Journalists rarely understand religion so it’s no surprise that J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was described as a “Fundamentalist” back in the day. He did oppose liberalism and he did support the initial “fundamentals,” so it was a mistake waiting to happen. But one journalist – H. L. Mencken – knew Machen was no such thing:
The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist [Evangelical] on the order of William Jennings Bryan [Joel Osteen] and the simian faithful of Appalachia… Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart. His Biblical studies had been wide and deep, and he was familiar with the almost interminable literature of the subject. Moreover, he was an adept theologian, and had a wealth of professional knowledge to support his ideas. Bryan could only bawl.
In matters of theology and culture, Machen had a different spirit than the Fundamentalists. His involvement with early Fundamentalism was not an inevitable alliance resulting from broad common ground but a temporary alliance of necessity. At a time when Presbyterianism itself was being altered by the forces of liberalism, he was compelled to defend common ground with unlikely allies: “in the presence of a great common foe, I have little time to be attacking my brethren who stand with me in defense of the Word of God. I must continue to support an unpopular cause.” Nonetheless, “Do you suppose that I do not regret my being called, by a term I greatly dislike, a ‘Fundamentalist’ [Evangelical]? Most certainly I do.” Elaborating,
I never call myself a “Fundamentalist.” [Evangelical]. . . But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a “Fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist”—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith. As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the Church’s life—the current which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and the other representatives of the “Princeton School.”
So Machen also had an un-Fundamentalist historical perspective with a desire to be found within it.
Now flash forward to the early 21st century. Machen’s heirs are now known by outsiders as Evangelicals; sometimes they see themselves that way. But if we are truly his heirs we are of a different spirit. Doctrine and confessions matter to us. We happily situate ourselves in the historical Reformed context. We know what “adiaphora” means, or at least recognize the concept. We never quite feel like we belong in what passes for Evangelical culture. “Evangelical” itself is amorphous and causes collateral damage as we have recently seen.
There’s as much reason for us to be displeased with our label as there was for Machen to be displeased with his. But just as Machen had a compelling reason to suffer being called a Fundamentalist, we have a compelling reason to endure the “Evangelical” label. Clearly that reason is…well, it’s because…give me a minute now…what was the reason? I’m not seeing it; Machen wasn’t a Fundamentalist like Bryan and he wasn’t an Evangelical like Osteen. Neither are his heirs.