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THE QUESTION:

What is (and isn’t) “fundamentalism”?

THE RELIGIOUS GUY’S RESPONSE:

One of The Guy’s weekly memos for getreligion.org recently proposed that “fundamentalism” has become such an overused and misunderstood label that perhaps we media people should abandon it altogether.

The Guy was provoked into making this heretical idea public when the New York Times book review rated a memoir of life among Jehovah’s Witnesses. The critic, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, has repeatedly called the Witnesses “fundamentalists.”

Ouch (see below). If the Ivy League elite and the nation’s most influential newspaper are confused, it’s time to consider scrapping such a meaningless word.

Not so long ago, most people have understood that a fundamentalist is by definition a Protestant, usually in the United States, and strongly committed to tradition with a distinct flavor and fervor. A quick bit of history.

The term originated with “The Fundamentals”, a series of 12 booklets with 90 essays by various thinkers from English-speaking countries which were distributed from 1910. Along with standard Christian principles, the writers defended the authority and historical truth of the Bible against liberal theories coming mainly from Germany.

This seminal effort drew support from “mainline” Protestants, “evangelicals” and proto-“fundamentalists”. The Milton brothers and Lyman Stewart, the Union Oil millionaires who financed the project, were lay Presbyterians. The authors were well-known scholars ranging from Anglican bishops to “senior” seminary professors to Bible college presidents. The delicate question of the creation stories in the book of Genesis was not entrusted to an extreme literal interpreter but to the respected Scottish theologian James Orr.

The nascent movement was further defined by its insistence on the “five points of fundamentalism”, namely the “inerrancy” of the Bible (errorless history) as originally written, the truth of biblical miracles, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection from death, and the “vicarial” atonement through his death on the cross to save sinners.

Notably, these points were defined by the predecessors of today’s rather liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). After a dispute over clergy ordinations in New York, the 1910 General Assembly required five-point affirmation by clergy candidates and reaffirmed this policy in 1916 and 1923. Harry Emerson Fosdick, famous for his sermon of 1922 “Will the fundamentalists win? left the Presbyterians in 1925 and became a Liberal Baptist.

Another milestone occurred in 1925, the “trial of the monkeys” against a Tennessee teacher for presenting Darwin’s theory of evolution. This forever fused fundamentalism in the public mind with hostility to evolution (according to the fictional 1955 play and 1960 film “Inheritance of the Wind”). The teacher was sued by prominent lay Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic Party presidential candidate and Secretary of State.

Eventually, fundamentalism came to define activists, including those whose churches and agencies lost power in increasingly pluralist “mainstream” churches. They drew an increasingly clear line of separation with the liberal Protestants but also with the more moderate or “evangelical” conservatives of the Billy Graham type, who often remained in the “main line”. Fundamentalism also opposed the Pentecostal and Charismatic wings of evangelicalism, and was increasingly suspicious of intellectualism and pessimistic of society.

Eventually, there was intense debate among “evangelicals” over the first of the “five points.” When it was founded in 1947, Fuller Theological Seminary agreed with fundamentalism, arguing that the Bible was “free from error.” This prominent school dropped that claim in 1972, but continued to define itself as “evangelical.”

In 1974, Billy Graham’s International Congress on World Evangelism issued the Lausanne Covenant, authored by Briton John Stott, as a united proclamation of worldwide “evangelical” belief. It affirms the entire truthfulness and authority of the Bible “as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms” (leaving implied latitude on precisely what Scripture intends to affirm on certain disputed issues).

To shore up rigorous conservatism, the 1978 Chicago Statement of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy went on to insist that “being wholly and orally given by God, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching” concerning “God’s acts in creation, events in world history, and on his own literary origins.” ….” The conservative wing of evangelicalism agreed with fundamentalism on this point.

the Associated Press Style Book is accurate both in its definition of fundamentalist and in its assertion that the term “has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations”. While the religious F-word isn’t quite an N-word, the AP warns media that “in general, don’t use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to themselves.”

Continue Reading »What is “fundamentalism”?by Richard Ostling.

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