A Fundamentalist Social Gospel

by Robert M. Price

Mr. Price is a doctoral student on systematic theology at Drew University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century November 28, 1979, p. 1183. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A certain hermeneutical naïveté mars the otherwise admirable consciousness-raising that is now occurring among evangelicals in the social and political arena. One of the paramount tenets of the fundamentalist movement in the past was its individualistic piety, its stubborn withdrawal from the social and political concerns.

Only a few years ago, it would have seemed a contradiction in terms to speak of a “fundamentalist social gospel.” One of the paramount tenets of the fundamentalist movement was its individualistic piety, its stubborn withdrawal from the social and political arena. This retreat came as a reaction to the theological liberalism of the “social gospel” movement. But it had not always been so. As Timothy Smith, Donald Dayton and others have pointed out, evangelical Christians phyed notable roles in early periods of social reform in America. Indeed, the attention Smith and Dayton have received from evangelical readers suggests that the tide has turned once again. It is surely one of the most important and welcome religious phenomena of recent years that conservative Protestants are becoming vigorously involved in a kind of “social gospel” of their own. Witness the various organizational names: “Evangelicals for McGovern,” “Evangelicals for Social Action,”  “Evangelical Women’s Caucus.”

A Strong Element of Biblicism

Though the new evangelical social awakening may seem long overdue, it is also the product of a lengthy history. The present revival of social concern among evangelical Christians seems to stem historically from the clarion call of the “neoevangelical” movement, as sounded forth in the late 1940s by Harold J. Ockenga, Edward J. Carnell and Carl F. H. Henry. The hallmark of “neoevangelicalism” was a repudiation of fundamentalist separatism at several levels. Neoevangelicals, though still avowedly fundamentalist in doctrine, wanted to remain in mainline denominations, and they wanted to pursue dialogue with neo-orthodox and liberal theologians on an academic level. Yet it soon became apparent that only a change of tactics was intended. Ockenga announced the neoevangelical goal to he one of “infiltrating” and taking over mainline denominations. Henry and Carnell wanted merely to get a better, more respectable platform for fundamentalist apologetics.

As for the new call to social action, it too was, in Henry’s phrase, “a plea for evangelical demonstration.” The not-so-hidden agenda was to make evangelical Christianity the spearhead for social reform -- at least partly, one suspects, to gain credibility for it as a theological alternative.

And today in the literature of the “young evangelicals,” one may still find the inference, if not the outright assertion, that evangelicals have a superior approach to social action. What can this mean, since there is no uniformity of political opinion among young evangelicals? Basically the assumption revolves about the strong element of biblicism still present in evangelical social theory. Evangelical Christians themselves see the “centrality of the Bible” as their strong point, whatever particular positions result from this principle. They feel that they can avoid the subjective trendiness of ‘60s liberal Protestant activism, as well as the discouragement that resulted from the intransigence of the problems the liberals faced. After all, they have the “scriptural mandates” -- what Carl Henry would have called “biblical verities” -- to stand on, not the mere sentimentality of conscience.

This all sounds good, but closer examination will show cause for reservations. Let me describe a certain hermeneutical naïveté that mars the otherwise quite admirable political consciousness-raising now taking place among evangelicals. There is evidence of a wide-ranging rethinking of hermeneutics among evangelicals (see recent writings by Clark Pinnock, Daniel Fuller and Charles Kraft), but in much of the social-action literature we may be surprised to find a survival of the unsophisticated fundamentalist approach to the Bible. This naïveté results in two abuses which I will call “hermeneutical ventriloquism” and “political snake-handling.”

Hermeneutical Ventriloquism

Most conservative evangelicals have been taught that personal opinions and cultural views are worthless unless they can make direct appeal to a biblical warrant of some sort. Many of the current “young evangelical” writers grew up in the ‘60s, and could not resist the perceived cogency of certain cultural trends -- for instance, racial and sexual equality, or nonviolence. Their religious upbringing provided no basis or authorization for espousing such views, however. (For a couple of autobiographical accounts along these lines, see the introductions to Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage and Jim Wallis’s Agenda for Biblical People.) Some renounced their religious backgrounds. Others sought to accommodate their new, liberalized stance to their evangelical ethos. The main strategy was an appeal to the Bible that I call “hermeneutical ventriloquism.”

The young evangelical approaches the problem like this: “Feminism [for example] is true; the Bible teaches the truth; therefore the Bible must teach feminism.” Now it is far from obvious that the Bible explicitly teaches feminism, yet the young evangelical will feel that he or she has no right to be a feminist unless “the Bible tells me so.” Thus the primary task of the reform-minded evangelical is to make the Bible teach feminism in the most plausible way.

I think it is rather revealing in this regard to examine the intrafeminist dialogue in young-evangelical publications. There we find at least two competing approaches. Sharon Gallagher, Aida Spencer, Letha Scanzoni and others maintain that rightly understood, the plain sense of the text has always been feminist in nature. For instance, I Timothy 2:12, read in the light of Assyrian, rabbinic or Hellenistic texts, seems suddenly to mean that women should not teach only if they happen to be heretics, orgiasts, etc. Or the “headship” of Christ over the church, and of husband over wife, in Ephesians 5:23 really connotes “source,” not “authority,” despite the context which would seem to suggest that “source” implies “authority” (e.g., Ephesians 1:22).

Other writers -- e.g., Virginia Mollenkott and Paul Jewett -- admit that various biblical texts do inculcate male domination, but that such “problem texts” (problematic only to feminists, note) should be ignored in favor of the implicit thrust of other, egalitarian texts such as Galatians 3:28. The agreed upon goal is that the Bible is to support feminism. The debate is over the best way to arrive at this predetermined goal exegetically! The Bible must support the desired social position; otherwise how can the young evangelical believe it, much less persuade fellow evangelicals?

False Pretenses

So far, I have proposed that many activist evangelicals have really come to hold their social views on the basis of cultural osmosis or legitimate political argumentation. But they need to believe that “biblical mandates” are the reason for their conviction. The real reason has been hidden, even from themselves. There i8 genuine utility (as well as danger) in this unnoticed ground-shifting if one is trying to convert other evangelicals to, e.g., biblical feminism.” If one can plausibly appeal to biblical texts, the battle is nearly won, but quite possibly on false pretenses. Since prooftexting (albeit sophisticated) is the avowed criterion, other, more subtle and more appropriate criteria are ignored, even on principle. “Worldly” considerations like pragmatic or political realities (the real though hidden origins of the young evangelical’s own position) must bow to exegetical arguments. Obviously, young evangelicals will do a better job of dealing with the inevitable practical factors if they consciously recognize the presence of such factors.

There is an even more disturbing implication to this approach. When biblical texts are the only sufficient reason for holding ethical and political views, a dubious “divine voluntarism” results. For instance, in a discussion of apartheid, David Field remarks: “From a Christian point of view, it is important to examine the case for apartheid in some detail . . . because among its strongest supporters it numbers Christians who claim to have tested their attitudes and opinions by the standards of Scripture” (Free to Do Right [InterVarsity, 1976], p. 19). The barely hidden implication is that if the apartheid advocates could marshal sufficiently weighty exegetical support, Field would agree with them!

Political Snake-Handlers

But there is a second group of young evangelicals who take something like Field’s avowed biblicism with a good deal more seriousness. I have in mind primarily the Sojourners Community and their orbit, though the same attitude can be found elsewhere. These are the “political snake-handlers.” Members of our first group, the “hermeneutical ventriloquists,” think to espouse positions because of the Bible, but do so actually because of unsuspected political/cultural factors. Now our second group actually does dispense with all political realities. Here the operative principle is “the Bible said it -- I believe it -- that settles it!” We face an absolutist sort of “deontological” ethics. In other words, “the means justifies the end” (read that again). So long as we obey the “biblical mandates of radical discipleship,” we can let God worry about where the chips fall. In their own terms, it is a choice of “faithfulness” over “effectiveness.”

Young evangelicals may take such an approach to pacifism, unilateral disarmament, “no-nukism,” multinational corporate exploitation, or world hunger. Solutions to such problems seem simple, because the issues are seen in black-and-white terms. What is the absolutely righteous thing to do? Then let’s do it! And if the standard of living drops, people lose jobs, foreign powers pounce, then what? Trust the Lord! Even if he doesn’t deliver us from a nuclear attack prompted by our unilateral disarmament, our country is no doubt sinful enough to deserve what it gets. At any rate, the outcome will provide the young evangelical “righteous remnant” (the explicit terms, incidentally, in which they see themselves) with an excellent opportunity to “go the way of the cross,” paying the cost of radical discipleship. What else can a “radical Christian” expect in this fallen age?

We have seen this kind of thinking in evangelicalism before. Premillennialists have often blindly supported Israel against the Palestinians regardless of (not because of) political considerations. All they needed to know was that “God promised the land to the Jews.” There is a rather obvious parallel between such a political stance and the faith that leads fringe Pentecostals to refuse medical care in favor of “Doctor Jesus,” who will heal miraculously. And then there are those Appalachian snake-handlers whose blinding faith in Mark 16:18 assures them that the serpents will not strike.

Most evangelicals readily repudiate such extremism. Faith, they realize, must be coupled with realistic common sense if one is to maintain any sense of proportion. How then can they throw realism to the winds when it comes to politics? That is precisely what they are doing when they call for brushing aside the considerations of “this age” in favor of the alien standards of the Kingdom of God. When Sojourners editor Jim Wallis writes words like the following, it becomes evident that he has decided for a stance that disregards political reality as we know it: “Biblical politics are invariably alien to the politics of the established regime and will also question the politics of the new regime that any revolution will eventually establish for itself.” In other words, the gospel as understood by Wallis is incompatible with any conceivable state of political affairs! This man is playing in a completely different ball park from most of the rest of us. His is a radically negating “Christ against culture” position.

The Burden of Ambiguity

Now if it were clear that allegiance to the Kingdom were to be put in these terms, what could one do but grit one’s teeth and go the way of the thermonuclear cross? But the mandate is not quite so clear except to the biblicist. We may yet hope to see a more sophisticated evangelical hermeneutic that will not lift the (interim-ethical?) injunctions of the New Testament out of the first century and drop them heavily on the 20th. Perhaps the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr or José Miguez Bonino could be helpful guides. And of course there are appropriately reasoned political defenses for pacifism (e.g., that of Martin Luther King, Jr.) and other positions espoused by young evangelicals.

What is disturbing is the biblicistic, ‘let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may” attitude often present in the young evangelicals’ literature. Given the fundamentalist personal background of many young evangelical writers, this unconscious hangover of biblicism is not too surprising. What is truly astonishing is the enthusiasm with which their rhetoric has been embraced by some famous mainstream church people who, hermeneutically speaking, ought to know better. Perhaps such liberal Protestants are tired of the ambiguous fruits of their conventional lobbying and editorial efforts. Young evangelicals seem to offer a new cause with vigor and conviction.

One is reminded of the denominational reaction to the current cult phenomenon: “What are we doing wrong? Why can’t we muster the enthusiasm and commitment that the Moonies can?” The burden of living with ambiguity and of being “old-hat” may have something to do with Christian faithfulness in the long run.