Oklahoma! A State in Transition

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 5 April 2006 0 Comments
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I'm not sure of the difference between Fundamentalists
and Evangelicals. Are they the same or different in
political activism and social concerns? I think of
Albert Mohler as a fundamentalist because he is so
narrow, while Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis call
themselves evangelicals and there is a world of
difference between them and Mohler. Campolo and
Wallis seem to concentrate on living by the teaching
of Jesus, rather than on theology.


It would be better if you would ask a fundamentalist
and an evangelical to draw this distinction. You are
correct between Albert Mohler who heads the
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in
Louisville and Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners
Magazine, there is a great gulf. Yet they would
overlap in places.

Neither evangelicals nor fundamentalists have yet
discovered the critical biblical scholarship that has
graced the western world for at least the last 200
years. When I last was on a television program with
Albert Mohler, it was painfully obvious that he was
not in touch with any of the contemporary biblical
scholarship of the past century. Both camps seem to me
to operate with pre-modern images of the universe as
well as God. Evangelicals and fundamentalists like to
call themselves conservative Christians, as if there
is something called conservative or liberal
scholarship. There isn't. There is just competent
and incompetent scholarship. To call ignorance
"conservative" is a clever ploy, since conservatism is
a legitimate political perspective, but that word does
not translate well into religious categories. My sense
is that the difference between those who call
themselves "conservative" Christians and those they
call "liberal" Christians is more about being open or
closed to ongoing truth than it is about anything
else. J. B. Phillips once wrote a book entitled,
"Your God is Too Small." That is the peril into which
I fear both evangelicals and fundamentalists fall.
Deep down I find that almost every person seeks
security in some form of literalism or unchanging
certainty, both in religion and politics. I find
little difference between those politicians who talk
about "strict construction of the constitution" and
those preachers who talk about the Bible as "the
inerrant word of God." Perhaps it is fair to say that
evangelicals draw the line at what must be viewed
literally a tiny bit more loosely than do
fundamentalists. The difference, however, is very,
very small. For example some people are literal about
Adam and Eve; some about the Virgin Birth; and some
about the physical Resurrection. I do not believe
that any prepositional statement about God can be
literally true. I think people should take the Bible
seriously but never literally. Literalism is finally
and always idolatry. Someday, all Christians will
recognize that.

John Shelby Spong




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