What is “Fundamentalism”? | Richard Ostling


What is “fundamentalism”?


After the Presbyterian Church in America decided in June to withdraw from the National Association of Evangelicals, The Religion Guy questioned in the press whether some “evangelicals” were becoming “fundamentalists.” This raises the question of how to define these two similar and historically related versions of conservative Protestantism.

In 2019, a New York Times book review article by a Harvard Divinity School teacher who repeatedly called Jehovah’s Witnesses “fundamentalists”. Well, the Witnesses share some “fundamentalist” traits with true “fundamentalists,” but the label was wrong because it ignored the beliefs of the Witnesses. If the theological elite of the Ivy League and such an influential journal don’t understand the definition, we have a problem.

Yes, “fundamentalist” can apply in a generic sense to any old band with some hard-core outlook. But in any religious context, it should refer only to a specific movement of Orthodox Protestants, especially important in the United States. The religious F-word should be applied with care because, as The Associated press style book rightly warns, it has “to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations”. Thus, the AP advises, “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is angered when offshoots that perpetuate its founding prophet Joseph Smith Jr.’s doctrine of polygamy are called “Mormon fundamentalists,” and is now seeking to abolish its own “Mormon” moniker. . Islamic scholars alike reject the common label of “Muslim fundamentalist” for terrorists and political extremists.

Back to the Protestants. Premier historian George Marsden’s funny definition was that a fundamentalist is “an evangelical who is angry at something.” Fundamentalism is best understood as the most militant and strictest segment within the larger and looser evangelical movement.

This month, questions were answered at www.patheos.com/blogs/jimerwin/ by Jim Erwin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Washburn, Mo., and executive secretary of International Baptist Church Ministries. The Guy borrows and revises Erwin’s distinctions between the two terms as follows.

Fundamentalist churches first and foremost maintain religious separation not only from non-Christians but also from other Christians, including evangelicals, if they are seen as not strict enough in their beliefs and/or too open to secular influences. of the world. The distinction was accentuated by the career of Mister Evangelical Billy Graham, who was ultimately shunned by fundamentalists because he cooperated with Protestants and more liberal Catholics in his evangelistic campaigns.

It is important to note that fundamentalism also draws a line against the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, which are important segments of the evangelical coalition, as it opposes their practices of speaking in tongues, faith healing and prophecy. modern gods.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists uphold traditional Christian doctrines and moral principles and most particularly the Protestant belief in the complete and unique authority of the Bible. Fundamentalists insist on the “inerrancy” of the Bible as originally written (free from error, including all historical details) and the divine inspiration of every word. They follow strictly literal interpretations, for example on the account of creation in the book of Genesis, unless the words are clearly meant otherwise. (One faction insists on using only the King James Version.) Evangelicals may agree, but many accept judicious use of modern scholarship and some flexibility on these issues.

Fundamentalist separatism extends to what are seen as harmful societal influences to create a cultural enclave. They prefer church-run day schools and home-schooling to public schools, while evangelicals support all options. Fundamentalists generally avoid alcohol and entertainment such as social dancing, movies, and sometimes television. They may observe careful limits on hair, clothing, or jewelry. And they teach men’s leadership in the home and in the church.

Evangelicals generally allow varied beliefs and practices on these aspects and in particular have an important “egalitarian” component on the roles of women.

With these current differences in mind, let’s sketch out the basic story a bit.

The word in question finds its origin in “The Fundamentals”, a series of 12 booklets containing 90 essays by theologians from English-speaking countries, which were published from 1910. Although the authors defended the beliefs that all Christians professed throughout the ages, the primary goal was to defend the authority of the Bible and historical truth against the liberal “modernism” that was infiltrating America from Europe and would eventually divide the churches.

The young movement was also defined by belief in the so-called “five points of fundamentalism”, namely the inerrancy of the Bible, the factuality of miracles in the Bible, the literal virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection from the dead and the theology of “vicarial atonement” on the salvation of sinners through the crucifixion of Christ.

By 21st By the standards of the century, it seems strange that in 1910 these five points were defined and demanded of the clergy by the ancestors of what is today the “mainline” and the liberalized Presbyterian Church (USA). It is also strange that in Tennesee’s 1925 “Monkey Trial” a famous Presbyterian, three-time Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, sued John Scopes, a high school teacher, for presenting the theory of ‘evolution.

This event in particular eroded the popularity of fundamentalism. The aforementioned National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was founded in 1942 to shun fundamentalist baggage and provide an attractive and respectable position to unify biblical conservatives both outside and within theologically pluralistic “mainstream” denominations.

To illustrate the differences, compare the NAE Statement of Faith, www.nae.org/statement-of-faith/with that of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, founded in 1930 (now renamed IFCA International, which avoids the F-word): www.ifca.org/page/what-we-believe/.

The newly renamed “evangelicals” have grown and flourished in a generation that has seen the decline of liberal Protestants, but many are now also falling behind. Meanwhile, the question of “what is an evangelical?” has become muddled in the Trump-era political climate, as The Guy explained last year at www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2021/08/what-is-an-evangelical/.

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