What Exactly is a Fundamentalist?

At times I see some of the more “progressive” Evangelicals characterizing “some Catholics” as fundamentalists and of course many Catholics characterize Evangelicals as fundamentalists as well (I even had a professor who was Lutheran who considered Evangelicals to be equivalent to fundamentalist). Now, there is some reason why Evangelicals generally get painted as fundamentalists by Catholics and other Christians from time to time and while many Evangelicals would not think that such a criticism is fair, it can easily be maintained that many Evangelicals are fundamentalists. But generally, the term “fundamentalist” is pejorative and one needs to always be careful using it.

I ran across one such blog characterizing the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC) as fundamentalist. But in general, how fair an assessment is this? When the Biblical scholarship moved to North America, many Christians got into arguments over how the Bible should be interpreted in accordance with regards to its history, evolutionary and creationist debates, and other minor issues like that. In fact, much of the history of the fundamentalist debate started this way when one Presbyterian minister by the name of Charles A. Briggs was charged with heresy for denying that the Scriptures were inerrant and without error of any kind (Gaustad and Schmidt, The Religious History of America, 291). Eventually, this led to all other sorts of schisms in the churches in America and those who went down the fundamentalist road often times had “no denominational headquarters, no ecumenical participation with other religious bodies, no national programs or institutions or boards” (293) and “held to the authority of the Bible in such a way as to resist any of the new interpretations or modifications becoming familiar in the fundamentalist-modernist contest” (293-294).

In addition, fundamentalists also reacted initially to the liberal Bible scholarship that had questioned the very histories as expressed in the book of Genesis and the Pentateuch. For instance, Bp. John William Colenso wrote The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined in 1862 and received a response in William Henry Green’s The Pentateuch Vindicated From the Aspersions of Bishop Colenso in 1863. The fundamentalist movement thus was born from those conflicts at Princeton University in response to liberal Biblical criticism and was generally aimed at those who rejected literal interpretations of the historical accounts of the Pentateuch and Mosaic authorship.

Thus far, a definition of a fundamentalist that we have right now is that it refuses ecumenical participation with other churches and it holds to a literal interpretation of the history of the Bible as well as a strictly traditional view of authorship to the Bible as dogmatic. The ACC has its doctrine summed up in the Affirmation of St. Louis. Does it refuse ecumenical involvement with other churches?

Intercommunion with other Apostolic Churches

The continuing Anglicans remain in full communion with the See of Canterbury and with all other faithful parts of the Anglican Communion, and should actively seek similar relations with all other Apostolic and Catholic Churches, provided that agreement in the essentials of Faith and Order first be reached.

Non-Involvement with Non-Apostolic Groups

We recognize that the World Council of Churches, and many national and other Councils adhering to the World Council, are non-Apostolic, humanist and secular in purpose and practice, and that under such circumstances, we cannot be members of any of them. We also recognize that the Consultation of Church Union (COCU) and all other such schemes, being non-Apostolic and non-Catholic in their present concept and form, are unacceptable to us, and that we cannot be associated with any of them. (V. Principles of Action)

No. It does not. It refuses involvement though with non-Apostolic churches simply because such churches no longer have ties to Jesus. So in our first definition of a fundamentalist, the ACC would not be a fundamentalist church. Onto the second definition of a fundamentalist church.

The second definition of a fundamentalist church is a definition given commonly by “liberal” theologians. That definition is summed up best in H.E. Fosdick’s criticisms of the fundamentalists in “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

[Fundamentalists] insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles, preeminently the virgin birth of our Lord; that we must believe in a special theory of inspiration—that the original documents of the Scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer; that we must believe in a special theory of the Atonement—that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner; and that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord upon the clouds of heaven to set up a millennium here, as the only way in which God can bring history to a worthy denouement

According to this definition of a fundamentalist, a fundamentalist is any one who insists that something should be held as a belief by all who proclaim themselves to be Christians. This is also what John Dominic Crossan says and Bp. John Shelby Spong would also add that any one affirming the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is a fundamentalist. This characterizes not just certain types of Christians as fundamentalists though–this characterizes them all as fundamentalists.

Now, some might assert that churches that don’t ordain women are fundamentalist and such might be the case under the second definition of a fundamentalist. But then again, so are many churches that do ordain women–especially in the Pentecostal tradition. It is natural that positions we don’t agree with we want to label in a pejorative sense which is why I think a lot of “progressive” Evangelicals find it okay to lump all opponents of women’s ordination in the same boat. Some might also assert that those who affirm “X” amount of creeds are fundamentalists and this would be true under the second definition of fundamentalist as well. But note that the liberals aren’t really caring how much you take in order to label what Christianity is, they’re just declaring that what is important is that at a limit, you consider what is and isn’t Christian ultimately.

Creeds are very important to the Christian faith–this is so. And many doctrines that some would consider unnecessary for salvation are in fact necessary. For instance, some might consider those who reject paedobaptism to be heretics. And opponents of paedobaptism might consider these “fundamentalists”. But the one thing Jesus commanded us to do was to baptized and make disciples out of all nations (Matt. 28:19). So in fact, disputes about the proper nature of baptism are important to get worked up over. If baptism actually (and not figuratively) remits sins then excommunicating those who say otherwise is perfectly Christian. If we look at the authors of the Bible, we see a load of fundamentalists under this second definition contributing.

1 Cor. 15:1-2 – I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain
2 Cor. 11:13 – such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ
2 Pet. 2:1 – false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them,
John 14:6 – I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me
1 John 2:22 – Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

I’m not saying we always emphasize the right doctrines. Sometimes, we emphasize the wrong doctrines for whatever reasons and sometimes we do emphasize the right doctrines but for the wrong reasons. So we must be careful always to do what our ancestors did and “test the spirits to see whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). But any Christian is going to be a fundamentalist under the second definition. If there is no definition of Christianity, which is what our creeds and councils give to us as defined by the Church, then there is no Christianity to begin with and we can do whatever.

Finally, a third definition is more of a modern definition but it refers to a certain attitude in regard to Biblical authority and it is a main reason Evangelicals (even “progressive” Evangelicals) bare the brunt of the title fundamentalist. Fundamentalism typically refers to a position regarding the authority of the Bible as the highest authority for which a Christian must live by. All Evangelicals embrace the doctrine of Biblicism which holds the Bible as the final “trump card” in theological debates within the Church. Because of this, Evangelicals are typically painted by Lutherans, Catholics, and many Anglicans as fundamentalists. But the Evangelical case gets complicated though as most Evangelicals are technically Wesleyans and adhere to the authority of tradition. Of course, there’s this book out here arguing that Wesleyans are not fundamentalists and I’d like to know how they define that term. There is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which is attributed to John Wesley but from what I have read of John Wesley, he seems to take the authority of the Anglican Church for granted as he appeals to it regularly as an interpreter. I would consider the Wesleyan Quadrilateral fundamentalist. I hold to the view that using the Bible as the first and foremost authority is a fundamentalist doctrine simply because one must pass the Bible through interpretation before getting to what it actually says. It is therefore simply unrealistic the view that Evangelicals hold. But many followers of Wesley don’t hold the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as demonstrated by Stanley Hauerwas.

*Some of this is taken from a paper I wrote entitled “Biblical Criticism–A Crisis for Modernity” for a class in college. Author: Daniel Roberts.

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About newenglandsun

A student. Male. Passionate. Easily offended. Child-like wonderer. Growing in faith, messing up daily.
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One Response to What Exactly is a Fundamentalist?

  1. Pingback: Am I a fundamentalist? | Sedevacantist Papal Anglican

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