Biola’s The Fundamentals Still Relevant Today

Professor Fred Sanders offers insight on impact of book series

Feb. 25, 2013 By Jenna Bartlo

Beginning in 1910, Biola founder and visionary Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton funded a four-volume series of books defending the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith, aptly titled The Fundamentals.  The series quickly became the most recognized defense of conservative Christianity at the time, and was requested by more than 100,000 people internationally; ultimately there were 3 million copies in print.

Those who held to the doctrines outlined and defended in the book began to refer to themselves as fundamentalists. This term was synonymous with the term “evangelical,” until years later when a negative use of the term emerged. Today, The Fundamentals are still in print with the most recent edition published in 2003 by Baker Book House.

Here, Torrey Honors Institute professor Fred Sanders shares insight on the impact of this piece of Biola’s history, then and now, in light of Biola’s 105th birthday on Feb. 25.

1. What's in The Fundamentals? Who were the contributors? 

They were 12 paperback volumes published over the course of 5 years (1910-1915). Ultimately there were 3 million copies in print. There were 90 chapters by about 75 authors, including a who's who of conservative Protestants from the English-speaking world: B.B. Warfield, James Orr, R.A. Torrey, G. Campbell Morgan, H.C.G. Moule, A.T. Pierson, W.H. Griffith-Thomas, James Gray and Jesse Penn-Lewis (the only female contributor). The list also included celebrities like British cricket player and missionary C.T. Studd and Charles Spurgeon's son Thomas Spurgeon. Andrew Murray was invited to contribute, but he was in his final years and was prevented by weak health. On the other hand, The Fundamentals reprinted one piece by the long-dead Puritan Thomas Boston (1676-1732).

The denominational spread was wide, from Canadian Anglicans to American Methodists to Princeton Presbyterians to Keswick holiness teachers. Some of these authors manifestly did not agree with each other on all points of doctrine! But they gladly banded together to testify to the central truths of Christian faith, and to be co-belligerents against liberal theology.

A lot of people think of "the fundamentals" as being a handful of minimal doctrines. But these books had 90 chapters that took up a large number of doctrines as well as issues in biblical studies. They avoided some disputed areas like infant baptism and premillennial eschatology. But with a few exceptions for the purposes of holding the coalition together, these books were committed to teaching the full range of conservative Protestant doctrine.

2. The Fundamentals (1910-1915) became the most recognized defense of conservative Christianity at the time. Had this never been done before? What made Lyman and Milton Stewart's defense of conservative Christianity so popular? 

The content of The Fundamentals was traditional, conservative doctrine, with nothing new, "no fads or fancies" as Biola's founders liked to say. A lot of the authors were pretty far along in their careers (average birthday of contributors was 1850), so what they were commissioned to write in The Fundamentals represented what they had been teaching since the mid-19th century.

But the format of The Fundamentals was strikingly new and creative. The Stewart brothers anonymously paid for the writing, editing, publishing and mailing of a series of paperback books to be sent at no charge to any Christian worker who asked for them. They wanted to equip pastors, missionaries and Sunday school teachers with a set of clear, well-argued articles in defense of the faith. Today we would call it a fully subsidized direct-mail campaign, with a guarantee that everybody who asked for these books would get them for free. The mailing list itself became a powerful tool for building a movement, as you can imagine: 100,000 people who had actively requested this kind of material!

3. Would you say The Fundamentals have affected conservative Christianity today? If so, how? 

These books were a public symbol of the coherence and continuity of the interdenominational movement known as conservative Protestant evangelicalism. It was a pretty radical idea at the time that conservatives from more than a dozen denominations could all look to a common, non-denominational center of gravity and find a clear statement of their core beliefs. If you imagine a conservative Methodist and a conservative Presbyterian in 1910, each of whom felt betrayed by the creeping liberalism of their respective denomination's official teaching institutions, finding encouragement, sanity and support in something published anonymously by no denomination in particular, you can see what a powerful force this project was. With the tragic loss of confidence in the doctrinal fidelity of the old mainline denominations, conservatives in all the denominations found they had more in common with each other than they did with the liberals in their own churches. Today we evangelicals take that kind of interdenominational cooperation for granted, just as the notion of "mere Christianity" seems self-evident to us. But The Fundamentals was one of the crucial instruments in making those ecumenical connections.

4. How did The Fundamentals interact with Biola's history and the shaping of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles? 

The concept, the financing, the editing, and the follow-up all depended on Biola people. Biola invented The Fundamentals. Lyman and Milton Stewart imagined and financed the series. They recruited the editors, who were (non-Biolans) Louis Meyer, then A.C. Dixon, followed by the final editor, Biola's first academic dean, R.A. Torrey. When The Fundamentals finished up in 1915, every person on the mailing list was given a free three-month subscription to Biola's magazine, The King's Business, with the option to pay for an ongoing subscription. This wasn't just a clever plan to boost the circulation of The King's Business (though I'm sure it was also that!). It made sense because anybody who liked The Fundamentals was bound to like Biola's The King's Business, which had all the same Stewart and Torrey editorial fingerprints all over it, and also had many of the same contributors. See for yourself by browsing vintage issues of The King's Business from this period online here: http://www.biola.edu/kingsbusiness.

5. Did they have an impact on the college or enrollment at the time? 

Not that I know of. Biola, which at the time did not yet go by the acronym but by the full title the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, was promoting itself as a solid and reliable center of conservative, evangelical Protestant teaching and discipleship. The Fundamentals was another instrument to carry out that same project internationally. Back when we were a new institution and nobody was quite sure if any good thing could come out of California, our reputation probably got a boost from being so clearly associated with a popular and successful publishing project. But I'm not aware of any direct impact on enrollment.

6. What can Biolans and Christians take away from The Fundamentals today? 

The continuity is encouraging. I am impressed by how little has changed since the time of our founders. A great many of the 90 articles can be read with real spiritual and intellectual profit right now. Some would need to be rephrased to fit our 21st century ways of expressing things. A small number are of lower quality (and probably were judged to be so at the time). But only a handful of the articles are actually compromised by having become out of date: Biblical studies in particular is a field where we have learned a great deal in the past century and could build our arguments even better than in 1915 (when the tide of historical criticism was still rising and showed no sign of ever reaching any limits). Reading something from 100 years ago and mostly agreeing with it is a great experience. Not only does it make us feel justly proud of our founders; it also encourages us that we aren't just following a script we wrote for ourselves. As a teacher in Torrey Honors, I would of course commend the same experience of Christian continuity when we read things from 500, 1,000 or 1,900 years ago. But The Fundamentals are really, organically, our own local history.

6. What do you find most interesting about The Fundamentals, especially in terms of relevance for today? 

Probably the most brilliant aspect of Lyman Stewart's strategy was the intellectual level at which he pitched this project, neither too high nor too low. The Fundamentals were not by the leading conservative scholars of the day, or those with the best-recognized academic credentials and teaching posts. There were a few such scholars involved (I would put contributors B.B. Warfield and James Orr up against anyone), but mostly Stewart's editors recruited great communicators instead of top scholars. On the other hand, The Fundamentals also avoided the extreme of simply asserting the authority of the good old doctrines based on authority or Protestant cultural dominance. The authors generally made their cases carefully, argued closely, and provided evidence for their positions. They found the sweet spot right between high-end academics and popular proclamation. The whole project was a vast undertaking in Christian education for a very wide audience. I think that, among the many things we do at Biola University today, we ought to be about that middling task of educating Christians from many churces. We're not the highest in the academic heap and we're not the lowest. If we have an accurate understanding of our position, like Stewart and Torrey did, we can accomplish much here.

The Fundamentals will be online at Open Biola later this year. Currently, the first year of Biola's leading journal, The King's Business, which shared the same chief editor (R. A. Torrey) is online at Open Biola.

Fred Sanders is a systematic theologian who studies and teaches across the entire range of classic Christian doctrine, but with a special focus on the doctrine of the Trinity. He has taught in the Torrey Honors Institute since 1999, and is an amateur historian of Biola's institutional history.

Interview conducted by Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Specialist. For more information, contact Jenna at 562.777.4061 or jenna.l.bartlo@biola.edu.

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