American fundamentalism made a series of strategic mistakes in its battles with liberalism in the early twentieth century. In the first rank of these mistakes was the retreat from a full-orbed world and life view, where everything is understood to be under the authority of Jesus Christ. They held to the fundamentals of the faith, true enough, but retreated with them into a truncated personal space.
Because of this mistake, there has been a tendency among some Reformed thinkers to disparage the whole idea of “lowest common denominator” fundamentals. But that idea is actually inescapable, and we can find a clear expression of it in Calvin.
In his discussion of church unity, Calvin argues for the two marks of the Church being a preaching of the pure Word and a faithful administration of the sacraments. This, obviously, leads straight to a question of how “pure” the preaching has to be, and how “faithful” the administration of the sacraments has to be. Calvin answers with an appeal to the fundamentals. He says this:
“For not all articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like” (Institutes 4.1.12).
Unless distinctions are made between greater and lesser matters of the law, or doctrines which are of first importance and others which or not, it follows that schism is either impossible or permissible at any time. If everything is of equal importance, then schism can occur over every little thing, because there is actually no such thing as a “little thing.” Many ministers have received single-spaced typewritten letters, with typing up the side margins, from the peculiar kind of individual who thinks this way. He has the spiritual gift of Rebuking, and if you have deviated from his interpretation of anything whatever, out comes the typewriter. In this view, nothing is tolerated.
But the flattening of scriptural teaching can have another effect also — where anything and everything is tolerated. Departure from a church is never permissible, because the only hierarchy of values is that of the church in question over any particular thing in Scripture, no matter how “important.” We need to have high views of church unity as Calvin did, but with a view of Scripture which would applaud the Reformation. This cannot work unless we rank the teachings and commands of Scripture appropriately.
And we need to have a high view of that which of first importance without elevating everything to that honor, thus resulting in church splits over anything. (“Dear Pastor Smith, it is with grief in my heart that I tender my resignation from our church family. When my wife saw the poster with a blasphemous and pathetic attempt at humor in the church nursery, she was appalled, as was I when I went down to look at it. I wept in my heart. Is it really appropriate to put a sign over the cribs that says “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51)? Surely you would agree that this is not what the apostle had in mind at all, and I am afraid . . .”)
Calvin was a true fundamentalist, and he was the kind that I would like to be. He used the doctrine of the fundamentals as the basis for his argument in favor of genuine church unity. And that is just what we need in this hour — catholic fundamentalism.