My Evangelical friend and I have discussions some times where we both somehow end up accusing each other of being fundamentalists. I commented on Roger E. Olson’s blog a bit ago about my own understanding of fundamentalism and as it turns out, my own definition might have been wrong. J. Inglis was the first to respond to me emphasizing that
“If read in context, critics like Fosdick were referencing particular beliefs, not any possible belief, and usually ones acknowledged as being less central to Christian faith. … For the last 2,000 years there have been breakaway groups, movements and churches who believed they were more true or faithful, but they have not all fallen under the term “fundamentalist”. There continue to be breakaway churches all over the world that would not refer to themselves as fundamentalist and which cannot be called fundamentalist in the sociological sense used to refer to a largely American phenomenon. Fundamentalism is, rather, a term used to describe a recent identifiable sociological phenomenon that self-consciously uses the terms “fundamental” or “fundamentalist” in a way not used before, and which has markers of identity other than, and in addition to, fundamental theological beliefs.”
Admittedly, that definition is less helpful. What exactly would be a sociological marker of fundamentalism then? Sociologists sometimes disagree with one another about how to define things. Some might assert abortion clinic bombers are fundamentalists but then that would not explain away those abortion clinic bombers who are actually quite knowledgeable theologically. My own father, after I told him a Greek Catholic parish I used to go to was picketed by Westboro Baptist Church, made the comment that fundamentalism is unsustainable. I disagree with the assessment of fundamentalism as unsustainable though. Fosdick emphasizes those who make dogmatic statements in terms of Biblical inspiration (explicitly) and in terms of eschatology to the exclusion of others as Christians are the fundamentalists. I would not abandon H.E. Fosdick here. Westboro Baptist is simply just a hate-filled group. Whereas a fundamentalist is loving and charitable even if they don’t think you are a true Christian, WBC is filled with hatred to the brim. This marks them non-Christian (period). “He who does not love remains in death.” (1 John 3:14) There are no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about that one. To characterize WBC as in any way Christian is false. I still talk to a deacon from that Greek Catholic parish who made that statement.
Roger E. Olson though commented providing further clarification on the question of what a fundamentalist is.
A hallmark of fundamentalism is to elevate what are generally considered secondary doctrines to essentials of Christianity such that anyone who does not agree is not authentically Christian. Fosdick was caricaturing, but there’s some truth to what he said. During the 1920s and 1930s, increasingly, many leading fundamentalist pastors were elevating premillennialism, for example, to the status of an essential fundamental of authentic Christian faith.
Note: This is not WBC-style fundamentalist at all. This is simply declaring doctrines which have never been considered essentials to the status of essential. So is my church, the Anglican Church in America, fundamentalist? Some of its elements of doctrines could be seen as fundamentalist by some of my Evangelical friends no doubt.
For instance, we believe there are seven sacraments, two of most important–baptism and the eucharist. We hold to the seven ecumenical councils that the Orthodox and Catholics agree on. Many Evangelicals do not believe that some of those are essential components of Christianity. But the question is rather are they essential components of Christianity? For instance, there can be no doubt that Jesus said one must be born again in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Further, he also declared that one must be born again of water and Spirit. If Jesus is talking about baptism here (which it seems that the context is, what else could water mean?) then my church’s statement on baptismal regeneration as the orthodox Christian doctrine is not fundamentalist but is essentially affirming an essential of the Christian faith. Jesus told us to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). This is how we make disciples. Further, if we actually eat the body and blood of Jesus, then it makes a difference how we treat the eucharist making it an essential. If the sacraments convey sanctifying or deifying grace on an individual then what we believe about sacramental theology matters and is essential. My Evangelical friend would say they don’t convey sanctifying or deifying grace so what difference do they make to whether we are Christian or not.
But many Christians say sacraments do convey sanctifying or deifying grace on an individual so it is essential. If they don’t, then he is right and my church is emphasizing a non-essential. If he is wrong, and it is most likely he is wrong, then he is objecting to an essential and is not fully within the Church. One of the elements that unites all Christians together is the Nicene-Constantinople Creed which asserts at the end that we believe in one baptism for the remission of sins. This is a definition of Christianity that is held by all of the ancient Churches (Assyrian Church of the East, Catholic Church, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches). All of these churches teach baptismal regeneration because of this creed. This creed definitely teaches baptismal regeneration. All Christians who are fully within the Church hold to this creed. Baptismal regeneration is therefore an essential. I am not a fundamentalist for holding to it. I am simply just a member of the universal church for holding to it. To assert “one baptism for the remission of sins” does not mean baptismal regeneration requires a lot of homework.
Christians should think about essentials more often. One of the important elements of the Christian faith that my own church (and many churches) hold dear is the sacraments in the lives of Christians. To take out sacramental theology is to reduce something that many hold to as an essential and affirm it as a non-essential of the faith. Some Evangelicals may say they are not essential but they must do so by denying their effect overall. I agree that if a sacrament does nothing, then whether or not we believe it does something hardly matters. But if a sacrament does do something, then whether or not we believe it does something matters. Since my church affirms that sacraments do do something, they convey sanctifying or deifying grace, then its exclusion of other churches from having valid Apostolic Succession is not fundamentalist at all but simply affirming the right essential of the Christian faith.
One area that might be justified in considering whether my church is fundamentalist or not is its stance on women’s ordination. My church rejects women’s ordination. But again, this goes back to the age-held Christian belief of lex orandi, lex credendi. For my own church, there can be no liturgy without a priesthood and no priesthood without a liturgy. As J. Inglis would probably note to me, this would not be fundamentalist as many churches throughout history have affirmed the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi without being labeled as fundamentalist. Lex orandi, lex credendi is simply an essential of the Christian faith. For my own church, a change in the priesthood would be equivalent to a change in the liturgy. One reason we haven’t all joined with the Catholic Church is because of the issue with the Novus Ordo. A change in liturgy is likewise a change in the priesthood. Thus, my church’s rejection of women’s ordination is simply reaffirming what it holds as essential–the sacraments. It is therefore not fundamentalist at all to reject women’s ordination. It would be fundamentalist though to elevate the issue of women’s ordination as a duty that all of Christianity must accept (which is what many radical egalitarians do).
Is my Evangelical friend a fundamentalist? Probably not. Though I definitely disagree with the Evangelical doctrine of Biblicism, this may not be enough to make one a fundamentalist. Biblicism is definitely a non-essential. Otherwise, Evangelicals would be into the hobby of excommunicating Catholics and Orthodox Christians left and right. Of course though if holding the Bible as an absolute authority is important, one can make the case that it would make a difference whether we are Biblicists or not. I think that the case may be rather not so much that Evangelicals are fundamentalists but rather that Evangelicals are simply confused about what to do with all the divisions within Christianity without creating further divisions. They did emerge from some Christianities that are traditionally considered sectarian and fundamentalist. This is why when an Evangelical speaks of essentials, he refers to less doctrine than a more traditionalist Christian. This is not because what Anglo-Catholics or Catholics or Orthodox Christians believe in as essential to Christianity are not essential but rather because an Evangelical doesn’t want to go down a sectarian path. (I might be wrong with that characterization but if Olson is correct that a fundamentalist is just one who elevates non-essentials to the status of essential, my church, the Anglican Church in America, would not fit that definition of fundamentalist.)