Calvin the Fundamentalist and other General Synod myths

Monday’s vote by the General Synod to allow women bishops has put the Church of England onto the front pages of the world’s press. News reports and commentary from around the globe have weighed on this development giving voice to a variety of opinions. Some of this reporting has been quite good, most of it average, while a few pieces have fallen short.

The Huffington Post‘s piece contained two errors of note. At the end of the piece the article confused the numbers for the Church of England for the wider Anglican Communion. A correction subsequently noted:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the Church of England has 80 million members in more than 160 countries. Those are the figures for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

A minor slip, but the second raised questions as to whether the Huffington Post followed the debate, or recycled information it had gleaned from second hand sources. The article stated:

Like the vote that year, more traditional Anglicans, including evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, argued in front of the synod that having women as bishops would go against the teachings of Jesus. If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles, some of the traditionalists said.

By my reckoning, of the almost 100 speakers in the day, only one (lay delegate Jane Bisson from the Diocese of Winchester) raised the issue: “If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles.” The overwhelming majority of voices opposed to the change in church teaching couched their arguments around the Apostle Paul’s teachings on “headship” and the role of women in church assemblies — with arguments from tradition running second. Check for yourself.

Summarizing the arguments against women bishops along the “Jesus intended” line does a disservice to the debate in Synod and across the church. Painting the opponents of women bishops as Biblical-literalists is lazy reporting.

An otherwise excellent news analysis piece in The Guardian also makes this error — but this time John Calvin is the “fundamentalist” in question.

Calvin was not a fundamentalist. The Guardian Style Guide does not contain an entry for “fundamentalist.” However, as noted many times here at GetReligion, the Associated Press Stylebook makes this observation:

 “fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

And the bottom line from this journalistic bible:

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

From a purely historical perspective, John Calvin was not a fundamentalist. A note from reader Daniel Stoddart (who alerted me to the controversy) stated:

Essentially, the argument is that labeling Calvin as a “fundamentalist” won’t do for a church-related piece since in this context fundamentalism is associated with an uncritical and generally uneducated mode of Biblical literalism and parochialism. While Calvin would certainly conform to the classic five Fundamentals formulated in the 1920s, he was a scholar, jurist, and maintained doctrines that we would not associate with the pejorative use of modern fundamentalism: for instance, infant baptism or the perpetual virginity of the [Blessed Virgin Mary].

In defense of the author of The Guardian article, I have no doubt that some members of the progressive camp within the Church of England dismiss their opponents as “fundamentalists” and apply this term to those figures in church history like Calvin or Augustine from whom they draw their doctrines.

Perhaps an explanatory word might have redeemed this paragraph. A note to the effect that some believe that Calvin was a “fundamentalist.” Describing him as such, however, is unhistorical.

Yet, this slip does illustrate the mindset of some progressive activists and far too many journalists. Whether the issue is diversity, multiculturalism, inclusive language, gay marriage, abortion or women bishops — if you oppose the establishment you are either evil or stupid. Thus, the common, but inaccurate, use of this f-word in violation of Associated Press style.

The Guardian‘s report on this point gets the story right — if in-artfully phrased.

About geoconger
  • Jordan Andlovec

    Every religion journalist in America would do well to read George Marsden’s “Fundamentalism and American Culture”, or at least admit when they’re name-calling.

  • wlinden

    ” confused the numbers for the Church of England for the wider Anglican Communion.”
    And geoconger confused “confused with” with “confused for”.

  • carl jacobs

    “Fundamentalism” is a charge applied across and not just within Religions. What unites all the different religious groups that are labeled “fundamentalist” is that they all believe that there exists a knowable divine truth (unique to each group of course) to which all men everywhere are held to account. By this definition Calvin most certainly was a “fundamentalist.” In essence it is an accusation of heresy against the modern dogma of the unknowability of Truth. And journalists, being self appointed priests of modernity, will prosecute that charge of heresy in the court of public opinion.

    carl

    • wyclif

      Stoddart covered all that in the quote above: “While Calvin would certainly conform to the classic five Fundamentals formulated in the 1920s, he was a scholar, jurist, and maintained doctrines that we would not associate with the pejorative use of modern fundamentalism.”

      His point was that when secularists (or modernists within the Church) use the word “fundamentalist” as a pejorative, they do so in order to portray orthodox Christians as knuckle-dragging primitives. In that sense, Calvin was not a fundamentalist—he was one of the leading humanists of the Reformation/Renaissance period, viewed theology as the ‘queen of the sciences’ and was advanced in his views. That is why Ruth Gledhill’s attempt to bash evangelicals won’t work—it is historically ignorant and uninformed.

      • carl jacobs

        When a (stereotypical) journalist uses the word “fundamentalist” ( be it Christian, or Islamic, or Hindu, or Jewish or [insert religion here]) he is not talking about a perspective on religious dogma. He is describing the religion’s relationship to the post-modern worldview that dominates western culture. He is specifically asserting that “fundamentalists” claim knowledge of exclusive metaphysical truth over against the post-modern claim that such truth even if it existed would be unknowable. Why is this important? Because the unknowability of Truth is the primary foundation for asserting man’s autonomous freedom. “Fundamentalists” reject that cardinal dogma of post-modernism and (it is feared) would attempt to overthrow autonomy by means of this presumed knowledge of truth. That is why it is essentially a charge of heresy.

        To any post-modernist, Calvin is certainly a fundamentalist. It does not matter that he was a scholar and jurist. It does not matter what the five fundamentals are. Most journalists don’t know they exist let alone know their identity. What matters is the common trait that will be possessed by any religion that offends the post modern mind. That is what the Journalist was communicating by the choice of that word.

        carl

        • Steve Bauer

          Because the unknowability of Truth is the primary foundation for asserting man’s autonomous freedom.

          Sounds like a Truth claim to me.

  • fredx2

    This is off topic but a story Get Religion might want to follow.
    On July 18th, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that gay marriage is not a human right, so long as a comparable civil unions statute is available.
    There seems to be a blackout on news of this event in the US.
    I can only find Christian sources that have reported the story, along with a few English sources. But no NYT, no WaPo, no nothing in the US.


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