So far this year has seen three significant figures pass from the Evangelical and Fundamentalist scene. The torch is being passed and at this point there are only a handful of leaders remaining from that older generation that rose to prominence in the 1970s with the creation of the Moral Majority. The remaining voices, men like James Dobson and Pat Robertson are now in their eighties.
The most recent noteworthy death is that of Jack Chick. He's probably the most obscure figure on this list and many will be unfamiliar with the name. He's famous for his comic-book style tracts that have permeated the globe. I've found them in airport bathrooms, on gas station pumps and on cafe tables in Venice. He represented a fairly extreme version of Baptist Fundamentalism and had a penchant for really offending people.
The tracts contained a great deal of speculative information and not a little in the way of questionable conspiracy theory. Yet for all that the offense that most people found was due to the Gospel message. I think the most controversial aspect (to some) was the highly anti-Catholic nature to his work.
He lived in obscurity, few people having seen his face and his death will have no discernible impact. And yet the proliferation of his tracts has had a small but noteworthy effect on the Culture Wars and certainly some of the internal debates between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.
I still encounter his tracts from time to time. Most recently I found them at a couple of Fundamentalist churches I visited and it's noteworthy these congregations are also adherents to the ideas of another man who just recently died in 2016, namely Peter Ruckman.
Ruckman was famous for his chalk drawings and mean spirit but mostly for his somewhat peculiar and unique take on the King James Bible. King James Only-ism has a few variations but the one most commonly encountered has Ruckman's stamp. The older King James Only movements were usually centered around commitments to the Textus Receptus and the Byzantine family of Greek Texts. The advocates of this position (such as the Trinitarian Bible Society) reject the Critical Text and thus all the modern Bible translations derived from it.
Ruckman's view is significantly different. He argued the 1611 King James version was newly inspired, a new Autograph as it were. The Greek and Hebrew texts were no longer needed because the English King James Bible replaced them. There was a new era of Divine Inspiration so to speak that occurred in the 17th century. If you want to translate the Bible into a new language you wouldn't rely on the available Greek or Hebrew texts but the English King James.
While I think the modern views concerning the Critical Text need to be rejected and even decried and thus I too reject the textual basis of translations ranging from the NIV to the ESV, Ruckman's position can only be described as cultic if not just plain bizarre. This is especially true given the nature and history of the KJV vis-à-vis the Geneva Bible and the Protestant churches of the era.
A peculiarly American position it has spread both here and abroad. I first encountered in a Baptist missionary congregation in Italy back in the 1990s. Today in my local area I have to say that virtually all the Fundamentalist churches have been affected by it. I know of but one Fundamentalist congregation which embraces the Textus Receptus only version of King James Only-ism. They would still insist on the King James and reject translations such as the Geneva or New King James even though they are based off the same Greek text, but they don't go as far as the Ruckmanite position regarding Double Inspiration or a new Autograph.
But all the rest virtually hold to Ruckman's view and I have to say it comes up in every single sermon. For them, the proper King James position has become a mark of the Church and of the Gospel itself.
Sadly many of the most popular critiques of this movement are also flawed because usually they are being conducted from the standpoint of pro-Critical text arguments, which (to me) are equally dubious when examined both in terms of theology and history.
In passing I would note there are at least two necessary components or aspects to Sola Scriptura that if rejected leave the doctrine in shambles.
One is the idea of Sufficiency, the notion that the Scriptures are comprehensive enough to answer all doctrinal questions and provide a framework for the Church as a whole, as well as the lives of individual Christians. When people innovate with regard to the doctrine of the Church, theology as a whole or in terms of individual Christian piety they are de facto denying this doctrine.
Thus for example, I would argue the Lutheran formulation of Sola Scriptura is defective. In addition there are many ways in which this doctrine is abused, the most popular being its divorce from Covenantal context and its application to Dominionist concepts of the Christianisation of culture.
Second there is the idea of Providential Preservation. Just as Christ promised the Apostles that the Spirit would bring all things to remembrance, this doctrine insists the Divinely inspired writings and thus teachings of the Prophet-Apostles would survive and be available to the Church for the duration of This Age. This process of Preservation can be messy, sometimes the text has been protected and perpetuated by persons and groups that were probably something less than Christian, and certainly did not revere its teachings. That said, the text has been preserved as infallible. To reject this notion is akin to atheism, a rejection that God is Providentially governing history and has preserved His Word for His people.
It also must be said the idea of Canon and Canonicity are wed to this principle and an improper understanding of Providential Preservation will lead to its erosion as well. There are historical evidences that can be pointed to but in the end this is an article of faith, not unreasonable but at the same time it is not something that will meet the criteria of verification by the standards of modern scientific inquiry. The Bible is a spiritual book, a miracle in itself and the case for Preservation can be made from within the text itself.
This teaching is under assault by both the secular academy as well as Conservative Evangelicalism. The doctrine of Inerrancy introduced in the late 19th century was something of a compromise with the ascendant Biblical Criticism of the day. While we certainly believe the Scripture to be Inerrant, the modern doctrine focuses on the inerrancy not of our existing and historic texts and translations, but of the now missing Autographs, the original documents produced by the authors of Scripture. Using modern 'scientific' methods, available texts are examined, edited, deconstructed and finally reconstructed. The modern text is a production of scholars and governed by their methods, insights and certainly the Evangelical's desire to maintain standing and respectability within the academy.
Both the modern Evangelical embrace of the Critical Text and the Ruckmanite re-constitution/re-inspiration or Double Inspiration of the text in the 17th century are rejections of Providential Preservation.
Both positions (to some extent) argue that at times past we've had the wrong Bible or to put it differently the Bible we ought to use today is different from that which would have been employed by the Church in the Middle Ages.
There are other nuances regarding this position. Some base Preservation on the basis of what could be called an Ecclesiastical Text, an argument rooted both in the Text itself and a narrative regarding the Church and Historical Theology. It's a complex but certainly fascinating issue.
But one thing is clear, Peter Ruckman's shadow looms over the modern Fundamentalist scene and certainly transformed it. While the early Fundamentalists looked askance at the Revised Version and the ASV, their views were nothing like the Ruckmanite position which began to appear in the 1970s with the publication of The Christian's Handbook of Manuscript Evidence by Peter Ruckman. I have a copy sitting on my shelf, given to me many years ago by one of Ruckman's disciples.
Ironically it's kind of like a Dan Brown version of textual history. There's some truth, a great deal of error and not a little speculation, some of it straying into the 'wild' territory.
The next 2016 death of significance is a person far better known and perhaps in some ways more influential and that would be Tim LaHaye.
Best known for his Left Behind series which made him fabulously wealthy and did much to promote Dispensational theology to the masses he was also a very important figure within the Christian Right.
Dispensationalism was already dominant in Evangelical circles and the works of earlier authors such as Hal Lindsey did much to promote that school of thought. I grew up reading Lindsey's works as my father was a big fan and his books sat on the shelf next to the Scofield Bible. Yet, LaHaye popularised the teaching in the form of thriller fiction and I was consistently amazed to find people from Mainline and even secular backgrounds reading the books.
That said the theology continues to shift and reconstitute itself. The doctrinal foundations are held by fewer and fewer teachers today but the Eschatological scheme regarding the 'End Times' and of course the modern Zionist nation of Israel is retained. It's an exciting and interactive theology that interplays with the news and yet it is without Biblical warrant.
Apart from LaHaye's promotion of Dispensationalism and his political activism I often associate him with the introduction of psychology into the Church. He and James Dobson led the way in introducing these errors into the Evangelical fold. LaHaye's recasting and reintroduction of the Four Temperaments was and continues to be popular in Evangelical circles. This was part of a larger poison that was injected into 1970s Evangelicalism and continues to dominate today. Thanks to figures like LaHaye the modern Evangelical church is little more than entertainment packaged therapy and politics.
He also was involved in the formation (with Henry Morris) of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in the San Diego area of California where he also pastored at the old Scott Memorial Baptist Church which today has been transformed into David Jeremiah's Shadow Mountain congregation. I remember the old Scott Memorial building. In fact I was in a Christmas play there during LaHaye's tenure. If I'm ever in the area again I want to be sure to at least drive by the new facility but I doubt I'll recognise the place or even much of the area.
In 1981 LaHaye formed the Council for National Policy which has functioned as a sort of Bilderberg for the Christian Right and is overshadowed by many, frankly dark associations with political and international figures, money and even paramilitary and geopolitical endeavours. This is the Christian Right at its darkest and some of the figures associated with it can only be labeled as nefarious. Tim LaHaye remained a driving force within the CNP and the Christian Right until his death.
Tim LaHaye will not be missed. His damage and evil schemes could almost be described as incalculable.
Finally there's another figure who died this year, and while technically not an Evangelical still belongs on this list. And that would of course be none other than Phyllis Schlafly. Her last acts were to promote Donald Trump, certainly a noble epitaph and legacy.
She was better known to an earlier generation in her crusade against the ERA and argument for traditional gender roles. Of course the irony was (and is) that the Christian Right's anti-feminism is usually headed by what can only be described as feminists. The Catholic Schlafly was no exception.
Schlafly was also part of the shift in the Christian Right that moved the needle away from a Classical Liberal framework and sought to re-cast the Founders and American History in terms of a Throne-and-Altar type paradigm. This Revisionism would prove far more amenable to both Catholic and Protestant-Dominionist sensibilities.
Paired with Anti-Communism, Schlafly was not alone in continuing to support the positions, methods and aims of Joseph McCarthy and still continued to call for the reconstitution of HUAC and the McCarthyite inquisition. Despite all the rhetoric concerning so-called Constitutional Originalism, these positions along with erection of the Military-Security complex and the Originalist support of it belie their claims of continuity with the Founding Fathers. The positions of Schlafly while conservative in some ways also constituted a serious break with the foundations of American thought.
This is not to endorse the Founders or Schlafly but is instead an observation. Schlafly perhaps more than any other figure associated with the Christian Right displays and demonstrates its own contradictions and dissonance. Classical Liberalism, the worldview (as it were) of the Founders has always been progressive and forward looking. While many of its ideas have been absorbed and synthesised with the values of the Christian Right, they in fact represent an arrest of its impulse and a countering of it basic narrative.
In their own ways, these figures have contributed to and to some degree shaped the current state of the American Church. Someone like Jack Chick wouldn't have got along with Phyllis Schlafly but ironically they are found to be playing more or less on the same team.
A generation is passing and it's a good time to reflect on some of these issues.
For further reading regarding the text of Scripture: