Us and them, the one and the many

11 Jan

I was planning to write this post anyway, but Dr. Doran’s “Some thoughts on Us & Them” provides perfect justification, and context, for these comments. Since I was part of the same panel discussion that Dr. Doran mentions, consider this a continuation of that conversation.

Let’s begin with some Van Tillianism. A central problem (perhaps the central problem) of philosophy is “the one and the many” problem (which we’ll abbreviate TOATM). Concisely stated, the problem involves the relationship of the particulars of our empirical experience to the universals of our minds.

I most often illustrate TOATM problem using chairs. The lecture room is filled with all of these items that we call chairs. Yet, close examination will reveal that no two of them are identical; each has its own scratches, bulges, etc. And there are a whole host of items that we also call chairs that are strikingly different from those items in the lecture hall. Additionally, there are any number of items that are, in many ways, very similar to those in the lecture hall, yet we do not call them chairs. So, for instance, at a certain width, that item ceases to be a chair and becomes a bench.

Here’s the challenge: define those properties which all chairs, and nothing but chairs, have in common. You will find the task, if you take it seriously, maddening; what we do so adeptly without thought becomes painfully confusing when we turn our attention to it. Is a doll’s chair really a chair, even if no one can sit in it?

TOATM problem is at the heart of the debate between empiricism and rationalism (as epistemologies) and drives us to a discussion of the nature of reality. The empiricist, who believes that sense experience is the basis for knowledge, wants us to insist that each individual chair is real, and the true object of knowledge. The rationalist, on the other hand, insists that the true object of knowledge is more like chairness, the abstraction that makes it possible for us to categorize items. Such categorization is important, the rationalist claims, because even your idea of the one chair sitting in front of you is not something that you experience in any instant; you are convinced the chair has a back side, even if you cannot see it presently. To walk around the chair is to link experiences together is an idea, and idea that is chairness.

The empiricist, then, finds reality in the many (the chairs of the lecture hall); the rationalist, in the one (chairness).

Each position has its virtues. The empiricist (by far the most dominant viewpoint for most people today) finds the suggestion that chairness is more real than that chair absurd. And he is correct to defend the reality of that chair, in my estimation.

Unfortunately, the empiricist is left with several problems. Knowledge, if it is worth having, needs to be of something stable and universal. So, if the empiricist insists on the reality of that chair, his knowledge of that chair is truly irrelevant to the other item sitting next it (also a chair). They are fundamentally different objects, and nothing in one’s sense experience can say any different. The grouping of items is a mental, not an empirical task.

Van Til insists that a radical preference for the many over the one (of empiricism over rationalism) ultimately unravels into skepticism. Of course, the same is true for the radical rationalist: he knows chairness (the universal), but his idea is, definitionally, something he cannot experience. After all, you can’t sit on chairness.

This is TOATM problem: in order to have true knowledge, we must be able to bring the one and the many into meaningful contact with one another. (Van Til’s answer is rooted in the Trinity, but that isn’t relevant for this discussion.)

Now, all of this finally sets me up for my reply to Dr. Doran. (It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t take the mic during the panel discussion.)

Perhaps I’m misreading him, but it seems to me that Dr. Doran’s proposal leans us far too heavily on the side of the empiricist. Each item-that-might-be-a-chair is different, so to speak; each must be evaluated on its own terms. Furthermore, the boundaries between chair and bench, and between chair and recliner, and between chair and big rock, etc., are never clear: therefore, it doesn’t make sense for us to speak of chairs at all.

Please don’t misunderstand: I do agree with Dr. Doran that the labels that we have been using are increasingly inaccurate; this is precisely what the empiricist offers to the rationalist (as the rationalist has a tendency to invent categories that have no relation to the world of experience). In this regard, I am quite in agreement with his proposal. I’m merely inclined to think that his wording is such as to cast doubts on the possibility of useful labels, and that, in my estimation, is a kind of skepticism that I would want to avoid.

I am, then, arguing that we need to hold the one and the many in tension with each other. There is an us around Dr. Doran, and, as you move increasingly from him, there is a them. The fact that the line between these is not distinct does not entail that these categories fail to exist at all.


Posted by on January 11, 2011 in Fundamentalism


20 responses to “Us and them, the one and the many

  1. Don Johnson

    January 11, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Hi Mike

    Very interesting. I think Dave is protesting too much about not being able to have some sort of idea about general categories. You give a nice philosophical slant to it… to the extent that I can understand it, that is!!! (I think I get it.)

    Personally, I have been thinking of various preachers in terms of “big comfy sofas”, rather than chairs though. (I resemble that remark.)

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Michael Riley

      January 12, 2011 at 11:45 am

      A couple of thoughts here.

      First, I like the sofa joke. I might have to steal that.

      Second, I think (again, if I understand him properly) that Dr. Doran is (rightly, in my estimation) highlighting the inadequacies of the received categories. Chris Anderson’s sermon at the Preserving the Truth conference articulated this well: separation by acronym (FBF, OBF, GARB, IFCA, etc.) is considerably less meaningful than it used to be.

      It seems to me that Dr. Doran’s is offering a purposeful response to the pervasive, ingrained tendency to depend on the acronym/categories.

      • Don Johnson

        January 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm

        Hi Mike,

        Well, I think Dave is responding to people trying to make separation simple and using labels as simplistic cover-ups for good reasons. I doubt that there has ever been much separation based on the acronyms, as Chris apparently suggests (I haven’t listened to his remarks yet). But there has been a long standing pattern of trying to pin the neo-e label on people and dismissing them with, “Oh, he’s a neo, you can’t work with him.”

        Now the fact is, sometimes this labeling has been correct. But if we are going to speak authoritatively and credibly for others to follow, we need more substantive reasons than the labels alone. So as far as that goes, I would agree with Dave.

        But I think he takes the fuzzy edges of labels too far in his attempt to prove there is no such thing as movements, camps, us vs. them, etc. Clearly there are certain characteristics that tend to differentiate evangelicals and fundamentalists, at least in my view. (So I think I agree with Jeff on something for once!!!)

        The question remains, though, are these differing characteristics good and sufficient reasons for separation or at least non-cooperation?

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

  2. conservativesojourner

    January 12, 2011 at 12:22 am


    I agree with you on the transcendent idea being more real than the particular.

    There are many “exceptions to the rule” as far as fundamentalism is concerned and probably just as many in evangelicalism. Do you think it is possible that fundamentalism has morphed into something more like evangelicalism and that evangelicalism has begun to morph into something more like fundamentalism? In other words, is it possible that the distance between the “Us” and the “Them” has become so close that they are that perfect distance between what is too wide for a chair but too narrow for a bench?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • Michael Riley

      January 12, 2011 at 11:52 am

      I don’t want to derail the bigger discussion (on separatism) with the philosophical question, at least in this thread. However, the idea of the one being “more real” than the many is not one that I’m fully ready to embrace, at least without qualification. Again, the Van Tillian idea is that the one and the many must be held together. Thinking of matters Trinitarian, neither the unity nor the plurality of God can safely be declared more ultimate than the other.

      On the other hand, it seems clear to me that the ideas of created things precede the created things themselves. Thus, God’s idea of light precedes light; in this way, perhaps God’s idea is more real than light. But more real seems dangerous language; there seem to be Platonic/Gnostic consequences of that language that I wouldn’t want to embrace.

      Your comments on evangelicalism and fundamentalism interest me. I agree that some branches of fundamentalism and of evangelicalism are difficult to distinguish; I’m not sure what you mean by your notion of them “morphing” into one another.

      • conservativesojourner

        January 13, 2011 at 3:10 pm

        It seems to me that fundamentalism and evangelicalism have much in common as to their essence, although the statement is perhaps too broad to be helpful. However, I see the culture of fundamentalism and the culture of evangelicalism to differ largely in degree and not in kind. Although both have accepted pop culture, fundamentalism’s paradigm is more outdated than evangelicalisms.

        However, I do feel that both groups seem to be closing in the distance between themselves on many issues.

  3. Jeff Straub

    January 12, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Nicely put! Touche! Great post! Well done! Kudos! Bravo! Hurrah!

  4. Jeff Straub

    January 12, 2011 at 11:01 am


    Can I add another thought or several? IMO, the very fact that the “Us and Them” conversation takes places is an indication that there IS an “Us” and “Them,” even if these are not well defined! I have been among “Them” and they think “Us and Them” with “Us” being their “Them.” They see a clear distinction, even if some of “Us” don’t.

    Moreover, there will always be “Us” and “Them” categories. These categories may morph, change, mutate, fade, expand, shrink, contract, or explode, but they will ALWAYS exist. They did in the NT and they will in the 21st Century church.

    For instance, I don’t see the missionaries of “Us” going into the churches of “Them” to raise support. We have a fairly prominent “Them” church in town, but I don’t know of any of “Us” that this church supports. Moreover, I know quite a lot of “Us” churches but I do not see these churches support any “Them” missionaries.

    Sooooooo, “Us” and “Them” seem to exist in our minds even if we refuse the categories in our conversations.


  5. Mike Harding

    January 12, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Years ago Dr. Doran preached an excellent series of messages entitled, “What’s In A Name.” In those messages he argued that labels are “shorthand” for a particular body of truth. He began with the name Christian, then Fundamentalist, Baptist, Dispensationalist, and Calvinist(ic) [not Calvinist]. I appreciated those messages and have used that paradigm to describe our church as well. However, I have added the concept of Conservative in regard to culture, music, dress, etc. Which of those labels has not been seriously muddled? None. Yet, it would be naive in my opinion to abandon those titles. Yes, we must constantly define labels to our audience. “Christian”, for instance, has been totally distorted in the religious and secular world. Yet, I still call myself a Christian and define the term often. The same goes for the terms Fundamentalist and New-evangelical.

    I offered definitions written by McCune and Pickering to clarify our terms at the beginning of the discussion. Interestingly, the DBTS website and catalog book clearly state that the seminary is Baptist, Fundamental, Dispensational, and local church. And two profs have repeatedly taught classes on the history of fundamentalism and the history of the new-evangelicalism. Would Southern ever describe itself in those exact terms? There is a difference. The question is how significant are those differences?

    I agree with Dr. Doran that the CE’s are not a cohesive entity. True, one must evaluate men on an individual basis. For instance, John Mac is more conservative theologically and militant than John Piper. T4G and the Gospel Coalition seem to be the main entities that have formed these men into a group. On the other hand, Bauder has described the KJVO types as hyper-fundamentalist. To me that is a very useful label. As we said in the advertisng literature, “labels, though important, are not always reliable guides”. However, they are still important even if only for intramural discussion. Likewise, in soteriological discussions labels such as Arminian or Calvinist are ususally jettisoned while opting for the euphemistic term “biblicist”. In the end, however, such circumlocution solves nothing.

  6. Don Johnson

    January 12, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Mike, with respect to ‘biblicist’, I’d like to point out that even in your post here you waffle away from the term “Calvinist” with “Calvinist(ic)”. I presume that is meant to indicate that you are a 4-pointer? In any case, you don’t seem to want the full blown term.

    I am using Warren Vanhetloo’s Cogitations in our bulletin. I am way behind his many contributions so I have a good supply ahead of me! Just recently the series of comments he made were in preference for the term ‘biblicist’ as opposed to Calvinist or Arminian. While I understand that some find the term annoying, it is an attempt to say (by those who use it) that they reject significant aspects of both points of view. As such, I find it a useful term. I don’t think it is a circumlocution at all, unless you think some who isn’t a Calvinist or Calvinistic is automatically an Arminian. But such an assumption is itself very unfair because many who wouldn’t choose the “C” label (in either form) cannot fairly be called Arminians either.


    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Michael Riley

      January 13, 2011 at 9:40 am

      One quick reply (as this could quickly pull this way off topic): even if I were to concede that a Christian has theological options between Calvinism and Arminianism, biblicism is still an utterly unhelpful, presumptuous label for such a position.

      I’d liken it to someone saying, “I’m not pre-trib or post-trib; I’m a biblicist.” How is that even remotely helpful? You still don’t know what he believes, and his claim of being “Bible-based” is no different than what the other parties claim. As a term that raises the stakes without providing any insight into one’s position, biblicist is the perfect example of heat without light.

  7. Mike Harding

    January 13, 2011 at 11:59 am


    Don’t be too concerned over my comparison. I am not trying to force you into a category you are uncomforatble with. Yes, I am Calvinistic (total depravity, election based on God’s criteria not our goodness, effectual call, perseverance and preservation of the saints). The current discussion is not about this issue. Most labels have some libel associated with them; therefore, labels have to be continually defined and refined. The tendency is to jettison labels for amorphous, ambiguous, non-desript, opaque allusions that one can drive a theological Mack truck through. In the end, such non-descript descriptions, to use an oxymoron, tell us nothing.

    In the current discussion there is a tendency to throw away the labels of fundamentalist and new-evangelical or at the very least use reductionist techniques in order to mitigate them. I think the labels are important. If we completely ignore them, it will in my opinion open the door for historic, biblical fundamentalists to slowly move toward a new-evangelical position according to the definitions given by McCune and Pickering.

    • Kent McCune

      January 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm


      Greetings, brother! Congratulations on a good conference which seems to be sparking some much needed discussion.

      One question from your post above: You state that “if we completely ignore them [the labels], it will in my opinion open the door for historic, biblical fundamentalists to slowly move toward a new-evangelical position.” Can you explain what you mean by that statement? You seem to ascribe a fair amount of power and/or importance to the labels for preservering fundamentalism. Do you see the labels as some sort of hedge or bright red line or last fallback defense which keeps us safely back from the edge of the precipice?

      • Mike Harding

        January 13, 2011 at 5:55 pm


        Your Dad has had a strong influence regarding my understanding of biblical fundamentalism.

        “Fundamentalism may be defined as a religious movement committed to a certain core of biblical, orhtodox, and historic doctrine, mainly concerning the Bible and Jesus Christ, a movement that is particularly distinguished by the doctrine and practice of ecclesiastical separation along with an aggressive affirmation and defense of those doctrines and a militant exposure of non-biblical expressions and practices.” Rolland McCune

        To say that the above no longer exists in any quantatative sense will encourage the young ministerial students to go to the broader evangelical movement. It is already happening.

  8. Don Johnson

    January 14, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Been away all day. Sorry about going off on a tangent there… You’re right that the term would take us far afield, so I’ll just drop that one.

    I appreciate Mike’s further comments today. I agree that there is still value to the terms New Evangelical and Fundamentalist, that there are examples of both in existence in significant numbers today, and that if we minimize them or dismiss them it will contribute to the subsequent error of others.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  9. Lou Martuneac

    January 14, 2011 at 10:06 am


    You wrote, “Do you think it is possible that fundamentalism has morphed into something more like evangelicalism and that evangelicalism has begun to morph into something more like fundamentalism?”

    I’d like to share the following excerpt from an extended comment by Dr. Gerald priest for I believe it to be very helpful on the question of morphing you have raised.

    Al Mohler, for example, is considered one of the darlings among conservative evangelicals, yet he has caused great harm to the gospel by his endorsement of men and movements that have confused and corrupted it (e.g., Billy Graham, Duke McCall, and most recently the Manhattan Declaration). Fundamentalists should rightly separate from him as a disobedient brother.

    That statement by Dr. Priest in microcosm defines why I believe there is no general morphing toward one another. One of the core beliefs and hallmarks of balanced Fundamentalism is fidelity to the God-given mandates for separation. The evangelicals have no history of that kind of commitment and show no signs of movement and/or morphing in that direction. We may be seeing some people in Fundamentalism losing their sense of and commitment to militancy in separation, but the evangelicals, by any subtitle, are in no way changing their long held disdain for separation.


  10. Lou Martuneac

    January 14, 2011 at 10:36 am


    You wrote, “If we completely ignore them, it will in my opinion open the door for historic, biblical fundamentalists to slowly move toward a new-evangelical position according to the definitions given by McCune and Pickering.”

    I am convinced that if we do not use great care, letting the Bible define where the boundaries must be we may well see in this and the next generation some who currently identify with Fundamentalism go all the over into “new-evangelicalism.” Not in one giant leap, but incrementally. I believe that some of the so-called “conservative” evangelicals are a potential bridge for our next generation to “new-evangelicalism.”

    I have also greatly benefited from the works and words of Rolland McCune and Ernest Pickering. Dr. Pickering’s classics Biblical Separation and The Tragedy of Compromise should be required reading for every undergraduate IFB Bible college student. I had the privilege of interacting with Dr. Pickering on several occasions because of my previous involvement with BWM. There is also Dr. Gerald Priest who wrote along those lines,

    What I fear is that we may be allowing a Trojan horse into the fundamentalist camp. And after a while, if we keep going down this track, any significant difference between conservative evangelical and the fundamentalist institutions may disappear. Fundamentalists will become even ‘nicer’ to the conservative evangelicals and they in turn will appear more ‘respectable’ to the fundamentalists. It may be that some fundamentalists desire this. But then, would they not also have to forfeit the label?”

    Mike, I agree with you that labels are helpful for the reasons you’ve defined above. I do not believe men should separate simply because of a label. Labels do, however, give observers a general idea of what some core beliefs and/or practices may be for that man who identifies himself by a certain label, where it be “Fundamentalist,” “Evangelical,” or one of the subsets that are coming into the discussions.

    IMO, whom we cooperate with, endorse, share platforms with, host in our pulpit/college/seminary comes down to a test of Scripture and another man’s belief in and fidelity to it. Where is an individual on core beliefs? Not to dismiss the whole counsel of God, or compartmentalize it into really important or not quite as important classifications, but there are certain non-negotiables. For Fundamentalists the Gospel is one non-negotiable and separation, as God has defined and mandated it for the every believer, is another.


  11. Dave Doran

    January 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    A few thoughts (and I use that term loosely):

    First, if we are trying to hang on to the label as the means of keeping men and ministries from going new evangelical, then the danger that I’m suggesting really is present–we are trying to practice separatism on the basis of labels. My point, for a long time now, is that what a man or ministry believes is what matters. Metropolitan Tabernacle was a Baptist church. Spurgeon was a Baptist. The content determines that, not the label. You can make the connection to the present discussion.

    Second, it is not true that discussing the Us/Them problem means that there is an Us and Them. This is especially true when the discussion of Us/Them is to show the problem with Us/Them. If person A thinks his family is the only representative of a certain belief system, he would talk in Us/Them categories, but would that prove he is right? Might it only prove that his vision is so narrow that he can’t see that others share his core beliefs?

    Third, my overriding concern is that we have said THE thing that distinguished fundamentalists from non-fundamentalists is orthodoxy joined to separatism. When faced with a breakdown of that distinctive serving us well, owing to non-orthodoxy among some professing fundamentalists and growing separatism among some professing evangelicals, we are failing to communicate the biblical case clearly because we’re intertwining it with historically derived and muddled categories.

  12. Scott Aniol

    January 17, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Dr. Doran,

    I have appreciated an benefitted greatly from your discussions on this issue recently, but I was struck by something you mentioned in the discussion session that for me highlighted a distinct “us” and “them” even within the definitions you have articulated.

    You mentioned that you turned down an offer to speak at Capitol Hill Baptist Church based on disagreements you had with things Dever has said. Assuming these disagreements weren’t over essential doctrines, doesn’t the basis for your decision itself provide the key distinction between “us” and “them” specifically with reference to the practice of separation?

    In other words, would any of “them” ever make a decision not to speak somewhere based on the criteria you used? And is it not true that all of “us” would? “We” might disagree about those non-essential doctrines that are important enough to warrant withholding cooperation, but it seems to me that the practice itself of witholding cooperation based on non-essential differences is a key distinction between “us” and “them.”

    Additionally, can we not admit the existence of an “us” and “them” based on this way of applying separation without necessarily implying that we like all of “us” and that we hate all of “them”?

  13. David Oestreich

    January 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    I had a (now) non-fundamentalist pastor friend once tell me that “secondary separation” is the /sine qua non/ of fundamentalism. (He then had to explain sine qua non to me, heh.) I talked to some other folks and they disagreed and gave me some general reasons.

    Scott’s post, however, seems to indicate that our bases and range for those bases of separation indeed does constitute a sort of clear earmark of fundamentalism. Additionally, if memory serves, Dr. Doran’s panel comments about not speaking at CHBC specifically addressed Dever’s relationship with other groups/people within the SBC.

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