Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Scripture



Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith

Robb Ryerse

Civitas Press, 2012

206 pp., pb.

What is it like growing up in a Fundamentalist home? Are there any alternatives to Fundamentalism? Is it possible to leave Fundamentalism and still be a Christian? Pastor Robb Ryerse explores these questions and gives us some intriguing answers in his book Fundamorphoses: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith.

As it turns out Pastor Ryerse and myself have quite a bit in common. We were both raised in churches that were affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). We both lived, at least for a while, in Upstate New York – he near Utica and I near Syracuse. We both studied, at least for a time, at Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania, where we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the school’s beloved history professor, Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter, or “Doc Carter” as he was affectionately known. We both went on to study at seminaries connected with the Reformed tradition – he at Biblical and I at Westminster. But then our paths diverged.

Pastor Ryerse went on to pastor some Fundamentalist Baptist churches, but became increasingly frustrated with what he found in them and with the whole Fundamentalist movement in general. He eventually left the GARBC to become involved with the “emerging church” movement. I, on the other hand, never went into the formal ministry, but was involved in a lay capacity in a wide variety of churches – Reformed Episcopal, Primitive Baptist, Mennonite, Plymouth brethren, and Reformed Presbyterian. Theologically I moved in the opposite direction from Pastor Ryerse – I looked to the past for answers – to the Puritans and Reformers – and basically became a Reformed Baptist. I am currently part of an informal house church group. Musically I could do without the guitars and drums – give me the old time shaped-note hymns from The Sacred Harp in four part a cappella harmony. And so, having both left the GARBC, Pastor Ryerse and myself have very different perspectives on life.

Pastor Ryerse’s book is part spiritual autobiography and part treatise on Systematic Theology. He tries to be charitable in describing Fundamentalists, but it is clear that he has major problems with the movement. He describes how Fundamentalism didn’t meet his needs, and explains why he is on a path that he thinks will be more rewarding.


So what exactly does Pastor Ryerse think is wrong with Fundamentalism? He has a host of familiar complaints – its narrow-mindedness, its judgmentalism, at times its outright hypocrisy. What is striking, however, is his diagnosis of these ills. He basically criticizes Fundamentalists for taking the Bible too seriously, or at least too literally. He tells us that “Emanating directly from their strict interpretations and applications of the Bible, Christian fundamentalists in America have built a rigid superstructure of legalistic tradition that defines their church and home cultures” (p. 21). He then goes on to assert that “Certitude produces legalism,” and “legalism produces judgmentalism” (Ibid.).

His solution is to argue that the Bible is just one of several sources from which we draw our theology. In particular throughout his book Pastor Ryerse measures doctrine by his own experience. “Theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts, and lives of people who are asking the big questions and seeking answers that resonate,” he says (p. 106).

However, the idea that Scripture should be our only rule of faith and practice did not originate with American Fundamentalists in the 20th Century. What Pastor Ryerse is arguing against is nothing less than the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura,” and long before the GARBC came into existence orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians insisted on the same principle. On this point Fundamentalists are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture.

While I would personally hesitate to say that the “autographs” are “inerrant,” we must nevertheless come to terms with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21; NKJV). If this claim can be taken at face value, then the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, God’s own revelation to us, and is fully authoritative in all that it teaches. Our role, then, is to submit to its authority, not bend it to fit our own desires.

The problem is that by subjecting Scripture to the test of experience we wind up making our theology conform to our lives instead of making our lives conform to what God has revealed. At the bottom of it we are either pursuing God’s will or we are following our own. And the latter is nothing less than self-delusion.

If Fundamentalist doctrine and practice is shallow and superficial, might not the problem be a failure to take Scripture seriously enough?

The fact of the matter is that virtually the only way we can know about God and salvation is through divine revelation. God must tell us what is true about these things – about the origin, purpose and meaning of life, about what happens after death – we have no other path to knowledge about these things. If God has not spoken then we are in ignorance. Thus any theology not based on sound exegesis is a delusion.


Likewise Pastor Ryerse’s view of salvation is problematical. He describes the Fundamentalist view of salvation this way: “For someone to ‘get saved,’ they had to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus. If a person confessed to having these beliefs, we were willing to give her assurance of her standing before God and eternity in heaven” (p. 69). In other words, in this view “faith” is merely mental assent.

Pastor Ryerse’s own view of salvation is that “The real power of faith is not in leading us to a climactic moment of conversion but in shaping the entirety of our lives. The point of our belief is not punching our ticket to heaven but in growing us and growing with us throughout our lives” (p. 70).

The problem here is that he doesn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act by which we are declared righteous in the sight of God; it takes place instantaneously. Sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and gradually changes us over time. It lasts throughout our pilgrimage here on earth.

It is easy to see how a person raised in a Christian home could be confused on this point. Young children are often encouraged to make professions of faith before they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of sin and redemption. Some churches are reluctant to talk about sin and repentance, which means that their congregations rarely if ever hear convicting sermons. And in the GARBC the situation is further by the fact that sanctification is often described as “personal separation,” as if the Christian life boiled down to little more than “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew; and I don’t go with girls that do.” Thus it is relatively easy for a young person growing up in a Christian home to think that because he is doing all the right things outwardly he must be genuinely a Christian.

The situation is even further complicated by the fact that the pastors themselves often show little understanding of what the new birth is. Thus they will often accept a candidate for baptism and church membership on a bare profession of faith with little or no evidence of regeneration. Then everyone in the church, including the candidate himself, assumes that he is a genuine believer.

What is missing in this scenario is any conviction of sin. What we forget is that God looks on the heart. No matter how righteous and upright a person may seem outwardly, he still is a human being with a sin nature. What we human observers see is a well-behaved youngster who is active in his church and Christian school. What God sees is a heart filled with pride, anger, selfishness, lust and greed. God knows what we are really like inside, and if the motive is present, even when the outward action is not, we are still guilty in the sight of God. What God wants to see is a pure heart, not a proud hypocrite. And here we all fail, no matter how righteous we may appear to be outwardly.

True conversion, then, begins with the conviction of sin. This is not to say that a person must weep over his sins for at least a half an hour before he can pray and ask for forgiveness. Personalities and circumstances differ. But in order for true conversion to take place there must be a clear understanding of the real issue: our sin and guilt before a holy God whose law we have broken and whose justice we have offended.

By the same token true saving faith is not just assent to a set of propositions; it is an act of the will in which we place our trust in Christ as our Savior. We do not just believe things about Christ; we believe in Christ; we place our trust in Him. We rely on Him for salvation. Faith acts on the promises of God’s Word. Faith obeys. Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of faith.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

What is strikingly absent in Pastor Ryerse’s account of the Christian life is the role of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, many fundamentalist Baptist churches have so reacted against Pentacostalism that they hesitate even to mention the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like “holy rollers.” And in those churches more inclined toward an Arminian theology there is a tendency to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. And yet the New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth, and it is the Holy Spirit who creates the spiritual life of the church and makes its ministries effective. Paul could say, “And my speech and my preaching were not with permissive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4). Without the Holy Spirit the church is just plain dead.

The new birth itself is a deep, inward change produced by the Holy Spirit. In the case of a person raised in a Christian home there might not be a dramatic outward change. Such a person will continue to be the same outwardly moral and upright person that he always has been. The real change takes place inwardly. The newly regenerated Christian has a new understanding, and new interests and desires. He is conscious of a new relationship with God. He has a prayer life, and he delights to feed upon God’s Word.

It is here that many nominal Christians raised in Christian homes have difficulty. They go through life simply reacting to the opinions of others. It is all a matter of external pressure. But to really know God in a personal, intimate way is liberating. God’s opinion is the only one that matters. Everyone else’s opinion is only secondary. As someone once put it, “the fear of God is the fear that drives away all other fear.” It was this fear of God that prompted Martin Luther to stand before the Emperor and all the assembled nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and declare, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we are feeding on God’s Word, if we are spending time with Him in prayer, if we are growing ever closer to Him, the opinions of men simply do not matter. The only question is, what does God think? If I am truly born again, if I have genuine spiritual life within me, it is no longer a matter of trying to please others and live up to their expectations. My aim is to please God and I don’t need any external prompting.

The difference can be illustrated by the life of Paul. In a sense we could say that Paul had a “Fundamentalist” upbringing, if we could use that term in a Jewish context. He was a devout Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6). He even had the added advantage of theological training under one of the leading rabbis of his day. But in the end it was of no avail. In a fascinating piece of psychological introspection he describes his inner conflict in Romans chapter 7. Intellectually he had a high regard for Scripture. He could see that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he also saw something else at work inside of himself – something dark and sinister. For all of his outward righteousness he was still a human being, born with a sin nature that led him in the complete opposite direction. This created a strange paradox in his psychology. “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; cf. v. 19). “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). And this led to his anguished cry in verse 24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”   Is it not fair to say that this describes the experience of many today who were raised in Christian homes?

Parmigianino, ca. 1530

The Conversion of Paul

The answer to the question is found in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). What makes the difference in the life a person who has genuinely been born again is the Holy Spirit, and Paul describes the work of the Spirit at length in chapter 8. The Spirit gives life (vv. 4-11), the assurance of salvation (vv. 14-17), hope (vv. 23-25), and intercession (vv. 26,27). And thus Paul concludes the chapter on a triumphant note: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). What makes the difference between chapter 7 and chapter 8? The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer! Is that not what we are missing in our churches today? And Paul is very blunt about the matter: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9b). Where does that leave us?

The Church

Which brings us to the subject of the church. In the last chapter of his book Pastor Ryerse describes the type of “emerging church” his is planting in Arkansas. He criticizes traditional churches for putting “belief and behavior ahead of belonging” (p. 202). Candidates for membership have to believe a certain way and behave a certain way in order to belong. At his new church, however, Pastor Ryerse says that “For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail he or she may be’ (p. 203).

It is a little hard to see how anyone who has sat in Doc Carter’s classes could say such a thing. For Doc Carter, beyond anyone else, was quick to point out that a Baptist church, indeed a New Testament church, should be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. And this is important, not just because it is a Baptist distinctive, but because it is the only way that a church can manifest life in Christ to the surrounding community. It is the only way that a church can even begin to function the way a church is supposed to. The operative principle is that each individual member of the church is supposed to be vitally connected to Christ through the indwelling Spirit. The church is supposed to be a spiritual fellowship, the communion of the saints, drawn together by a common love for Christ and for each other. This is why Baptist churches traditionally have had church covenants – you were making a formal commitment to your fellow believers to live the Christian life and to function together as a spiritual body.

Is not our problem today that our churches are not very spiritual? For the most part they have become social clubs, with the paid, professional pastor acting as CEO and master of ceremonies. You can get 90% of the congregation out for a “fellowship” dinner, but scarcely 10% out for prayer meeting. Since when did casseroles become more important than prayer? Is Christ present in our gatherings?


What is largely missing in Pastor Ryerse’s book is any sense of the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of man, of the need for repentance, and of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Pastor Ryerse seems instead to take a sociological approach to religion. Fundamentalism is a subculture that makes certain demands on its members. But for Pastor Ryerse it was all external pressure – he didn’t feel anything within. At one point he says that “many of us have wondered why some biblical writers speak of God’s presence being so close and near to them while our own experiences have been of a God who is far away” (p. 102). At another point he admitted, “I’m not very good at praying . . . I’ve just never been able to develop prayer as a consistent discipline in my life” (p. 189). In short, what we seem to have here is the psychology of an unconverted person, caught up in a religious milieu but lacking any direct experience with God personally. And thus it was only a matter of time before he would try to redefine his faith to correspond with how he actually felt within.

But in the end as human beings we all have to deal with God as He actually is. In one sense Pastor Ryerse is certainly correct when he says that “theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts and lives of people who are asking the big questions.” That is, in fact, exactly what most of the great preachers and writers down through the centuries did, from John Bunyan to Martyn Lloyd-Jones – most of them had no academic training in theology at all, but they concentrated on asking the big questions, and tried to understand how the answers applied to life. This is what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” or experiential theology as we might say today, if we could even conceive of such a thing. Pastor Ryerse’s problem is that he is “seeking answers that resonate” with him personally. Rather the great preachers and writers of the past went to Scripture for the answers. (And Moses, Jesus and Paul were no ivory tower armchair theologians!). And that is what we must do. We must go to the Bible and try to interpret it honestly and humbly, allowing ourselves to be taught by God’s Word. We must learn to apply it to our lives. Simply to base our theology on our own feelings and experiences is to lead ourselves astray. We cannot afford to go through life making up things about God because they make us feel good. For this reason I am afraid that Pastor Ryerse’s solution to the problem of Fundamenealism is probably a dead end.



Moses and the Ten Commandments

Perhaps the major question facing mankind today is whether God has communicated His will to us. To be more specific, does the Bible have a legitimate claim to be the written, inspired Word of God? On this single question the claims of Christianity, and indeed the foundation of Western Civilization, depend.

    Atheists and skeptics openly scoff at the idea. The Bible, they say, is a human book, full of mistakes and errors. How can it possibly be the infallible Word of God? The idea, they say, is pure nonsense.

    But both Judaism and Christianity are based on the premise that our Creator has spoken to us through a succession of divinely inspired prophets and apostles. Their collected writings comprise our Bible, and the honest and sincere seeker can go to it for instruction and guidance. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be completer, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Tim., 3:16,17; NKJV).

    How, then, did the process of inspiration work? The ancient Israelites were unique among the nations of their time in that they conceived of the universe as having been created by a single, all-powerful, self-existent Deity. How did they arrive at that notion? God revealed Himself to their forebear Abraham. God is portrayed as speaking to him verbally on several different occasions, at one point even going so far as to make a formal, binding agreement (covenant) with him. The same pattern was repeated with Abraham’s son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob.

    But by far the greatest prophet in the Old Testament was Moses. What we are told about him is that “since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord know face to face . . .” (Dt. 34:10). God is portrayed as speaking directly to Moses on numerous occasions, and Moses would either write down or speak to the people what God had told him. This included, among other things, the “Book of the Covenant,” which included all of Exodus chapters 21-23.

    Other prophets followed, although they did not receive revelation in the same manner as had Moses. Sometimes they would see visions; sometimes they would hear voices; sometimes an angel would speak to them. But in each and every case God communicated with them in verbal propositions, so that what they said and wrote could truly be said to be “the Word of the Lord.”

    But the greatest prophet of all was Jesus Christ. For not only was He a prophet sent from God, He is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who had dwelt with God the Father in heaven from all eternity. “For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak” (John 12:49,50).

    God, then, has made His will known to us. “. . . holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21). God revealed to them things that cannot be known by human reason alone. The prophets themselves did not always fully understand what God had told them. “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (I Pet. 1:10,11). But we have the complete revelation today in the Bible.

    Does this mean that the original autographs were inerrant, as many Evangelicals today maintain? Not necessarily. While the inspired prophets and apostles received a verbal revelation from God, it was still up to them to write it down and communicate it to the rest of mankind. In this their own natural faculties were employed. They wrote in their own native languages, using their own individual styles and diction. In the historical writings the use of underlying source materials is evident. New Testament authors frequently quoted the Greek translation of the Old Testament, even where it differs from the commonly accepted Hebrew text. In some cases an amanuensis (secretary) did the actual writing of the autograph.

    Does this mean that the human author (or amanuensis) got everything down exactly as he received it from God, even down to the smallest detail? Not necessarily. That would require eliminating the human element completely. This is why we occasionally find an apparent discrepancy or contradiction in the text. But we have to assume that the human authors, as honest and sincere men, who were genuinely devoted to the God whom they served, exercised due care and diligence in recording the revelations that they had received. They were, after all, conscious of handling the very words of God Himself. The certifiable problems are few and far between, and only involve matters of slight detail. What is truly remarkable is that such an ancient book, written by so many different authors over such a long period of time, could be so free from human error.

    Charles Hodge, the famous 19th Century Presbyterian theologian (and a staunch conservative), put it this way: “It is enough to impress any mind with awe, when it contemplates the Sacred Scriptures filled with the highest truths, speaking with authority in the name of God, and so miraculously free from the soiling touch of human fingers. The errors in matters of fact which skeptics search out bear no proportion to the whole. No sane person would deny that the Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there a speck of sandstone should be detected in its structure. Not less unreasonable is it to deny the inspiration of such a book as the Bible, because one sacred writer says that on a given occasion twenty-four thousand, and another says that twenty-three thousand, men were slain. Surely a Christian may be allowed to tread such objections under his feet” (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 170).

    Are the truth claims of Scripture then valid? There are several different possible answers that can be given to that question. But let it suffice to say here that the sheer number of authors involved, the multiplicity of witnesses to the divine revelation, points to the authenticity of the revelation itself. If it were just Mohammed or Joseph Smith, their credibility could be called into question. But in the case of the Bible it is not a matter of just one or two men. It is dozens of men, writing in three different languages over a span of 1,400 years. Their work has stood the test of time. Countless lives have been changed for the better; and multitudes have been led to everlasting joy. What more do we need in the way of a commendation?

    The challenge facing the skeptic is to show how the entire biblical record, from Moses on Mt. Sinai to John on the Isle of Patmos, has been falsified. “. . . by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Dt. 19:15).


Thus says the Lord:

“Heaven is My throne,

And earth is My footstool.

Where is the house that you will build Me?

And where is the place of My rest?

For all those things My hand has made,

And all those things exist,”

Says the Lord,

“But on this one will I look:

On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,

And who trembles at My word.”

            Isaiah 66:1,2 (NKJV).

As evangelical Christians we profess to believe in the Bible as God’s Word. Yet even though we may hold to the inspiration of Scripture in theory, too often we take it lightly in practice. In some cases pastors and theologians will advance questionable interpretations of Scripture, but more often common, ordinary Christians will simply ignore biblical teaching when it comes to making ethical decisions. “I know that’s what the Bible says, but . . . ,” and with the word “but” the authority of Scripture come tumbling to the ground.

This is pure folly on our part. What exactly do we expect to say when we finally meet our Maker? “I know that’s what Your Word says, but . . . “? To ignore God’s Word is to invite calamity.

The issue is spelled out clearly in the passage before us. The Lord has pronounced judgment on an apostate nation of Israel. In Isaiah 63:1-6 we are presented with a vivid picture of the Messiah returning from the conquest of His enemies. The scene of vengeance and destruction prompts Isaiah to plea for mercy for the nation. The Lord’s reply is found in chapters 65 and 66. What He says in essence is that He will save a remnant while punishing the rest. But whom will He spare? The answer is given in our text:

    “But on this one will I look

     On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,

     And who trembles at My word.”

The ones on whom God will “look” are those who, having heard of the coming judgment, are humbled and sobered by what they heard. They take God’s Word seriously – and act accordingly. They realize that what had been spoken came from God Himself. It was not mere human opinion, the speculation of philosophers, economists or political scientists. This was a message form none other than Almighty God Himself.

    Part of our problem is that we have too small thoughts of God. Isaiah, however, was given a different view of things. God confronted him with this pointed question:

        “Heaven is My throne,

          And earth is My footstool.

         Where is the house that you will build Me?

         And where is the place of My rest?

         For all those things My hands have made,

         And all those things exist . . .”

God utterly transcends human experience. Nothing else can ever begin to be compared with Him, for He alone is infinite, eternal, and omnipotent. It is with God Himself we have to do, the true and living God. What He says must be taken with dead seriousness.

    But how do we know what He said? How is His Word communicated to us? Isaiah himself tells us: “‘As for Me,’ says the Lord, ‘this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,’ says the Lord, ‘from this time and forevermore'” (Isa. 59:21). Here we have a description of the process of divine inspiration. The Holy Spirit descends upon a prophet, and the prophet speaks under the influence of the Spirit. God, in effect, “put His Word in the prophet’s mouth.” “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).

    What should our attitude be, then, toward Scripture? The Bible is nothing less than the Word of God, and we should receive it with humility and meekness of spirit. This is not to say that we should be terrified at its contents. For those who are being saved it is the message of salvation to be received with joy (I Thess. 1:6). But coming, as it does, from God Himself, it should be received with a profound sense of reverence. The Bible is a book unlike any other book. It is to be read, to be meditated on, to be loved, and to be applied to life. The famous motto of J.A. Bengel, the 18th Century German biblical scholar, should be the motto of every Christian today: “Te totum applica ad Textum; Rem totam applica ad te´ — Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the subject matter wholly to yourself.