Fundamentalism

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book in progress.

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 [10]. 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” [11].

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.

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  • Charles Sullivan

    Well written. My only critique (since this is a work in progress) is that the first paragraph leaves us thinking that you’re setting us up to read about someone from the 19th century (at least initially or briefly), but instead you vault to the 20th century in the next paragraph. Yeah, the early 20th but still.

  • David

    The point is well made that the people who are called atheist fundamentalists are nothing like their christian fundamentalist counterparts in belief structure. But it doesn’t address what people mean when they call an atheist an atheist fundamentalist – they don’t mean that they hew to an atheist version of innerrancy or anything – they just mean that they’re acting in the aggressive manner associated with fundamentalist christians – with us or immoral-and-wrong, confident that the truth of your beliefs is so compelling that the majority of those who disagree are corrupt/stupid and evangelical/vocally critical of different beliefs.

    They don’t care that their beliefs are nothing alike, or whether those beliefs are based on fairy dust or real scientific evidence, because the association is behavioural not (a)theological – they’re calling out ‘fundamentalist-like behaviour’ and if you start getting atheists going door to door with pamphlets they will be nicknamed ‘atheist witnessess’ or ‘atheist jw’s’ – even if their pamphlets are nothing but cold hard fact because it’s not about what they believe but how people perceive them acting.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      Exactly what I was trying to say with my recent response…

    • Bruce Gorton

      The problem is the behaviours being called out by those who use the phrase “atheist fundementalist” aren’t anything alike either.

      A religious fundamentalist is called a fundamentalist when they violate the law in the name of their religion and/or deny that non-religious people should have rights. An atheist is called a fundamentalist for having the audacity to stand up for his or her rights in a legal manner.

      A religious fundementalist is called such for buying up advertising on buses saying that non-believers will burn in hell for all eternity. Atheists are called fundamentalists for wanting to advertise the fact that atheists exist.

      The use of “atheist fundamentalist” automatically renders the user of that phrase to be nothing more than the exact kind of person as those white guys who used to sit on juries and acquit members of the KKK.

      Or for that matter the kinds of straight people who go on about how they have a right to oppose homosexuality, just after a story goes up about a lesbian falling victim to “corrective rape”.

      It is a phrase that marks the slimiest of worms.

      • David

        That’s not what most people think of when they think of fundamentalists. They think of what they associate with fundamentalists – being aggressive, evangelical and looking down on other opinions. And that’s what they mean when they call an atheist an atheist fundamentalist.

        • Riptide

          Except we’ve heard over and over people who perceive the mere *existence* of atheists as “aggressive, evangelical and looking down on other opinions.” No critique is mild enough for them–no assertion of an alternate point of view, however meek, is worthy of consideration. Simply standing up and proclaiming one’s disbelief in any god is inviting catcalls of “stridency” and “atheist fundamentalism”.

  • Byron

    So, you’re not anti-religious, just anti-Christian, correct, Chris?

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Nope. Anti-everything, even Buddhism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though Christianity and Islam are the worst.

      Well, the Torah is also pretty awful, but at least doesn’t feature eternal punishment for anybody, if that counts for anything.

  • Erp

    I’m pretty certain that Spinoza’s community considered the Christian Bible as untrustworthy as they were Jews. Spinoza pointed out the problems in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and in particular in the Torah and that is what got him into trouble with his community (not to mention some odd ideas about God).

    • Chris Hallquist

      Ack, good point. That was poorly-worded. I may just delete the word “Christian” there.

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  • Harvey

    [Thank-you Chris. Informative. Enclosing what I bumped into on the eye-opening internet.]

    (This article reveals research that’s No. 1 on the “hate list” of millions of “fundy” Christians
    because it shows that their idolized “rapture” belief – the inspiration behind Lindsey’s and LaHaye’s all-time bestsellers – is only a 19th century invention and that credit long given to John Darby should go to a long unknown 15-year-old girl in Scotland!)

    Margaret Macdonald’s Rapture Chart !

    “church” RAPTURE “church”
    (present age) (tribulation)

    In early 1830 Margaret was the very first one to see a pre-Antichrist (pretribulation) rapture in the Bible – and John Walvoord and Hal Lindsey lend support for this claim!
    Walvoord’s “Rapture Question” (1979) says her view resembles the “partial-rapture view” and Lindsey’s “The Rapture” (1983) admits that “she definitely teaches a partial rapture.”
    But there’s more. Lindsey (p. 26) says that partial rapturists see only “spiritual” Christians in the rapture and “unspiritual” ones left behind to endure Antichrist’s trial. And Walvoord (p. 97) calls partial rapturists “pretribulationists”!
    Margaret’s pretrib view was a partial rapture form of it since only those “filled with the Spirit” would be raptured before the revealing of the Antichrist. A few critics, who’ve been repeating more than researching, have noted “Church” in the tribulation section of her account. Since they haven’t known that all partial rapturists see “Church” on earth after their pretrib rapture (see above chart), they’ve wrongly assumed that Margaret was a posttrib!
    In Sep. 1830 Edward Irving’s journal “The Morning Watch” (hereafter: TMW) was the first to publicly reflect her novel view when it saw spiritual “Philadelphia” raptured before “the great tribulation” and unspiritual “Laodicea” left on earth.
    In Dec. 1830 John Darby (the so-called “father of dispensationalism” even though he wasn’t first on any crucial aspect of it!) was still defending the historic posttrib rapture view in the “Christian Herald.”
    Pretrib didn’t spring from a “church/Israel” dichotomy, as many have assumed, but sprang from a “church/church” one, as we’ve seen, and was based only on symbols!
    But innate anti-Jewishness soon appeared. (As noted, TMW in Sep. 1830 saw only less worthy church members left behind.) In Sep. 1832 TMW said that less worthy church members and “Jews” would be left behind. But by Mar. 1833 TMW was sure that only “Jews” would face the Antichrist!
    As late as 1837 the non-dichotomous Darby saw the church “going in with Him to the marriage, to wit, with Jerusalem and the Jews.” And he didn’t clearly teach pretrib until 1839. His basis then was the Rev. 12:5 “man child…caught up” symbol he’d “borrowed” (without giving credit) from Irving who had been the first to use it for the same purpose in 1831!
    For related articles Google “X-Raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Pretrib Rapture’s Missing Lines,” “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “Deceiving and Being Deceived” by D.M., “Pretrib Rapture Pride,” “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty” and “Scholars Weigh My Research.” The most documented and accurate book on pretrib rapture history is “The Rapture Plot” (see Armageddon Books online) – a 300-pager that has hundreds of disarming facts (like the ones above) not found in any other source.


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