I was just reading this very thoughtful post by Brad Kramer about the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Back in the '90s, I thought Christian fundamentalism was a good thing. I can see how definitions change based on experience, but am a bit puzzled how this division came about. Can anyone suggest a good book about the difference? Mark Noll? I’ve read “Scandal,” but don’t recall anything specific about that there.
(I have to listen to my books lately given my homework on computer, but if it’s on Audible, I will be better able to “read” it!) Thanks.
Maybe others can offer up some good books on the subject … I just have some comments to offer.
I would be surprised if you could find published work that gives definitive and up-to-date answers on these definitions. For one thing (at least on a scale of recent years) definitions for ‘evangelical’ seem very fluid. Right now (rightly or wrongly) it is popular to associate evangelicalism with a certain political persuasion or more narrowly yet: Trump. I doubt anybody in Christian communities that feels they have some stake in the term, though, would agree that such politics should be part of the definition. But if popular discourse today writes the dictionaries of tomorrow, then it may become the “definitional” reality to deal with.
Even this Biologos article authored by Darrel Falk from 8 years ago might feel like a trip down memory lane. He writes about important differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists and it is interesting to muse how attitudes about evangelicism may have evolved since even then.
Brad mentioned in his article you linked that some people can be “accidentally YEC” (i.e. they haven’t given that particular aspect of their faith much thought, but happen to reside in a YEC community and so land that way as a sort of default). But to the extent that YEC is seen as more than just a particular origins perspective, and is seen instead as an all-encompassing world view and way to approach all things including scriptures - to that extent it seems that any YECism becomes less accidental and more overlapping (or even identical with) Fundamentalism. I guess one can absorb the entire encompassing outlook by osmosis from their surrounding community. Never underestimate the power of peer culture. But sooner or later one has to begin to make deliberate choices about shutting out unapproved influences from a wider theological world (much less the world at large!). And that begins to require commitment beyond accident.
Here is what I look for—a critical mass of spiritual-theological “symptoms” that I find common to and almost unique (in terms of emphasis and influence) among a particular tribe of American Protestant Christians.
A tendency to elevate doctrines historically considered “secondary” (non-essentials) to the status of dogmas such that anyone who questions them questions the gospel itself.
A tendency to eschew “Christian fellowship” with fellow evangelical Christians considered doctrinally “impure” along with a tendency to misrepresent them in order to influence others to avoid them.
A tendency to “hunt” for “heresies” among fellow evangelical Christians and to reward fellow fundamentalists who “find” and “expose” them—even where said “heresies” are not truly heresies by any major confessional standards shared among evangelical Protestants.
A tendency to place doctrinal “truth” above ethics such that misrepresenting others’ views in order to exclude or marginalize them, if not get them fired, is considered justified.
A tendency to be obsessed with “liberal theological thinking” that leads to seeing it where it does not exist along with a tendency to be averse to all ambiguity or uncertainty about doctrinal and biblical matters.
To me this shows how Fundamentalism too can be considered a comprehensive and general description of somebody’s approach to the world. So while I must plead guilty to Olson’s charge of the sin of carelessly spreading around the word fundamentalism in some situations where it didn’t belong, I nonetheless see in his five points above a wider application than just to fundamentalists. Nearly every one of them can also describe stances and attitudes of other religious groups or even self-identified anti-religious folks entirely. I agree with Olson that journalists certainly should not be slapping it around as a label on anything deemed fanatical or that they disapprove of. And yet if our wider culture is going to free-associate it in so many convenient ways, how (or why?) should we resist the temptation to at least channel it a little bit narrower onto at least some of the common characteristics (i.e. the 1-5 list above) that have now accurately come to be associated with that movement? Should any who know better try to stand in the gap and decry any use of it apart from the laser-focused historically accurate application? Or are we allowed to make use of now-common currency to connect with a culture, and hopefully then just nudge here and there against the most egregious misuses?
[the mere fact that I can waver between capitalizing or not the term ‘Fundamentalism’ is a commentary all of its own about proper vs. general use of the term. It would be interesting to see how often in literature the word gets capitalized mid-sentence.]
Wow, thank you, @Christy, @jpm, and @Mervin_Bitikofer for these thoughtful posts. I am going to wade through them to savor the quiddity. It sounds like Roger Olson has some very good thoughts on this. I enjoyed Darrel Falk’s post, too.
In the late 19th century, Darwin’s theory and the discovery of ANE myths (The Chaldean Account of Genesis, 1876) that predated and paralleled Genesis seemed to threaten the very foundations of Christianity. “Fundamentalism” was the apologetic response.
First, the “fundamentals” of Christianity’s supernatural origins (Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, resurrection) had to be defended, of course, but the battle primarily revolved around the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, especially in regard to natural history and science. Second, there was the battle against secularism, in which most Christians "instinctively looked back to the recent evangelical heyday and proclaimed that the best way to fight secularism was to bring back the Bible-based civilization that they pictured in their grandparent’s time,” as Marsden puts it. W.J. Bryan’s campaigns against evolution and strong drink are conspicuous examples, as well as super-patriotism, anti-communism, and anti-Catholicism, which actually was anti-immigrant sentiment, since the major immigrant groups of the early 20th century were Irish, Italian, and Central European Catholics. It’s no accident that the KKK was a “respectable” political organization in the aftermath of WWI.
What were the results of this first culture war? It was a disaster. Within one generation (1890-1930), the “extraordinary influence of evangelicalism in the public sphere of American culture collapsed,” as Marsden characterized it.
Now, we are in another culture war. What are the battlegrounds? The same as before – inerrancy of the Bible, evolution, and liberal theology on the religious side, and on the nationalistic front, super-patriotism, anti-foreigner, and anti-immigrant sentiments. And what are the results of Culture War II? Church attendance has been sliding since the ’70s, and the Millennial generation is abandoning the faith twice as fast as their parents, the Baby-boomers. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
That is very interesting! Thanks. I was musing last night if the short term boom in evangelicalism in the 1980s reflected more the after effects of a cultural association of freedom and anti-Soviet bogeymen than a real interest in faith. I also did not know that Fuller had a role in the New Evangelicalism. I’m going to see if I can listen to them on Audible.
Also, regarding exclusivism–it’s interesting that a large denomination has a saying about it here–you don’t ever see a “second church” of this denomination in the same town, even if there are more than one of that denomination (they don’t want to let a denomination name get in between them and God, I guess); and there are at least 2 Christian schools in each town–one of the Christian Reformed, and another that says “we are not CRC.” Also, it seems axiomatic that most Protestant fundamentalist churches split at a critical mass of 150–200 people! In our church, too, a pastor instructed the congregation about 20 years ago (before I came) that we shouldn’t use the term “luck”–so that our “potlucks” are “carry-in dinners!” I joke with them that their food is really very good–it doesn’t taste at all like “carrion.”
But the real test is not whether we say we are not fundamentalist or not, but whether we recognize how we all have the same temptations to fear and exclusion. By treating my fundamentalist brothers with understanding and compassion, hopefully I can avoid becoming just another Puritan group that says “I’m not a fundamentalist.” Olson appropriately mentions in @Christy’s posts quoted above that we can be fundamentalists and liberal, too, by being exclusive.
The two term “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” certainly have very different origins and histories.
Evangelism as discussed in the other thread began with Finney and the idea that experience of Christianity and the power of Christ to change lives was more important than doctrine.
Fundamentalism is practically opposite, a reaction to modernist theology, attempting to get back to the original beliefs which defined Christianity in the beginning. These were distilled in the the five fundamentals:
Infallibility of scripture
Virgin birth of Jesus
Jesus’ death is the atonement for sin
Bodily resurrection of Jesus
Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus.
Except the first of these which I refute absolutely as absurd, I might technically be called a fundamentalist. Though the truth is that I would quibble with how these are often understood.
Nothing written in a human language can be infallible.
The virgin birth does not define Christianity though I think the Bible clearly suggests that even if Mary was a virgin, it doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t have a human biological father.
Substitutionary atonement is an exaggeration of a judicial metaphor for the atonement and it is nonsensical to take this literally in some bizarre medieval notion of justice.
The resurrection of Jesus was certainly bodily but according to Paul it was a resurrection to a spiritual body and not a physical or natural body.
The miracles of Jesus were certainly historical but that does not mean they represented a violation of the laws of nature.
Not to answer for @mitchellmckain, but sperm are motile and sometimes pregnancy happens from uh…extreme messing around. Although the argument is good that the word used in Isaiah is defined as just “young unmarried woman”
Truthfully, I accept the virgin part, but it would not up-end my faith if I were wrong. I sort of think the verse about Adam and Jesus being the second Adam may suggest a new creative action as well, but that is speculation. The whole idea of Jesus’ DNA sequence is sort of unsettling to consider.
My thinking on #2 is pretty much in line with #5. If she was a virgin it is certainly pretty miraculous in the sense of being quite unexpected and very much involving God doing something. But this doesn’t have to mean magic or the violation of natural law. We know that pregnancy only requires fertilization not sex. As for how the sperm got where it needed to be then along with many of the other miracles, your guess is as good as mine. But I don’t think it even has to necessarily be a result of “messing around.” Call it happenstance or whatever but sometimes the strangest things happen by the most bizarre sequence of events.
Like jpm, I am neither convinced that Mary was a virgin nor am I opposed to the idea and the possibilities are many by which Mary could have been a virgin in a number of different senses of the word. Regardless, I do not consider this particular doctrine to define the Christian religion because it is not in the first agreement of Nicea 325 AD.
Fundamentalism was based on fear of conservative Christians because they believed with good reason that the Bible and thus their faith was under attack. Sadly their response, which was based on fear rather than faith, was to make the Bible the Word of God. If the Bible is the Word of God and God cannot lie, then the Bible is Absolutely Truth.
The problem with this is that it is untrue. John 1:1 says that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity and is God. Jesus is also the Truth and He is not the Bible.
Our faith is built on Jesus Christ and not the Bible. The Fundamentalists feared that science might disprove the Bible which they thought would disprove Jesus, just as YEC think that disproving Gen 1 disproves Christianity. Of course the opposite is true. Jesus proves the Bible, but not as a science textbook.
My concern is that Evangelicals still have a “high” view of scripture. Most if not all continue the mistake of calling it the Word of God. word of God, meaning that it is special and Holy is fine, but the capital W indicates the Bible is equal or superior to Jesus.
Also Jesus Christ is the Logos, which means that He is the Rational Word of God. As we have seen in Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism they consider the Bible is not the Logos of God, but the Mythos of God. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
This is the primary problem of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. It is a theological problem which needs to be addressed rather then glossed over.
I’m curious–if evangelicalism focuses on reconciliation and fundamentalism on exclusion and safety, should this transform our interaction with others–for example, the way we talk in politics? Rather than excluding the liberal or conservative, we can find more common ground and ways to reconcile? Maybe even in the way we confront YECs, Weinsteins, Zachariases, Krausses, alt right and alt left; our Presidents?
Sometimes it seems that the only thing that is needed for evil to triumph is to describe someone’s views other than our own as evil
I’m not alluding to your post.–just tagging on to this as I thought you’d have an interesting thought on it. Thanks
I agree with Christy that you are inflating the issue where evangelicals including myself call the Bible the word of God. It seems to me that the far more important question is what do they think that means. Many seem to think it means the Bible is infallible while clearly I do not. I also do not think this means that the Bible should be identified as the Logos, or in any way makes the Bible equal to the living word of God, which is Jesus. I frequently quote John 5:39, which makes it quite clear that salvation does not come from the Bible, but from Jesus. So what does it mean, when I call the Bible the word of God?
On a theoretical level it means that God wrote the book using history and various human authors as His writing instruments. On a practical level it simply means that God has all the proprietary rights and nobody should be altering the content of the book as they see fit. What it certainly does not mean is that the Bible is infallible, self-interpreting, or that it represents all of the truth on any topic. I will say however that I consider the usual formula of saying that it means the content is inspired by God to be a very very weak claim. In my view the inspiration of God pours down from heaven in a torrent to be found everywhere in the words of people from the smallest child to nearly every book and film ever made. Though to be sure this inspiration is far from pure and all these things also contains all kinds of misinformation or even down right lies. Whether this applies to the Bible is a difficult question and connects to the question of infallibility, where my principle objection is that anything written in human languages is very far from precise and subject to considerable misinterpretation and misuse.
A slightly different but related topic is the protestant assertion of Sola Scriptura, which is another thing that means quite a variety of different things to different people. For me it means that the Bible is the sole authority put into the hands of human beings for what can be considered the truth in regards to the Christian religion – not the authority for all truth, whether it be the truth of God, salvation, the universe, spirituality, or anything else – just the Christian religion.
It occurred to me that perhaps I should apply the same methodology to the claim that the Bible is infallible – asking what do people think that means anyway. However, everything I found on the internet explaining this only confirms my rejection of this. Here for example is some of the things I found…
Wikipedia: It is the "belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.
The word infallible means “incapable of error.” If something is infallible, it is never wrong and thus absolutely trustworthy. Simply put, the Bible never fails.
So what is wrong with that?
The first statement here is to some extent contradicted by John 5:39. Searching the scriptures is no guarantee that you will find salvation. Furthermore both God and the Bible frequently fail in their purpose. Examples are legion.
This doesn’t work because the success of both God and the Bible in guiding us also depends on us. But while God knows us and can compensate for the differences in us, the Bible does not have such capabilities.
And yet we can ask whether there is any way in which these claims can be said to be true? I do think there is one way in which this can be said and this is in regards to the question of whether we ourselves can do any better? I certainly do not think so. Can we at least trust the Bible to the extent of telling people to read the Bible if they want to know what Christianity is all about and how to find salvation. Yes I do. To that extent, I will agree with these above explanations of the infallibility of the Bible, even if I cannot bring myself to use that particular word myself.
Boy this is light years ahead of anything most of we non-theists ever hear a Christian say about the bible. So often it is waved around like a trump card capable of winning every argument: bible says X. Check mate, atheists!
It has always seemed to me that while it means so much to so many there are any number of passages I’ve read in other books which I have found transporting. What ever “the truth” may be it requires fertile ground within to amount to very much at all.
I hope to come back as I have a lot of reaction to what you say here. But the wife is signaling for me to come get in the car to go up to the Y, and gawd knows we need it after all this rich eating.