This post was originally written and posted in 2005. Due to the controversy it caused it was removed a short time later. I post it again at this time because I believe the issues at stake are worth having controversy about. I trust it will be helpful to some.
What is Fundamentalism? Some think Fundamentalism is synonymous with a particular denomination. Others think it is a narrow set of theological interpretations. Still others view it as a mean-spirited militancy. In spite of the fact that Fundamentalism is none of these things, many within Fundamentalism are turning their backs on what they perceive the movement to be. In order for Fundamentalism to survive as a valid expression of biblical New Testament Christianity, we must develop a competent understanding of fundamentalism as both a concept and a movement. First, let’s look at fundamentalism as a concept.
Fundamentalism as a concept
Hugh Mackay, a secular psychologist, is speaking of fundamentalism as a concept when he says:
Strictly speaking, Fundamentalism refers to the branch of religion whose faith is rooted in a simple set of absolutes (in the case of Christianity, for example, an acceptance of the literal and historical truth of everything in the Bible). But the term can be applied beyond the realm of religion, to include all those systems of belief which consist of a set of absolute, immutable propositions in which their adherents have complete faith (Reinventing Australia 251).
In order to understand fundamentalism as a concept, we must know what a fundamental is. A fundamental is something which is basic or foundational. Kevin Bauder defines a fundamental:
A fundamental is an essential. … To say that A is fundamental to B is to assert that B could not exist as B except for A. Remove A, and you either destroy B altogether or else alter it into C. In either case, B ceases to exist as B.
In other words, a fundamental is a condition necessary to the existence or definition of a thing. Copper is fundamental to brass. The goal line is fundamental to football. The helix is fundamental to the screw. A fundamental may not be a sufficient condition for the existence of a thing (some helixes are not screws); it may not even seem like a particularly prominent element in that thing; but when the fundamental is removed, the thing itself ceases to exist or becomes something else. (Radical Monotheism, Part One, The Most Fundamental Doctrine.)
Sometimes Christian Fundamentalists are frustrated to hear Muslim terrorists referred to as fundamentalists by the secular press; however the press is right to call these people fundamentalists. A fundamentalist is one who holds to the teachings which are fundamental to his belief system. For instance, a Muslim fundamentalist is one who follows a literal interpretation of the Koran. If you take away A (the literal truth of the Koran) from B (Islam), you no longer have a logical and coherent system of belief (therefore, “B ceases to exist as B.”). Belief in the literal teachings of the Koran is essential to the integrity of the Muslim system of belief. When a Muslim person engages in a terrorist act, he does so because he believes he will receive the Koran’s promise of blessing to those who die in defense of Islam. But not all Muslims interpret the Koran literally. Just as many Christian liberals have denied the literal truth of the Bible, so many Muslim “liberals” try to interpret the Koran as a peaceful book. However, those who believe and obey the Koran literally are correctly called Islamic fundamentalists.
In the case of a Christian system of belief, a fundamentalist is one who holds to a literal interpretation of the Bible because that is a fundamental of Christianity. The difference between a Christian fundamentalist and a Muslim fundamentalist is the book! They follow a book, written by an alleged prophet, which promotes violence. We follow the book, written by God himself, which teaches peace and love.
Fundamentalism as a movement
Fundamentalism as a movement is necessarily based on fundamentalism as a concept. The further the movement strays from its conceptual base, the less credibility and authenticity Fundamentalism as a movement will have.
Any type of fundamentalism seems dangerous to the secular mind because it will necessarily hold to absolute truth as opposed to pragmatism for the common good. With Fundamentalism drawing pot-shots from the secular press almost daily, we must be proactive in defining ourselves. Mark Sidwell gives a helpful definition of Fundamentalism as a movement: “Fundamentalism is the belief (1) that there are certain truths so essential to Christianity that they cannot be denied without destroying Christianity and (2) that these essentials are the basis of Christian fellowship.” He goes on to explain that
The first point is the distinction between Fundamentalism on the one hand and liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism… on the other. The second point is the distinction between Fundamentalism on the one hand and the New Evangelicalism and the Charismatic movement… on the other. (The Dividing Line 70)
In other words, a Fundamentalist not only believes and obeys the Bible, but is willing to separate from those who don’t.
A brief history of Fundamentalism
Fundamentalism as a movement developed in the early 1900s when liberalism was becoming a powerful force within the conservative denominations and seminaries. Those evangelicals that opposed liberalism from within their denominations and eventually chose to separate from their denominations came to be known as Fundamentalists. A major influence in Fundamentalist thinking was a set of books titled The Fundamentals. These books covered such topics as salvation, creationism, and inspiration. Douglas McLachlan describes the authors:
They wrote with a beautiful combination of grit, grace and scholarship. They spoke with grit because they were not about to take the trashing of the Bible by the hubris of the age lying down. They spoke with grace because there was no ugliness of disposition in their presentation of data. And they spoke with scholarship because it was the weight of their argument not the heat of the rhetoric which defined the discourse. Their words were doctrinally sound and dispositionally gracious. (Fundamentalism—What’s in a Name?)
Early on in the Fundamentalist movement, during the seminary heresy trials of the Presbyterian denomination, five fundamentals were laid out. These included “the inerrancy of the original manuscripts of Scripture, Christ’s virgin birth, His vicarious atonement, His bodily resurrection, and the reality of miracles as recorded in the Scriptures” (Beale, In Pursuit of Purity 149). These have often been mistakenly represented as the only fundamentals by those outside the movement, but this status was never intended by those who presented them. These were simply the issues under attack in the seminaries.
When the New Evangelical movement came along with Harold Ockenga pulling out of Fundamentalism in the 1940s (to simplify severely), the doctrine under attack was the doctrine of separation. Now we weren’t dealing with people who wanted to accept liberal theology, we were dealing with people who wanted to maintain fellowship with liberals even though they themselves were not liberals. The classic example is Billy Graham who was orthodox doctrinally at that point, but who chose to fellowship with liberal groups during his crusades. Thus biblical separation became a significant distinguishing characteristic of Fundamentalism. The Fundamentalists were not only going to insist on believing the truth, but were going to insist on standing for the truth as well.
What are the fundamental doctrines?
Consistent, biblical criteria for determining the fundamental doctrines have never been effectively established to my knowledge. While such criteria would be a valuable service to Fundamentalism, we may still reach our desired destination through a more basic approach to our question.
Historically, the enunciation of fundamental doctrines has always been illustrative as opposed to exhaustive. In fact, there has never in the history of the world been a complete and exhaustive list of fundamental doctrines—and there is a reason for this. The reason a concise yet exhaustive list of systematic and essential doctrines doesn’t exist is that God did not give one! God could have fit such a list into a book much smaller than the Bible, but he chose instead to give them in the form of the Bible. The Bible is not a systematic theology text. The Bible is not simplistic. It is dynamic! The Bible is a living, breathing book with depth that will never be fully known and understood by sin-cursed man. This is one of the reasons that it remains fresh and relevant thousands of years after it was written. Though we may not understand everything in the Bible fully, and we certainly cannot know all there is to know, God’s word teaches in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Bible is completely sufficient. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” This passage teaches that though the Bible does not contain all the truth there is to know, it does contain all the truth we need to know in order to be mature and complete believers.
Read any reputable systematic theology textbook and you’ll find that there is essential agreement on the basic doctrines. Little controversy arises among conservative, orthodox believers over the basic doctrines like the doctrine of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, inspiration, angels, man, sin, and salvation. While there is much debate over the finer points of these doctrines, their basic structure is clearly revealed in Scripture. These fundamental truths are undeniably Scriptural and emphatically taught. There are many finer points of how these things work out that we could differ on, but the finer points of interpretation are not fundamental truths. To differ on them does not require throwing out the text of the word of God.
I believe it is neither wise nor possible to create the perfect list of fundamentals, nor do I believe it is necessary. What is important is that we recognise that certain matters such as church government and mode of baptism good men will disagree on and that on other issues such as justification by faith, the inspiration of Scripture, and the resurrection Scripture leaves no room for discussion. If God chose to leave room for legitimate differences of understanding on a particular aspect of a doctrine, then we cannot consider that particular aspect of that doctrine to be a fundamental. I do not say that we cannot consider it to be important, nor do I say that we should not hold it and preach it, but I do say that we cannot consider that doctrine to be a fundamental.
Now I understand that there will be several objections to this approach. First, some will say that this view restricts the fundamentalist from confidently preaching absolute truth in many areas. The answer to this objection is that our level of confidence and emphasis should have a direct correlation to God’s level of clarity and emphasis in Scripture. If God chose to make something so ambiguous that well-informed, God-loving, Bible-believing fundamentalists legitimately disagree on it, then I must preach it with a level of honesty and humility appropriate to that fact.
The second objection is that there are no unimportant things in Scripture. It is legitimately argued that if God said it, it’s important. However, this truth does not remove the fact that God did not choose to reveal everything with the same degree of clarity. The way many choose to deal with this fact is just to say “I’m right, you’re wrong.” However, the right response is to admit that God was wise in the way he chose to reveal truth and to simply trust that God accomplished his sovereign purpose in revelation.
The third objection is that this view seeks to create a broad theological base for fellowship. While this point is true, it must not be seen as “ecumenical” thinking in the contemporary sense. Fundamentalism is very narrow. It insists on absolute truth and absolute submission to the authority of Scripture. That said, having a broad theological base for fellowship is both legitimate and appropriate. Jesus prayed that this unity would be possible in John 17:20-22. The problem with the modern Ecumenical movement is that it pursues this unity based on a weak and watered-down view of truth rather than around the fundamental truths of the word of God.
The danger of minimising Fundamentalism
If we do not establish a theological base for fellowship around Fundamentalism, then there are only two options. (1) We can choose a broader base for fellowship, which constitutes a denial of biblical separation from false teachers, or (2) we can choose a more narrow base for fellowship. The problem with narrowing the fellowship beyond the fundamentals is that we have passed from the realm of the clear and emphatic teachings of Scripture and entered the realm of personal convictions and interpretations. Though personal convictions and interpretations are valid and important, they are not fundamentals. The danger is that we can become schismatic in our attempt to be separated. Those who defend a very narrow base for fellowship often do so with the statement “we believe the Bible.” The problem with such an argument is everyone says that. There must be some delineation between fundamental truths that can’t be ignored and more peripheral truths that must be held at a different level. The only way to have unity around truth without compromise and have separation from error without contention in the same movement is to understand the concept of fundamentalism. No school, theology, or denomination (including independent ones) can create this synthesis of truly loving people and truly loving God—only fundamentalism can.
Therefore, fundamentalism is the great concept that some things are so basic and clear in Scripture that no well-informed, God-loving, Bible-believing person would deny them. The fundamentals are those doctrines which when changed or denied, biblical Christianity “ceases to exist or becomes something else.”
Contending in love
Fundamentalism has a history of being willing to unflinchingly contend for the faith at all costs. We must embrace this heritage, but we must also embody the grace of contending for the faith without being contentious, separating from error without being schismatic, and calling down sin without cutting down sinners. While we contend for the faith, we must do it out of love for God, for those who are being deceived by false doctrine, and for those who are teaching false doctrine. We must be willing to stand and fight to preserve a viable, historic, and biblical Fundamentalism—for our brothers and sisters in Christ, for our children, and for the glory of God.