Throughout the history of the Christian Church several labels – including “Christian” itself – were initially coined as terms of opprobrium by the enemies of those labelled but were later appropriated by the labelled and worn as badges of honour until eventually their original negative sense was forgotten. Sometimes this pattern is reversed, however, and one notable example of this is the term “fundamentalist”. This word was coined by Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Northern Baptist newspaper The Watchman-Examiner
in 1920, as a self-descriptive label for Christians who “still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals.” The term caught on among Protestants, especially in denominations that were descended from the English Calvinist non-conformist groups and among those that had arisen out of or been heavily influenced by the evangelical revival movement of the preceding two centuries.
Today the term is still in use but its meaning has changed. There are still Protestant groups who self-identify as fundamentalist. For these groups the term still has the same meaning it had in the 1920’s and ‘30’s but with the added concept of ecclesiastical separation from those who reject the fundamentals. There is some overlap with the groups who identify as “evangelical”, but self-identifying fundamentalists would regard most of these (whom they would call “new evangelical” or “neo-evangelical”) as compromising because they are less separatist and more willing to accommodate liberalism. Those who would identify themselves as evangelical rather than fundamentalist often use the term fundamentalist to mean those who hold to theological concepts like dispensationalism and its accompanying pre-millenial eschatology and neo-Puritan ethics (don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, etc.) although none of these things is technically part of the meaning of fundamentalism for those who identify as fundamentalists. Outside of evangelicalism, other Christian theologians often have hazier ideas as to what fundamentalists actually believe. I read a Roman Catholic apologist once who said that fundamentalism was basically Calvinist. In fact, the majority of fundamentalists are probably better described as Arminian, except perhaps on the issue of eternal security. The most Calvinist of theologians, strict 5 point Reformed types, usually don’t like to think of themselves as fundamentalists because they identify fundamentalism with dispensationalism which is at odds with their own covenant theology.
Far more common than any of these meanings, however, for most people today, the term fundamentalist has come to have the meaning which progressive academics, clergy, and commentators have attached to it, namely that of “religious extremist”. Thus terrorists waging jihad against the West are now called “Islamic terrorists” and the followers of Rabbi Kahane are now “Jewish fundamentalists”.
It is fundamentalism in the original sense of the term which we will be considering here and its relationship with theological orthodoxy. When Curtis Laws coined the term the phase “the fundamentals” was already being widely discussed. Ten years previously the Bible Institute of Los Angeles had begun to print a series of pamphlets under the title The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth
. It ran to twelve volumes by the time it was done five years later (it was later re-issued in a four volume hardbound edition) and consisted of essays by learned men from various denominations including Presbyterian (James Orr, B. B. Warfield, A. T. Pierson, Charles R. Erdman), Anglican (Dyson Hague, W. H. Griffith Thomas, J. C. Ryle), Baptist (A. C. Dixon, E. Y. Mullins), Plymouth Brethren (Algernon Pollack) and Methodist (Arno C. Gaebelein), mostly Americans but with some Canadian and British contributors. The contributors were clergy, for the most part, often clergy who did double duty as academic professors as well. The pamphlets argued in defence of the authority and truth of the Holy Bible as the Word of God and for historical Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, His Incarnation and Virgin Birth, the Atonement and Resurrection, Justification by Faith and the Second Coming against various modern ideas and movements. The same year that these pamphlets, edited by R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon began to be published, five doctrines were identified as essential to the faith at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA. The five doctrines were 1) the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, 2) the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, 3) the substitutionary atonement, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ and 5) that Christ’s miracles as recorded in Scripture were historic and genuine.
These were very similar to a five point statement made at the Niagara Bible Conference in 1895, an abridged version of their earlier fourteen point statement of 1878. In the five points of 1895 the deity of Christ was the second point, the virgin birth and substitutionary atonement were the third and fourth points, and the fifth point included both the bodily resurrection and the second coming. These two statements gave birth to the idea of the “Five Points of Fundamentalism” and to perpetual confusion as to the formulation of those five points.
The publication of The Fundamentals
, the statements by the Niagara Bible Conference and the Presbyterian General Assembly, and the entire fundamentalist movement in general arose in response to a specific problem – the growth of unbelief, formulated as doctrine, in the Protestant denominations. This formulated unbelief was known as modernism or (theological) liberalism. Either term is apt because it was a product of the Modern Age and the predominant ideology of that Age which is liberalism. The Modern Age was an Age of rebellion against tradition and authority, which liberalism regarded as shackles that robbed people of their freedom and blinders that kept from them the light of reason and science. Needless to say, this type of thinking, which had gradually grown up in the academic world as Renaissance humanism, the rationalism of the “Age of Reason”, and the “Enlightenment” took the university further and further away from its medieval, theocentric, Christian roots, eventually produced the attitude that C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield dubbed “chronological snobbery”, i.e., the attitude that says “its well enough for people of past ages, who didn’t know any better, to believe in things like miracles and the virgin birth, but people like me in this enlightened, modern, age in which we live cannot be expected to believe such things”. When this attitude is held by a clergyman or theological professor it takes the form of theological liberalism, which regards the virgin birth of Jesus Christ as a story His disciples later made up (or borrowed from pagan mythology) and says the same thing about His deity or uses the term “divinity” instead of deity, meaning by such a term a concept like “the spark of divinity that is in all of us”, borrowed from the early Gnostic heretics. The Apostles said that Jesus rose from the dead, the liberals taught, because they could feel Him living on inside themselves the way you or I might continue to still feel the presence of a loved one who has passed away. The essential message of Christianity, modernism taught, was that we should love all people and treat them fairly and justly, reading modern egalitarianism into the concepts of “fairness” and “justice”, and all that stuff about the Son of God, coming down from heaven, being born of a virgin, dying for our sins, and rising triumphant over sin and death, was just window dressing. All of that was unnecessary anyway, liberalism taught, because the whole concept of “sin” comes from an outdated and barbaric understanding of morality that we have outgrown in modern times.
With garbage like this coming to be taught from the pulpit there was a clear need for something like fundamentalism to reaffirm and fight for the truths that Christians had historically and traditionally believed which the modernists or liberals were denying.
The fundamentalists believed they were contending for sound or orthodox doctrine against heresy and unbelief. There are those who would say that this is ironic because fundamentalism did not itself represent what has historically and traditionally been considered orthodoxy within Christianity. There are a number of different reasons given for this charge. One would be that the denominations most heavily represented in fundamentalism are those that arose out of the English Dissenting or Non-Conformist Movements and their counterparts in continental Europe, i.e., the churches traditionally considered the Radical or left wing of the Protestant Reformation. Another would be that the Bible Conference movement which produced the first formulation of what became the Five Points of Fundamentalism was a platform for the dispensationalist version of pre-millennialism.
These arguments, when coming from the traditionally orthodox in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran Churches, have much truth to them which we will consider shortly. Sometimes, however, you will find these arguments on the lips of those who are less interested in defending traditional orthodoxy than in bashing fundamentalism from a position of clear and obvious sympathy for either theological liberalism or the opponents of fundamentalism (and evangelicalism) in the present culture war. It is difficult to credit such people with good faith and the appropriate response is to say that traditional Christian orthodoxy is more than fundamentalism not less than fundamentalism. Or, to put it another way, when traditional Christian orthodoxy approaches and criticizes fundamentalism it is from the direction opposite to that of theological, political and cultural liberalism.
Each of the five points of fundamentalism, whichever formulation is used, is affirmed by traditional Christian orthodoxy. The deity, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and second coming of Christ are affirmed in the Creeds of the early, undivided, Church, which are the classical statements of traditional orthodox faith. If traditional orthodoxy is to be distinguished from fundamentalism on these points, it is that traditional orthodoxy prefers a more precise, as well as more aesthetically pleasing, formulation of these doctrines. Rather than say “I believe…in the deity of Jesus Christ”, for example, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed declares the orthodox belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; Through whom all things were made”. Whereas liberalism denies the doctrines affirmed as fundamental by fundamentalism, or affirms them nominally but in such a way as to deny them in actuality by stripping them of their substance, traditional orthodoxy expresses them in a fuller, more complete, way.
Liberalism regards fundamentalism as clinging to outdated ideas, to superstitious beliefs about virgins giving birth and the dead rising, that we, so much wiser than our forebears, know better than to believe today. If traditional orthodoxy finds fault with fundamentalism it is for a completely different set of reasons.
Traditional orthodoxy might fault fundamentalism, for example, for being too reductionist. The ecumenical Creeds are the classical formulation of orthodoxy and there is a lot more in each of these than is in the five points of fundamentalism. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds have a Trinitarian structure, with one section for each of the Three Persons, and the first section of the Athanasian Creed spells out the doctrine of the Trinity at length. The Holy Trinity is not listed as one of the points of fundamentalism, nor do they mention the Father and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that fundamentalists did not believe in the Holy Trinity, on the contrary, they were and are Trinitarians, but it does mean that the orthodox Creeds are a more complete statement of the “fundamentals” of Christianity than the five points of fundamentalism.
It is the first of the five points, however, which is the most contentious, both for liberals and the traditionally orthodox, but for different reasons. Liberals ridicule the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture because they don’t believe the Bible to be the Word of God and think it to be chock full of historical and scientific errors, superstitions that sophisticated, rational, educated, modern people know better than to believe in these days, and fanciful myths and legends, no different from those of other primitive peoples and probably ripped off from them. This point of view is not shared by the traditionally orthodox.
Where traditional orthodoxy has a problem with the first point of fundamentalism is in the fact that it is placed first, before anything is said about Christ. This, to the traditionally orthodox, says that fundamentalism takes the Bible as its starting point and tries to demonstrate Christ from the Bible. This, in the orthodox point of view, is a mistake because Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God, is the full and perfect revelation of God to man. He is to be our starting point. It is because Christ taught that the Scriptures are the authoritative Word of God that we are to accept them as such. Our theology, in other words, is supposed to be Christocentric rather than Bibliocentric.
This does not mean that traditional orthodoxy rejects the inerrancy of Scripture. Inerrancy, it is true, is a term of recent usage and is not, therefore, part of the traditional language used by the Christian Church in speaking of the Scriptures. The concept the word represents, however, is clearly implicit in the orthodox view of the Bible. The Church did not claim, from the time of Christ and His Apostles, in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, East and West, down to modern times, that the Bible was a set of merely human writings that could be right or wrong in what it teaches. No, the Church, following Christ’s own example, taught throughout the ages that the Bible is the written Word of God, that the person hearing the words of Scripture is hearing God speak through His prophets and apostles. The traditional orthodox view is that the Bible is
the written Word of God, not a merely human book as liberalism teaches, or something that becomes
the Word of God when we experience God through it as neo-orthodoxy (actually a form of liberalism rather than of orthodoxy) taught. In this it agrees with fundamentalism and inerrancy is implicit in this view because if the Bible is the written Word of God, if its words are a communication from God to man, then to say that the Bible is in error in what it asserts or teaches is to say that God is in error.
To understand what the doctrine of inerrancy means and does not mean requires a great deal of common sense, a commodity which is sadly in short supply in our day and age. It means only that the Bible is inerrant in what it asserts and teaches. It does not mean that because a sentence is found in the Bible it must therefore be taken as true in every possible sense without reference to its context,. Joshua 2:4-5 includes the words “There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were: And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.” These words were not true, they were a lie told by Rahab to the men of the king of Jericho to protect Joshua’s spies. The words are in the Bible, but Biblical inerrancy does not mean that they are true, because the Bible does not assert that they are true but rather tells us that they are a lie.
Nor does Biblical inerrancy mean that the Bible must measure up to modern, man made, standards of technical precision. Here is an example of what I mean. The Bible frequently refers to the sun as rising in the east and setting in the West. On a couple of occasions it refers to God performing miracles in which the sun either stops in its movement across the sky or even moves backwards. Modern science tells us that the phenomenon (appearance) of the sun moving across the sky from the east to the west is actually caused by the motion of the earth as it rotates on its axis. Therefore, a technically precise way of saying “the sun rose” would be to say “the rotation of the earth on its axis caused the sun to become visible on the eastern horizon”. This does not mean that the Bible is in error in referring to the sun rising. The Bible is God’s verbal communication to man. If God is going to communicate to men verbally He must speak the language men use and the language which men use is phenomenal language and not the language of technical precision. The language of technical precision is not a measuring stick to which the language of phenomenon is to be held up and judged to be “right” or “wrong”. Only pedantic fools of the type of whom the character of Sheldon Cooper on television’s “The Big Bang Theory” is a hilarious caricature would insist otherwise.
Unfortunately it is not just arrogant atheists, humanists, and materialists who are such pedantic fools. Fundamentalists have often outdone them by coming up with bizarre interpretations of the phenomenal language of the Bible – such as the reference to the firmament and the waters above it in the creation account – in order to make the claim that it is a technically precise account of what the world was like at creation (but is no longer). This is unnecessary for the reasons given in the preceding paragraph and by doing so the fundamentalists have done exactly what they accuse theistic evolutionists of doing, i.e., reading the text in a way that nobody prior to Darwin would ever have dreamed of doing.
This brings us to one final difference between orthodoxy and fundamentalism which we will consider. Orthodoxy and fundamentalism both teach that the Holy Bible is the Word of God and as such is authoritative and true in all it asserts and teaches. Fundamentalism, however, insists that the Bible be interpreted as literally as possible. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, insists that the Bible be interpreted as traditionally as possible. Sometimes the traditional interpretation of the Bible is a literal interpretation. The other points of fundamentalism are good examples of this. Traditional orthodoxy does not allow for an understanding of the deity of Jesus Christ that is any less than that He was fully God come in the flesh as true man. It does not allow for crossed fingers when affirming belief that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. It does not allow for the idea that Jesus rose from the dead “in the sense” that His disciples felt Him living on in their hearts. Orthodoxy is more than fundamentalism, not less, and saying truthfully that the orthodox way of interpreting the Scriptures is traditional rather than literal does not lend support to such attempts to hide sheer unbelief behind the guise of faith.
The difference between the literal and the traditional way, the fundamentalist and the orthodox, ways of interpreting the Scriptures is this. The fundamentalist, literal, approach accepts modern, rationalist, and individualist presuppositions. It sees the indwelling of the Holy Spirit spoken of in the New Testament as referring primarily or even exclusively to the individual believer. It therefore sees the Holy Spirit’s ministry of guidance and truth (John 16:13) in the same way. Unlike the modern charismatics, who have a similar individualistic view of the matter but who emphasize an experiential relationship, fundamentalists insist that there is a rational formula, method, or technique for arriving at the proper interpretation of Scriptures, which is the literal method. Ironically, the fundamentalist view violates a literal understanding of I Peter 1:20.
Orthodoxy is not so individualistic. The orthodox view does not reject that the Holy Spirit comes upon and indwells believers individually. The rite of confirmation would make very little sense otherwise. In orthodoxy, however, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit refers primarily to the Church as the collective Body of Christ and it is that collective body that is the primary recipient of the ministry of guidance into truth.
This does not mean that the correct interpretation of the Scriptures is what the authorities of the Church at any given particular time say it is. This was the arrogant position taken by the corrupt ecclesiastical officials whose abuse of their position by using a bad theology of salvation developed in the late Middle Ages to prey upon people’s fear of hell and purgatory to extort money from them prompted the response of the Protestant Reformers whose assertion of the supremacy of Scriptural authority, in the unfortunate terminology of Sola Scriptura, eventually led to the fundamentalist position. The Church as the collective Body of Christ, includes not just believers alive today (the Church Militant), but past generations who have passed into the presence of Christ (the Church Triumphant) as well. If the Church as the collective whole of the Body of Christ is the recipient of Christ’s promise that the Spirit of Truth would guide us into all truth then these past generations must be included as well. What this means is that for the Church today to be led into truth and not slide into error it must listen carefully to how past generations of Christians have understood the Scriptures.
There is no formula for doing this. The idea that everything can be reduced to a formula or technique is the great heresy of the Modern Age in philosophy, science and politics as well as in theology and religion. There are principles to guide us, however, one of these being the classical canon found in the Commonitory
of St. Vincent of Lerins, which is that we should hold to “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” These are not absolute terms, otherwise we would be looking for an extremely low, lowest common denominator, but it means that we should listen to what has been persistently taught, throughout the whole Church and not just in one branch, arm, sect, or locality, from the earliest times. To do so, will not lead us anywhere close to modernism, liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, or any of the various other forms of latter day unbelief, but will give us a fuller understanding of the truth than that which is found in fundamentalism.