In the 17th and 18th centuries, only a few radicals like Spinoza dared to question the trustworthiness of the Christian Bible. This changed in the 19th century, with the rise of liberal and modernist movements within theology made once-scandalous ideas increasingly acceptable. Many conservative Christians, however, would have none of this.
One of the most famous attempts to counter the rise of theological modernism came in 1909, when a pair of wealthy businessmen named Lyman and Milton Stewart decided to finance a series of essays opposing liberalism and defending the truth of the Bible and what they regarded as traditional Christian doctrine. A couple essays explicitly endorsed a 1893 statement by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which stated, “The Bible as we now have it in its various translations and revisions when freed from all errors and mistakes of translators, copyists and printers, is the very Word of God, and consequently, wholly without error.” This doctrine is known as “inerrancy.”
Over several years these essays, known as The Fundamentals, were sent free to Christian pastors and missionaries, and later they were republished as a four-volume set . The word “fundamentalist” itself was proposed in 1917 by Baptist preacher Curtis Lee Laws, to describe himself and other Christians who were willing “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals” .
Today, “Christian fundamentalist” is still most often used to refer to people who accept Biblical inerrancy, and have fairly conservative notions about what the Bible says. Parallel beliefs can be found in other religions, particularly in Muslim beliefs about the Quran. Because of that, I think that in a modern context the word “fundamentalism” is most helpfully defined as the belief in the inerrancy of a holy book, along with fairly conservative notions about what that holy book says.
I say “in a modern context” because no one uses the word “fundamentalist” to describe anyone who lived much longer than a hundred years ago. Yet the beliefs defended in The Fundamentals are much, much older than that. In particular, Biblical inerrancy has been advocated by the most influential theologians in the history of Christianity.
For example, Augustine (354-430), the most influential Christian theologian from after the apostle Paul until the late middle ages, wrote that the authors of the books of the Bible “have not erred in any way in writing them.” Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the most influential philosophers of the middle ages (some would say the most influential), quotes this statement approvingly near the beginning of his Summa Theologiae. (Ia.1.8) Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), the two most important leaders of the Protestant Reformation, also accepted inerrancy. (Cite also W) As I’ll show in later chapters, all these men had ideas about what the Bible says that were closer to those of modern fundamentalists than to those of modern religious liberals.
I need to point out that inerrancy should not be confused with “literalism” about the Bible. Talk of “literalism” is misleading. Among Christians who’ve thought about the issue, few if any think that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. Even young earth creationists—that is, people who accept the literal truth of statements in the Bible which imply the Earth is roughly several thousand years old—do not (with a few exceptions) take the Bible literally when it implies the Earth is flat. And while some creationists reject not only Darwin but also Galileo, others accept that the Bible is not to be taken literally when it implies the Sun goes round the Earth rather than the reverse.
Not only do young earthers use the Bible this way, some are perfectly clear about what they’re doing. For example, young earth creationist Josh McDowell, rather than say we must take everything in the Bible literally, says that passages can be interpreted figuratively only if we can “find a good reason in the passage to justify interpreting figuratively” (McDowell 1993). This makes “literalism” a misleading terms, even when talking about Christians whose interpretation of the Bible is more literal than most.
It’s also frustrating to see “fundamentalism” treated as just another bad word, which anyone can object to being called on the grounds that it is bad, and which anyone can use for their opponents on the grounds that they are bad. This is both why we get fundamentalists insisting they be called “evangelicals,” and complaints about “atheist fundamentalism” (the Alister McGrath book I mentioned earlier is subtitled Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.)
The reason that “fundamentalism” has negative associations for many, perhaps most, people in the US is because of the doctrines of the fundamentalists. Many Christians have claimed—rightly or wrongly—that the Bible’s teachings require us to reject the theory of evolution, that the Bible teaches all non-Christians are damned, that the Bible teaches gay sex is an abomination, and so on. Given this, it is no surprise that people who oppose these ideas consider fundamentalism a bad thing.
Some Christian fundamentalists are in the habit of responding to criticism of the doctrines I just mentioned by saying something like, “I’m sorry if other Christians have hurt you.” This misunderstands the problem. The problem is not that Christians have offended me by telling me I’m going to Hell. The problem is that the idea that I and countless other non-Christians (a category which includes a great many friends of mine) deserve to go to Hell for eternity is the height of moral insanity.
This is why talk of “atheist fundamentalism” is ridiculous. Atheists do not have any holy book we consider infallible. We have no traditional dogmas to defend. We certainly do not reject central discoveries of science for the sake of any holy book or dogma. We do not think anyone should be eternally damned merely for disagreeing with us, or declare anyone’s private behavior to be an “abomination” just because a book written thousands of years ago says so.