Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

Contemporary evangelicalism, as I understand it, started out as a populist movement. It was, therefore, not primarily concerned with theology but with practice – and theology tended to be tacked on as something of a necessary evil. As a populist movement, its virtues were simplicity, repeatability and method. A specific kind of evangelicalism, forged in the revivals, has developed a value system that is primarily unbiblical, where savvy rhetoric, church competition and the ability to “rate” ministry based on numerical analysis have become the norm.

For many who grew up in this movement, they recognize both the great virtues as well as the vices, and seek to purify evangelicalism through a broader engagement with the Bible, church history, theology, etc. If my brief comments about evangelicalism are true, this, in a real way, undermines its very foundation. The problem, as I see it, is that those of us who seek greater biblical and theological clarity are still evangelicals. We still identify as such, except our vision for being evangelical means that we must continue to reform rather than simply circling the wagons.

This brings me to fundamentalism. There has been some renewed interest in defining fundamentalism in some blogs lately (here and here). I personally have struggled to define fundamentalism for a while now, and was hoping to come up with something that would cover “conservative” and “liberal” fundamentalists alike. Therefore, in my mind, a fundamentalists is someone who believes that those who disagree with them are morally/spiritually inferior. In other words, fundamentalists are those who remove themselves from the prophetic judgment of Christ, and who determine “in” and “out” based on their own theological agendas. This is why fundamentalists, conservative or liberal alike, disregard other positions wholesale and refuse to, as it were, “play fair.” The fundamentalist move is simply to turn any of their “opponents” into an “evil” movement (e.g., liberal, “Arminian” or whatever else), thereby refusing to deal with another brother or sister standing before the prophetic judgment of Christ, seeking to be faithful to the Word of God.

That being said, in light of unity, issues like the “weaker brother,” and the nature of theology as an act of the church, how do we respond to fundamentalists? Maybe you have a better definition, but if I am right, the problem is that there is no actual ground for dialogue. But to ignore them entirely, which is the most tempting option, is, it would seem, to disregard the prophetic task of theology. My worry is that evangelicals who learn theology and church history just leave evangelicalism, broadly identifying with it at times, and become the conservative voice somewhere else (which is certainly fine), but neglect to speak meaningfully into their background. Is it simply a waste of time? Any thoughts?

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9 thoughts on “Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

  1. Kyle,

    I do not think it a waste of time. Let me explain.

    My story, briefly: I was born in a fundamentalist home. My father being the pastor of a fundamentalist baptist church in the northeast. In the church women wore skirts, men went “street preaching,” we sang hymns and choruses, we read only the KJV, the rapture was soon to take place. As a church we picketed abortion clinics, films (the last temptation of Christ), and we went to Albany every year to “stand for God” in the NYS government. Thankfully, my father, and thus the church changed over time, and the church is much more loving. Of course “changing” split the church and the “hardliners” went elsewhere. I saw all of this when I was a child. I went to church sunday morning, sunday night, and wednesday night, no exceptions (not even a soccer tournament). I graduated from a Christian high school and went to a fundamentalist christian college in Florida. In college I had a sort of “awakening” thanks to a couple friends and a bible teacher who graduated fro Dallas Theological Seminary. This teacher marks the beginning of big changes in my world. I was training to be a pastor at college, and more specifically, a baptist and fundamentalist (the evangelicals were actually now neo-evangelical and soon to be liberals). As a result of this teacher I began to read A LOT. Had he not challenged me I would likely be a Pastor of a fundamentalist church where everyone else is “out” and we are “in.”

    The point here is not to get you to think highly of me or for a pat on the back. The point is that a man who was not a fundamentalist (though he is a dispensationalist of the Ryrie type) came to a place where he did not “belong” because he was not one of “us.” He was different. He preached different, he read the bible different, and he thought differently. He was even willing to be a sort of “mentor.” Any way, because of his influence I also attended seminary and have been thanking God for the presence of this man in my life ever since.

    I graduated from seminary and knew that i had to make a hard decision. Should I go back home to my only now
    “kinda-fundy” church (still stuck on the KJV thing) or go somewhere where I won’t have to deal with issues and hard-headed zealots who think they have a corner on speaking for God. I made the harder choice. I went home back into the community which gave me physical and spiritual life. I felt that God was calling me to give back to this very community and I knew that God would teach me a great deal of lessons, especially ones about humility and holding ones tongue… and He has! So to answer the question. NO, it is not a waste of time. If this teacher hadn’t done the hard thing then I might still be stuck.

  2. Hi Kyle,

    Quick thought. As a college prof at an evangelical university in the US I think I encounter a lot of students who fit the descriptions you provide (which seem to me to be prett good). My experience with them has been encouraging. First, I have to be careful not to occupy the same condescending position you note that many of them appear to occupy. Once I do that I am much more able to learn from them and they are much more likely to let their guard down. I guess I see many of these students as simply wanting to safe-guard various truths and from their perspective the only way to do so is by closing off many and various options. Perhaps the key problem is a lack of discernment on their part. They can’t figure out how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Once they realize that I too hold to many of the things they hold too as well, just in a different way, they begin to open up to the possibility that different traditions and different apporaches may be enriching. In a nushell, to the fundamentalist-evangelical I become a fundementalist-evangelical :-).

  3. Defining fundamentalism is next to impossible. However, rather than tag it with a perjorative to begin with (someone who believes that those who disagree with them are morally/spiritually inferior), a starting point may be to seek to understand the position. As you are probably aware, fundamentalism may be said to have had its formal emergence from the Niagara Bible Conference, and the eventual formation of the 5 fundamentals, being inerrancy, the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the second coming. Recognizing that there is a range of views, even within fundamentalism on the strict adherance to those fundamentals, you have a basis to begin a dialogue on those points. It seems to me to approach a so-called fundamentalist from the position that he/she is intellectually rigid regardless, the entire enterprise appears doomed. Godin/McLaren provide a sound bite that essentially marks a fundamentalist as anti-intellectuals. Why are fundamentalists less entitled? The Christ all the while critical of the Pharisees also welcomed them (Nicodemus, etc.) and I do not believe He ever condemned them nor labeled them as a group less deserving or less intelligent. Yet paradoxically we who believe are willing to write off a sizeable body of people.

    • Bill, I avoided this line because I deny that “fundamentalism” in the way I am using it, has anything to do with doctrine. I am seeking to categorize liberal and conservatives alike (heck, through in Islamic fundamentalists). In general, I take fundamentalism to be a condition of the heart – based mostly in fear – that turns any religious discourse into a “circle the wagons” kind.

      • Yep,

        That’s the way I would define it too: “based mostly in fear.” And I have too many dear family members still rooted in that ‘fear’ (and it all starts with a doctrine of God).

  4. I have typically thought of Fundamentalism being defined in very “negative” terms; and I think the history bares this out. Fundyism, as far as I can see is a “reactionary” movement contra what they perceived as theological liberalism. To me, the irony is that Fundyism is the just the anthropological flip-side of what they were “against.” I.e. They just went, “culturally,” the opposite way from theological liberalism’s engagement of Pietism; and engaged a “heart-warmed spirituality,” that the “Liberals” rejected with a more rigid (critical) approach to the teachings of folks like Schleiermacher (sp?) . . . in other words, I see their anthropologies both rooted in Thomist Intellectualist approach (as defined by Norman Fiering).

    So I do see a doctrinal/cultural dichotomy between the two, as Kyle notes; but that this dichotomy is not either/or liberal/conservative (since they both have their own “doctrinal/cultural” characteristics), instead a both/and in re. to their similar trajectories set by their groundedness in ‘pietism’.

    I am one of those who would still identify as “Evangelical,” but have come to appreciate the history of interpretation, and dogmatic theology available in the tradition of the history of the church; who at the same time want’s to speak meaningfully back into a heritage (Fund/Evang) that I still see myself very much apart of — both doctrinally and culturally (whatever that means ;-).

    The problem as I see it is that there really is a faulty ‘dualism’ involved with both of these approaches — both liberal and conservative — and, again, this comes back to a mishandling of the most important dogmatic points presented by the ‘tradition’ and that is how they engage Chalcedonian Christology. (The Fundy/Evang is largely Nestorian) T.F. Torrance’s “Ground and Grammar of Theology” gets at this really good!

    What I still appreciate about Evangelicalism is that their are alot of people who really really love the Lord Jesus within it’s walls; and in fact I have a heart for these folks, I feel like they’ve been suppressed and that, by and large, their leadership has failed them in re. to conditioning and training them in the rich heritage available in the history of the church (and I sense that there are many who are thirsty for this, and all it would take is for their pastors to lead them in that direction — and I’m not necessarily talking about a “classroom” approach, as Calvin saw his church).

    Anyway, my 2 cents.

  5. Oh yeah, George Marsden’s: Fundamentalism and American Culture is really good on this. Better than Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I thought Noll’s work actually was not as critical as it needed to be (esp. in re. identifying the Evangelical anthropology); and preferred Marsden’s work which seemed to be much more descriptive and historical— thus ‘critical’ in its orientation.

  6. Kyle – I applaud your effort at seeking to look at fundamentalism, and your view that fundamentalists include both those of a conservative and a liberal stripe. I tended to see your definition as possibly overbroad in the sense that your phrase that I noted earlier seemed to be a definition of dogmatic – in its most perjorative sense – and I see various subgroups within the broader faith as having characteristics of rigidity and a circling of the wagons response when confronted as to their beliefs – whether those subgroups would fit within a more traditional categorization of fundamentalism or not. I do not recall the movie I saw several years ago, but I recall it was featuring flashes of various hate groups in the US, and fundys were noted, and the picture that flashed was a scene out of the deepest area of the rural Appalachias, a bunch of people who were gap toothed, overall wearing and barefoot (sort of a shot of the people in the old movie Deliverance). That struck me as distasteful as various other forms of stereotyping (and here is where I reference the bit from the McLaren website and the Godin clip where it seems to imply fundamentalists are anti-intellectual – a more polite way of depicting fundamentalists than the movie I recalled but not a far stretch for many an imagination to see that type of picture when thinking of fundamentalists). Thus it may be more of a matter of one’s general view of the world they inhabit, and their views as to the way that world should be, and they wear their faith more like clothes or as badges – something similar to the Crusaders or the Inquisition where their faith is more of a political weapon than a set of doctrines. Maybe more along the lines of people whose lives/desires drive their doctrines rather than people whose doctrines drive/define their lives/desires (oh my shades of the discussion of the Smith text?).

  7. Kyle,
    i agree with the critiques, but i wonder if using the term ‘fundamentalism’ to describe this condition of the heart is a misnomer. First of all, it has immediate reference to a particular hyper-conservative doctrinal set of positions. Then it tries to shock liberals by saying that they are really no different than these hyper-conservatives. It may be true that there are some very significant similarities between liberals and fundamentalists, but wouldn’t another term clarify it more without confusing doctrinal positions with a condition of the heart?

    Certainly for ‘shock-value’ attaching the term ‘fundamentalist’ to a liberal is a useful kind of turning of the tables. But can we do better?

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