church without a tradition is susceptible to less virtuous traditions. As the church has abandoned its historical traditions, it has readily adopted every new tradition under the sun. Everybody is a traditionalist when it comes down to it, the question is whether or not that tradition is Scriptural.
If you want to step further into the mind of the TR advocate, you need to realize that we don’t consider being called names a devastating critique of our position. In fact, it might even be a badge of honor, considering that some of the most respected up and coming modern textual scholars are off marching in #BLM rallies and rambling about their white privilege when not giving accolades to feminist studies professors at prestigious universities. The traditions and fundamentals of the TR camp are that of the old paths, unstained by postmodernism and critical scholarship. The fundamental principles of the TR position affirm nothing more than what the Bible affirms: that we have God’s Word, providentially preserved and totally delivered to His people, even today.