By Larry Rogier
The identity of fundamentalism is a continuous challenge. One does not read very much about the topic without realizing that fundamentalism is somewhat like good food… it means different things to different people. Several weeks ago, a blog that I read from time to time had an entry about Fundamentalists in the Church? It referenced writer and lecturer Karen Armstrong who lectured on Fundamentalism and the Battle for God.
My interaction in this blog was sparked by a comment made by a poster using the handle of Iggy and my comments led Andrew (the blog owner) to suggest that I write something about fundamentalism from “my angle.”
After starting and stopping numerous times, here it is … My “something” about fundamentalism as I have seen it, and do see it. This article is a direct response to the blog and the comments that were made there. I don’t pretend to speak for all, and perhaps not for anyone but myself. But here is my brief attempt to lay out some basics. Of course, it is necessary in writing something of this length to be simplistic and to gloss over some needed details. I hope those interested will continue their research.
“Something” about Fundamentalism
First, let me say that a lot of people claim the name (or are assigned the name) “fundamentalist” who have no right to it. The blog summarizes Armstrong this way:
Fundamentalism, she argued, is found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even secular humanism. It is not orthodox, she said, but rather it is a “new doctrine”, characterized by the two ingredients of independence and innovation. Behind fundamentalism is the fear of annihilation and fundamentalism becomes more extreme when attacked.
I think she is dead wrong. First, to associate historic Christian fundamentalism with that of Judaism, Islam, etc. simply doesn’t understand what Christian fundamentalism is. The unique connotation of Christian fundamentalism (hereafter simply “fundamentalism”) makes it markedly distinct from all other forms of fundamentalism, whatever similarities they might share. Even within Christian fundamentalism broadly defined, there are many who have no legitimate claim to the title of fundamentalist for a variety of reasons, including their departure from the historic doctrinal positions. Second, to say that fundamentalism is new is also to misunderstand what fundamentalism is, and it is here that I shall park my horse for a moment.
Fundamentalism as a movement arose in the early part of the 20th century in response to the theological liberalism and weakening of the gospel that came from the continental theologians in the 19th century. There was a rising “scholasticism” bent on denying or recharacterizing the doctrines held since the beginning of the church that had been systematized throughout church history. The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the rise of the social gospel through men like Bushnell, Rauschenbusch, Strong, Gladden and others, and this social gospel began to squeeze out the biblical gospel. What began as a “both/and” for many soon become a “one only.” And they chose the wrong one. In response to this shift in theology and practice, a series of booklets entitled “The Fundamentals” were written by a number of men in order to defend orthodox theology. The name “fundamentalist” was coined by Curtis Lee Laws in 1920 when he said, “We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called fundamentalists” (see The Watchman Examiner, July 1, 1920). All that to say this: When Armstrong says that fundamentalism was a “new doctrine,” she is not correct. Fundamentalism was a plea to hold on to the “old doctrine” that was being compromised by theological liberalism.
For fundamentalists, the most important standard of truth is the truth of God’s word. An old saying goes, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” For the fundamentalist, the saying would read, “God said it; that settles it.” Personal belief can not be made a criterion for truth, nor can acceptance by others. The “great fundamentals” revealed by God in Scripture are the absolute truth and are worthy of our full commitment of belief. While church history records the development, or systematization, of doctrine, the creeping liberalism of the nineteenth century was far different. It was a complete denial, in many cases, of what orthodox theology had always believed. Fundamentalism was a reaction against change in doctrine.
Fundamentalism has a second criterion, as outlined by Laws. Not only did they “cling to the great fundamentals,” but they also “mean[t] to do battle royal for the fundamentals.” For the fundamentalist, it is not enough to simply hold to doctrine. It is necessary to battle for them. This “earnest contention” (cf. Jude 3) includes going as far as separation from those who reject the core doctrines of the faith, a separation such as is outlined in passages like Romans 16:17-18, 3 John 8-11, Jude, and others. It is not separation on personal preference or personality. It is separation based on doctrine and obedience. According to Romans 16:17-18, the fundamentalist is not the one charged with division. It is the one who contradicts the Bible who is the divisive person. Too many times that is turned around and the fundamentalist is labeled the schismatic.
For the fundamentalist, loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, meant that God’s enemies were your enemies. You were commanded to love them and reach them with the gospel, not to work alongside them in ministry or ecclesiastical union. It was not enough to “agree to disagree.” The core doctrines deserved unbending loyalty. Those who refused to obey God must be separated from in the interest of purity and holiness of the Church and the doctrines that God revealed.
Let me try to sum this up, though perhaps I have raised more questions than I have answered. A fundamentalist is first and foremost committed to the core doctrines of Christianity. I have called them the “load bearing doctrines,” the doctrines without which the house of Christianity falls. Obviously, not all doctrine fits in this category, but there are certainly some that do such as the virgin birth, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead, the personal coming of Christ at the end of the age, as well as some others. A fundamentalist is committed to whole-hearted acceptance of and commitment to these things that God has clearly revealed in Scripture.
This article will continue in part two.