Liberal Christians’ awful arguments against fundamentalism

A pet peeve of mine is liberal Christians who make ridiculous accusations against fundamentalists. For example, this quote from Fred Clarke, posted a few days ago by James McGrath:

Anyone passingly familiar with fundamentalists knows that this is obviously false, as shown by the fact that fundamentalists, yes even fundamentalists, sometimes do admit they were wrong about something. That includes changing their mind about points of Biblical interpretation.

As someone who cares about the truth, I find the idea of people passing around such obvious falsehoods disturbing. Yes, fundamentalists are awful, but that fact doesn’t justify nonsense like this. In fact, it makes it unnecessary: by a wide margin, there’s enough wrong with fundamentalists that we don’t need to go around making stuff up about them.

Falsehoods about fundamentalists on this scale seem to be a specialty of liberal Christians. I suspect this is because accurate criticisms of fundamentalism–like “the book which fundamentalists claim is inerrant is actually deeply flawed”–are closed off to liberal Christians, because such criticisms would involve admitting things which are embarrassing to Christians of every stripe.

ETA: I know I’ve seen many examples of this phenomenon, and I think I’ve even written about them before, but no other examples are coming to me at the moment. If you read this and knew exactly what I was talking about, feel free to share your own favorite examples in the comments.

  • James F. McGrath
  • vinnyjh57

    I don’t see how the validity of Clark’s argument is undercut by the fact that fundamentalists sometimes change their minds about what the Bible really means. I think he is still correct that it is the fundamentalists’ interpretation that is the final arbiter and not the Bible.

    On the other hand, I agree that Clark’s argument doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is the fundamentalists’ belief that the Bible is a magical book. Liberal Christians know that the Bible is a flawed book and a human book, but they still want to use words of magic like “inerrant” and “inspired” to describe it.

    • Pseudonym

      I’ve never met anyone who described themselves as a liberal Christian and used the word “inerrant” to describe the Bible. If you have an example, I’d love to hear it.

      “Inspired” is a word you hear thrown around a lot, though to be fair, “inspiration” isn’t exactly a magical concept in this day and age.

      • vinnyjh57


        You are correct. “Inerrant” was a bad example. I should have said that liberal Christians use words of magic like “inspired” and “word of God” to describe the Bible.

        You are also correct that “inspiration” isn’t exactly a magical concept these days (and for that matter, “word of God” can probably be watered down to the point that it doesn’t really invoke much in the way of the supernatural). However, when fundamentalists say that the Bible is inspired, they do have a magical concept in mind. So when liberal Christians describe the Bible as inspired, I think they are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want both be able to say that they share the traditional view of the scriptures but they want also be able to claim to think critically about the texts.

        • Pseudonym

          (and for that matter, “word of God” can probably be watered down to the point that it doesn’t really invoke much in the way of the supernatural)

          It’s interesting that you mention that.

          I was brought up in a liberal protestant church. Oh, and we’re not talking some obscure group here. It was (and still is) the third largest Christian denomination in Australia.

          Many churches, when they do a Bible reading, follow it with a phrase like “this is the word of the Lord”. Not us. The phrase we always used was “in this is the word of the Lord”.

          That little word makes a huge difference, and is far closer to the way the biblical authors used the phrase. The Bible never uses a phrase like “word of God” or “word of the Lord” to refer to any written text. It’s almost actually used to describe the inspiration of prophets (phrases like “the word of the Lord came to me and said…”), and arguably as a title for Jesus in John 1.

          Sorry to get off track, but I just thought I’d point out that at least some mainstream liberal Christians are very careful about how they throw around terms like that.

          • Prepagan

            >>we’re not talking some obscure group here. It was (and still is) the third largest Christian denomination in Australia.<<

            The third largest Christian denomination in Australia (according to the 2006 Census) is the Uniting Church with a membership of a little under 250,000 amounting to less than 10% of the total Christian population of Australia (which is, itself only around 60% of the population as a whole). Approximately 100,000 are said to be frequent attendees at church located worship.

          • Pseudonym

            Yup, that’s the one. To be fair, the statistics have changed a bit since when I was growing up.

  • Johnny Dangerously

    Even the law, which is supposed to be unambiguous, is subject to interpretation–indeed the court system employs judges in part for the purpose of interpreting laws. If someone says, “The law is the law,” he probably (1) knows little about law, and (2) casually equates his own interpretation of the law, with the law itself. Hilarity ensues.

    The Bible is at the far end of the ambiguity spectrum, with a mathematics text at the opposite extreme. It’s highly subject to interpretation. We have little likelihood of ever knowing for sure what the original writers meant exactly, nor what the original readers understood it to mean, although scholars can shed some light on those questions through linguistics, comparative literature, archaeology, etc. A prerequisite for a fundamentalist, though, is to reject most of that out of hand. There can be no legitimate evidence of hands other than Moses’ in the Pentateuch, nor of post-exilic writers or redactors, nor of anachronism in the content nor the language of scripture, etc., etc. If you relinquish these assumptions, you risk prompt expulsion from your fundamentalist church, your social circles, and certainly any teaching or pastoral positions. Of course there are exceptions–but they’re very rare, which is why we call them “exceptions.” But this is just a long-winded way of saying the same thing as the quote you start with: that fundamentalists privilege a certain interpretation of the text, without even realize that they’re doing so. When they say, “I believe the Bible,” they mean the Bible as they interpret it. If they met any of the authors, they would more than likely excommunicate (or rather, disfellowship) them as heretics.

    @vinnyjh57: Not being a liberal Christian, I’m not terribly concerned to defend them, but you won’t catch them using the word “inerrant” too often. Rejection of inerrancy is more or less definitional of liberal Christians. They do often say “inspired,” but they say the same thing about Emily Dickinson. They’re still objectionable to skeptics, because they still believe in God–at least most of them do–but they have the ability to adapt themselves to reality by shifting their interpretation of their religion.

  • RobMcCune

    I don’t think all of criticism of Clark are accurate (or at least explained adequately). Fundamentalists generally treat their interpretation of the bible in an absolute, black and white way, that they claim is the one true way to read the scriptures. While they may be open to persuasion on the finer points of biblical interpretation, try persuading a fundamentalist that the bible says homosexuality is ok because the rest of leviticus is largely ignored. Fundies routinely claim that to be a true christian one must understand and adhere to the bible their way, and use it against other christians like Clark.

    Most fundamentalist sects are less than 200 years old, yet they come from a 2000 year old religion, their beliefs are as much a product history and circumstance as just about any other christian sect. It’s ridiculous to claim to think that the one true interpretation of the bible came into being so recently, especially since fundamentalists routinely claim the bible is relevant to many issues of modern society.

    To read Clark charitably, his response is akin to ” that’s the pot calling the kettle black”, as well as reframing the issue as one of hubris on the part of fundamentalists. He’s not claiming liberal christians have the one true interpretation of the bible, while fundamentalists don’t.

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  • CJ

    I think the best criticism of fundamentalist Christianity from within broader Christianity comes from attacks on Biblical inerrancy. I grew up a fundamentalist evangelical, and it was exposure to higher criticism and the historical context in which the canon was chosen that helped set me on the path to atheism.

    That and exposure to just how bad the anti-science claims or Biblical literalism are.

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  • sailor1031

    But surely the point is (and the point that I think Clark is making here) is that all christians act as if their interpretation of the bible, in fact of all scripture, is the infallibly correct version. Not just a fundamentalist thing…….look at catholicism for example. Interpretations vary so widely, so impossibly, but they are all infallibly correct – even if they need occasional re-interpretation.

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  • Rachel

    Sometimes in Dr. McGrath’s blog, he does specifically refer to fundamentalists and/or evangelicals and calls them on their interpretation of Scripture. However, the post against which you, Dr. Hallquist, have chosen to rally makes no mention of fundamentalism nor evangelicals. In fact, when I first read the Clark post, I understood it as not being pointed directly at one side or another, but at BOTH sides. BOTH sides (i.e., “liberal Christians” and “fundamentalists” — and yes, I know it’s way more complex than this, but for the purposes of this argument, let us over-generalize into these two categories) have a tendency to insist that their interpretation of Scripture is “the right one” or even “the only right one.”
    In fact, you may or may not have noticed that Clark uses the pronoun “we,” not “they,” including himself, and anyone who thinks like him, in the criticism.
    Not knowing whether Clark is conservative or liberal, not knowing whether he is prone to accepting Scripture as more often literal or figurative, I did not assume that he was speaking to one group or the other. Even after seeing it on McGrath’s blog (whom I know to lean more Westward than East), I still understood the quote as being an “equal opportunity” challenge, hardly partisan or accusatory.
    I rarely wax psychiatric, but one must wonder what it takes for a person to read a quote that does not target any specific group, but offers a self-criticism, and immediately scoffs at said criticism as unfair and unjust.
    On the other hand, we can all thank you for providing us a closer more tangible example of what it must have looked like when Jesus was teaching, oh those many years ago, and the Scribes and Pharisees, who should have been his allies, rallied against him.

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  • Kristie Wilson

    I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist. Thanks to the influence of my mother, my teenage son is now a fundamentalist Baptist. I strongly disagree with your post and agree fully with the quote posted. Sure, there are a few fundamentalists willing to admit that they are wrong at times about scripture interpretation. In all of my years in fundamentalism, I’ve met a FEW of them. They exist, but are a small minority. I don’t say this to demonize fundamentalists. There are positives about it, and it has helped my son in ways. But it deserves most of the criticism it gets, especially this one.

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