Recovering the Spirit of Early Fundamentalism
It is not my purpose here to attempt to give an exhaustive list of fundamental doctrines. To do so would be beyond the scope of what I can possibly say in this limited space, and it would almost certainly beyond the reach of my own abilities as a theologian. Witsius wrote,
To point out the articles necessary to salvation, and precisely determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult. There are, doubtless, more articles fundamental, than those to which the Scriptures have appended an express threatening of destruction . . .
Nor is it absolutely necessary that we should possess an exact list of the number of fundamental articles. It is incumbent on each of us to labour with the utmost of diligence to obtain an enlargement of saving knowledge, lest, perhaps we should be found ignorant of truths that are necessary . . . [But] to ascertain precisely the number of necessary articles, is not requisite to our spiritual comfort . . .
It is of no great importance, besides, to the church at large, to know quite correctly the precise number of fundamental articles. [Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles' Creed, 2 vols. (Phillipsburg, N. J., 1993 reprint), 1:27-29]
In a similar vein, Turretin wrote,
The question concerning the number of fundamental articles . . . besides being rash (since Scripture says nothing definitely about it) is also useless and unnecessary because there is no need of our knowing particularly the number of such articles, if we can prove that [our adversaries] err fundamentally in one or more . . . Nor does it follow from this that the perfection of Scripture in necessary things is detracted from . . . For the Scriptures [still] contain most fully all things necessary to salvation, although their actual number is not accurately set forth. [Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), 54.]
Certainly any list of fundamentals would have to begin with these doctrines Scripture explicitly identifies as nonnegotiable: the absolute authority of Scripture over tradition (sola Scriptura), justification by faith alone (sola fide), the deity of Christ, and the Trinity. Since the Apostles' Creed omits all those doctrines, it clearly cannot be regarded as a sufficient doctrinal basis for building ecumenical bridges.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that some people are tempted to wield fundamental doctrines like a judge's gavel and consign multitudes to eternal doom. It is not our prerogative to exercise such judgment. As Witsius sagely observed, "It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbour, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable an error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God" [Witsius, 29].
Wise advice. We dare not set ourselves up as judges of other people's eternal fate.
Nevertheless, we must recognize that those who have turned away from sound doctrine in matters essential to salvation are condemning themselves. "He that believeth not is condemned already" ( John 3:18 KJV). Our passion as true fundamentalists ought to be to proclaim the fundamentals with clarity and precision, in order to turn people away from the darkness of error. We must confront head-on the blindness and unbelief that will be the reason multitudes will one day hear the Lord say, "I never knew you; depart from Me" (Matt. 7:23). Again it must be stressed that those who act as if crucial doctrines were of no consequence only heap the false teacher's guilt on themselves (2 John 11).
We have no right to pronounce a sentence of eternal doom against anyone ( John 5:22). But by the same token, we have no business receiving just anyone into the communion and fellowship of the church. We should no more forge spiritual bonds with people whose religion is fundamentally in error than we would seek fellowship with those guilty of heinous sin. To do so is tantamount to the arrogance shown by the Corinthians, who refused to dismiss from their fellowship a man living in the grossest kind of sin (1 Cor. 5:1-3).
We must also remember that serious error can be extremely subtle. False teachers don't wear a sign proclaiming who they are. They disguise themselves as apostles of Christ (2 Cor. 11:13). "And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" (vv. 14-15). And it should not be surprising to hear false teachers and heretics recite the Apostles' Creed. Again, hear Witsius:
Our faith consists not in words, but in sense; not in the surface, but in the substance; not in the leaves of a profession, but in the root of reason. All the heretics of the present day, that claim the name of Christians, are willing enough to subscribe to the words of the [Apostles'] Creed; each however affixing to them whatever sense he pleases, though diametrically opposed to sound doctrine. [Ibid., 31.]
Witsius concludes his chapter by pointing out that people who plead for all creeds to be as brief and general as possibleas well as people who reject all doctrinal expressions not confined to the precise words of Scriptureusually do so because they "are secretly entertaining some mischievous design" [Ibid., 33].
Nothing is more desperately needed in the church right now than a new movement to reemphasize the fundamental articles of the faith. Without such a movement to restore true biblical discernment, the true church is in serious trouble. If the current hunger for ecumenical compromise gains a foothold within evangelicalism, it will result in an unmitigated spiritual disaster. Reckless faith will virtually have free reign in the church. And far from strengthening the church's witness to an unbelieving world, it will spell the end of any clarion voice of truth.